Before we had our daughter, we spent many of our weekends and holidays backpacking. Like most backpackers, we loved the feeling of freedom and solitude that getting out into the wilderness gave us. This feeling was a vital part of our lives and we did not want risk losing it. One of the biggest challenges we faced when we talked about of having children was a loss of our freedom to backpack. So many people with children told us that we would have to wait years before we could get back out on the trail. What?! To be totally honest, this type of mindset was a factor that led us to wait to have kids longer than we would have otherwise. We figured it must be true since people with kids were telling us it wasn’t possible, and we did not know anyone that backpacked with a baby. If you find yourself in similar shoes, let us tell you that IT’S NOT TRUE! We’ve done it and our family of three has lived to tell about it…and had fun doing it!
We took note of a few lessons learned to share with you in hopes it might give you the information you need to get out there and also inspire you that you can do it too!
Like we do for ourselves, we pack our daughter’s clothing in layers, focusing on clothing that wicks away moisture and dries quickly. Quick dry fabrics come in handy when we have to wash out dirt or food. We also select clothing that provides UV protection since the atmosphere at higher elevations is thinner and allows more UV rays through. Her go-to item is a sun hoodie with long sleeves. We have two of the same style to alternate. We also consider sun protection for her head, feet and hands. Since we started at a young age, she doesn’t seem to mind wearing a sun hat. These cotton booties are our favorite lightweight trail shoe because they stay on (no seriously, they actually stay on!) and protect her feet from the elements. We also try to remember that on chilly hikes she may get cold faster than us, so we carry an extra layer for her. Plus at night, particularly at higher elevations, it can get pretty chilly. We opt to pack her a down bunting that doubles as her sleeping bag. Finally, we know that even with a bib, she will spill food on her clothing. So, we skip the bib and dress her in the same designated meal-time outfit for each meal, or even just her diaper if it’s warm enough. When we go to bed at night, we store that outfit in the bear canister overnight.
When planning our backpacking trips, we try to remember that, like at home, we can’t always predict what our daughter will want to eat on the trail. Variety is key. However, to maintain control of excess food and to simplify cooking in camp, we mostly feed her what we will eat as a family. This also helps with bear canister management when we camp in bear country. So far our go-to backpackers meal to meet all of these goals is Backpacker’s Pantry Three Cheese Mac and Cheese. We all love it and it’s quick to prepare. For breakfast, oatmeal is a great choice. Lots of companies make pre-packaged, ready-to-eat oatmeal to save on clean-up. Snacks are crucial on the trail, but also at meal times in case she doesn’t want to eat the main course. Squeeze pack smoothies and yogurts that do not require refrigeration until opened are super easy and are usually a big hit. We’ve also found peanut butter crackers (we love Late July’s), lemon poppyseed and apple bread, and freeze dried yogurt bites hold well in the bear canister and are popular. Finally, fresh fruit with a thick skin like apples, bananas, and oranges tend to hold up well. Don’t forget hydration! We ensure she drinks as often as we do on the trail, especially in heat or at elevation, and filter it along with our water.
Before our first trip, we went back and forth on reusable versus disposable diapers. We opt to use disposable on the trail since our trips have been short, 1 or 2 nights long. If we go on a longer trip, we would likely go through the process of washing cloth diapers on the trail to save space. Using disposables, we have been surprised how well they fit in a single, large bear canister along with our other scented items and food. We simply keep the used diapers in a plastic bag, away from our food and toiletries. To help reduce the volume of used diapers, we dig 6-8″ cat holes and bury solids before wrapping up the used diaper. You can read more about managing human waste, for both adults and babies in the backcountry here. If you’re considering using reusable diapers in the backcountry, please ensure you follow the principles of Leave No Trace. We have read that some people bury biodegradable diapers in the backcountry. However, the diapers really won’t break down properly and animals may dig them up. Diaper chucks need to be carried out or disposed of in pit toilets (after confirming with the park service district that they allow biodegradable items in their pit toilets as this may vary by park).
