How to Choose the Best Hiking Carrier for Kids
There are numerous benefits to getting your family on the trail. Besides the fact that it’s great exercise and provides some massive mental health benefits, it also leads to stronger family bonds and even an early immune boost for little ones.
With so many benefits, what could be holding families back from hitting the trail? One big deterrent that caregivers face is figuring out how to transport the kiddos down the trail, especially when they aren’t yet walking.
With so many options on the market, it can be daunting to choose a carrier for your outdoor adventures. Fear not, we’re here to help! This article will guide you through the various carrier options and provide tips and advice to help you make the best carrier choice for your family.
For more information on hitting the trail with little ones in tow, check out our Ultimate Guide to Hiking with a Baby.
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- How to Choose the Best Hiking Carrier for Kids
- Things to Keep in Mind When Choosing a Hiking Carrier for Kids
- Carriers for Hiking: Wraps, Slings, and Hybrids
- Carrier Types: Soft Structured Carriers
- Carrier Types: Framed Packs
- Carrying it All: How to Carry your Gear While Babywearing
- Carrier Tips
- The Right Carrier is the One that Works for You
- Guide for Choosing a Hiking Carrier
Things to Keep in Mind When Choosing a Hiking Carrier for Kids
As you start your research for a carrier that works for your family, here are some things to keep in mind
First and foremost, you want to keep your baby safe regardless of which carrier you choose. T.I.C.K.S is a simple acronym to remember the basic safety measures of babywearing, especially for young babies. Keep in mind that these rules apply mainly for front carrying a child:
Carriers should be tight enough to hug your baby close to you. Loose carriers can cause your baby to slump, potentially hindering their airway, and leading to back strain for the wearer.
In View At All Times
You should always be able to glance down and see your baby’s face with fabric clear from their head and face.
Close Enough to Kiss
Your baby should be positioned high enough on your chest that you can lean down and kiss their head or face.
Keep Chin off Chest
Be sure your baby’s chin is not being forced down to their chest, which can restrict breathing. There should be at least one finger width between the chin and the chest.
Your baby’s back should be supported in a natural position with their tummy and chest against you, not twisted or bent. You can test this by putting a hand on their back and pressing gently. If they uncurl or move closer to you, you may need to adjust the carrier.
*Bonus* Healthy Hip Position
Make sure that the pouch of your carrier is wide enough that your baby’s knees are positioned above their hips, forming an M shape (the bottom is the middle trough). This will help prevent hip dysplasia and other issues in the future.
Age and Size of Child
This is especially important for newborns because their position in the carrier is extremely important for their safety and development. Generally speaking, wraps, slings, and hybrid carriers are safe to use for newborns. Some soft-structured carriers are also safe but may require the use of an infant insert.
Weight Limits of Carrier
Every carrier will have a recommended minimum and maximum weight limit listed. If you have a newborn that weighs less than 7 pounds, you may need to hold off until they reach that milestone before using a carrier (this goes for many hybrid and wrap carriers as well).
If you are carrying a larger baby or toddler, keep in mind that there are also maximum weight limits on all carriers. Please note: for framed hiking carriers, the maximum weight limit means the TOTAL weight of the pack with both the child and any gear you pack in it, not just the weight of the child.
A carrier you use for a simple stroll around town or a shopping trip may be packable and fast to use. In contrast, a carrier you use for a backpacking trip needs to fit well and be comfortable for long distances.
Temperature and Weather Outside
When it comes to cold-weather and warm-weather hiking, material matters. You don’t want a mesh carrier in the winter, and thicker material can get hot in the summer. If rain is in the forecast, consider a carrier with a rain attachment to keep your little one dry and protected.
Keep in mind that most wraps, slings, and soft-structured carriers have very little storage space for essentials. You may need to carry a hiking pack of some sort (see below for tips for carrying gear while babywearing).
Carriers for Hiking: Wraps, Slings, and Hybrids
Wraps for Hiking
A wrap is a long piece of fabric that can be wrapped in different ways to secure your baby. They come in a multitude of fabric choices, including stretchy (if you prefer some give in the fabric) and woven options.
This is a great option for newborns. It keeps your baby warm and close to promote bonding and a sense of security for both the wearer and the baby. Wraps also fit easily under a hiking pack, and there are various carry options possible.
There tends to be a steep learning curve to using a wrap and will take some getting used to. The ends can become cumbersome and drag on the ground, especially if you are a petite person. Wraps can become uncomfortable on longer treks and with bigger babies due to lack of support. With the added fabric and the body heat of your baby, they can get hot, especially on warmer days.
This very soft, stretchy wrap is one of the easier ones out there in regards to learning how to wrap your baby safely and securely. It is suitable for babies from 7 to 35 pounds.
