As I strapped our seven-month-old into the child carrier, I couldn’t help but smile as he admired the birds singing, welcoming him to the forest. His little eyes widened as my feet hit the trail. We began our journey beneath the canopy of trees, carrying packs strategically loaded with our own gear as our little copilot’s essentials.
When your family expands, your pack doesn’t have to. By adjusting, adapting, and experimenting, you can find the right balance for you and your family. In this post, I break down the gear that keeps our little one happy and safe as we explore the backcountry of New Zealand and America.
How To Pack for a Baby on Trail
When we found out our trail family was getting a new member, we knew we had to make some changes. With a little revamp of gear and balancing of pack weight, we finally nailed the perfect setup. Our new kit includes enough items to comfort our little one and give momma less to worry about without relegating daddy to the role of pack mule.
“True” ultralight backpackers keep their base weight under 10 pounds / 4.5 kilograms per person. The weight of my son alone is more than 10 pounds / 4.5 kilograms. So when I refer to ultralight backpacking with a baby, I’m really talking about a minimalist approach to packing for your little one. It’s about maintaining a “less is more” mindset when it comes to the nitty gritty work of packing for mom, dad, and baby.
Prior to our baby’s arrival, both Alex and I carried an ultralight backpacking setup. After our son was born, we made small modifications to our existing gear, strategically adding a few lightweight items that allowed us to bring our bundle of joy along safely and comfortably.
With each backpacking trip comes a variety of new experiences, obstacles, and opportunities to grow as a family and create lasting memories. Based on your intended terrain and weather, you may need some alterations to the list below.
Let’s Break It Down
The heaviest item in the pack is always our little boy. But as his mom, I’d gladly carry him anywhere, over every mountain and across any type of terrain. The good news is that a baby doesn’t require much additional gear compared to what the parents are packing for themselves. I always remind myself to keep it simple when packing for a family backpacking trip.
As you can see from the diagram above, most of the gear you’ll need for hiking with a baby is just standard backpacking equipment. The majority of the gear is shared by all, and only a few pint-size items are needed exclusively for your little tyke. That means it’s quite realistic for your new bundle of joy to tag along for an epic journey in the mountains.
Tent and Sleep System
With three people, you need more space in bed, a bigger quilt to yank off of your partner, and a viable way to carry your baby. Our sleep setup was upgraded to the Exped SynMat Duo because of its spacious dimensions and lightweight design. The pad fit perfectly into our Zpacks Duplex tent, covering the majority of the floor. No more sleeping pads slipping apart or worrying about the baby sleeping on the crack of the mattresses.
Each night, we curl up in our Enlightened Equipment Accomplice two-person sleeping quilt. The extra large foot box keeps mom and dad’s toes nice and toasty. And we’re no longer subjected to cold drafts from trying to slide all three of us into a single quilt.
Everyone falls asleep easily in our sleep system: we’re out like logs until the morning light peeks through the vestibule of the tent. Our son, Remi, sleeps better curled up between us in our tent than he does in his crib at home.
Having a comfortable, warm, and spacious sleep setup is key, but unfortunately, it’s worthless if you can’t carry your baby to the backcountry campsite. Swapping one of our standard backpacks for a child carrier was one of the most drastic changes we made to our setup. The carrier enabled our family to transport our baby with ease and still pack all the essentials to make our backpacking trips a success.
The biggest struggle with a child carrier is finding one with enough storage for all of your needs. An ultralight gear setup makes it possible to fit all of the basic items within the smaller pack. The big wins that make the Deuter Kid Comfort Pro Child Carrier a perfect fit for us are:
- 12L storage
- Detachable 10L daypack that straps on the front
- Built-in, easy-to-unfold sunshade
- Space for a hydration bladder
- Simple adjustments that make it easy to switch pack from mom to dad
With the child carrier and sleep situation sorted, the rest of the baby’s packing list is simple. It includes clothing, diapers, baby wipes (or a rag if you’re brave enough), medicine in case of a fever or allergic reaction, and a teething toy or one of your baby’s favorite toys.
