Backpacking with Baby
Outdoor Adventure Tips for New Families
On November 29th, 2017, a time of year when I am usually getting ready to go backcountry skiing, I was sitting in a tent with my wife and 7-month-old daughter during a warm summer afternoon in New Zealand. My wife and I had just finished putting our daughter to sleep after feeding her a bottle prepared on the backcountry stove. We were talking about something, I can’t remember what, but as we stared out the tent door at the mighty Mt Cook, tallest mountain in New Zealand, I remember a distinct feeling of peace. This was exactly why we made our vow to never stop backpacking and traveling once our daughter was born.
Before my wife and I had our daughter, Zoey, we were often told that we would have to get all of our traveling and adventuring out of our system because once we had a baby, it would all be over. We had accepted this to be true because the evidence was all around us. Everyone that we had known who’d had a baby did stop traveling and would rarely pursue activities outside the house, like backpacking. To be honest, the thought of it happening to us was terrifying.
During our first years of marriage we traveled and went backpacking as much as we could. Beyond the breathtaking sights that we’d seen and the memories that we’d made, we found that spending that time together in the outdoors, away from all distractions and electronic devices, was invaluable to our physical and mental health, as well as our relationship. So when we decided to have a baby we vowed to each other that we would find a way to continue traveling and backpacking together as a family, not only for ourselves but in order to give our child the best life we knew.
In preparation to be parents we scoured the internet looking for information about how to backpack and travel with an infant. Although we found that there are indeed people out there that go backpacking with infants, the information on how to do it seemed virtually nonexistent. So we decided to just figure it out for ourselves. We’ve learned a lot over the past eight months of traveling and backpacking with our daughter, and although there is a lot to share, these are the three most important things that made all the difference for us.
1. Start small and allow time to learn.
When we first started researching how to go backpacking with an infant, I remember getting frustrated because I couldn’t find enough information. I wanted to take her far into the backcountry and show her the places that were important to me, but after a few frustrating days, I realized that I was looking for the wrong information. I didn’t need to know how to go backpacking with my daughter as soon as possible and plan big trips, I just needed to simply get her outside into nature. We ended up starting with outings that were small, simple, and well within our comfort zones. We took short hikes on the local trails, took short road trips and went car camping. We learned that trips like these keep stress at a minimum and allowed us to focus more on learning how to do individual baby tasks while outdoors without complicating things.
2. Start early.
The first time we took Zoey out was when she was three weeks old. At that point we felt comfortable with the daily baby routines at home, and were ready to step it up a notch. We decided to go out for our first overnight car camping trip on the Olympic Peninsula. With the car loaded with everything we could possibly ever need, we made the five-hour road trip out there, with a stop planned every two hours to feed and check on Zoey.
The trip went well and although she did cry a bit, it was mostly because she was hungry, sleepy, or needed her diaper changed. We found that at that age she was indifferent to her surroundings which made the trip really easy on her and us. It allowed us to focus on figuring out how to take care of her while traveling and camping without dealing with an unhappy baby who had strong opinions as to what she was doing and where she was. I don’t know if it was easy just because she was so young or if it was because she just has a relaxed, easygoing demeanor, but I do know that the older they get the more opinionated they become, so I assume it will be harder to get them used to longer trips and sleeping new places. For Zoey, since she has spent so much time sleeping in tents and traveling by car, she now sleeps better when we are traveling and camping then she does at home. For our 14-hour overnight flight to New Zealand, she slept most the way in a bassinet provided by the airline and didn’t cry once.
All children are different and I realize that if we have a second baby, he/she may not be as easygoing, but I am convinced that starting early and doing it often makes a big difference, and this has been confirmed by other outdoorsy parents we have talked to that raised their children in a similar way. There is something beautiful in the outdoors and away from home that helps babies just be happier and more content, and the earlier they can get that the better.
3. Be flexible.
The final and most important thing that we’ve learned with our daughter Zoey is to be flexible. Whenever we leave the house to travel and backpack, we have a solid plan in place. We do all the research on the weather, locations, trail conditions, road conditions, etc. We make all of these plans for each day and emergencies, but in the end it will be Zoey and our abilities to meet her needs that decide how things will go down because she is the number one priority.
The simple goal of just getting out and going on an adventure with your baby should always be the priority; everything else doesn’t really matter. This kind of mentality will ensure a feeling of success and happiness every time the effort is made instead of failure and defeat when things don’t go exactly to plan. Case in point, there have been several trips where we simply did not reach our end destination because Zoey needed a little more time and care than normal. Instead of pushing on to a destination, we took the trips at her pace and we had a great time.
For example, in New Zealand we’d planned on doing Gillespie Pass Circuit and planned to be out for five days. We had everything planned out and thought we had brought everything we needed, but during the trip Zoey must have hit a growth spurt and ate a lot more than we had anticipated. On the 4th day around noon, I was looking at her bag of formula powder and noticed that it was looking a bit low. I measured it out and sure enough, we only had enough formula for three more bottles—which meant instead of staying the night like we have planned, we needed to pack up and hike out right then. Fifteen miles later, just after the sun had set, we were back at our van and all was well.