A few of us have used the classic Moby Stretchy Wrap when our kiddos were very young before transitioning to other carrier options. It is safe to use with babies from 8 to 33 pounds.
“The Moby is what I started with for my first. I loved the stretchy feel, but the learning curve is a little steep. I really didn’t use it much past 2-3 months old. I barely used it with my second as I discovered a ring sling.”– TMM Team Member Jami Rogers
A ring sling is a long piece of fabric with a set of rings attached to one end. The fabric wraps around the wearer and baby, inserts into the ring, and is cinched down. This forms a pouch for the baby that runs from one shoulder to the opposite hip.
Great for newborns and requires less guesswork for the parent. Ring slings are quick and easy to use, work for a variety of body types, and come in a huge variety of colors and patterns. Since there is no tying at the waist, they work well for moms who have had a c-section birth. They are also easy to breastfeed in and allow older babies and toddlers to move around more.
The excess fabric can get in the way and drag on the ground. They can be uncomfortable for longer treks due to a lack of padding and support. There is an uneven weight distribution since the baby is positioned on one side of the body. The rings can interfere with pack straps when wearing a backpack.
This eco-friendly sling is made of super soft bamboo and linen and comes in a variety of colors. It is safe to use with babies from 8 to 35 pounds.
TMM Team Member Jami Rogers prefers the Maya Ring Sling for her kids:
“This sling was super easy to one-handed nurse in. I love that it packs small and is simple to use. I also liked using it for toddlers during the up/down phase. I haven’t used it in over a year or so, but it still lives in my truck just in case I need a spot for a kid.”– TMM Team Member Jami Rogers
Hybrid carriers and Meh Dei’s are a cross between a wrap and a soft-structured carrier. They combine the closeness you get from a wrap with the ease of use of a soft-structured carrier. They involve less wrapping but still provide the security that newborns need for safety and development.
I used this carrier when my youngest was a newborn and found it simple to use for hikes and exploration. I also loved that 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.
“Ergo embrace is my favorite for the first three/four months because the “straps” are more wrap-like and cross in the back so don’t interfere with backpacks. It is what I wore for our three-month-old on our first backpacking trip so I could easily wear a heavy backpack too and just loosen the straps of the carrier to nurse her while hiking.”– TMM Team Member Anna Kerlee
Carrier Types: Soft Structured Carriers
Soft-structured carriers are more structured than wraps and slings and come with padded shoulder straps and waistbands along with buckles to secure everything. On most models, all straps are adjustable to allow the wearer to find a comfortable fit, and there is a panel along the baby’s back that provides support and safety.
With so many options to choose from, a few things to consider are weight range, material, carry positions, and extra features (such as storage).
Every carrier will have a suggested weight range for safe use. Some soft-structured carriers can be safely used with newborns while others require the use of an infant 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 no longer limited to the traditional front carry with your baby facing in. Various soft-structured carriers allow you to carry your baby on your back or hip, and some allow you to face your baby out in the front to give them an unobstructed view of their surroundings.
These other positions may take some adjustments to the carrier and practice to master, so consult the carrier website for more detailed information. In addition, it is inadvisable to hike on rough terrain with your baby in the outward-facing position due to an increased risk of injury if you should fall. This position is most suitable for smooth trails or roads for short time periods.
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.
They are generally easy to use, have a greater weight range, and keep your baby close and secure without the extra fabric. They can easily be shared with other caregivers with just a few strap adjustments. They can “grow” with your kiddo, using a front-carry position when they are young and a back-carry position when they are older and heavier.
May require the use of an insert for use with smaller babies. They are bulkier and not as easily stored when compared to wraps and slings.
Here at TMM, we love our soft-structured carriers! With so many to choose from, it’s hard to pick favorites! Here are just a few options that have worked well for us:
One thing many of us agree on is that the options from ErgoBaby (especially the Basic Ergo and the Ergobaby 360) are a great place to start when searching for a good all-around carrier.
This carrier is super lightweight and packable and can be used with infants without the need for an insert. Check out Amelia’s review of the Happy Baby Carrier, which she used to carry her toddler while pregnant and with a new baby.
“For the first couple of months I really liked the Infantino 4 in 1 baby carrier. Before my kids could support/hold up their own heads they’d be in it on my chest facing in. Then as they grew in size and head control, I could keep them on my chest but facing outward, or swivel them to be worn on my back.”– TMM Team Member Domo Woodham
The Kinderpack is like the luxury car of Soft-Structured Carriers. It may come with a higher price tag, but the comfort is worth it. It comes in 4 sizes, which means you can find the perfect fit for infants up through preschool-aged kiddos. Check out Kristin’s review post for the Kinderpack for more information.
