Hiking with a Baby
Having a new addition can be both incredibly joyful and intensely nerve-wracking, especially for first-time parents. You bask in every new sound they make or expression they have. You also worry about EVERY LITTLE THING. Are they growing enough? Are they crying too much? Are they breathing? It can be exhausting, and that’s on top of the lack of sleep.
At some point, you realize that you all need to get out of the house and enjoy some fresh air. With the incredible benefits that nature has to offer, it makes sense that hitting the trail with your baby in tow is a great way to de-stress and unwind a bit. But where do you start? What do you bring? What if your baby cries the whole time? We are here to answer these questions and more in this ultimate guide to hiking with baby.
Before you go: Be sure to check with your Pediatrician and OBGYN to make sure both you and baby are ready to hit the trail.
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- Hiking with a Baby
- Benefits of Hiking with a Baby
- Choosing the Right Carrier for Hiking with a Baby
- What to Bring When You Hike with Your Baby
- What to Wear for Hiking with your baby – Mom
- Baby Hiking Gear – What Baby Should Wear
- Hiking with Baby: Tips for Getting Started
- Hiking with Infants: Feeding Baby on the Trail
- Soothing a Crying Baby on the Trail
- Start Hiking with Your Baby Today
- Ultimate Guide to Hiking with a Baby
Benefits of Hiking with a Baby
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of how it’s done, let’s discuss why you should. We know that being out in nature is beneficial for the body and mind, and these benefits can be felt by even our youngest little ones.
There’s a reason many parents from Nordic countries participate in the practice of outdoor naps for their babies. A study from 2008 surveyed hundreds of Finnish parents and concluded that babies who nap outdoors are more likely to sleep deeper and longer than those taking indoor naps.
This is true for older children and adults as well. Nature gives our senses a break from the constant onslaught of strong smells, artificial lighting, excessive noise pollution, etc. This helps calm our minds and allows the body to reset and follow a more natural sleep rhythm.
Both of my kiddos took long naps in the carrier while we hiked and seemed to wake up less fussy and more refreshed. Now that they are a bit older, they always sleep better at night (and so do I) when we have had a nature-filled day.
Having your baby close provides a myriad of benefits including increasing the attachment between baby and caregiver (for more benefits, check out this article. I found this especially important during those early days as a new mother with a very fussy baby.
The majority of the time, he would calm right down as soon as he was slipped into the carrier and we stepped outside for a walk. He would snuggle in and snooze and I would relish in the quiet while breathing in that intoxicating young baby smell.
Early Immune Boost
Early exposure to the everyday microbes found in nature can promote the development of a strong, healthy immune system. Allowing babies to nap outside, crawl in the dirt during hike breaks, or even just touch leaves and bark as they ride along can give them a leg up on fighting more dangerous microbes that can cause illnesses.
Mental Health Support
The indoor world can be overwhelming. Strong scents, loud noises, and artificial light attack our senses and can increase stress levels. Time in nature can counter these stress levels with cognitive, emotional, and even social benefits. There are various studies that provide evidence that spending time in nature can increase happiness, decrease mental distress, increase positive social interactions, and improve your sense of meaning and purpose in life.
Other studies focusing on cognitive benefits reported that children who are exposed to more green spaces showed better self-control behaviors and higher attentional functioning. It also improves working memory for both adults and children. These benefits can start as young as infants who are exposed to a healthy dose of “nature” therapy.
Hiking in general is a wonderful workout. Adding in the weight of a baby strapped to you (even the smallest ones) can take that workout a step further. And let’s face it, it can be hard to find time to exercise with little ones around. Having them strapped to you on a trail makes getting your workout in that much easier.
Choosing the Right Carrier for Hiking with a Baby
With so many options on the market, how do you choose the right carrier for hiking with your baby? The right carrier is the one that works best for you and your baby. Finding this can take some time and research (check out our carrier reviews here).
I made the mistake of choosing the most popular carrier, forgetting that I have a shorter than average torso, and I was miserably uncomfortable.
As you start your carrier research, the first thing to consider is the age and weight of your child along with which milestones they have hit (holding their head up and sitting up on their own).