We previously wrote a blog about pack styles for carrying a child, here. Venturing into backpacking with an infant, our load grew by one kid and a bunch of extra gear, but the number of backs and packs to carry the load remained at two. Fortunately, we already owned large backpacking packs in the 70-75 liter range. It can get challenging to fit all of our gear for a family of three into a 75 liter pack and the largest Osprey Poco pack, because we always carry some premium items like camp chairs, the hammock, inflatable raft for the lake destinations, and fly fishing gear (to name a few). Plus, in bear country the bear canister takes up extra space. Without the premium items, squeezing into a large volume backpacking pack and a child carrying pack with extra storage isn’t too difficult. It also helps to use stuff sacks and roll clothing items to save space.
We divide the weight between the packs as much as we can, but Ash takes the heavier of the two. The pack with Mar tends to weigh a little more since with her in it, so Ash has opted to carry her with sleeping bags, snacks, and some other smaller items. Margaux carries a pack with everything else including the tent, bear canister, clothing, and cooking gear.
So far, we haven’t found the need for any additional sleeping gear for our daughter. As mentioned earlier, her bunting functions as a sleeping bag. As for a sleeping pad, we make a little space between our pads using our excess clothing. We have camped in both a 3-person and a 2-person tent, and find that if we want to save on space and weight, a 2-person tent is just fine for an infant.
We pack a small kit of medical supplies for her which includes things like baby Tylenol, saline drops, thermometer, and an antihistamine. We also bring a toy to clip on her pack or a book to read her in camp, but mostly rely on things like pinecones, sticks, and other “toys” from nature to entertain her.
We continue to learn time and time again that as we hike, our daughter is idle and when we drop the packs and crave to lounge at our camp site, she is ready to roam and play. Our first tip is patience! Setting up camp takes twice as long with a baby. One of us needs to watch her while the other manages the camp stuff. After arriving in camp, we set up the tent first, so she can have a safe space to play in while we organize our gear and packs.
One piece of gear that came in handy in camp was our hammock. She loves swinging in it, and it also turned out to be a great way to rock her to sleep for naps. We always stay with her while she’s in it, but it’s a nice way to entertain her that still gives her some independence since we aren’t holding her.
Most importantly, we have grown to accept the fact that everything will get dirty and dusty. The sooner that you accept that, the happier everyone will be! We do our best to wipe her hands and face and dust off her clothes before meals, and accept the rest as part of camping.
From the beginning, we vowed to always aim short and recognize that we are now in the short-hikers’ club. Thankfully we’ve been pleasantly surprised with the new destinations we’ve found now that we keep our trips 3-5 miles from our car. It opens up a wide range of hikes that we would have previously skipped over since they were short. Backpacking with a baby means more gear and more breaks for her to stretch and get the wiggles out. Short hikes also ensure we are close to the trailhead in case of an emergency.
In addition to length, we consider elevation. The last thing we want is a baby suffering from altitude sickness. So far, we’ve stayed below 10,000 feet for overnight trips. We also try to give a day or so before starting the hike to acclimate to the altitude since we are coming from sea level. Shade is also an important factor in trail selection. If a trail isn’t shaded, we give due regard to sun protection, hydration, and we aim to start early.
We’ve mentioned a few considerations with regards to bear canisters thus far. This topic deserves its own section because so many new items that come with the infant’s territory are scented and require storage in bear canisters. Sunscreen, diaper cream, scented wipes, diapers, and clothing worn while eating all need to be stored overnight in the bear canister. Additionally, we always ensure someone is with our daughter at all times to keep her safe from wildlife in camp. We also pick up her food scraps after she eats, since she is destined to throw food between courses. For this reason, we never feed her in the pack to keep the pack scent-free. One excellent tip to consider is that some national forests and parks have backcountry camp sites with bear boxes, which saves the need to carry bear canisters and the extra challenge of fitting all scented items into a small canister.
If you are considering backpacking with a young child, you can do it with some planning! Start with a short trail and a little patience. It might seem daunting at first, but if you commit to a trip and get out there, it will get easier each time you go! If you have any additional tips or questions about backpacking with an infant, please share them in the comments below!
Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are Amazon affiliate links. An affiliate means that if you make a purchase, we receive a small compensation at no added cost to you. We only recommend products that we love and use regularly. Any purchases that you make help support our blog. Thanks for your support!