How to backpack with an infant

Taking your infant backpacking is both not as hard and exactly as hard as you probably imagine it to be. The following is an aerial view of the major concerns we’ve encountered in the past year, hoping that others (especially new and expectant parents) may find it useful.  Though plenty of sweat and suffering were involved, backpacking trips have been some of the brightest of the many start which have illuminated our first year as parents.

DSC01186All photos by M.

Preparation for backpacking with an infant needs to start not only before said infant is born, but well before said infant is even conceived (mentally or literally).  To take an infant backpacking you must be skilled at backpacking, a strong carrier of packs, and most importantly comfortable in the field.  Infants eat up your mental and physical resources under familiar circumstances, so it’s ideal if the mechanics of setting up camp, doing chores, cooking, and packing are as routinized as possible.

We did well in all but one aspect of this.  With plenty of trips in a variety of environments our systems were very familiar.  I’m currently between 700 and 800 nights in the woods lifetime, and often sleep better on a Thermarest than I do at home.  M isn’t quite to that level of comfort, especially in bear country (two issues discussed below), but was familiar enough.  Our preparatory shortcoming was M’s almost total lack of background carrying packs heavier than 20 pounds.  With good gear, and with being both a faster hiker and quite a bit heavier than her, it made sense for me to carry more stuff to equalize our speed.  This put us on the back foot when we had to add 30-40 pounds of infant and infant stuff.

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For the first three months backpacking with an infant is not recommended.  Their immune systems are fragile and straying too far from definitive medical care could be dicey.  Day hikes with a front carrier (below) and infant insert are the order of the day, with time to get used to feeding and diaper changes out in the woods.

Depending on the pace of their development, between 3 and 4 months infants will be able to hold their heads up, and themselves erect to a certain extent, for a decent stretch.  Backpack carriers are out, but soft front carriers like the Ergobaby Performance (non-cotton) are a good option.  We used a wrap which was effective but fussy and slow to deploy.  We should have bought the Ergo sooner.  Little Bear loved hiking at this age, but fatigued after a solid half day.  We did minimal backpacking, but a lot of dayhiking, which I do think was enormously important in conditioning him to love being in the backpack later.  Had we lived in a warmer climate without so many bears leisurely backpacks on trails or easy terrain, with plenty of time in camp, would have been really nice.  At this age infants can’t crawl, or even turn over, and are easily amused.

Around six months, give or take quite a lot either way, infants will be large enough to securely fit in, and strong enough to sit upright in, a good backpack carrier.  This is when backpacking with infant starts to really be game on.  Properly acclimate your kid to the carrier, and to the rhythm of backpacking, and don’t push their core and torso strength too much too soon, and you can do some very ambitious trips during this period.  They’re as light as they’ll ever be, love the changing scenery of hiking as well as being up at adult eye level, and before they start crawling are much, much easier to watch in camp.  LB was in this phase when we did our Honaker-Slickhorn trip, and in retrospect I kick myself that we didn’t prioritize another keystone backpacking trip during that phase of his development.

At some point your infant will start to crawl and then walk, and more significantly will emphatically want to be out under their own power exploring the world.  Preemptive, extended breaks while backpacking are vital at this phase, as is taking those breaks and making camp in areas which facilitate safe infant wandering.  Steep sidehill trails, cliffs, talus, and tall brush are all no good.  Meadows and beaches, especially those that gradually slope into a still body of water, are ideal.  This past week we got into a decent cycle, hiking 4-6 miles (2 to 2.5 hours), then taking a 30-60 minute break.  Obviously daily mileage takes a hit.  At some point in the near, but yet to be found future LB will want even more time on his feet, and presumably we’ll drop daily miles drastically as he slowly transitions towards hiking more and more on his own.

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Kids are heavy, and fairly soon after they can ride all day in the pack, they’re strong enough to hurl their weight sideways to get a better look at that one boulder or patch of flowers (colors….).  In an ideal world one parent would carry the kid, the other everything else.  In a really ideal world the gear load will dip close to or below the kid load as food is eaten, though diaper weight makes this happen much more slowly.  Then the parents could swap, as a 28 pound kid load (22 pound 10 month old, plus 6 pound carrier) often feel close to a 35 or 38 pound pack, when said kid is active.  As I alluded to above, M was not able to carry LB in the Osprey, due to both her lack of weight training and hipbelt incompatibility.  Thus the evolution of the rig seen above.  On our recent trip I had all our camp gear plus dinners, stove and fuel, as well as 6 days of diapers in the cargo pocket of the Osprey.  Probably 45 pounds, including kid, but due to the less than ideal leverage it feels like 60 (at least).  I’m in good hiking shape, and good pack carrying shape, and our first day (17 miles with a 3000′ climb at the end) wrecked me like I’ve rarely been wrecked before.  In short, our system works, and will continue to work, but it has pretty high demands on the adults.  Not having to frankenstein a cargo rig would be much better.