You may think the teething toy is not ultralight, and I can already hear you adding up the weight on your tally list (10 grams!). But the small silicon item is worth every gram as it makes my little boy happy. I string his toy through a strap on my pack so he can chomp away as we hike.
Lastly, a tarp may be a good addition to your pack if you’re hiking in the peak temperatures of summer and find yourself camping in an exposed area. When afternoon nap time rolls around, you don’t want to put your little one down to nap in the sweltering tent. A cheap tarp or makeshift piece of Tyvek or building paper can do the trick and provide a perfect shaded spot for your baby to nap.
Show Me The Numbers
Having a baby has impacted our base weight, causing us to prioritize our minimalistic strategy and only pack what is essential for our family.
I can’t sugarcoat it: having a baby makes you carry more stuff, and every item adds grams to your base weight. But just remember, everything balances itself out in the end. When carrying a baby old enough to walk, your pack will lighten while your little one explores the trail. Your pack weight temporarily lessens as you consume food but grows heavier as you pack out dirty diapers. Even accounting for these fluctuations, the additional weight of your baby and their gear doesn’t add up to much.
The table below breaks down how baby-specific gear affects our base weight on a typical four-day / three-night trip.
As you can see from the chart, our son Remi makes a small impact on our overall base weight (roughly five pounds added). This minimalist list is more than enough to ensure that Remi is safe, dry, and warm.
We can still hike 14-mile (23-kilometer) days with plenty of stops for playtime, breastfeeding, and swimming. Deciding how many miles to hike will come naturally as you listen to what your baby wants and needs. For instance, some days may be shorter if bubs wants to meander the trail on his own two legs.
We typically spend four to six days in the mountains on our backpacking trips. We’ve found that going out for more than six days results in too many diapers to carry in and pack out. Also, the food bag becomes a little hectic if we’re living in the woods for a week.
Regardless, hiking becomes even more exciting with a baby on board. With a few adjustments, you can still hit miles, smiles, and epic stealth campsites.
Ages and Stages
Every family’s packing list will look different. If your child is past the stage of teething, then ditch the teething toy. If your baby is learning to crawl, you’ll want a groundsheet or something to protect their soft skin from the rugged earth. Meanwhile, if they’re walking, then there’s no need for a play mat—they’ll be running laps around your tent. If they’re breastfeeding, then congratulations, you get to save even more pack weight! (It’s very convenient for backpacking when your baby’s breakfast, lunch, and dinner are always on tap.)
If your baby is eating solid food, you can keep your food weight down by packing foods that mom, dad, and baby can all enjoy together. That way, you aren’t stuck packing out a half-eaten pouch of mashed peas and lentils that not even mom or dad can choke down.
As a mom, it’s easy to overpack as you overthink all of the “what if” scenarios. Even after years of thru-hiking, I still have to dial it back and ask myself if I really need a given item. I’ve found that the following items have multiple uses and can help keep your pack ultralight:
- Rain jacket: Also functions as a portable changing pad for diaper changes.
- Lanolin balm: Use as lip balm, protective barrier for baby’s face (Remi got a face rash on his chin from rubbing on the child carrier), or for broken skin caused by breastfeeding.
- Chafe cream or diaper rash cream: You only need to bring one or the other; they can be used interchangeably, and the entire family will appreciate it.
READ NEXT – The Best Backpacking Rain Jackets
Let Nature Be Their Guide
With an ultralight setup, your family can enjoy the backcountry trails with ease. Having a baby is the start of your story, the first chapter of a lifelong adventure as you create memories backpacking together. Your ultralight setup is specific to you and your family’s needs. You can be the judge of your pack and add items for comfort, sun protection, or safety as you see fit.
But always remember that less is more, and your baby will have more fun collecting firewood and stacking stones than they would with countless amenities. Start them off young. Let your baby lay beneath a blanket of stars and fall asleep amid the beauty of the outdoors.
Nature is a wonderful teacher—what will your child learn?
Featured image: Graphic design by Zack Goldmann.