Walking into the baby store, with the harsh lighting, beeping scanners, and screaming kids, was one of the most overwhelming things I did while pregnant. Who knew a tiny, helpless human needed so many things? The baby wasn’t even here yet and I had major anxiety about what gear in this megastore was truly essential. Would I make the right choice? Would I miss something? How much does this cost? What are the reviews on this? My palms dripped with sweat, my heart raced, and then my mind completely shut down. I was clueless, stressed, and questioning the meaning of life.  I walked out of the store in a fog. I cried on the way home.

What is the saying…something about the first step being the hardest. After I dried my tears, I took a few deep breaths (as instructed by my therapist) and started to journal a bit. Once I went through the therapeutic writing process, where I penned all my fears and concluded with things I loved about life, I pulled up my favorite gear website. On that website I bought my first piece of “essential gear”, a child carrier for hiking. After I made that first purchase, I felt lighter. The simple online transaction made me feel like a little portion of me would be salvageable during this tumultuous period in my life. The baby stores were still intimidating, but I felt as if I had a handle on at least a tiny bit of my future. We would not give up this one thing that brought us immense joy. We would do it, and the rest of it would fall into place.

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Despite the gear shops and baby store’s best effort to make you buy all the things, the truth is, there isn’t gads of  “essential” gear needed for your new bundle of joy. Once I stepped out of the gear store, powered down the computer, and went and sat in the gear closet, the thoughts of needing this and that and this seemed to evaporate from my mind. At my core, I am a minimalist backpacker. Not an ultralight packer, mind you, a minimalist. Once I put fingers to keys to imagine what we would take, it turned out we didn’t really need a lot more for baby than we did for ourselves.

The Essentials

My first recommendation to help compile your essential list is to sit down (take a deep breath), assess your gear, and see what you deem essential for yourself. Mostly likely, these items will be essential for baby too. Begin your list here.  While I started before the baby arrived, I would wait if I were you. Waiting will let you get a feel of your baby’s personality. For instance, is he a “hot” baby or a “cold” baby. Drake runs hot, often getting way too warm in his layers while sleeping. We also realized after he was born we needed two carriers for him, not just one.

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The lil’ ones – they don’t need much!

The essentials for baby according to me include: diaper covers and inserts, wool diaper cover for sleeping, wetbags, baby wipes, merino (or other synthetic) baselayers, mid-layers, puffy jacket/suit, a few pairs of socks, a  few changes of clothes (blowouts are real!), teething liquid, butt butter if you have a rash prone kiddo, formula or boobies, the squeeze style packs of food, baby sunscreen, sunglasses, two hats (a warm one and one for the sun), a couple of pairs of shoes, a carrier (either soft sided or backpack style), and a SPOT or DeLorme inReach. That is it! A sleeping bag and pad are essentials as well, but we waited until age 4 to get these items. We were lucky and only had one full season of diapers, but don’t let diapering scare you. After that first time, you realize it is no big deal.

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Our Favorite Brands and Websites

Disclaimer: Every website I selected and every piece of gear we recommend have been used by us. We have received ZERO free products. We are not brand ambassadors for any brand. Our recommendations are family tested and paid for with our hard-earned dollars. No bias will be found here. No purchase was made lightly; we are a one income family after all. Some of the links below are, however, affiliate links. Clicking through them doesn’t cost you a thing, but does help us just a bit.

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While a bit spendy, we love Patagonia kids clothing. Our favorite gear of theirs is the Puff Ball or down suits (or jacket and pants starting at 2T) for tikes. I cannot believe how warm Drake stayed in his puff ball. We would unzip him and you could warm your hands on the heat coming off of him! A secret…we never pay full price. I am an off-season shopper and tend to pick up our Patagonia items when they are 50+% off.

For rain gear, REI has options for sizes starting at XXS (Boy’s 4). Oakiwear has top notch rain gear and snow gear, even in tiny sizes. This year is the first year D has had rain gear and we went with the REI Rainwall jacket and pants. It fit him the best, meaning no spaces for water to seep. We put him in the pack or the tent before as I didn’t trust even the best rain gear to keep him totally dry. I am a total nut job about being wet in the backcountry.

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REI rain gear

This was D’s first year to have a real bonafide pair of hiking boots, waterproof and all. We have been thrilled with the Vasque Breeze. They keep his feet dry, warm, and blister free. In addition, they have sticky soles which are great on all the scree we cross. Prior to this year, he has wore Keens, except when he was a newborn and a year old. He only had slipper type shoes then (think Robeez).

