After having my first child I was itching to get back on the trail. For your own sanity it’s nice to get back into your normal routine after having a baby. My parents love babysitting my son, but I really wanted to find a way to get my son onto the trail. At our 4 month checkup we decided it was time to ask our doctor when it would be safe to take our son on a hike and start looking into baby carrier backpacks.
What age can a baby go in a hiking backpack? You can use a baby carrier hiking backpack at 6 months when your child can sit up on their own. If your child can sit in a high chair they’re ready to use a baby carrier pack. With younger infants you should use a front carrier with improved head support. I also recommend using trekking poles with a front carrier since it’s harder to look at your feet and get a feel for the trail.
So it’s generally safe to take an infant on a hike, but there’s a serious learning curve you’ll need to get over. You need to keep your baby safe while still being able to carry the gear needed for a hike. I’ll give you a brief overview of the different packs you’ll need based on age and then go into further detail to determine if your child is ready for a hiking backpack below.
When Can I Use A Hiking Carrier? It Depends!
Let me start by differentiating between the two types of carriers. You have the swaddle style carriers like the Moby Wrap that are designed for newborns (under 6 months). These offer head support for newborns and would be used with a traditional hiking pack.
Then you have the traditional hiking carriers that go on your back like the Osprey Poco Plus (my favorite carrier). These are the types of carriers that most people talk about when discussing baby hiking carriers. You can use one of these packs when your baby is old enough to support the weight of their head(usually 6 months). Here are a few considerations before moving to a traditional carrier.
- Need to be able to sit up unassisted for extended periods of time. A child can usually support their neck and sit before they’re strong enough to pull up on their own. If your child can sit in a high chair, they should be able to handle a carrier.
- Has good head and neck control. There’s a big difference between sitting in a stable high chair and bouncing around in a carrier. I recommend waiting a few weeks after sitting up so they can build strength in their neck muscles/tendons.
- Look at weight requirements for the specific carrier. This is more for the tail end of your baby carriers lifespan. Most packs have a total load capacity of 35-40lbs so you’ll need to ditch the carrier at the 3-4 year mark. Toddlers will be ready to hike a mile or so at the 2 year old mark. Use the carrier to build up endurance until they’re strong enough to keep up on their own.
Front Carriers For Newborns (Under 6 Months)
I’ll start off by separating into two groups. With newborns you will need a front carrier like the Moby Wrap and a regular day pack to carry diapers, bottles, etc. With my second son, I switched over to the BABYBJÖRN Baby Carrier with headrest, because it was more comfortable and easier to use.
Plan on short 1-2 hour hikes to get back into the swing of things and at 6 months you can start looking into overnight trips. For my own sanity I decided to keep our hikes short so I would be able to make it back to my car at a moments notice.
I highly recommend using trekking poles when using a front carrier. It’s hard to see where you’re stepping when trying to navigate difficult terrain. Trekking poles give you added stability when stepping over roots and trying to navigate through mud.
Baby Carrier Hiking Backpacks (Over 6 Months)
Most children can start using a child carrier backpack when they can start sitting up on their own and supporting their head. After trying what seemed like every single baby carrier pack on the market, I eventually settled on the Osprey Poco Plus Child Carrier. I really like that it included the sun shade, but you might want to pick up a child carrier raincover as well.
Osprey and Deuter make comparably priced packs, but the Osprey seemed far more comfortable and had extra pack space. My Osprey pack fits just like a regular hiking backpack and the mesh back is surprisingly comfortable in the hot summer sun. I really like that you can adjust the carrier position as the child ages.
The Deuter packs all seemed to have a higher center of gravity and I prefer to have most of the weight near my hips. Osprey just seemed to have a better suspension system compared to everything else I tried. Kelty packs were nice from a suspension standpoint, but gear is stored behind the child. That’s great from a convenience standpoint, but would pull the center of gravity away from your back making it awkward to carry.
Just remember that most of the child carriers are rated to about 40lbs of total pack weight so your kid will quickly outgrow them. Don’t plan on using the pack after your kids about 3 years old or about 35lbs. My son had to get booted out of the carrier at around 3.5.
