Ideas for Backpacking with an Infant or Toddler

When we decided we were ready for a family one thing stuck in our mind more than anything else.  We weren’t going to let parenthood change us into some boring, lazy, unadventurous people.  We were going to continue living our lives doing exactly what we have always done.  The only difference was now we’d be bringing a little one along with us.

Literally, the very week our son Bodhi was born we were out hiking; him tagging along with us in our trusty Ergo-baby chest pack.  Of course, the hikes started out short, a couple miles here and there, but nevertheless, he was bouncing along right there with us.  A week later, we were taking him out on climbing trips with us.  A month after that, we were already planning a 2 month long road trip around the country where we would be living out of our tent from state to state.  All the situations we introduced Bodhi to from the beginning have greatly influenced the outcomes of what we are able to do with him today, and let me tell you what- this kid is stoked!

Nearly 2 years later, and with well over 100 miles packing him under our belts, we felt he was finally ready to start backpacking.  Here are some tips and pointers that have worked for us:

  • Keep it fun-  Perhaps the most important tip of all.  First, one thing that is good to remember is that we, parents, are the ones with the destination.  The kids are the ones along for the ride, or what I like to call, the adventure.  So, if they want to stop and play with some sticks and rocks, let them stop and play with the sticks and rocks.  My husband is really good at this step and has an endless amount of patience.  I, on the other hand, have had to make huge adjustments.  He likes to tell me, “It is not a race!” and I have to stop, remind myself that I am not competing with anyone, kick back and enjoy watching Bodhi explore on his own- at his own pace.  We don’t bring any man made toys with us, but we definitely encourage him to play in Mother Nature’s toy box.  Throwing rocks, building forts, shoot..even a head lamp or empty sleeping bag sack will do.  We have noticed that merely being out in nature and getting dirty is as good as it gets.
  • Be patient and persistent-  Each child is different, each situation is different, and every day is different.  You just take one step at a time.  There are days where Bodhi will easily hike 2+ miles on his own (he’s not even 2) and then there are days where he won’t even walk down the street before he’s ready to give up.  We just do our best to encourage him to keep moving forward, and no matter what, we never give up!  Persistence is everything and if you’re making an effort to keep them moving every day your efforts will surely pay off.
  • Don’t be afraid of the “what-if’s”- Everyone gets those thoughts in their mind:  “What if its cold?” or “What if he/she doesn’t sleep well out of his crib?”  Well, my best advice for that is this:  You do it anyway!  You get through it and you ALL learn!  We never knew how any our of trips would go, or whether or not Bodhi would cooperate and be happy the entire time, but we did it anyways.  We’ve learned a great deal about what we are capable of doing with him and how hard we can push him, and in doing so, Bodhi has learned and has adjusted to what life is like on the trails.  Nature quickly became his happy place, and these days, it is where he would rather be.
  • Start them young-  Our thinking was this; if we started bringing Bodhi along with us on all of our adventures from the beginning, he wouldn’t know anything different.  He would be so used to being toted along from place to place it would become second nature to him.  For the most part this has turned out to be true.  Sure, they will have their moments where they momentarily feel like, “this sucks!”.  I think we can all relate to that.  However, all of us know, the outcome is the biggest reward.  John Muir puts it best when he says, “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.”
  • Bring good gear-  Almost as crucial as making the experience fun is supporting the journey with good gear.  This will allow the child to be happy and more comfortable, thus, go further, longer.  Some very awesome gear investments we’ve made so far are:
  • Good hiking boots–  I looked around everywhere for name brand boots and was unable to size a toddler size 4 or 5.  “What 1 year old is hiking anyways?”  Ours was and hopefully yours will be too!  I ended up finding an awesome pair at Target that resembled the classic old-school brown leather red-laced mountaineering boots.  They have great support, awesome traction, and seem to be very comfortable as he never wants to take them off.  If you are lucky enough to find a tiny pair of children’s merino wool socks, this would be a great idea too!
  • Patagonia capilene base layers–  Boy-o-boy have we put some good use to these.  Patagonia’s kids apparel typically runs big, so our 18 month size base layers will last us a year before we need to get a bigger size.  They keep him warm used as layers when its cold, and they keep him cool when used as a sun-protecting base layer when its hot.
  • Patagonia down jacket–  This has by far been the most used and beneficial item we have ever purchased for Bodhi.  Good for all seasons, this jacket gets you through cool and very cold days and nights.  It may seem hard to justify spending over $100 on a toddler jacket knowing they are just going to grow out of it, but I assure you, it will more than pay for itself with all of the use!
  • Sun hat!– Very important.  We purchased the Outdoor Research youth’s Rambler Sombrero and it is awesome!!
  • Sleeping bag/ sleeping pad–  Whatever you can find and are willing to carry.  Anything will work.  After allowing your kid to pump out a couple miles on the trail they are so tired that they will sleep happily on rocks.  A sleeping pad is cloud nine.