For baselayers and socks we use merino wool. Both Icebreaker and Smartwool are the brands we prefer. Icebreaker was one of the few choices when he was a newborn up until this year. This year we purchased SmartWool for him because it was what happened to be on sale. Both brands offer an exceptional product, and if you shop right, you can score them for a fraction of retail. Why we love merino, it keeps you warm when wet!

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Stoic softshell

Stoic is backcountry’s brand. Stoic brand gear is often less than the big names and we have loved each an every Stoic item we have purchased. We have compression sacks (our favorite ones, by the way), merino, and soft-shells. If you are looking to save some money without sacrificing quality, look into this brand.

We seem to collect water filters. We have so many of them. With that said, our favorite brand is Katadyn. We used the Vario and the Gravity Camp this year. The Gravity Camp was super-duper handy.

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Katadyn Vario

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Katadyn Gravity Camp

For packs, we are Osprey loyalists. We tried a fair few others and Osprey simply fits us best. We have Osprey daypacks, backpacking packs, and a child carrier.

We all have Western Mountaineering sleeping bags. I have done a gear review on our bags. The bottom line of the review, we love them. The loft is exceptional, the material durable, and their temperature rating is one hundred percent on the money.

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Western Mountaineering Bag in a Big Agnes Copper Spur UL2

Big Agnes is our tent brand of choice. The material, poles, and design of BA tents are second to none. This year we purchased a NEMO Losi LS 3P, but it fell short of our expectations. As much as we love the size, there are more cons than pros. We aren’t ultralight packers, but if we were, we would own a Hyperlite. Keep in mind, you won’t need to upgrade your 2 person tent until you get a bag and pad for your little one (which would have been this year for us, age 4.)

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Big Agnes Copper Spur UL2

We aren’t loyal to any one website. I simply buy where has the best price coupled with cashback. Here’s my list of sites I routinely check.

Backcountry

Sierra Trading Post

REI

Patagonia

Steep and Cheap

AvidMax

Oakiwear

Gear Tips

For clothing, make it bright. While as adults we might prefer muted colors, it sure is nice having your kid in bright, vibrant, easy-to-spot colors.

Bright colors for the win

Bright colors for the win

Dress your little one in long sleeve shirts and pants. We have to worry about the intensity of the sun and serious mosquitoes in the summer; long sleeves and pants helps keep the sun and bugs off!

Speaking of mosquitoes, a mosquito net was a must pack for us before Drake walked and even after. Sitting and breastfeeding him as mosquitoes covered my body was not fun. It is worth the extra weight.

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Fleece and wind-proof puffy jackets are gear essentials for us. Our puffy jackets and fleece pullovers/jackets might be our most toted around pieces of gear. With our climate, a fleece and a puffy are indispensable. For the first year, we used a pull over fleece for D. After that, we used a zip up fleece. Patagonia was our favorite puffy. We have used Columbia, North Face, and REI for fleece, and all have preformed well, with the REI fleece being the most wind resistant.

Whichever pack you choose, make sure you have adequate rain and sun protection for when kiddo is riding in the pack.

The kid’s mirror that you can hook onto your pack is pretty damn awesome. I didn’t want to get it (more weight! Ah!), but we used it so much. He loved it and so did we. Get it.

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Consider adding trekking poles if you don’t currently backpack with them. Once we had them, I wondered how we ever backpacked, comfortably, without them.

Pick out which items are worth shelling out bigger money. For us, the tent, sleeping bags/pads, and pack were items in which we didn’t want to be thrifty. Cheaper sleeping bags tend to not compress as well or be as warm. The same goes for cheaper tents. You don’t want to be 5 miles in and your tent collapse from an unexpected gust of wind or, god forbid, spring a leak.  The packs, well we tried the cheaper items and they fell short of our needs and expectations.

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Nemo Losi LS3P and Osprey Poco Premium

You don’t, however, have to spend big money everywhere. You can save some pennies on your kids shirts, pants, mid-layers, and hats. Meaning, he/she doesn’t need a top-end hiking shirt and zip-off pants. One year we bought a cheap down jacket for a mid-layer. The only requirement, no cotton. There are also some decent base layers on the market with a small price tag, check Sierra Trading Post.

Use cash-back sites, stack coupons, and shop off season to find the best deals. Our cashback site of choice is Active Junky. You don’t need this season’s colors to have an awesome back country experience. Also, consider second-hand. You can save some real cash shopping local gear exchange stores or even eBay. There’s people out there that will buy kid’s clothing only for the name, and not really use it in the back country!

We all want to save money, and I try hard to do just that; however, I have found you get what you pay for in regards to gear. This is why I shop the sales, use cashback, and coupons when I have them. We tried to save coin once and purchased Columbia rain gear. We got soaked. Money was wasted. Lesson learned.

Take a warm-hat (think beanie) and a sun hat.