Looking for a soft-structured carrier for an older kiddo? TMM Team Member Jami Rogers recommends the Toddler Tula which can carry a child up to 60 pounds.
Carrier Types: Framed Packs
A framed carrier is a backpack with a hard frame built in where your child sits. The biggest difference with this type of carrier is that the child sits further away from the wearer with no skin-to-skin contact. 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.
Most framed carriers have a large area to store gear such as extra layers, the 10 essentials, diapering necessities, etc. along with side pockets for water bottles or kid essentials. There is an adjustable ladder suspension system that provides a comfortable fit for most wearers based on torso length. The harness and cockpit adjust to grow with your child, and the pack includes a grab handle and kickstand to assist with getting it on and off your back. Many models offer other features such as a pocket for a hydration reservoir and a rain/sun hood (either included or as an extra attachable) to protect the child from the elements.
These are extremely useful when hiking longer distances since they offer plenty of storage and many have a spot for a hydration bladder. The frame, shoulder, and waist straps provide added support on longer hikes. 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.
More petite or larger wearers may find it difficult to get a comfortable fit with most models. They are much bulkier and heavier, making them more difficult to store or bring along for impromptu outings. They also come with a heftier price tag if you purchase one new.
After trying out multiple different framed carriers, I found that the Osprey Poco Plus fit my frame the best. I am a bit on the shorter side at 5’2”, and I have a shorter torso than average. The Osprey cinched down enough to provide a comfortable fit for me while also adjusting well to fit my husband’s frame.
This is another great option that multiple members of the Tales of a Mountain Mama Team use. For more information on these framed carriers and others, check out our roundup of the best framed hiking carriers.
Carrying it All: How to Carry your Gear While Babywearing
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 or a kid-free family member, they usually take the load in a hiking backpack. If I am hiking solo or with other babywearers, I sometimes have to get a little more creative. Here are some options I’ve used depending on how I am wearing my kiddo.
When my boys were little and I could pop them on my front, I usually wore a hiking backpack over my carrier straps. It may feel a little bulky, but it actually had a balancing effect that counteracted their weight. My go-to packs for day hikes are the Osprey Daylite Plus for shorter treks or the REI co-op Trail 40 Pack for longer hikes.
Things can get a little tricky when you are back carrying a kiddo without a framed hiking carrier. There are 3 main options you have for hauling gear with a kiddo on your back:
Wear a Backpack on Your Front
While this may seem uncomfortable, it’s a good option if you have more gear you need to haul. It can counter-balance you while you hike and allows for easy access to essentials. This is also a good option as your little ones get older and can do some of the hiking themselves. Just pop the pack on your front and the child on your back when they need a break.
Break Out the Fanny Pack
While your old neon fanny pack from the ‘80s or ‘90s can still come in handy, they now have hiking-specific fanny packs (usually termed “lumbar” packs) that work well with child carriers. Simply strap it on under your carrier (or over the bottom portion of the carrier) and you’re set! Some options (Such as the Osprey Tempest Lumbar Hiking Pack) have room for 2 water bottles along with plenty of space for your essentials such as a first aid kit, a diaper and some wipes, snacks, etc.
Use a Shoulder Bag
This is my go-to for impromptu trail explorations and short hikes with my kiddos. I simply throw on the side bag/small messenger bag (such as the extra small Timbuk2 Classic Messenger Bag) over the carrier, clip a water bottle onto my carrier, and head out. It can carry your essentials and everything you need for a shorter hike.
Here are some tips I learned the hard way when my oldest kiddo was a baby. These made for an easier time on the trail, and less money spent on carriers that didn’t work for me.
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.
Learn to Feed in a Carrier
This can be a game changer when it comes to hiking with your child! Whether you are nursing or using formula, learning to feed while they are in the carrier allows you to take fewer/shorter breaks on the trail and can reduce the stress of trying to make it back to the car before they start crying from hunger. If you have a shorter torso like me, this may require a few strap adjustments and loosening, just be sure your kiddo is still secure and in a healthy position in your carrier.
Quality carriers can be pricey, but they last for a long time. Seek out some gently used options at your local babywearing store, on Facebook Marketplace, and even from family members and friends. For framed hiking packs, ask your local outdoor retailer if they have any used ones available. I often see them in the certified used section at my local REI.
The Right Carrier is the One that Works for You
There is no one “right” carrier that works for everyone. It may take some trial and error to find what works best for your family, but it is so worth the time and effort! We hope this information will take some of the guesswork out of finding a mode of transportation for your kiddo on the trail. Because time in nature from an early age is so beneficial for creating lasting family memories and an appreciation for the environment, it shouldn’t require you to be uncomfortable in the process.
Guide for Choosing a Hiking Carrier
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