Lots of very well meaning people advised me that when I became a mother I'd have to give up a lot of my outdoor hobbies for the foreseeable future. Multi day hikes were definitely off the table and day trips would be possible as long as it was to a local park and not a far off mountain range or lake. While hiking with kids (and babies in particular) definitely presented some challenges that were new to us, the last 21 months have taught me that if something is really important to you, you'll find a way to make it work anyway. There's been some trial and error along the way and a few things I wish I'd known in the beginning but I'm hoping that the following post will give you some confidence to get back out there postpartum and enjoy the great outdoors as a family (and without tearing your hair out!).
1. Your body will heal and get back to full fitness in time but it might be a lot longer than you initially expected.
Before I get into gear and what to do with nappies in the wild I really feel like I needed to state this from the get go. It took me months to get back to pack carrying fitness again and it felt like forever. Every single one of us is different so if you bounced straight back into running two months postpartum then you go girl! My journey however was a very slow, methodical process of gaining strength and confidence in my body again and it was incredibly frustrating at times. I literally had to start with walking around the block, then walking up a little hill for the first time and so on. I also didn't do much baby carrying myself until I felt 100% certain I could stay stable on uneven terrain (with poles). All I can say is have no expectations of yourself and stay away from social media until you know you're in a good place mentally with your recovery. I had this warped idea that I should be out running again at a certain point because I saw other Mums out there doing that at the same stage I was at. My body just wasn't ready and that's okay.
2. How to transport them and at what age can they go in a backpack?
This is the question I've seen crop up most often on forums with parents wondering what's appropriate at what age. We started out using a sling for the first month and didn't love it to be honest. It was fiddly to put on and my son was gaining weight quite rapidly and this just wasn't a comfortable way to carry him. We bought a second hand front pack (Baby Bjorn Baby Carrier Mini) and as well as finding it perfect for those first few hikes, it turned out to be the only way we could get him to sleep for weeks! The front pack was great when he was 2-6 months as he was kept warm by whoever was carrying him and having the weight so close to your body meant it was easier to walk with him. The downside of a more minimalist front pack was the lack of a waist belt though. With all of the weight distributed across your shoulders instead of your hips like with a hiking pack, it meant he outgrew his welcome in this earlier than we had anticipated.
At about six months, we started transitioning him into a proper child carrier with the Macpac Vamoose. I work for Macpac so I never bothered looking at other brands here as I knew the Vamoose had all the features I wanted. The pack has an adjustable back harness which meant both me and hubby could wear it comfortably at our two quite different heights. The pack itself has heaps of storage as well as a small detachable day pack and we found we could pack enough gear in this and a 65l pack for both Max and ourselves when heading on overnight trips. The carrier has adjustability for your baby as well and it's been great having the option of moving his seat lower as he's grown over the last year or so. It also features a removable sun shade and rain cover, both of which we've needed often! If you're looking at carriers and don't know where to start, take your child into a store and ask to fit them in a carrier for you to try on. You'll soon know what you like and dislike about a particular model right there in the shop. Max and I actually helped with the how to video below after I realised there was a need for more helpful information out there on this.
3. What do I need to take other than the usual?
To save a little time I'm going to assume you have a standard packing list for multiday walks and just want to know the extra you'll need for bubs.
The hardest and first question on everyone's minds is usually nappies/diapers and how to manage this over several days. My advice would be to just stick to what you're doing at home and take a wet bag with you. If you usually use disposables then keep using these but carry a waterproof lightweight bag to pack out all the dirty and used ones and factor this into how much space you're going to need by the end of the trip in terms of storage. Pro tip: if your dog has their own pack, this is a great place to stash some of the used nappies for the trip out! We roll with a mix of disposables and cloth nappies and on our first 3 day hike when Max was 7 months old I had him in cloth during the day and then a disposable at night. This was mainly because he soaked through anything else I tried at night so this was the only safe option. I washed the cloth nappies on the second day and hung them out to dry in the sun so these were ready to use again the next day. Any solids need to be disposed of responsibly in either a long drop or a hole dug well away from any water sources just as you would yourself (make sure any disposable wipes or liners are packed out in your rubbish bag though). Similarly I have a small travel pack of wet wipes for number twos and a muslin cloth that can be washed and reused for just wet nappies.
Breastfeeding is pretty amazing for multi day excursions when bubs is little as you don't have to worry about carrying bottles and formula with you. I have found it hard to locate a comfortable spot on the side of some tracks to feed on occasion but I was fortunate that this was an option for us for the first year. For bottle feeding I found pre-portioning formula in zip lock bags or buying the single serve sachets was an easy way to transport powder for each day. We had a filter bottle which we could use to treat river water during the day and boiled water in the evening for his bottles. Fruit, crackers, cheese and all the snacks we usually took anyway were great to keep him happy once he was older and eating more solids. Baby food pouches are super convenient but the extra plastic packaging is something I don't love so we try to find alternatives where we can to using these. The main challenge was to pack enough food as though there were three adults as he always ate more than we anticipated! Water was best straight from my hydration bladder which he learnt to drink from early on.