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Find a good-fitting hat. Your kid will spend all of his time in his/her hat. Make sure it is a good one that keeps the sun off the neck and face as much as possible. We used one with a bill and neck flap or an all-around brim. We also had a buff for him starting at age 3.

Do some shopping in person. I made the mistake of buying some things online when I should have went to the store to check them out first. Drake was exceptionally tough to fit in regards to clothes.

Layers are your friend as are Night-eez S hooks.

Wet bags are indispensable when backpacking with one in diapers. Get some in all different sizes that match how long of trip you are taking.

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Consider taking diaper covers and disposable inserts. These take up a lot less room and weigh less.

Shoes – take a couple pairs. One (or two) is bound to get wet.

Use compression sacks to optimize the space in your pack.

Make sure to have a first aid kit and only put in your first aid kit what you know how to use. Add extra of those things you might use a lot (insect wipes, antibiotic ointment, band-aids, pain reliever for you and kiddo, teething liquid…etc). There will be bumps and bruises along the way.
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Get some sort of locating device. We have a SPOT and use it to send “OK” messages or send tracks when we travel off trail. It gives our loved ones peace of mind, and if something were to happen, we can alert Search and Rescue. With that said, it is an electronic; thus you can’t rely on it completely.

Gear That Missed the Mark

Five years ago when I started researching about how to backpack with baby, there was not much info to find. My most pressing question was how to carry him. Every blog touted the soft-sided carrier coupled with a traditional backpack. I knew this would be okay for those first few hikes when he was only a month or two old, but I also knew it wouldn’t be a solution for us going forward due to the rugged situations in which we sometimes find ourselves. I ordered a framed backpack carrier. When the child carrier arrived, I felt overwhelmed and lost again. How in the world would we fit everything in this pack? Would it be sturdy enough? Did I make a wrong choice right out of the gate? Turns out that child carrier was a completely wrong choice. As it so happens, we chose poorly on the child carrier more than once! It was the one thing we bought that we completely missed the boat. I think part of this came from buying too early and online. We finally found the perfect pack for us when D was about 10 months. The Osprey Poco Premium answered each of our needs. We do a lot of scree climbing, river wading, and off-trail trekking.

A SSC, a Kelty, Dueter, or Vaude carrier were not up to the task. I didn’t know these wouldn’t work until we tried it. After striking out several times, we found the Osprey. We really should have known the Osprey would rock. It was the sturdiest, most heavy duty, and comfortable pack on the market five years ago. That pack has accompanied us on countless day hikes, multi-night trips, overnights, and days on the river. Memories are stained in the fabric. Seeing it hanging on its hook, unused most of the season, brings a tear to my eye.

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Your pack will accompany you on every journey. Take the time to make the right choice for your type of adventuring. Child carriers have came a long way since we purchased ours, and even those brands I said missed the mark, have upped their game.

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Putting the Poco through some preliminary testing

We are all bound to make mistakes, no matter how much research we do. If I had let Dustin do the shopping, we would have ended up with a whole gear closet of things we didn’t use. There are some amazingly cool things on the market specifically for kiddos. They will be infuriatingly tempting to buy, but remember you will be carrying those “must haves” along with the diapers (clean and dirty), extra clothes, extra food, etc.

What we Carried Through the Years

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0-2 Years 

Osprey Poco Premium (I carried)

  • The kid
  • Extra and sleep clothing
    • Kiddo’s spare pants and shirt. His sleepwear. His base layers.
    • Dustin and I’s sleep clothes and base layers
    • Soft shells and the kiddo’s fleece
  • Fishing gear – packs and wading boots
  • Mosquito net
  • Diapers, wipes, and wet bag
  • Emergency blankets
  • SPOT
  • Map
  • Camera
  • Sunscreen
  • Toys (these only went with us one summer)

Osprey Aether 65L (Dustin’s pack)

  • Big Agnes Copper Spur UL2 and footprint
  • Western Mountaineering Alpinlite x2
  • Thermarest Neo-air with coupler x2 (Regular and Large)
  • Tarp
  • Kiddo puffy pants and jacket
  • Katadyn Vario water filter
  • MSR Dragonfly stove
  • Fuel
  • Bladder
  • Nalgene x2
  • Bear Vault (with all our food)
  • Rain Gear x2
  • Waders
  • Emergency Bag (tent repair, stove repair, water filter scrub, first aid kit, iodine tablets, fire starters, batteries, pack soap, Leatherman, compass)
  • Pack towel
  • GPS
  • MSR Quick 2 Cookset
  • Candle lantern
  • Headlights x3
  • Knife
  • Fly Rods
  • Ergo carrier
  • Extra kiddo shoes
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3 Years – we also added a dog this year

