Is it crazy to take an infant or a toddler on a wilderness backpacking expedition? Per mile, it’s definitely more work than the adults-only version. Per day, it’s actually more relaxed. Outdoor adventure is magical at any age – it’s even better when you’re still young enough to get carried from place to place! With a little preparation, this holds true even for extended journeys through storms, bugs, bushwhacking, and all the other hassles and hazards of the wilderness.
On request, I thought I’d do a post that covered a bit more of the “how-to” of trekking and backpacking with a toddler – at least what we’ve figured out so far. Gear listed is what we took on our most recent month-long expedition to the arctic with our 18 month old son. Infant gear isn’t covered in detail here, but we found traveling with an infant to be much the same as with a toddler, only simpler.
Reducing your gear weight, always a good idea, becomes even more important when you’re trying to fit more people’s stuff in a smaller space, and carrying a kid to boot. We carry around 30 pounds of gear (not counting food, water, or clothing that’s being worn) for the 3 of us – 5 pounds for the person carrying the kid, and 25 pounds in the other adult’s pack. Food and water can easily bring that total up to 60 pounds on a week-long leg. For winter (and when baby #2 shows up), we’ll need more. If you’re hiking in a less inclement environment or are less of a photo geek, you’ll need less. Our gear list includes a number of things (water bottles, cameras, etc…) that don’t change much with a kid along, and aren’t specifically listed below.
I’m listing all weights for total family gear rather than individual packweights, since carrying the kid pretty much requires that the gear will be split unevenly.
- Large frameless pack from Mountain Laurel Designs: 1lb, 2oz
- 2 homemade front pouches: 3oz each
- wrap for carrying the kid: 10.5 oz
- Total = 2lb, 2.5oz
How to Use It
I’ll start with packing, since this is the crux of going out with a baby or toddler. How on earth do you carry everything and carry the kid as well? I carry him on my back, while Hig carries the bulk of the gear in one large pack. We prefer frameless packs, even for fairly heavy loads. They take more care to pack well, but are lighter. In order to try and fit a little bit more stuff, we each have front pouches that clipped onto the pack straps (for Hig) and clipped onto the loops sewn onto the baby-carrying wrap (for me).
A wrap is basically a long rectangular piece of cloth that can be wrapped in various ways to hold a baby. It has the advantage of being very simple, very light, and keeping the weight of the kid close to the parent’s body. Many of the available versions are made of heavy cotton that would be awful when wet. So we made one ourselves out of very very light cotton fabric, similar to cotton gauze. Of all the many ways to carry a kid with a wrap, I used a “rucksack tied in front” carry. This ends up resembling a backpack with shoulder straps and a tie around the waist or under the ribs. We attached a series of small string loops to the part of the wrap that usually ended up on my shoulders, so I could clip on the front pouch to carry more gear.
Now what to do to make sure everyone stays happy and we actually get where we’re going? At 18 months old, we found that while Katmai was awake, a schedule of 1-2 hrs of walking followed by an hour or so of playtime worked best (if he was napping on my back, we just kept walking). We did coax him along further if it wasn’t an appropriate stopping spot, or the weather was terrible. We were usually out for 12 hrs per day from camp to camp, but only actually traveling about half that time.
Keeping him entertained while on my back involved lots of talking to him about what we were seeing. He loved pointing out trash on the beach, we looked for birds and mushrooms, and we played a lot of the “I see” game, where he listed everything he could see. It also helped him to have a small car (hot wheels size) he could hold onto and vroom on my shoulder. I carried a sippy cup and some pilot bread crackers in my front pouch, so I could give him water or a snack without stopping. When he got sick of the scenery, we often sung “Old MacDonald” to him.
A soft carrier like a wrap doesn’t have any inherent storage capacity, so all the other gear has to be carried in a separate pouch or in the other parent’s pack. A wrap has a bit of a learning curve to figure out how to wear it comfortably.
