Summer – tired bodies, full hearts. Summer – miles on the car, dirt on our shirts. Summer – buckets full of memories, stress buckets emptied. Summer – the time our family feels the most content, or for lack of a better word, “normal”. Summer – the time of year where I notice how much my little dude has changed, grown, and developed his own idiosyncrasies. I am not sure why summer is the time I notice my son the most, but it is. It could be because he has a summer birthday. It could be because I spend all day with him in the summer. It could be I see the most changes in him when we are out away from it all. At home we are bogged down by all of life’s muck; my patience is shorter, my brain more frantic, and my life a bit less happy. It is as if the alpine air lifts the fog and allows me to appreciate and truly see my boy.
During our backcountry excursions, I see how his imagination flourishes. I see him entertain himself by looking for critters, or flowers, or rocks. I see him skip over the scree, where last year he wouldn’t dare cross it. I see him reel in a fish, guide it to the net, and then take the fish out of the net for a release. I see a child carrier pack sitting empty, forgotten and no longer needed. I see an independent boy, filtering water, assisting with camp, and snuggling in his very own sleeping bag. His very favorite part of camping by the way.
For the past five summers, we have backpacked with a little one dependent on us to carry him most of the way. Most of this season, we continued to backpack with our child carrier, not daring to leave it behind in case he would need a lift. Instead, the child that was supposed to need a lift made his own boot prints in the dirt. Mile after mile, he climbed, he ran, and he laughed. Mile after mile my little boy became a little less little. Every year we question our sanity as we backpack with a tiny human. This summer, it became less about backpacking with a toddler, and more about backpacking with our son. We’ve often received “you folks are crazy” looks while backpacking with D, but it has been our way of life, a way of life we weren’t willing to compromise because two became three. After all, our summers are when we find ourselves happiest as a couple, and now happiest as a family. It is when we see how much our son has grown and see him for who he is away from all the hub-bub of daily life. I am thankful we have spent our summers backpacking as a family, despite the extra difficulties backpacking with him has brought. As we say goodbye to the summers of hiking with a toddler, I thought it time to share a list of tips for backpacking when your family grows by one.
Disclaimer: We backpack in an alpine environment during the summer months. Tips and recommendations are based on the conditions we face in the areas we backpack.
The first thing most people bring up is diapering. What do you do with the diapers? How many do you take? Diapers are so heavy! What do you do at night? We cloth diapered. The diaper thing was easy for us. We took disposable inserts, covers, and a wet bag. We took two covers and more inserts than we thought we would need. During the day, we sunned the inserts which helped them dry and took away the odor. Poops went into the wet bag. At night, we used a fitted diaper and a wool cover. It worked like a charm, never a leak. The wool cover was easy to dry and didn’t stink. The fitted diaper we sunned and dried during the day. Easy peasy. Well, almost easy peasy. One time we did have a marmot steal a nighttime diaper while it was sunning. Oops. We were also lucky that diapers were only used until Drake was 2, that meant only two seasons of diapers. His third summer we only took nighttime diapers. His fourth summer, we took only a wool cover. This year, we took nothing. I understand the thought about diapering in the backcountry can be intimidating, but don’t let it deter you. Even if you use disposables, you can still follow the same method. Sun the diapers to dry them and pack them out in a wet bag. If you are a through hiker, you will have some extra weight with wet diapers, but you can get a mesh bag and an s-biner to hang the diapers from your pack while you hike. They will get sun and dry out a bit. The added weight truly is minimal and you can easily compress the dry diapers to take up less space. A dude or gal in diapers certainly isn’t worth giving up your backcountry adventures. Feel free to contact me about diapering in the backcountry.
The take-away: Don’t let the pees and poops keep you at home. Wet bags are your friend. You can do it!
The thing I had the hardest time with was how to carry all the gear and what gear would we even need?! Our solution, we took a soft-sided carrier along with an Osprey Poco Premium for three years. We tried every child backpack carrier on the market, and the Osprey Poco blew them away. It was the most comfortable, provided the sturdiest seat, and had the most capacity. For a soft-sided carrier, we used an Ergo carrier, but would recommended an Onya Baby carrier. Two carriers? OMG! Yes, we used two. We had to take the soft-sided carrier so D could nurse while we hiked. Plus, he didn’t dig sleeping anywhere but on me. If you have a great sleeper, you could totally ditch the soft-sided and take the backpack carrier only. For the first two years, I carried Drake and gear. The last two years, Dustin has carried Drake and the fishing gear. The Poco also comes in handy when we fished and Drake wanted to go in too, or when we had to cross nasty scree. The Poco has handled all the abuse we have put it through and still has miles left in the tank 4 years later. Great purchase.
