Carriers, Babies, & Smiles?

I’m not sure what we did to deserve this, but our son loves his carrier. Spend just a little time on any hiking with babies discussion board and you will soon realize that happy babies in carriers are a dream to many, so we somehow scored big time!

I asked my wife if she thought it was nature or nurture and we decided that it was probably a little of both; I’ll be the first to admit that we are blessed with a generally easy, well-tempered baby, but below you’ll find the list we came up of the things we’ve done to maximize our son’s affinity for being carried on the trail. Disclaimer: we are not scientists doing double blind studies on optimal conditions for smiles on the trail nor would I suggest every single tip to every single person, but if you’d like to take your little one on longer, happier trails, I’d bet these thoughts will help create a much more pleasant hike for both you and your kid!

Start Young or Start Now

First things, first: don’t expect to start too young…momma needs time to heal and recover after delivering a child. Some mommas will feel ready sooner than others, and that’s okay. For us, we only used a carrier around the house the first 6 weeks just to test it out for short periods of time, preferring our Joovy Zoom360 stroller while on the trail.

After this short period and until our son could maintain proper head support and met the minimum size requirements for our structured carrier, we front carried with our Lille Baby All Season soft sided carrier. We took it out on it’s inaugural trail in Joshua Tree National Park at 6 weeks where the kid spent most of his time sleeping. He always enjoyed the bounciness of driving on dirt roads, both in the womb and out, so the trail seemed to already be a bit soothing for him.

By including our carrier in our son’s world when he was first exploring it, the carrier was never a foreign object. It became part of his understanding of what life was like. He found so much comfort being carried that we even found him climbing into his structured carrier from time to time (Kelty Journey PerfectFit Elite).

If your child is not a newborn, start now! It might be slow to take off, but in order to change your child’s perception of what’s normal, you’ll need to create a new normal. If you keep putting it off, it’ll only get harder!

Practice Often

It won’t always be flowers and rainbows carrying your child…even with as much experience as we have, our son still has bad days. However, minimizing the frequency of those bad days can be achieved by increasing the frequency of your outings. We began small with our son and learned many lessons along the way…and so did our son.

In the first 6 months, we walked around home and through Zion NP, Grand Canyon NP, Joshua Tree NP, Mesa Verde NP, Grand Staircase-Escalante NM, Glen Canyon NRA, ultimately leading to our first backpacking trips in Tonto NF and Bryce Canyon NP. While this all might sound glamorous, the reality paints a slightly different picture. In Zion and Grand Canyon, we essentially walked a sidewalk. In Grand Staircase, we walked no more than a 100 yard radius around our campsite. In Glen Canyon, we walked from the parking lot to the beach along with a few very short trails. Finally, our first backpacking trip, we quickly aborted our original plans and made it a meager 1.5 miles into the backcountry before setting up camp.

While some of the these walks can hardly be called hikes, they all served the purpose of teaching us how to be better hiking parents and building familiarity between our son and the trail. Finally, at just shy of 6 months, we were confident to make our way 8 miles into the Bryce Canyon NP wilderness, our biggest trip at the time.

Wear Your Child Properly

Practice wearing your child at home, especially if you can have your partner or friend with you the first few times. Experimenting and adjusting the fit of your carrier can be frustrating, especially once you’re on trail and you just want to get going. Get the user manual out, watch YouTube videos, and if needed, post pictures of yourself wearing your child to parent discussion boards to get some extra tips and tricks.

If your child is not strapped in properly, it can be very uncomfortable for your child AND for you! If they are not in properly, they might bob around with each step making for a rough ride. Worst for us, when we don’t take the time to get our son in correctly, he ends up leaning to one side with his extra wiggle room. This ends up being absolutely excruciating for the one carrying the kid.

Finally, remember that as your child grows, the way you fit your child in the carrier will change as well. When we started carrying our son in the carrier, he was only about 9 lbs., so until he was big enough, we placed a rolled up blanket under his bottom to boost him up as recommended by the carrier manufacturer. At some point, we had to decide he was big enough and completely readjust. Especially for those who go hiking less frequently, you might consider rechecking how to wear your child at home before you head out.

Take Lots of Breaks

Not much to say here…everyone needs a stretch break from time to time. We try to take a good, long break every 2-3 hours or so and this works for us. Not only is it good for your child’s relationship with the carrier, it’s good for encouraging regular diaper changes and checking your child’s clothing layers…does he need to lose his jacket or should we add a beanie and gloves?

Become an Entertainer

To continue the thoughts from the previous section, it’s good to make your breaks meaningful. Of course we use it logistically for diapers, clothing, and whatnot, but it’s also a time for you to engage your child in new activities to break up the day.

Find something to do with your child that they wouldn’t do in the backpack. Walk him around to find cool rocks. Go meet other hikers. Splash in the creek. While your child is in the carrier, they are largely idle…they should not be while on your break.

Entertaining your child isn’t just limited to breaks, too! While walking, you will need to become a skilled showman. What do we do? We high five trees, pick leaves, spin around, tickle his feet, point at interesting objects, run through dangling leaves, and just about touch anything and everything we can find. Yes, this does slow us down, but we take advantage of when he’s sleeping to crush some miles. Remember, the trail should be enjoyable for all!

Give Them Something

4 things we’ve had on hand to give our son in the carrier:

What’s especially great about these items is that they easily strap on to the backpack. This means we spend less time having to get them out for him and he spends less time dropping (throwing?) them. We use a Busy Baby Bottle Bungee and generic snap straps for the bottles, snack cups, and teethers. For water, we trained him early to drink from our water reservoir tube. Because he is a bit greedy with his water, we ended up getting him his own tube…a water tube attachment for Smart Water bottles on Etsy.

Besides these essentials, we bring the trail to our son while he’s in the carrier. We find cool rocks, pine cones, sticks, etc. and he loves it! Instead of being a bystander to the hike, he has become an active participant in it. He points to objects he wants to inspect and we oblige when we can.

Read the Situation

Sometimes we take longer breaks for a cranky kid.
Sometimes we’re chasing daylight and test our son’s time limit in the carrier.
Sometimes we give our son a chance to walk a bit…a painfully slow pace.
Sometimes we turn back before we planned to.
Even once, we battled a major meltdown with downloaded Cocomelon to bring our son down off the tantrum ledge.

We make lots of plans, but our son keeps us on our toes. If we only followed our self-made protocols, we would rarely enjoy our hikes. Ultimately, it’s okay to challenge your child, but please also listen to your child. How you respond during their worst moments on the trail might end up being their perception of what a hike is…so keep their experiences as positive as possible so that future attempts will have a greater chance of success. AND, ultimately, the positive interactions will nurture a more wholesome relationship between your child and this hobby, and more importantly a more trusting relationship between your child and you.

Bonus Tips

Some extra bonus tips that my wife and I haven’t tried, but are often suggested around the internet:

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