When Katmai was a baby, we carried him on the front (also in a wrap), allowing both adults to carry packs. When I wasn’t 6 months pregnant, I was also able to carry a significant amount of gear in a oversized fanny pack (lumbar pack) that sat beneath Katmai on my back. Many people use baby backpacks, which have the advantage that they have some space to carry stuff as well as the kid. But they’re huge, bulky, and heavy (usually at least 5lbs, compared to 1lb for a wrap). They don’t hold the kid close to your body, which makes it much harder to maneuver through brush without whacking them, and means that the weight is not carried as well. There are other kinds of carriers that hold the kid close, such as mei-tai and Ergo-type carriers. These might have a shorter learning curve than a wrap, but often are made out of heavy cotton that would tend to get soaked easily. Another option is to use the Eskimo style method of just wearing the kid under your coat – no carrier required. I saw people doing this all over the arctic, and it would work great in cold weather, but I’ve yet to figure it out myself!
- 4 g-diapers cloth outsides: 7.5oz
- 8 g-diapers plastic liners: 3oz
- 4 or 5 g-diapers compostable inserts per day: 4.5oz/day, 2lbs/week
- 20 small cloth wipes: 1.5oz
- Total for one week = 2lb, 11.5oz
How to Use It
We actually use gDiapers all the time at home as well, but they’re a perfect solution for backpacking. Basically, the idea is that you have a hybrid system, where the outside of the diaper is reusable cloth, but the inner part is a compostable paper pad. So rather than carrying out dirty diapers, you can simply burn the dirty pads in a campfire, or compost them in a hole like you would do for adult waste. The cloth outsides rarely get dirty. The plastic liners frequently get dirty, but are very easy to rinse, even in the field. We did a little bit of handwashing of the cloth and plastic parts in the field with a little bit of biodegradable soap we brought along, but mostly were able to make it to town (every week or so) to do laundry there.
The cloth outsides are heavy cotton, and not quick drying. So when they do need to be washed (not often), or when the kid sits in a stream (hopefully not often), they take a while to dry.
Disposable diapers are simpler, but would all have to be hauled out. Cloth diapers could be reused, but would all need to be handwashed, and would take a long time to dry.
- Adult setup: one-piece fleece suit homemade: 1lb 2oz, synthetic T-shirt: 4.5oz, synthetic poofy top: 11oz, rain coat (modified to wear over kid): 14oz, rain pants: 10oz, hat and gloves: 7oz, 2 pairs socks: 6oz, trail-running shoes: 1lb 14oz.
- Total for one adult = 6lb, 4.5oz
- Toddler setup: one-piece fleece suit 11.5oz, long-sleeve synthetic T-shirt: 2.5oz, fleece pants and sweatshirt: 8.5oz, synthetic poofy vest: 5oz, rain coat and pants: 9oz, water-resistant sun hat: 1.5oz, 3 pairs wool socks: 4oz, homemade neoprene booties: 4.5oz.
- Total for toddler = 2lb, 14.5oz
- Total for family = 15lb, 7.5oz (including both worn and packed clothing)
How to Use It
Our clothing setup is primarily designed to deal well with cold and wet weather. Therefore, we use fleece (which drains quickly and stays warm when wet) as the first layer of insulation for both adults and kids. A synthetic puffy top adds additional lightweight warmth for the cold, and breathable raingear keeps most of the water out. We don’t bring any changes of clothing for the adults, other than a dry pair of socks to sleep in. It minimizes weight, and when we’re cold, we wear everything. We did bring two full fleece sets for the toddler (one sweatshirt and pants, one one-piece suit) as well as extra socks, since he’s much more likely to sit in a stream than an adult, and won’t be kept warm by walking. His fleece suit was big enough to go over the top of his other clothes, and the raingear was big enough to go over the top of that, so we could bundle him up in everything if necessary.