The take-away: Your carrier choice is important. Make sure it has sun and precip protection. Choose wisely!
PACKS AND PACKING
How in the world did we carry everything we needed in one Osprey 65L/55L and an Osprey Poco Premium?! Believe it or not, we carried all our gear in those two packs, including waders and boots! Last year we finally gave up taking waders since Dustin started carrying the Poco, but for the first two years, we took them to every alpine lake. The key to make everything fit, for us, are compression sacks. Everything goes into a compression sack. Sure, our packs weigh a bit more because of it, but when you are packing for three in 1.5 packs, space is a premium. We were heavy. We went from fast and light, to heavy and slow, but it was worth it…every time! With that said, never carry more than a 1/3 of your weight. Pack your heaviest items down your spine. Lugging an ill-packed, heavy pack makes for a terrible time.
A note about weight and packs. Going super light was okay for Dustin and I, but when it came to packs we went heavy. We do a lot of off trail excursions. We need our packs to be made of tough material. If you don’t do this kind of hiking, look into an ultralight pack. You can shave a few pounds and still have a top notch pack. There are some great options out there from Six Moon Designs, Hyperlite, Mountain Laurel, ZPacks, and I know others. Also, we pack more clothes than a lot of folks. Due to the type of adventuring we do, and where we do it, we know staying warm and dry is of paramount importance. If you hike in a warmer climate, you could probably save weight and not tote as many clothes for your little one and you. Ultralight backpacking is awesome! It doesn’t fit our lifestyle, but it might yours! If you are beginner, however, I don’t recommend going the ultralight route. As you become more experienced, you will learn where you can shave weight and what comforts you are willing to do without.
The take-away: You will be heavier. Don’t go overboard with bringing stuff for baby, but make sure you are comfortable and have proper attire to keep all of you warm and dry. A cold kid is a grumpy kid. Only you can know what gear is right for you, but be sure to carry the ten essentials.
CLOTHING & SHOES
It is a real bummer REI discontinued their toddler line. We loved their convertible pants and UPF synthetic fiber shirts. I would recommend those time again. Quick drying, UPF 50, and always washed up well. This year we bought REI’s child line in an XXS. Drake really needed a 4T or 5T. Oh well. They are a little big, but we went with what we knew. We also have had great success and loved Patagonia infant and toddler clothing. We shop off season to get the best prices. We don’t mind “past season colors”. For baselayers, we have used Icebreaker Merino. He had a pair of 200 gram pants and shirt and a 260 gram shirt and pants for baselayers. Up until this year, we always took a pair of fleece jammies we put on top of his 260 layers for sleeping. Often he was hot, and we ended up unzipping the fleece a few times. This year we added Smartwool to our merino line-up for him. He has a heavyweight Smartwool top and 260 gram Icebreaker pants for sleeping. For a day baselayer, we added a synthetic fabric this year, a Patagonia capiline mock turtleneck. We take the extra clothes in case he gets wet. I am a freak-o about being wet in the high country. To me it is worth the extra weight to have extra clothes for him when (not if) he gets wet. We also added rain gear this year. Prior to this summer, we put him in the pack or got in the tent when it rained. Since he hikes so much more this year, rain gear was essential. It is the first year we have not have a puff set for him. We brought a heavier fleece and a soft shell this summer. Again, since he is hiking more, he stays warmer and we didn’t feel the puff suit was necessary. He hasn’t been cold yet, despite having some cool weekends the last few weeks.
We have always taken two pairs of shoes with us. Drake walked late, he was 14 months. For two summers, we only took infant type shoes. He wore Pedi-peds when he was 12-15 months and then had a back-up pair of shoes, but I don’t remember what they were, a tennis shoe of some sort. He also had fleece booties. The next year we had toddler hiker type boots made by Keen and Keen sandals. This year, he was finally able to get some bonafide hiking boots, waterproof Vasque Breeze! In addition to those, I also took a pair of Salomon trail shoes. Once your kiddo is in a size 10 your hiking boot options increase.