This is also a good place to note that any non-backpacking you can do while backpacking is very welcome.  Base camping, which we’ve resisted out of principle thus far, seems pragmatic.  Packrafting adds significantly to the load, but the value of time off the feet can hardly be overstated.  We had heavier packs and did almost the same overall miles in the same amount of time on Honaker-Slickhorn as our recent Glacier trip, but with the later being all hiking and having much more elevation gain and loss made it quite a bit tougher.

This is also the time to point out that traveling to seek out the ideal route, with ideal weather, camps, and terrain, is worth the effort.  Backpacking with an infant is a lot, lot more fun when the sun is out, it isn’t too hot or cold, and there are great places for wiggle breaks.

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Feeding backpackable infants when they’re still totally or mostly nursing is dead easy, provided the weather and bugs aren’t bad.  LB has been slower than many transitioning to solid food, and his reduced nursing and reticence/distractibility made our recent trip a bit more complicated.  A snack cup attached to the pack proved effective, though the snacks needed to be varied from day to day.  Our food bag was bulkier than usual due to the high volume and low cal/oz baby foods.  On days LB’s food intake was a bit low, he made up for it with midnight nursing.  Fine for his health, less fine for M’s sleep.  Being proactive in this area makes a big difference.

Sleep in the backcountry has been quite variable with the kid.  LB set what is still his personal best for continuous sleep on his very first backpacking trip, but most of the time he sleeps less deeply and with more interruptions than at home.  Unfamiliar circumstances?  We can only assume.  He’s always slept in our bed, first in a bassinet and from six months on just between us.  Friends whose infants are used to cribs have had a harder time with occasional outings in a tent.

A fully enclosed tent is a good idea with an infant.  LB absolutely recognizes and values the safe, home-like area a tent creates, away from the pokey and hard things and uneven surfaces, and enjoys playing on our sleeping mats and with our sleeping bags.  Earlier this summer we replaces M’s second leaky (for no reason) Big Agnes IACore with a Klymit Static V Luxe.  This massive, 30 inch wide pad fits both M and LB, allowing for easy midnight nursing, and leaves a bit of room for me tucked into the corner of the tent.

Sleeping bags for kiddo has been a moving target, and not something we currently have dialed.  Early on he did well with the Patagonia fleece buntings, with feet zipped together, but since nine months or so LB finds those too confining.  He had a brief period when the louder premium nylon of the Climashield sleeping bag I made him was so loud it kept him from going to sleep, which was awesome (not).  Currently he refuses to sleep with his arms anything other than spread eagled, so sleeping in an insulating jacket, with socks for mittens and his sleeping bag pulled up to his armpits, is the best we can do.  Adding suspenders to the bag so he can’t wiggle out is top of the current project list.

Fortunately, I’ve been consistently surprised at how easily LB stays warm.  These days he needs less insulation than I do for given conditions.  He is also a 13 month old, which is to say a dirty and drooly creature.  Fleece layers, and plenty of them, are the order of the day.  I’ll address infant outdoor clothing in a separate post in the weeks to come, and just say that we’ve found technical baby clothing, while expensive, to be worth it.  Quick drying, warm when wet stuff makes backcountry baby life much simpler.  The mosquito-proof Patagonia Baggies pants and jacket especially.

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We know about a dozen other couples who’ve had kids in the last 2 years, and exactly one of them has ever taken their infant backpacking.  Most wait months, if not over a year, to even go car camping.  This is a mistake.  Because modern life insulates us from backpacking it is too easy for getting out in the backcountry to seem too hard, too inconvenient.  This even without an infant in the picture. Making backpacking, camping, and hiking with your infant a habit helps keep it as simple and necessary, in your mind, as it should be.  Make no mistake, the longer backpacking trips we’ve done with Little Bear have been physically crushing, and the aftermath would be intimidating if the trips themselves were not almost always so awesomely fulfilling.  Backpacking has been a passion for us, and sharing that with our child is for both him and us the height of necessity.  In doing this well, there is no greater satisfaction.

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One thought on “How to backpack with an infant

  1. We could not agree more! I need to find time to make a trip report of Lotta’s 6 week Patagonia backpacking adventure (20->26 weeks old) and her 4 week Lapland thru-hike (10 months old). Good stuff and congrats to LB for his 1st anniversary! Cheers from Belgium. S+K+L

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