When our first child arrived, we knew we wanted him to enjoy nature as much as we did. To us, the pinnacle of enjoying nature is overnight backpacking. With some preparation, planning, and expectation management, we took 10-month-old Max (and in utero Lily) on a four-night overnight backpacking adventure on the Loyalsock Trail in Wyoming County, Pennsylvania. Here are some pointers for parents who are interested in overnight backpacking with a baby:
Gather your essential equipment
First, and most importantly, you will need a high quality, framed child carrying backpack with a rain/sun shade that you know how to adjust. We used a REI Piggyback carrier, which fit both me and my husband with adjustments for each of us. Our carrier had a decent amount of space, but for a four-night trip, we still needed more space. We added waterproof panniers on the sides to add storage space.
10 Essential Items for your Trip:
- A high quality framed backpack for your partner. He or she will carry much of the equipment, unless you are the stronger one and you’re going to carry more weight.
- Hiking poles or ski poles. These gave me so much confidence that I wasn’t going to trip and fall forward with my child. They also help on steep uphill grades.
- Backpacking water filter. They are lightweight and you will never have to worry about finding a treated water source.
- A plastic tablecloth for underneath your tent that doubles as a seating area when you take breaks.
- Rain gear for your baby – pants and jacket.
- Plastic lined bibs to keep your baby’s clothes clean. The cheap velco ones rinse well and dry quickly when attached to the outside of your pack.
- Big ziplocs for trash, diapers, and wipes.
- A toy or two that you can tie to the backpack for your child.
- Proper footwear based on your route. Turning an ankle with a baby in the backpack is dangerous for everyone.
- Cash and credit cards, just in case.
Build up to overnight backpacking
Your child should be accustomed to sitting in the backpack during hikes well in advance of your trip. Ease her way into backpacking by going on a family camping trip and doing day hikes from your campground. Take your equipment (stove, filter, tent) and see how it goes. You will figure out if your child will take her nap in the carrier or if she does better in the morning or the afternoon. At the campground, use your backpacking tent and figure out the best way for your family to sleep and how many sleeping bags you will need.
Plan your route
If this is your first trip with your baby, be conservative in your plans. The general guidance is one mile an hour over semi-challenging terrain and an hour per 1000 feet of elevation. We hiked faster than that and really picked up our pace when Max was asleep. You should know how to read a map and use a compass and have a plan if something happens, particularly if you won’t have cell phone reception. When choosing a route, consider that it is very difficult and a bit scary to scramble over rocks when you have a baby on your back. Look for trail descriptions of “Class 1 or 2,” “Easy,” or “Moderate.” Avoid trails that require special equipment or that involve climbing and ensure you have a water source along the way, or at least near your nightly campsite.
Consider making one of your stops at an actual campsite. We stopped at World’s End State Park and it was so nice to have a table, shower, and toilet at the mid-point of our trek during Pennsylvania’s hot and humid summer. Remember that you may need a reservation to secure a spot.
Prep for your trip
Give someone your route and itinerary as a precaution. Pack your gear, try it on with baby in the backpack, walk around, and make adjustments. Watch the weather to ensure you won’t end up in a dangerous situation like flash floods, tornadoes, or excessive heat or cold.
Now comes the fun part. Our hikes involved singing songs, pointing things out, and taking breaks if Max started to cry. For both boys and girls, ensure you change diapers more often that you would normally because your baby is sitting right on that dirty diaper for an extended period of time. What if she starts to cry? Well, wait it out a little bit, let her run around, then maybe convince her to get back in the pack with something fun to play with or yummy to eat. Keep your phones off unless you really need them, and take lots of pictures. When you’re done, look at the map and think about what your family just accomplished.
Have you hiked with your baby? What tips do you have? Share them in the comments!
Alison Atkins is the mother of Max (4) and Lily (3) and is a lifelong outdoors enthusiast. She is also a U.S. Army officer stationed in Seoul, Korea with her husband, Andrew Atkins.