Backpacking with babies: How to pull off epic adventures with little ones in tow

A guest post by Stephanie McNulty (Instagram)


Baby sitting in field with mountain view in background

“You can kiss those backpacking adventures good-bye now that you have a baby.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard these words over the years. As a mom of two extremely competent backpackers and one accomplished backpacking baby, I’m proud to tell you that those words couldn’t be more wrong. Embarking on a backpacking trip with a baby evokes a lot of emotions for parents. Excitement over sharing adventures with your little one, nervousness about what to expect, and even some anxiety over all the unknowns. I’ve been backpacking with my kids for over ten years now, and I’m thrilled to share with you my top tips for successful backpacking trips with your baby.

Your first backpacking trip begins long before you hit the trail

Backpacking with a baby requires a few specialty items. Make sure to try baby’s new gear before heading out for an overnight. Just like you wouldn’t hike 30 miles with brand new boots, don’t make your first trip the time you introduce baby to his new carrier or sleep set up. I recommend going on a few day hikes or walks in your neighborhood with the carrier you intend to use. This will ensure you can make any necessary fit adjustments so that it is comfortable ahead of time. Similarly, try out our baby’s sleeping bag during a nap or outside walk a few times before your trip.

Mother standing by lake on hiking adventure with baby in Onya carrier

Gear essentials

You don’t need a ton of fancy gear to backpack with a baby, but we have found these items to be extremely helpful when we are out on the trail with our little one.

Carrier: When baby is small (0-7 months), the Onya Pure or Onya Nexstep are my absolute favorite carriers. They are extremely comfortable, allow for a variety of carrying methods, and can be used with the newborn booster for smaller babies. Front carrying your baby allows you to wear your regular backpacking pack on your back. The Onya straps are low profile, allowing them to comfortably fit under your pack straps. This method affords maximum pack real estate; allowing you to bring everything needed for baby without being short on space. Once at camp, you can back carry baby in the Onya while you set up, use it for carrier naps, or for day hiking.

Clothing: A set of good merino wool base layers for baby will keep him warm and dry. Avoid cotton if possible as it tends to retain moisture. Fleece pajamas are a great mid layer if temps are expected to drop at night. Bring a warm hat for night time and also a sun hat to cover baby’s head, neck, and ears during the daytime.

Sleep set up: Before baby is crawling, we use the Kidco peapod which is a portable bassinet that folds up small and is lightweight. This gives baby his own sleep area without risk of any blankets or sleeping bags accidentally covering his face. We use a Morrison outdoors wearable sleeping bag to keep baby warm and cozy at night. They come in 20 degree or 40 degree options and have sizes 6-24 months or 2-4 years.

After baby is mobile, we use a small foam pad from Thermarest and have baby sleep by our heads. The American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend that babies sleep on air mattress until they are 15 months or older, so we opt for a foam pad instead.

Mindset: Backpacking with a baby is a different kind of adventure

When backpacking with babies and kids, it can be tempting to approach them the same way you would a solo or adult only trip. It’s important to reframe your expectations and begin to view backcountry trips with a baby as a separate category than any other type of trip. This means doing a few things differently when you set out to plan:

Start small. Backpacking with a baby is difficult! Everyone’s pack is heavy, you have to stop for lots of breaks, and you just can’t go as far. Plan a 2-5 mile maximum trip for your first time and advance from there. You will get better and more efficient each time you go.

Give yourself plenty of time to get to camp and set up. Understand that having a baby along equals minus one set of adult hands to help. Someone is always watching/holding/feeding/changing baby, leaving the other person to do camp chores like cook, set up, filter water, etc.

Expect to get much less sleep. This is a new environment for baby, so it’s going to take some getting used to. If you go in expecting multiple night wakings/feedings, it’s not as frustrating when it happens. Using a white noise machine or app and planning with your partner for sharing night time duties can be really helpful. The second night is almost always significantly better, so don’t get too discouraged if you have a rough first night.

Baby laying comfortably in tent looking outside

Be Prepared – there is a much smaller margin of error

Babies can’t regulate their temperatures like adults can so it’s even more important to bring rain gear and tents that hold up in all-weather conditions. Bring sun screen, and small syringes of baby Tylenol, Motrin, and Benadryl just in case. Leave a detailed itinerary with someone at home and let them know when you are expected to return. Consider investing in a satellite communicator like a Garmin or Spot for piece of mind. Always check the weather report right before setting out and don’t be afraid to bail if things aren’t looking good. Have a solid navigation system and back up paper map, and know how to use it.

Enjoy the many benefits of taking your baby outdoors

No matter what your adventure ends up looking like, the evidence is clear: time spent outside is SO GOOD for your baby! It builds the foundational skills needed for literacy and science learning, as well as improves cognition. Backpacking with my children has helped them become expert problem solvers, and has improved their confidence because they know what it feels like to accomplish hard things. The outdoor memories we’ve created as a family are ones that I will cherish forever. Even though backpacking with a baby requires more prep work and a lot of consideration, the experiences you create as a family will be well worth the effort. I guarantee it.

Mother on hiking path with baby smiling in Onya Baby carrier