Every carrier has a minimum and maximum weight limit. Here we have split the types of carriers into three main categories: Wraps, slings, and hybrids, soft-structured carriers, and framed carriers.
Wraps, Slings, and Hybrids
I grouped these three carrier types together because they all involve quite a bit of fabric and a learning curve to use properly. Wraps (both stretchy and woven) are one long piece of fabric that can be wrapped and secured in various ways to secure your baby. While they work well for babies as young as newborns, they may not provide enough support for larger babies on longer hikes.
A ring sling is a large piece of fabric with two rings attached to one side. The fabric wraps around the caregiver and baby where it is then looped through the rings. This creates a secure, comfortable seat for your baby. This option is also great for newborns and is convenient for nursing moms. However, the weight of the baby is unevenly distributed, and the long end can dangle and get in the way.
Hybrid carriers combine the closeness of a wrap carrier with the ease of a soft-structured carrier. They involve less wrapping but still provide the security that newborns need for safety and development. I used the Moby Fit Hybrid carrier when my youngest was a newborn and found it simple to use for hikes and exploration, and I was able to easily use a hydration backpack with it. I never felt like he wasn’t secure, even if I lost my footing and wobbled to regain stability.
Soft-structured carriers are a popular option for hiking with babies, and it’s not hard to see why. They are generally easy to use, have a greater weight range, and keep your baby close and secure without the extra fabric. With so many options to choose from, a few things to consider are weight range, material, carry positions, and extra features (such as storage).
Some soft-structured carriers can be safely used with infants while others require the use of an insert to enable safe use with babies as small as 7 pounds. The maximum weight differs, but most carriers go up to around 40 pounds. There are companies such as Kinderpack and Tula that offer carriers for older children up to around 60 pounds.
You will find carriers made from everything from cotton to polyester, to rip-stop nylon. There are also mesh options on the market to keep you cool when hiking in the warmer months. Thankfully, most carriers are machine-washable, so you won’t have to worry about them getting ruined when they inevitably get splashed with mud or spit up on.
You are not limited to the traditional front carry with your baby facing in anymore. Some carriers allow you to safely carry your baby on your back or hip, and some allow you to face your baby out in the front. These other positions may take some adjustments to the carrier and practice to master, so be sure to consult the carrier website for more detailed information.
Carriers with extra pockets and loops for gear can be convenient when hiking with your little one. Attached hoods offer some rain and sun protection and help your baby sleep soundly. My current carrier of choice for my toddler, the Onya Outback, even comes with a built-in chair harness that transforms an adult chair into a safe seat for your baby or toddler.
Important Note: When choosing and wearing a soft-structured carrier, make sure that it sits high enough on your waist that you can still kiss the top of your baby’s head. Also, make sure the seat of the carrier is wide enough for their knees to be positioned higher than their bum, making an M shape. This is the best position for your child for both safety and hip development.
Framed Hiking Carriers
Once your baby is a bit older and can sit upright on their own with full head and neck control (usually around 6 months and 16 pounds depending on the carrier), you can consider using a framed hiking carrier. These are extremely useful when hiking longer distances since they offer plenty of storage and many have a spot for a hydration bladder. They also help to keep you cooler when hiking in warmer weather since you are not sharing warmth with your baby.
Framed carriers make it easy to share the load with a partner since they can adjust to different torso lengths. However, if you have a smaller or larger than average build, it’s important to try on the carrier ahead of time. I found our first framed carrier uncomfortable to wear due to my shorter-than-average torso.
I hadn’t tried it on ahead of time, which was a huge mistake. I ended up loving the Osprey Poco Plus carrier after trying it on at an REI store with my kiddo in it. Check out this article for more information on our favorite framed baby carriers.
Try Before You Buy
I cannot stress enough to try before you buy if possible. Some stores allow you to try on a carrier and give you tips on adjustments right in the store. Many locations also have babywearing groups with lending libraries where you can check out different carriers to try. Even asking other caregivers if you can briefly try out their carrier before or after a group hike can give great insight into what works for you.
Wear your baby in the carrier around the house and for neighborhood walks so they can get used to being in it before setting out on the trail. This allows you to make any adjustments needed to find what works best for you both.