The take-away: Merino and synthetics are the way to go. Leave the cotton and/or demin at home. Shop off-season to score the best deals on clothing and shoes.
SLEEPING & TENTS
Another common question we receive is about sleeping. What tent do you use? How do you sleep? What sleeping bags and pads do you have? We also went with the easy solution to this problem. We used our beloved Big Agnes Copper Spur UL2 tent until we added a dog to the hiking family; otherwise we would have continued to use the two man up until this year. Last summer we camped in a Big Agnes Copper Spur UL3. The space was perfect for us, and we loved the fabric and the quick, easy set up and take down of the tent. Condensation inside the tent was never an issue, as it was well ventilated. We complained about the small vestibules and the way the doors opened, but we were so used to it. It was no biggie. Our last backpacking trip of the year, we suffered through a heavy thunderstorm with some big-time wind. The Copper Spur collapsed in on us whenever a gust would come through. That tent went back to REI. This summer we have used the Nemo Losi LS 3P. This is a real family camping tent. It is huge! Our thoughts about it are mixed. The design of the rainfly is flawed and there are some other strange things about the tent…more on that in our tent review post.
We coupled our sleep pads together with the Thermarest coupler and zipped our sleeping bags together up until this summer. Drake slept in the middle or on my side when the weather was colder. Luckily, we were never cold despite camping in some chilly twenty something degree weather. Did I wake up a lot those first two years to make sure he was breathing, or to make sure he wasn’t tangled in the bag, or to make sure he wasn’t cold? Absolutely. I still wake up to check on him.
This year we decided it was time Drake had his own sleeping bag. We strongly considered an Enlightened Equipment hybrid quilt/bag, but after hearing some thoughts on their durability, we went with what we knew, a Western Mountaineering Alpinlite. These bags have been durable, warm, and our favorite piece of gear for years. We still only use the two sleeping pads. The regular and the large provide us enough space for all of us to be on pad. Since we have mummy bags, we are pretty compact sleepers. We did recently trade Dustin’s Thermarest for a Nemo Tensor. Dustin’s Thermarest was damaged two summers ago by one of Drake’s diggers. We patched it and it held for two more summers. Needless to say, that was the last trip toys went with us.
The take-away: You have a few years before you have to shell out coin for a new tent and bags. Don’t skimp in this department. These two things help keep you alive.
The first year or so is easy when you breastfeed, since most of the diet is made up of breast milk! If you use formula, it is easy too! Formula is lightweight, as are bottles. Boiling water doesn’t take much either. My dude was an extended breast-feeder. For food his second summer (when he was 12-15 months), we took those packet things and freeze dried fruit and veggies. The packets were heavy, but he liked them. We did baby led weaning, so he ate what we ate for meals that summer. The packet things were his snacks. After that food was a little tricky. When he was two, he didn’t eat well in the backcountry (or anywhere really). I constantly stressed about what he was or wasn’t eating. I always took way too much food. His third year he had a better appetite. One thing I always pack are Epic bars and Pro Bars. He loves them. He also likes the Epic Uncured Bacon bites too. For the most part, Drake has always ate what we ate. I do take him some special treats such as fruit leather, sunbutter cups, or something like animal or graham crackers. This summer he has ate like a champ, but I still tend to over pack food. Dustin and Drake both get hangry. Those dudes hangry is zero fun. A side note: Drake is allergic to wheat and dairy. That limits our options and you might not be restricted by such things.
The take-away: You will probably always over pack food and that is OK. You don’t want a HANGRY kiddo!
We backpack to fish. We don’t bag peaks, we don’t climb passes, we don’t through hike. Thus, our trip planning might look a little different than yours. Dustin and I were trail blazers before Drake. Anything under 7 miles one-way we would do as a day-hike. Seven plus miles one way, we backpacked it. That changed dramatically when we became a plus one. Not only did we have to consider mileage, we also had to consider elevation gain. With Drake, obviously our load became significantly heavier. Each year he grew, we added more weight! Luckily, Drake is small for his age. This has helped immensely. With us heavier, we decided to keep the backpacking trips to around 4-5 miles one way. For elevation gain, we were okay as along as it was spaced. If we had any sections where we climbed 500′ in a half mile we didn’t do it. We made that mistake once. We planned a trip and I erroneously wrote the wrong elevation gain in my notes. We climbed over 1200′ in a 0.8 miles on one of our first trips of 2013. That sucked. Don’t do that.
