How to Choose a Hiking Baby Carrier
Selecting the Perfect Pack for You & Your Kid
When you decide to adventure outdoors with kids, you reevaluate how you handle everything from sleeping arrangements and food to the weather. Transporting your little ones in the wild is no different. Luckily, a wide assortment of quality hiking baby carriers makes backcountry adventures accessible to all ages and abilities. No carrier can take away the stress of bringing a little one outdoors, but the right pack will go a long way toward creating a safe, enjoyable experience for you and your child.
Baby carriers come in many different styles, including wraps (long pieces of fabric), ring slings (fabric with a large ring at either end, worn on one shoulder), soft structured carriers, and child carrier backpacks. While all of these options work for hiking, soft structured carriers and kid carrier backpacks offer the most support for longer, more strenuous activities and a wider range of ages.
Here’s how to choose a baby carrier backpack to meet your family’s needs.
Soft Structured Baby Carriers
Soft structured carriers allow you to wear your child several different ways: front, back, or hip. They have padded, adjustable straps, as well as thick, adjustable waistbands. Most also have a storage pocket that fits your cell phone, ID, and keys. While these carriers lack a large amount of storage, they feature lightweight, versatile designs. My husband and I have vacuumed, grocery shopped, and hiked moderately strenuous trails with our babies in soft structured carriers, sometimes all in one day. Folded up, they take up very little space in your truck, suitcase, or plane’s overhead bin.
If you’re in search of a toddler carrier backpack, soft structured carriers allow you to carry your infant from birth and many adjust to fit your child through the toddler years (up to 45 pounds), including the Beco and LÍLLÉaby. Be sure to check the weight limit for the carrier you choose. Every time you use a soft structured carrier, make sure your baby’s legs make an “M” shape while riding in the carrier: legs wide, knees bent and slightly above the baby’s waist. This position ensures your baby’s hips remain in a healthy position while riding. Choose a soft structured carrier with a wide base that will support the baby’s thighs to the knee joint, reducing the forces on their hip joints.
Once your child has proper head and neck control, you may choose to switch to a child carrier backpack. Discuss the transition with your pediatrician if you have specific concerns.
As your child becomes more mobile, soft structured carriers make it easier for parents wrangling a toddler who wants the independence of hiking, but tires out and needs to be carried. Getting the child in and out is a much quicker, more straightforward process with a soft structured carrier than a child carrier backpack, which you will appreciate when it happens 20 times in a mile.
How to Choose a Soft Structured Baby Carrier
When reviewing the many carrier models, here are two important considerations.
1. The Environments You Hike In
Will you mostly use your carrier in hot, humid environments? Or if you are like me, does hiking cause you to sweat excessively, even when not carrying a child? If so, the carrier’s material will make a big difference. Many soft structured carriers are made of canvas. Consider purchasing a carrier specifically designed to optimize airflow, such as the LÍLLÉbaby Complete Airflow Child Carrier. This carrier’s breathable mesh keeps you and your child comfortable even as the temperature rises. Other carriers have mesh side panels to increase airflow. A carrier constructed from a water-resistant material, like the LÍLLÉbaby Pursuit All Seasons model, will come in handy if you plan to hike in the Pacific Northwest or a rainforest.
2. Extra Features
Look into any extra features each model has, from built-in hoods to shade your baby from the sun to padded headrests and suck pads—fabric for a teething baby to suck on. Some carriers have these features built-in. With other models, you will need to purchase separately.
Whatever your needs, try on a few different carriers before you commit to one. To find out about other parents’ experiences, join a baby-wearing group on social media. Facebook groups are a great way to learn hacks like using suck pads and attaching mirrors, so you can have eyes on your baby while back carrying. Attend a meeting of a local baby-wearing group and try on different carriers. Many of these groups have lending libraries, allowing you to try out a specific carrier extensively between meetings.
Child Carrier Backpacks
As the name implies, child carrier backpacks offer the same benefits of a backpacking pack: they allow you to carry gear, food, and water in addition to your child while covering long distances. This type of carrier works best for long approaches, hikes, and backpacking trips. Child carrier backpacks adjust not only to fit the torso length and waist of the adult but also adjust in the cockpit to fit the size of the child.