One of the most-asked questions I get about using a wrap or soft-structured carrier on the trail is “where do you put your gear?”. If I am hiking with my spouse, he takes the load in a hiking backpack. If I am hiking solo with a baby on my front, I can easily use a backpack, with the straps going over the carrier straps. If I am back carrying, I generally clip a water bottle to the carrier and use a shoulder bag or a hiking fanny pack for gear.
What to Bring When You Hike with Your Baby
I promise that it is not necessary to lug around a giant, heavy diaper bag with you every time you hike with your babe. Trust me, when I first started hiking with my oldest, I was that mom who lugged around everything I could possibly need… and then ended up not needing any of it. It took me a few times to realize that I was going overboard, but once I finally did, these are the items I found most helpful when hiking with a baby.
This is especially important for longer hikes, or trails that run through backcountry areas with little cell reception. The 10 essentials include the following: Navigation tools, flashlight or headlamp, first aid kit, sun protection, insulating layers, knife/multi-tool, fire supplies, emergency shelter, extra water, and extra food. This may seem like a lot, but I have managed to fit all of these essentials into a shoulder bag while back-carrying a toddler. Check out this article for more information on these essentials.
Wearing a baby can throw off your equilibrium and cause you to be a little less stable on your feet. Using trekking poles (these Black Diamond poles are my favorite) provides more stability, improves balance on rough terrain, and can help prevent falls. They always give me peace of mind when traveling with precious cargo attached to me.
Diapers and a Small Pack of Wipes
The number of diapers you bring will depend on how long you plan to be out. I generally carry 3 diapers for an adventure that is 3 hours or less in case of a blowout. Also, you will need a way to pack out the diapers and soiled items, so be sure to bring a wet-dry bag or a plastic bag for dirty items.
Extra Baby Outfit
Speaking of blowouts, carrying an extra onesie or outfit can help you be prepared for anything that may happen with your little bundle of joy. Thankfully, baby clothes are pretty small, so they can easily be rolled up and placed in the bottom of a pack.
Burp Cloth (or 2)
A standard-sized burp cloth can have a myriad of uses on the trail. It can clean up spills and spit-ups, provide shade for baby, and even double as a changing pad during diaper changes on the trail.
If you are breastfeeding, this part is easy. Just make sure you are drinking plenty of water to keep up with the water lost through sweat. If you are bottle-feeding, be sure to bring enough breastmilk or formula to last the full hike along with a little extra just in case. If your baby is old enough for baby snacks, yogurt melts and baby puffs are great options to keep your baby happy and occupied in the carrier. For more information, see our section below on feeding baby on the trail.
Baby Soothers and Entertainment
Carrying along a few favorite small soothers or toys can help keep your baby entertained if they choose to stay awake. For me, this meant a pacifier, a teether toy, and a small container of bubbles (I bought a pack of those bubble tube party favors and threw one in my bag before each hike).
What to Wear for Hiking with your baby – Mom
Dressing for the Weather
What you wear will vary greatly depending on the weather. If you are hiking in the warmer months, keeping cool is the name of the game. Since exposure to the chemicals in many sunscreens can be harmful to young babies, consider opting for a UPF-rated sun shirt for yourself to prevent your sunscreen from rubbing off on them. Also, a sun hat can help keep you cool while also providing a little shade for your baby. Check out this article for some great clothing options for hiking.
Hiking in the winter is a whole different story. Choosing the right layers becomes key to your comfort. The most important layer is the moisture-wicking base layer. Follow this up with an insulating mid-layer and a weather-proof outer layer to maximize comfort. Check out our Winter Gear Guide for Women for more information and gear suggestions.
Whether you have mastered the art of nursing in a carrier or prefer to stop along the trail for a feeding session, choosing the right tops can make a world of difference. I preferred wearing a nursing tank top over a nursing bra to provide easy access. On top, I would wear a button-down or half-zip hiking shirt. There is also nursing-specific activewear on the market that allows easier access with fewer layers.
Shoes with Excellent Traction
This is an absolute must. You don’t want to be slipping on wet surfaces or stumbling on loose gravel when you have a baby strapped to you. I prefer Vibram outsole technology, which provides excellent traction and a high degree of abrasion resistance. Numerous shoe companies use this technology, including Merrell, New Balance, and Vasque. Check out our recommendations for best hiking shoes and boots for women here.