The toddler’s fleece suit had pockets to fold over his hands, which we used in maximum cold. He had a thin long-sleeved shirt that could keep the sun off him in warmer weather, as well as a wide-brimmed hat (which also kept most of the bugs off). We use sneaker-style non-waterproof shoes for adults, but brought waterproof ones for the kid (he’s not walking enough to keep his feet warm). All the rubber boots we found were too heavy and clunky for a small toddler, so Hig constructed a homemade version out of neoprene.
I’m a small to medium woman, but use a men’s large raincoat when backpacking with a toddler. A slit cut in the back allows his head (and arms if he insists) to poke through, and allows me to put him under the coat in inclement weather.
Our fleece layer for adults was a one-piece fleece suit, which is weight efficient, but ended up being too awkward to change into and out of with a kid on my back. Cutting a slit in the back of my raincoat meant that more water leaked in, whether or not the kid was underneath it. Standard commercial waterproof/breathable raingear always has a short lifespan, and leaks are inevitable. Katmai’s neoprene booties are not commercially available.
Standard rubber boots could work for a toddler old enough to fit into them, and no boots at all are needed for a non-walking baby. Gloves would be good for a toddler old enough to wear them, to aid in playing at cold stops. In warmer weather, shorts might be necessary.
Sleeping Gear (co-sleeping)
- Bag: homemade synthetic half bag with mosquito netting fringe: 1lb 13.5oz
- Pads: two 3/4 length thermarest ultralight pads: 13oz each
- Quilt: homemade down quilt: 1lb, 8oz
- Total = 5lbs
How to Use It
We use one big family sleeping bag for all three of us, with the parents on the outside and the kid in the middle. In inclement weather, the kid stays the warmest of anyone. Our bag is a home-modified half-bag, meaning that it has normal sleeping bag insulation on the top (synthetic), but only a thin nylon sheet on the bottom, making it much lighter than a full bag of the same size. The thermarest sleeping pads provide the bottom insulation. The toddler doesn’t get his own sleeping pad at this point – he’s light enough not to need one – but we pile extra gear for him to sleep on under the bag between the adult pads. On the top edge of the sleeping bag, we’ve stitched a fringe of mosquito netting to protect us all from the bugs. In weather conditions that are marginal for the weight of our synthetic bag, we bring a lightweight down quilt (much smaller than the bag) and use it inside the main bag for a little extra insulation boost.
With three people in a bag wiggling around, air gaps between us were somewhat inevitable – making the bag less warm than it is for two people snuggling close. Katmai often crawled partway or completely out of the bag in his sleep, and objected to the mosquito netting unless we put it over him after he fell asleep. There’s no commercial bag that fits three – you have to make or modify your own. And of course, putting a toddler to sleep can be a problem wherever you are! We tried to maintain some consistency between the home and backpacking bedtime routine.
Especially if you’re not used to sleeping together, separate bags might be easier, either for the kid or for all three people. It would prevent squishing, and allow people to move around freely. It would almost certainly be a heavier solution, however. With a bug-proof shelter, the mosquito netting on the bag wouldn’t be necessary.
How to Use It
Our shelter is an 8 foot by 8 foot pyramid, and made of a single layer of silnylon. This is incredibly light for the space, and easily provides room for all 3 of us plus gear, plus a little room for Katmai to play inside. But it requires a bit more thought to use than a heavier tent. No poles are included, but it requires a center pole for setup, so we use the raft paddle (a long stick or tied together trekking poles also work). The corners and sides have strings that must be staked out – we use rocks and sticks as stakes. It doesn’t have a floor, so we use the packraft as a groundcloth on wet ground. Without a floor, it does not completely seal from insects, so we put mosquito netting on our sleeping bag.
A pyramid shelter is super convenient for packrafters, because you’re always carrying a long pole and a waterproof groundcloth already. Without that, it’s a little less convenient. The single-wall design makes it more susceptible to letting some water in in severe storms. And bugs will get in, so a separate bug solution is required.