Choosing a Child Carrier Backpack
As with soft structured carriers, a plethora of safe, durable options exist. Consider the following when selecting your child carrier backpack:
1. Parent Comfort
Like a regular backpacking pack, a child carrier backpack should properly fit your torso length and waist, with ample padding. While some people purchase a backpack just for personal use, keep in mind other adults that may use the pack to carry your child. While hiking or backpacking, it may become necessary to switch users on the fly, and you will appreciate an easy-to-adjust carrier when your child is melting down on the trail because they want mom to carry them, not dad.
If all primary users have similar torso lengths and waist sizes, then congratulations, things will transition smoothly regardless of which bag you use. When one user has a short, slim build and another has a tall, broad build, you will want a pack that specializes in adjustability and comfort for all sizes, such as Deuter’s Kid Comfort Carrier and Osprey’s Poco AG Plus.
Investing in a pack with a high-quality suspension system will allow you to move comfortably while carrying a well-distributed load. Look for a suspension system that uses lightweight materials, such as aluminum and breathable fabrics.
2. Child Comfort & Safety
When it comes to a safe, comfortable ride, the best cockpits feature a five-point harness, which connects shoulder straps to the crotch, torso, and hip restraints, similar to a car seat harness. Avoid harnesses with a separate lap belt from the crotch and shoulder straps, which have resulted in recalls when children slipped through the openings in the side.
Padding and breathability are essential to comfort for your child. Look for a harness with ample padding, especially for the head for when they fall asleep. Some carriers, such as the Osprey Poco AG, have removable stirrups that ensure proper circulation for your child’s legs. The ability to adjust the seat height will help your child stay comfortable as they grow.
3. Storage Options
The greatest advantage of child carrier backpack over soft structured carriers is the storage opportunities. Some models have specialized storage, such as a compartment designed to hold your hydration bladder. Others, such as the Thule Sapling Elite, come with pockets designed for wet and muddy items that you can wipe clean after use.
4. Extra Features
While some child carrier backpacks have practical features like sunshades, rain covers, and toy attachment loops, they also have an array of fun extras that you will not find in a soft structured carrier. For example, Phil and Teds Escape Baby Carrier features a fold-out, padded changing mat for diaper changes on the trail. Thule’s Sapling Elite includes a detachable day pack, while Phil and Teds Parade Baby Carrier has a detachable, toddler-sized pack.
A Final Test Drive
Before you take the leap, try out a few carriers, whether that means borrowing, ordering online, or visiting a store to conduct your test drive. Here are additional scenarios to bear in mind while you’re testing out different models.
- Your child is fussy and ready for a nap. How easily can you reach her favorite stuffed animal you wisely stored in the carrier’s pockets?
- You walked through a massive spider web, and your child is panicking that a spider is in his hair! How quickly can you take the carrier off by yourself and remove your child?
- When you get to the golden age where your child can walk, she will want in and out of the carrier frequently. Which pack is easiest to transition between walking and carrying your toddler?
- Your little one is more than ready for a snack. Is the kickstand user-friendly and sturdy? Is there enough storage for a multitude of readily available snacks?
Out on the Trail
Before you embark on a backcountry tour with kids, take the time to break in your carrier. Here are a few tips for getting started:
- Learn what distance and difficulty you and your child can handle.
- Practice putting on the carrier and taking your child in and out until it’s second nature.
- Dial in the straps until you’ve pinpointed the perfect fit.
- Learn how much water, food, and gear you can fit comfortably in your carrier.
- The transition from a soft structured carrier to a backpack carrier may stir up difficulties, because your child is used to having physical contact with you at all times. Give your kid time to adjust to the change of perspective and lack of contact with you.
- Take hikes around your neighborhood and on your local trails first.
- Try using the carrier while car camping before you charge into the backcountry.
- And, as with any activity involving little ones, don’t forget the snacks!
About the Author: Motherhood keeps Sarah Boles grounded, but the wilderness keeps her sane. She holds degrees in news editorial-photojournalism and Spanish from TCU and served as the sports editor for a weekly newspaper before continuing her education in order to teach and coach middle schoolers. Sarah rediscovered her passions for the outdoors and storytelling after becoming a mom, leading her to the role of editorial manager for the nonprofit, Adventure Mamas Initiative.