Baby Hiking Gear – What Baby Should Wear
The most important thing to remember when hiking in warmer weather is to protect your baby’s skin without making them too hot. Babies have much more sensitive skin compared to older kids and adults. They burn quickly but are too young to use most sunscreen products. That’s where sun-protective clothing comes in. Sun-protective clothing has a UPF rating that signifies how much of the sun’s UVA and UVB rays are blocked by the fabric.
Search for a cooling, breathable option with a UPF rating of around 50. Check out this article for more information along with our recommendations for the best sun protective clothing for kids. You will want to top off the outfit with a wide-brimmed sun hat to keep your baby’s face and neck protected (check out this article for some of our favorite sun hat options.
When hiking in colder weather, layers are key. As I mentioned above, a moisture-wicking base layer is the most important layer. Look for materials such as wool or synthetic blends, but avoid cotton at all costs! Follow this layer with a fleece mid-layer (like fleece pajamas), and finish it out with a weather-resistant outer layer. Check out this article for more information on layering kids in cold weather.
Hiking with Baby: Tips for Getting Started
Stay Close and Start Slow
Your first hike with a baby shouldn’t be a 10-mile trek up a mountain (unless you are already used to this). Starting with walks in your neighborhood or short trails nearby helps you work out any kinks you may have before tackling harder, longer treks. This also gives your body time to recover following having a baby. Check out this article for more information and tips for safe postpartum hiking.
Hike During Naptime
When you strap a baby on and head out on the trail, the constant motion and fresh air have a way of putting a baby to sleep (especially a young baby). If you are trying to stick to set naptimes, hiking during a naptime can help you avoid messing with your baby’s sleep cycle.
Flexibility is Key
You never know when something may come up, such as an inconsolable baby or a double blowout that goes through your baby’s original and extra set of clothes. Having the flexibility to change your plan or turn around if needed is important when hiking with a baby. On the other hand, a baby who decides to take an epic nap in the carrier may allow you to extend your adventure or go another lap around the trail.
Lower Your Expectations (at least in the beginning)
This can be SO hard, especially if you were an avid hiker before your baby came along. However, our bodies go through such dramatic changes during pregnancy and labor, that hiking long distances may not be possible for quite some time. Also, hiking with a baby is very different from hiking solo. It takes some time to get used to for both Mama and Baby. However, once you get your footing, you may find yourself hiking longer distances than ever before.
Hike with a Buddy
Whether that buddy is a spouse, a family member, or a fellow mom, hiking with others can be a gamechanger. It motivates you to get out there rather than making up excuses to stay home. It can give you a sense of security that others are available to help if needed. And let’s face it, an extra set of hands can come in handy when you first start hiking with a baby. Consider joining a Facebook group or an organization (such as Hike it Baby) that offers family hikes geared towards families with babies and young children.
Hiking with Infants: Feeding Baby on the Trail
Nursing on the Trail
Don’t be afraid to take a break to nurse along the trail. Look for a shady spot or a log you can sit on to make things a little more comfortable. With my first, I would nurse him in the car beforehand, and then as needed during hike breaks.
Once my second son came along, I made it my mission to learn how to nurse while he was in the carrier. It took some time to find the most comfortable position for both of us, but once we practiced at home and on short walks, the transition was seamless. It became so second nature, that others couldn’t even tell that he was nursing as we hiked.
I highly recommend practicing at home, nursing your baby while you clean or when playing with an older sibling. This will make it much easier to do on the trail since you will know how to adjust the carrier. This also allows your baby to get used to the idea of nursing in this position.
If you are using baby formula, the powdered version is easy to carry and mix on the trail. Simply bring a bottle pre-filled with water, add the formula, shake, and you’re set! If your baby prefers a warm bottle, you can bring a separate, small thermos specifically for warm water for the bottle.
For bottled breastmilk, I have taken a frozen bag of milk and let it thaw naturally as we hike until it was needed. If it wasn’t quite thawed enough, I would stick it in a thermos of warm water before transferring it to a bottle. Another option is to take a freshly pumped batch of milk, which will remain useable for 4 hours following pumping.
