Tips for your first backpacking trip with a baby

Guestpost by Elka Karl on Aug 5th

This past weekend, my husband and I took our five-month-old son Uli on his first backpacking trip to the Desolation Wilderness in California's northern Sierra Nevada. This was our first backpacking trip since I was pregnant, and we were eager to take our little one out into the wild — perhaps a little bit too eager, actually.

While our trip was absolutely wonderful and went off without (hardly) a hitch, there were some things that I'd wished I'd known beforehand. So, if you're planning on possibly taking your kiddo into the great outdoors on your back, check out my list of Dos and Don'ts to make sure you're on the right track.

Do:

  • Practice beforehand.

For a few weeks before we went on our trip, I put Uli in a baby backpack and took him on excursions for anywhere from half an hour to three hours at a time to get him ready for our trip. However, I used a smaller backpack than the Kelty one we used on the trip. This was a mistake! The Kelty had a lot less stability in the seat for Uli, and we ended up stuffing clothing around him, innertube-like, to keep him comfortable on the trip.

  • Underestimate your abilities.

We chose a route that seemed to be easy enough: 4 ½ miles with about 1500 feet of elevation gain. However, when you're nursing a baby every hour to prevent altitude sickness, those 4 ½ miles can stretch into hours upon hours of trail time. Consider going for a milder trip, and cut your mileage down to about three for your first backpacking trip with the babe.

Since we use elimination communication part of the time with Uli, we were able to reduce the number of cloth diapers we took along with us, since Uli did his business in the woods whenever we took him out of the pack. The little guy pooped three times on the first day, which meant three less poopy diapers to carry.

  • Bring your pup, and his backpack.

Dogs are great for hauling poopy diapers, dirty clothes, and garbage accumulated over the trip. Uli was also endlessly entertained by our dogs during the trip. Peter, my husband, also pointed out that having dogs around a campsite (even if they're in the tent at night, like ours were) can prevent wildlife from entering the site and chewing up clothes, boots, and packs that are tempting, salty treats for forest critters.

  • Think about camping before backpacking.

That was our original plan, but because of an overbooked campground, we made a last minute decision to go backpacking instead. While it worked out fine, I was nervous for at least the first 18 hours of the trip. It would've been nice to know how Uli would react to sleeping in a tent and being outdoors for a sustained period of time before we were miles away from civilization.

  • Stay hydrated!

If you're breastfeeding, you will be unbelievably thirsty when you're backpacking. I was parched on this trip, in part because there was no body of water from which we could pump water between our car and our camping space. This meant I had to ration out the water I did have. Everything was fine in the end, but I did get dehydrated during the day, and I was definitely uncomfortable.

  • Interact with your wee one, even if you can't see him.

As we hiked, I talked and sang to Uli, and chattered to him about the landscape we were moving through. Uli was completely blissed out for most of the trip, and any time he fussed, I would ask Peter to check in on him.

Don't:

  • Overpack.

Granted, you want to take enough clothing to keep your baby warm at night, and enough diapers to keep her bottom from getting chafed and soggy. But here's the thing: you will likely need less of everything than you think. Before you get on the trail, take a look at your supplies and cut down anything you think might be extraneous. For instance, I took out a few cloth diapers, an extra t-shirt, and another pair of pants (the little guy didn't even need pants for most of the trip). However, I did make sure to pack natural bug dope, baby sunscreen, and a fleece snowsuit and hat.

  • Forget your hiking poles.

Since you have a precious babe on your back, you'll have to move and maneuver in ways you didn't have to when you were carrying a pack. Hiking poles can take the guesswork out of precarious boulders and tough terrain, all the while keeping your little one happy and safe.

  • Use disposable diapers.

Used disposables will get heavy to carry, since they retain all of the moisture from your babe. Instead, try using AIO diapers. We used FuzziBunz on the trip, and could reuse the covers and inner pad as long as Uli just peed in them. During the day, we draped pee diapers on the back of the pack to dry out.

  • Bring toys.

At least, that is, if your guy is as young as ours is. He was so happy to simply watch the dogs, his parents, and the awesome views that he needed nothing else to keep him happy.

  • Refuse help.

Initially I was carrying Uli, my clothes, Uli's clothes and diapers, snacks and water, and my sleeping bag and thermarest. Peter offered to take the sleeping bag, and that helped a lot in terms of balancing my pack and taking a little bit of weight off of my back (I was carrying about 45 pounds).

  • Risk altitude sickness.

I nursed Uli every hour to keep him hydrated and avoid altitude sickness. Since babies can't tell you exactly how poorly they feel, it's up to mama and papa to keep the wee ones healthy, especially at elevation. For safety's sake, on this first trip stay we stayed at or around 8000 ft elevation or below.

  • Forget to enjoy every moment!

Even when you're out of breath, sweating buckets, and trying to soothe a crying baby as you're slogging up a switchback, try to smile through the discomfort. Years later, you can tell your little nature-obsessed adolescent that her love of the great outdoors can be traced back to a babyhood spent in a backpack.

About half a mile from the trailhead on the way back from the trip, I stepped off the trail to let a fast-hiking backpacker dude pass us. "Wow," he said. "You brought your baby? With parents like you, your kid's going to have an awesome life!" With that comment alone, my sore back, chafed hips, and sunburned arms were all but forgotten.

Was this trip hard? Absolutely. But would I do it again? In a heartbeat.

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About Elka Karl

Elka Karl loves going on adventures with her baby, husband, and dogs. When she's not backpacking, hiking, or concocting ridiculous craft projects, she's blogging about home and garden trends to pay the bills and working on a handful of book proposals. She really loves to watch her son Uli talk to the trees (the crazy little hippie) as they walk through their Berkeley, CA, hood. Elka has previously written on Offbeat Mama about having diabetes while pregnant.