In order to plan our trips, I consult our “Fishing Bible”, topo maps, the Internet, and Google Earth. I communicate with local agencies to check on any closures, down bridges, trail damage, or for any recommended camping spots. Planning our trips takes a good deal of work. Trip planning is essential when you have a little one to consider. We research in the off season and make a list of destinations we want to try to hit during the coming summer. I continue to consult maps all year and make alterations to trips if new information comes to light. I learned the hard way to always have a back-up plan. Prior to Drake, we would push through whatever, but I have found that we won’t push through some of those things we would have before.
The take-away: Do your research. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Have a back-up plan
Nature can be a scary place. We tell Drake, “we love nature, but nature doesn’t love us”. Everything about the trip can change in a moment. Rain. Lightning. Hail. Wind. A slip. A loose rock. A fire. A charging moose. The risks are always in the back of our mind. We try to be safe, but we have got ourselves in some hairy situations. All the same, we venture out each summer weekend for the reward. We carry a first aid kid, three emergency blankets, fire starter, extra food, a knife, repair kits, a whistle, and a SPOT. A SPOT or DeLorme In Reach should be part of your essential gear when you hike as a family. We don’t backpack without it. Your first aid kit is useless if you don’t know how to use it; familiarize yourself with what is included, add what you need and take out what you don’t need or don’t know how to use. Try to be cognizant of the weather forecast. I watch the weather all week and check it one last time before I buckle our packs to head up the trail.
The take-away: Any outdoor adventure isn’t without risks. Know the risks before you go and prepare the best you can for whatever may came your way.
If I have learned anything from backpacking with a little one, it is to have zero expectations. Live in the moment and get there when you get there. Be okay with having to pack it out when you really want to stay. Realize your little will want to walk a bit on his/her own; even when he/she is not that great with walking. Be comfortable with going at a slower place. Be content with later starts. You WILL be late sometimes, but know when late is too late. We move slow – snails pace it seems. If it happens that late turns into too late (meaning not reaching your destination by sunset), shorten your route, alter your destination, or car camp and do a day hike to another location (back-up plan!) We have had to do all of these things due to late starts. They happen with a kiddo. We don’t always hit all our destinations, and that is OK. Hours can be spent under the tarp or in the tent as you wait out weather; weather you might have hiked through or fished through before. Stop and smell the flowers. Don’t helicopter. Let the little dude or dudette explore, touch, feel, smell, see. Your trip will be a lot more fun if you don’t hover. He/she will probably get wet if you are near water; be prepared and try not to be too frustrated when he/she comes to you with soaking feet and pants! Enjoy seeing the wonder of Mother Nature through the fresh eyes of a child.
The take-away: Walk the trail with zero expectations. Your trip isn’t about the destination, it is about the experience. It is about fostering a love and connection to the natural world in your child. Relish the connection your family makes while away from the distractions of modern life.
Nature is the best playground. We took toys and books two summers. After that, we decided Mother Earth provided endless entertainment for him. As it turns out, our decision was a good one. Truth be told, he is better at entertaining himself when we are in the backcountry than he is at home! This past weekend he built a monster truck and a rocket out of rocks. We also take along a little “Cars” spin cast to keep him entertained. He will cast over and over and over again. Do we fish as hard as we did before? No we don’t. I am always aware of him, watching out of the corner of my eye, often times missing a fish in the process. Does he sometimes get bored? Yes, he does. We simply stop what we are doing and explore nature with him, laughing and making memories every step of the way.
The take-away: Trust nature to provide all the entertainment your little will need. (I know that is a hard thing to do!)
I can’t imagine what our life would look like without our glorious summers spent backpacking with our son. Our memories from our summers keep us company through the long off season. Each summer looks and feels different from the previous. This whole process has been dynamic and thrilling. You can do this too. Your backpacking days don’t have to be over when you morph from couple to family. Is it scary and intimidating? Absolutely. Do you feel clueless and nervous your first several trips? Absolutely. Is it worth it? Abso-freaking-lutely!
The final take-away: Do some trial packing before your first trip out. Plan trips carefully. Trust your instincts. Know there will be hiccups. Enjoy the experience.
Stay tuned for our next post in our Family Backpacking series where we detail exactly what we bring on our trips, broken down by age, to ensure our and our kiddo’s comfort and safety. If you have any questions in the meantime, feel free to send me an email.