For older babies, bringing along some safe snacks to munch on can help keep them entertained and happy until their next meal. My kiddos loved yogurt melts, baby puffs, or teething crackers while on a hike.
Soothing a Crying Baby on the Trail
Here’s a burning question that tends to be one of the top reasons many are hesitant to get their baby out on the trail: “What if my baby won’t stop crying?”. Soothing a cranky baby on the trail isn’t that different from soothing a cranky baby at home or when out and about running errands. Since babies don’t have the language skills to tell you exactly what they want or need, they resort to the next best thing: getting loud. Here are some tips to help you prepare ahead for possibly crankiness and meet their needs on the trail.
Check the Common Culprits
The top 3 reasons a baby cries are hunger, a wet or dirty diaper, and fatigue. This is true regardless of where you are, so they are generally the first three things we check on the trail as well.
If you are nursing, have your clothing easy to maneuver before strapping them in the carrier. I have made the mistake of forgetting to unbutton or pull up an undershirt, which is much harder with the carrier cinching it down. If you are bottle-feeding, have the bottle easily accessible. If they are old enough for baby snacks, keep yogurt melts or puffs on hand and dish one out at a time. This can buy you quite a bit of quiet time!
My younger son always got very cranky right before falling asleep. I learned that if I sang his favorite lullaby and rocked a bit, he usually fell asleep before I was even done with the song. I then pulled up the hood of my carrier and snapped it in place, which kept his head in a comfortable spot rather than flopping around.
Checking for a wet diaper was generally my last resort since it involves removing the baby from the carrier. You can sometimes tell just by feeling their bottom, but otherwise, out of the carrier they come. I liked to use either my carrier or a burp cloth as a simple changing station underneath them on the ground to keep from getting dirt in their areas. If the ground was wet, I would sit down (sacrificing a wet bottom) and use my outstretched legs as a barrier. Just remember to pack out any diapers and wipes used. I generally carry a wet/dry bag for longer hikes or a simple plastic bag or Ziploc for shorter treks.
Check for Comfort
The next thing I check is if my kiddo is uncomfortable in the carrier. I check for temperature by feeling their little hands and feet along with the nape of their neck to see if they feel too cold or warm. Adding or removing layers can help remedy temperature discomfort. I also check their position in the carrier to see if their legs are getting irritated by the carrier straps or if wrinkles in their clothes are causing irritation. I have used a burp cloth for extra padding when one of my kiddos was experiencing chafing during a hot hike (he was in shorts, and sweat was causing uncomfortable rubbing on his legs).
Bring a Teether or Favorite Toy
Sometimes babies just need a little distraction in the form of their favorite items. For example, when my older son was a baby, I always brought his binky (with a clip attached to his shirt) along with his favorite monkey toy and banana teether attached to a hook on my carrier. For my younger son, it was a beaded teether necklace and a small stuffed narwhal. These items brought them comfort and kept them content on the trail.
Use What Works at Home
Is there a method you use at home that almost always helps to soothe a grouchy little one? Don’t be afraid to use it on the trail if possible. Both of my kiddos love music, even when they were babies. When they were hard to please on a hike, I would sing some of their favorite silly songs (or play them on my phone) from The Laurie Berkner Band or GoNoodle. I used to hike with a friend who would play the sound of a vacuum on her phone to soothe her daughter. It was like magic how quickly it would calm her down! A small tube of bubbles is also a good distraction and can buy you some time.
Take a Break
If all else fails, take a break. Your baby may just want to stretch out in a different position. For young babies, throw down that burp cloth I keep mentioning and let them have a little tummy time in nature. For older babies, let them crawl and explore their environment (just watch closely to prevent choking hazards from reaching curious mouths).
Start Hiking with Your Baby Today
There is no definitive answer on when you should start hiking with your baby, but many experts and parents alike agree that starting as early as possible is beneficial for both parents and baby alike. Some of my greatest memories involve hiking with others with one of my boys strapped to me. Starting them early helped form them into the nature-loving tiny environmental advocates that they are today. And it all started with that first hike.
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Ultimate Guide to Hiking with a Baby
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