Clothes and Sleeping Bags
Figuring out what we were going to have him sleep in was a bit of a mission. When he was still little I wanted him to have his own bag so that I could be sure his face wasn't covered in the night but that he'd still be toasty warm. We ended up layering him in a Primaloft onesie inside a homemade down sleeping bag made from a sewn together child's down jacket. This isn't an option for everyone but it worked really well having him tucked up between us and I could still feed him easily in the night. Now that he's almost two, we just bring an adults bag for him and tuck up the end so he doesn't disappear to the bottom of it. This means we all get some sleep as co-sleeping hasn't worked well for us when we've attempted that while camping. We also carry a merino blanket to wrap him in either in the pack or in the tent/hut if needed.
The clothes I regularly pack for him are:
Merino top and pants
Fleece onesie (now fleece jacket and pants)
Primaloft Onesie (now jacket)
L/S Cotton Tees to keep the sun off
Waterproof jacket and pants
Regular shoes as he's too small for any hiking boot brands
*I add regular cotton pants in summer too
Things that are hard to manage are their feet and hands getting cold while they sit not moving in the pack. I found buying onesies with built in foot and hand covers helped and on some of the winter trips we layered our own wooly socks over his feet and legs for extra protection. His body was easy to keep warm as it's snuggled in the pack but his limbs and face we always check every 20mins or so to make sure he isn't getting cold. He's big enough now to fit some fleece mittens that work really well.
Safety and First Aid
This was the official end to super minimalist hiking for us as a couple. We no longer went with the "we might be uncomfortable but we won't die" attitude and had to adopt a more cautious approach. We now carry (as well as our beacon) an emergency shelter option in the form of a bothy bag if we don't already have a tent with us. This gives us the option of getting out of rain and wind and warming up super quickly should anything happen. We also have multiple sets of back up clothes for Max. Now that he's walking around, trying to keep him warm and dry can be more of a challenge so I plan on having to change him at least twice a day. The same goes for food as I mentioned earlier, there is nothing worse than a hungry toddler but also we're much more likely to be overdue for any number of reasons so having at least another day's worth of food is standard now. Also take walking poles even if you don't think you need them. A dynamic weight on your back and uneven terrain will throw up challenges even the most stable walkers will struggle with.
4. How do I make this work?
Firstly I'm going to be honest, if you haven't done much hiking before having your baby then don't expect to find the process of planning and executing a trip easy the first time. It wouldn't have been even without small people! Start simple and test out your child's tolerance levels for being in a pack with just a walk around the block first. We went for lots of short walks before graduating to longer stuff so that we knew he was going to be relatively comfortable being carried.
Secondly you're going to need a certain level of physical strength and fitness to carry your child and enough gear to go on overnight walks. We didn't attempt this until I was confident I could carry 20kg for 4-6 hours as no matter how we split our pack weights up, that was about the minimum we could get it down to. Walking poles make a world of difference but also pick tracks that don't require too many steep climbs, difficult river crossings or are overgrown in significant places. There are so many amazing places to explore in this country, leave the really technical stuff for another time.
Thirdly, and this probably should have been my very first comment on this post (this is your reward if you're still reading!) bring help. We have been so lucky to have friends and family come away with us and act as a spare set of hands which has made continuing our adventures in the outdoors so much more achievable. You can absolutely do it on your own but having another couple of packs to spread gear around, someone to hold the baby while you eat dinner and another voice to distract and amuse is priceless.
Lastly, it's not rocket science and in our experience the good times have always outweighed the more difficult aspects of hiking with a baby. We definitely had to put up with some serious judgement from complete strangers in the early days as many people don't feel that the outdoors are suitable for anyone under the age of 18 for some reason. Yes if you take a baby to a hut it will quite likely cry in the middle of the night and we've opted to tent in some locations for this very reason. I have to be clear though, 2 minutes of a crying hungry baby who then gets fed and falls asleep again is nothing compared to sleeping next to a traction engine of a snorer who carries on the whole bloody night. People should buy ear plugs. That's all I have to say about that.
Top Bonus Tips
- Hammocks are great play pens before they start crawling. The mesh helps protect from pesky sandflies and you can keep them dry and warm while you manage things around camp.
- Plan plenty of breaks into your trips once they're walking. We let him out to run around every half an hour and explore things. It keeps him happy but makes for much longer walking times so just factor that in.
- Sleep is much harder to manage in summer when it's light outside until much later. Sometimes it's just easier to keep them up a couple of hours later rather than fighting to stick with your normal routine this time of year.
- Primaloft synthetic insulation is a huge winner for kids. It'll keep them warm even when wet (although it's reasonable hydrophobic anyway) and is a lot easier to look after than down options. Our Macpac Pulsar Onesie was the most useful thing we bought for him. No matter the weather we knew we could zip him up in that and we wouldn't have to worry about him getting cold.
If you have any specific questions or just want to know more about how we take our toddler hiking please leave a comment below.