With all of that said, we have learned these tricks through trial and error.  They may not work for everyone and there is always much more to learn along the way.  The most important thing is that you get out there and experience life on the trails as a family for yourselves.  Don’t let the intimidation of the unknown stop you from pursuing your dreams, because in the end it is all just another epic adventure!

Bodhi's first hike at 5 days old.
Bodhi’s first hike at 5 days old.
Decending into the Owens River Gorge to climb
Decending into the Owens River Gorge
Home for the night and our million dollar view
Home for the night with a million dollar view
Patagonia down jacket.
Patagonia down jacket.
Hiking along the iconic Pacific Crest Trail
Hiking along the iconic Pacific Crest Trail

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8-10 miles into the backcountry at Garnet Lake
8-10 miles into the backcountry at Garnet Lake
Our longest hike to date.  20 miles round trip to Thousand Island Lake.
Our longest hike to date with Bodhi. 20 miles round trip to Thousand Island Lake.

11 thoughts on “Ideas for Backpacking with an Infant or Toddler

    1. Thank you so much, Tiare! I really appreciate your sweet words and so glad to hear someone enjoyed this blog! It was so fun to write. 💚

  1. Hey there, I commented on IG, but had to say thanks again! Absolutely loved it and psyched for our first overnight hiking/camping trip with both girls next month! Such an inspiration 🙂

    1. Thank you so much, Natasha! Thank YOU for inspiring me to write this!! If in the future you find anything else you would like to know about, please let me know. I am open to all kinds of ideas for new blog topics. xoxo

  2. Hi Shannon,

    Thank you so much for this encouraging post! And now I have a new blog to follow, as well.

    My husband and I and our 14 month old daughter are about to take off for a 2 month adventure in Mexico. We will be “backpacking” and doing some backpacking – though sleeping in rustic cabins along the trail.

    I am so grateful for your product recommendations and will definitely be getting some more capilene base layers (I got a bodysuit to keep her warm and provide sun protecting in the water but didn’t even consider their insulation against the cold).

    A quick question: can you tell me what backpack you are using to carry Bodhi with in the second picture of your post (as seen on Kammok)? Or your recommendations for a kid carrier/backpack in general? We use the Ergo baby carrier all the time but on longer hikes I think Dorothy (our gal) is getting more and more squished and less amenable.

    I just sewed a sleep sack made of thick cotton interlock, down filling, and lined with cotton fleece that serves as our LO’s sleeping bag. She was plenty warm camping in 40 degree nighttime temps. I’d be happy to share my tutorial and fabric choices if you or your readers might be interested.

    Many, many thanks again for the great information!
    Sarah

    1. Hi Sarah! Thank you so much for your lovely response I appreciate it dearly.

      We use the Osprey Poco Premium child carrier. I have used many and Osprey’s is by far the best. Not only because it is the lightest in weight, but because of all of the many features of the pack: detachable day pack, expandable sunshade, changing pad insert, storage, and most important, comfort! You cannot go wrong with this pack.

      Your sleeping bag design sounds awesome! If you are interested, please email me your tutorial and info and I would love to share it on my blog!
      shannbenntt@gmail.com

      Thanks again for your lovely words!