We actually had to change our plans a few times while in New Zealand because of the weather conditions, and ended up not doing some of the hikes that were on our list. We wanted to do Cascade Pass hike and some of the other hut hikes in Mount Aspiring National Park, but we didn’t feel comfortable and confident doing those hikes with a baby in stormy weather. On the other hand, New Zealand has other more popular multi-day hikes like Great Walks that are very well maintained and doable and safe in pretty much any weather conditions. We were able to do Routeburn and Abel Tasman Tracks and we loved both of them. The only disadvantage of Great Walks is that you need to book them in advance. One of our favorite places and moments in New Zealand was in Mount Cook National Park. We really enjoyed breathtaking views right from our tent when we camped by the Mueller Hut.
Sitting here now, writing this article and looking back at our journey from birth … from going car camping at 3 weeks old, to just finishing up a two-month trip with her in New Zealand, I honestly wish I’d had what she has at her age. Although she may not have the words to express herself, I can see it in her. I love watching her explore the world in her own way and take in the micro environments that we miss in our rush. I love looking into her eyes and seeing the wonder she sees in the playful sun light in the trees above. I love putting her to sleep in the mountains where I have found my own peace and happiness. It is the best life that I can imagine giving her and no matter the challenges that we face, I am grateful that my wife and I have kept our vow to give her this life. Our experiences in the outdoors also taught me an invaluable lesson to be more flexible and to take life as it comes. In the end the most precious things I accumulate in life are memories of moment with my family in beautiful wild places.
Recommended Gear for Backpacking with an Infant
Ergo carrier: We have found this carrier is nearly perfect for backpacking with our daughter. First, we love the Ergo because it is a front carrier which gives our daughter head and neck support, provides a safe comfortable place to sleep while we hike next to our chest, we can see and take care of her easily while hiking, and it also allows us to carry a backpack with all of our gear on our backs. I also love using the Ergo because is durable, light (weights less than 2 lbs), compact ( easy to store in a tent at camp or while traveling), and comfortable to use.
Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL3 Tent: As our family grew we also ended up needed a bigger tent and this tent has checked all the boxes. Not only does this tent provide the extra room we needed for our family of 3 but I LOVE the big doors, bright color, steep interior walls, storage pockets, large vestibules and how lightweight it is. Honestly, this tent fits our needs perfectly and I’m stoked we found it.
InReach Explorer from Garmin: Safety is key for going into the backcountry, especially when we are with our daughter. While we do everything in our power to prepare and make good decisions, we have to acknowledge that emergencies can happen.This is why we feel that carrying a personal locator beacon with an SOS button is very important. Even though there are a several options out there we chose the InReach by Garmin because beyond having an SOS button, it can also send text messages from anywhere in the world, get weather updates at any given time and it has a built in gps with maps.
Therm-a-rest Z Lite Sol Pad: This is our mattress of choice for our daughter to sleep on. We use it by laying it down in the middle of our tent and then place our air mattresses on both sides of her pad. This setup not only provides a sturdy comfortable surface for her to sleep and play but it also makes it possible to put all 3 of our mattresses in a smaller space.
Water filtration system: Water safety is one of the biggest concerns. We use Platypus GravityWorks Filter System because it is fast, lightweight and is a hands-off system that allows us to attend to other things while the water filters. Then after that, if we are filtering questionable water, we also use a Hydro Photon SteriPEN Ultra for complete peace of mind.
Jetboil MiniMo Stove: A good stove for us is very important because we use it to sterilize baby bottles in boiling water, and also to heat water to make warm bottles. We prefer this stove because it is fast, easy to use, safer to use around kids because the pot attaches to the stove, concealing the flame and preventing spills. There is also a cover around the pot that protects against burning wandering little hands. The MiniMo also has a wider pot that can fit more bottles in it, as opposed to the narrower pot Jetboil makes.
Patagonia Hi Loft Down Sweater Bunting: It is lightweight and warm. We use it as a piece of clothing and also as a sleeping bag during the night. This layer is expensive; but there are cheaper options out there, the high quality of this layer will make it last and also easy to resell once she grows out of it.
Patagonia Capilene Midweight Set: This is the best set of midweight layers we have found for an infant. We love using this set because it is comfortable, provides great protection from the sun and also dries quickly, which is a big deal because her clothes get wet with our sweat when we carry her in front.
Patagonia Baby Reversible Synchilla Hat: We love this hat because it is warm and it stays on well when she is moving her head a lot.
gDiapers: For us, gDiapers is the best answer we have found to the dirty diaper dilemma. Instead of filling our bags with a bunch of heavy dirty disposable diapers to pack out, we use gDiapers with their disposable inserts. They are very absorbent and almost as good as a regular disposable diapers but what is really special is that the liners are made out of 100% biodegradable materials that are approved for disposal in backcountry pit toilets or, if need be, the biodegradable material can be emptied into a cat hole.
KidCo pop-up baby tent: This little pop-up tent was a lifesaver and worked very well until our daughter started moving and crawling. It provided her with a familiar place to be, and protection from the sun, wind and bugs. We used it for naps, changing diapers, and just a place for her to be while we are taking care of setting up the camp or cooking.
Playtex bottles with liners: We started with different baby bottles that had a lot of parts to clean and this was time-consuming. When we started using bottles with liners it made our life much easier, and saved us time. The only part that needs to be cleaned are bottle nipples. We rinse them and throw them in boiling water for a minute to sterilize.
EZ Towels: EZ towels are essentially magically compressed dehydrated baby wipes. To activate their magic all we do is add a little warm water and voilà! we have a baby wipe to clean our daughter during diaper changes or when she gets dirty. Not only does this help us save on weight but also gives our daughter warm wipes for comfort.