For weight and space, it’s hard to beat a pyramid shelter. But there are more and more lightweight tents coming out all the time. Backpacking Light is a good place to look for reviews and info about lightweight hiking gear.
- Food per day: 5lbs (2 adults + 1 toddler, including a pregnant mom)
- Cookpot: 7oz
- Steripen water purifier: 4oz
- Total for one week = 35lb
How to Use It
The 5lbs of food per person per day was more than we needed. On an earlier trip we brought 4lbs per day, which wasn’t quite enough. Toddlers need around 1200 calories/day according to the info I read, around half of a normal adult intake (a backpacking adult will eat more), even though they seem very small. Our food is usually a mix of dry stuff to cook over the fire, and snacks. Snacks included chocolate, cookies, dried fruit, chips, pilot bread crackers, peanut butter, cheese, and smoked salmon. We found that to really get much food into our toddler, the cooked meals were the best. Oats with berries (picked fresh on the tundra) was the biggest hit, closely followed by minute rice with dried veggies, butter, and cheese. We also carried spaghetti, dried instant beans, instant mashed potatoes, and spices. While our kid is certainly old enough to feed himself, we fed him quite a bit on the trip trying to minimize waste, mess, and burned mouths. Even so, without clothing changes, his clothes could get messy at mealtimes – feeding him in raingear helped a lot (we could sponge it off easily).
Our 18 month old was still nursing on our most recent trip, but getting very little milk due to my pregnancy. On earlier expeditions, mother’s milk was a much larger percentage of his diet.
We’re more cavalier about water treatment for adults, but with a kid along, we treated all our water with a steripen purifier, which uses UV light to sterilize water in a nalgene (or other wide mouth) bottle. It’s the lightest non-chemical option we’ve found, and seems to work well. To allow him to drink while we’re walking, we brought a sippy cup as well as our normal waterbottles.
When aiming for a diet high in calories but low in weight, we find some amount of junk food is inevitable. We just decided to let the kid eat more junk than usual, though we did still limit him. We’ve had 2 copies of the steripen – one worked well, and one had some sort of manufacturing flaw that made it finicky. Good to test it before the trip.
In a place where fires are not allowed or not practical, some sort of cookstove might be necessary. A separate bowl and spoon for the kid might be nice, but would also be messier.
- Double-duck packraft from Alpacka Raft: 5lbs, 11oz
- 3-piece kayak paddle: 1lb, 7oz
- infant life vest: 8.5oz
- Total = 7lbs, 10.5oz
How to Use It
The double-duck packraft is designed for two people, and it can fit all 3 of us as well as a week or so of gear. We sit face to face in the raft, with one adult holding the kid, and the other adult paddling. The pack is strapped onto the back of the boat (behind the paddler). We usually put some of our gear beneath the inflatable seats to lift us up higher, which makes more leg room in the boat. Though single-person packrafts are capable of running heavy whitewater, the family system is suitable only for fairly mellow conditions. Given that we’re only running in mellow conditions, we skip the life vest for adults, and only bring one for the toddler.
Keeping a toddler entertained in the boat (and not wriggling over the side) was often a challenge, and having one parent dedicated to keeping hold of him was critical. He really really wanted to paddle the boat himself, and go visit every beach, so distractions were key. Playing with a small toy car, playing with the zipper on my coat, or eating snacks all worked well, as well as the same sort of looking at and talking about our surroundings we did while walking.
Compared to the one-person Alpacka packrafts, the two person version was slower to paddle and more prone to letting waves over the side. It would probably be difficult to all fit in one raft for extended periods of time if the two adults were particularly large, or if the kid was older than a toddler.
You can go somewhere where a raft isn’t necessary (harder in AK). With a younger baby, a parent can wear them while paddling a single person packraft. That’s also only good for mellow water, since swimming while wearing a kid is quite difficult. We’re still brainstorming ideas for packrafting with two kids – check back next summer for that!