We ended up getting a Freeloader Carrier that’s designed for larger 40-80lb kids to use on longer overnight trips, but he could handle a few miles on his own. There were a few times where I needed to carry him by hand, but he was usually good to go after a quick play break.
What Age Can a Baby Go In a Hiking Backpack? How Do I Know If They’re Ready?
As a general rule, most kids will be ready to go in a hiking backpack around the 6 month mark. That’s when they should start being able to support their bodyweight and hold their head up for extended periods. Especially active babies might be able to start holding their heads up at 3 months, but that’s usually for a few minutes at a time.
Don’t jump to the carrier too fast! It’s better to use a forward carrier for longer than your child needs so they have enough head support. Using a forward carrier for a few extra months is much better than risking your child’s safety.
It takes a while to realize that newborns aren’t as fragile as we think, but we’ve all been warned about shaken baby syndrome. You don’t want their heads flopping around in your pack. The occasional jerk or bounce likely won’t hurt them, but bouncing around on a trail is much different than holding up your head in a stable high chair. It’s better to wait 1-2 extra months until the muscles/tendons are developed so there’s no risk of injury.
Wait Until They Can Use a High Chair
Our doctor gave us a simple recommendation when we asked about using hiking baby carriers. She told us to wait until our son was comfortable using a high chair. He was a little wobbly at first but after a few weeks he was sitting up on his own without needing support.
This ended up being right around the 6 month mark, which happens to be the point most baby carrier manufacturers recommend. It took a few weeks to pick out the Osprey Poco Plus Child Carrier and by then he had no issues supporting his own weight in the pack.
He was scared at first, but after a few minutes on the trail he was smiling from ear to ear. It was expensive, but that pack was worth every penny we spent. We finally felt like we were back to our normal lives again!
Hiking With Your Baby Is Great For Postpartum Depression
Our doctor was excited when we told her that we were planning on taking our son on his first hike. At 4 months he was a little young to go in a hiking carrier on his own, but she was excited that we were trying to get back into normal activities.
Looking back we didn’t recognize most of the warning signs of postpartum depression, but it must have been fairly obvious to her. We just thought it was normal fatigue from lack of sleep and it would get better on its own. At the time I had no idea why she was so adamant about making healthy lifestyle choices and bringing the baby into our daily routine.
She wanted us to get on the trail immediately and ended up sending us home with a Moby Wrap that one of the other mothers had donated. Getting back on the trail was the kick in the butt we needed to get back to our normal happy and healthy lives.
Hiking Carriers For Older Kids (3+ Years)
Right around the 3 year old mark we decided that it was time to ditch the traditional baby carrier. There were two main reasons for ditching the carrier. Carrying around a chubby little toddler that won’t sit still was torture on my back. Plus he was ready to get out of the carrier and explore on his own.
That was great for short 2-3 mile hikes, but he couldn’t keep up on longer hikes. Unfortunately, we didn’t realize the problem until it was to late and we decided to go on a backpacking trip. We had gone on longer 8+ mile hikes before, but there were lots of breaks and times to play breaking up the hike.
About 5 miles into the hike I realized that I would need to carry him the rest of the way. It was too far to get back to the car, but we didn’t want to continue further into the woods. So we ended up heading back towards the car and I had to carry him 2 miles.
Let’s just say carrying 40lbs in my arms plus a fully loaded pack (and his small pack) wasn’t fun. By the time we set up camp, I was exhausted and he was miserable. So I decided to look into packs for bigger kids so we could go on longer backpacking trips.
I ended up buying the Freeloader Child Carrier that basically turned me into a pack mule and left my wife carrying the rest of our gear. It has a fold out seat and foot stirrups and it’s rated to carry a 40-80lb child. That was perfect for our needs.
He could hike for a while and we would alternate carrying the empty pack. Every 2-3 miles he’d hop on the pack for a quick nap and we could continue down the trail. Thankfully, after a year or so he was strong enough to handle the hike on his own and we could go back to our regular packs.