      Best,
      Shannon

    1. Hi Travis,

      Congratulations on the upcoming baby! How exciting! Cloth diapers are great. There are so few options of any kind where we live, that when it came to shopping locally for diapers, we only had one option..disposable. However, I have many friends that did go the cloth route and they love them! There are definitely pros and cons to both.
      I’ll start with what I know best. Disposable. Pros for me are that I can buy them at either of the only 2 markets in town 🙂 We also don’t have to worry about washing diaper inserts, waiting for them to dry, or having to pack wet inserts. We can get moving a lot quicker and cover more milage. I will definitely put an emphasis on that point. We have only done over night backpacking trips so far, but we’ve been able to cover 20 miles in just two days with out toddler. Cons: They are expensive, produce a lot of trash, and I have to pack them in and out of the backcountry. However, we’ve dealt with this proficiently on our backcountry trips by rolling them up very very tight, and putting them into a gallon zip lock back along with other trash. The first year of their lives they go through a lot of diapers. It gets easier and easier after that.
      What I know about cloth is that they are much less expensive due to the lack of waste. Reusable is always best. I have heard about these awesome plastic inserts for cloth diapers that are great for backpacking. You simply dispose of the mess as you would your own, rinse the plastic insert (perhaps with some biodegradable soap), dry it, and get on your way. There is definitely some down time with this, but if you are not trying to get anywhere fast, this is great. There is no stinky waste or extra weight in your pack. Sounds awesome and I wish I had known about this 2 years ago.
      Fortunately, my son is nearly out of diapers now, but we will definitely be looking for these in the next couple of months before my daughter is born. I would definitely try and consider both and see what works best for you guys!
      Hope that helps 🙂

      Best,
      Shannon

  3. Just stumbled upon your blog and im in love! You are an inspriation!! I aspire to raise my daughter like this too! Cheers from oz x

  4. Hello! I don’t remember now, how exactly I ended up following you on Instagram, but despite not knowing you personally, really enjoyed seeing your photos in my feed as I was pregnant and not sure how my outdoor life was about to change, and now, as the ever-more-trekking mom of four-month-old Otis. You’re part of an important niche of outdoor women and mothers. REPRESENT!!

    I wanted to comment mostly to really encourage these gear-type posts. I think a big barrier to significant wilderness play/exercise for adults with kids is the sheer volume of gear out there, and doing all the research and making all the decisions about what to buy, down to the tiniest hiking sock. I trust your recommendations because of your obvious experience, and even though we are in Hawaii, in an entirely opposite climate for the most part, your product recommendations have made things easy for me in some areas (KidCo Peapod, Osprey Poco Premium, OR Sombrero, Patagonia capilenes…).

    I read some NYtimes article a while back about the science showing the physical toll of decision-making– basically, we sometimes find ourselves inexplicably exhausted at the end of the day because of how many decisions we had to make that day, down to the tiniest and most insignificant detail. As I remember (and I suppose I could be making some of this up) the article recommended, first, being aware of your day’s structure to reduce decision fatigue (don’t load everything on one day); second, using lists, etc. for food shopping to reduce decision load in the market; and three (I’m certain about this part!), delegation and trust– not attempting to be an expert on every area of necessary gear for life aka trusting your friend who’s an avid free-diver, to get you going with what you need. Or YOU– our mega-mountaineer!

    Lastly, for those of us in the AMAZING but isolated rural areas of the U.S. with no access to big outdoor stores like REI, your recommendations, down to the smallest item, are even more crucial– we can’t browse from a reasonable selection, so we’re just stuck in Amazon hell (can I say “hell” on here?).

    Ha. Hmm. I guess I’ve made my point. If you’re so inclined, please go crazy (and uber-specific) on the gear lists, both for yourself and for the little ones, now and as they grow up. I guarantee there are many more thousands out there looking for the same thing.

    Also, a BIG THANK YOU for sharing a bit of your life! It’s not a small thing, to open up to the world.

    Best to you and yours–
    Jubilee

    1. Hahaha “Amazon Hell”.. I literally laughed out loud!!
      Thank you so much for your kind response. I really appreciate your words and I really want to thank you for motivating me to write more. I hear what you are saying and I am in. I, too, live in an area where there are ZERO places to shop, so I know first hand about the online shopping hell (yes, its ok to say that) that is super overwhelming especially if you don’t know what you are looking for! Ive acquired some things lately (for me and my kids) that I’d love to brag about, so thanks for giving me a reason to do that. Again, I really appreciate it. I also really enjoyed your response 🙂 it was highly entertaining!
      I will definitely get on it, Jubilee, and when I do, know it’s meant for you! xo

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