Osprey Aether 55L (My pack)

  • Big Agnes Copper Spur UL3 and footprint
  • Western Mountaineering Alpinlite x2
  • Thermarest Neo-air with coupler x2 (Regular and Large)
  • Tarp
  • Katadyn Vario water filter
  • MSR Dragonfly stove
  • Fuel
  • Bladder
  • Nalgene x2
  • Bear Vault (with all our food and Neva’s)
  • Rain Gear x2
  • Emergency Bag (tent repair, stove repair, water filter scrub, first aid kit, iodine tablets, fire starters, batteries, pack soap, Leatherman, compass)
  • Pack towel
  • MSR Quick 2 Cookset
  • Candle lantern
  • Headlights x3
  • Knife
  • Sunscreen
  • Fly Rods
  • Noble Camper (Neva’s bed)
  • Camera
  • Extra kiddo shoes

Osprey Poco Premium (Dustin carried)

  • The kid
  • Extra and sleep clothing
    • Drake’s spare pants and shirts. His sleepwear. His baselayers.
    • Dustin and I’s sleep clothes and base layers
    • Soft shells and kiddo puffy jacket and pants
  • Fishing gear – packs and reels
  • Mosquito net
  • Emergency blankets
  • SPOT
  • Map
  • GPS
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4 Years

Osprey Aether 55L (My pack)

  • Nemo Losi LS 3P, footprint, and Big Agnes MtnGlo
  • Western Mountaineering Alpinlite x2
  • Thermarest Neo-air with coupler x2 (Regular and Large)
  • Sleep Clothes x3
    • merino mid-weight baselayers for the whole family, pants, shirts, and socks
  • Extra clothing
    • Spare pants, shirts for drake
    • My soft-shell
    • Kiddo socks x3 
  • Patagonia Puff Jackets x2
  • Katadyn Gravity Camp 6L
  • MSR Dragonfly stove
  • Fuel
  • Bear Vault (with all our food and Neva’s)
  • Rain Gear (kiddo’s and mine)
  • Emergency Bag (tent repair, stove repair, water filter scrub, first aid kit, iodine tablets, fire starters, batteries, pack soap, Leatherman, compass)
  • Pack towel
  • Sea to Summit Xpot Cookset
  • Headlights x3
  • Knife
  • Sunscreen
  • Fly Rods
  • Noble Camper (Neva’s bed)
  • Camera
  • Extra kiddo shoes

Osprey Poco Premium (Dustin carried)

  • The kid (Drake only rode in the carrier once this summer)
  • His rain gear and softshell
  • Fishing gear – packs and reels
  • Emergency blankets
  • SPOT
  • GPS

Osprey Jet 12L (Drake carried)

  • Western Mountaineering Alpinlite Sleeping Bag
  • Map

Halfway through this summer, we quit taking the child carrier. He was crossing scree like a champ and loved the challenge of off-trail hiking. Leaving the child carrier at home allowed Dustin and I to split the weight. Wow! I could not believe how light my pack was the first trip. It was amazing, and sad at the same time. It seems as if parenting is full of moments like that.

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Clothing Through the Years

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0-3 Years 

  • Hiking shirt x2
  • Hiking pants x3 (make sure they are quick drying for those potty accidents)
  • Fleece jacket
  • Patagonia Puff jacket and pants
  • Merino baselayers – lightweight and midweight
  • Fleece jammies
  • Socks x3 (SmartWool)
  • Shoes x2 (Keen Alamosa and Keen Sandles)
  • Bibbitec bib
  • Warm hat
  • Sun hat
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4 Years

  • Hiking shirt x2
  • Hiking pants x2
  • Fleece Jacket
  • Soft Shell
  • Rain gear (pants and jacket) – we bought the last of the REI toddler line on clearance
  • Merino baselayers – midweight and lightweight
  • Synthetic baselayer shirt
  • Shoes x2 (Vasque Breeze Hiking Boots and Solomon tennis shoes)
  • Socks x3 (SmartWool)
  • Warm hat
  • Sun hat
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Parting Thoughts

Life is full of overwhelming choices. For us, we cannot afford to make gear mistakes. Every choice we make is one that is well researched. We all have allegiances to our favorite brands and are hesitant to try new things. I get it; gear relationships are strong and opinions on gear border political convictions! While it is a scary to try something new, the things I have suggested in this post have been family tested for the past five summers. We have missed the mark on some things and nailed it on others. Most likely you will too. The most important thing is to try not to be overwhelmed by all the choices and trust your own backpacking instincts. Get your gear and get out there with your kiddo!

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Written by Stephanie Mullins

2 Comments

The River Damsel

Excellent information! You are such a wonderful writer. This needs to be in an outdoor magazine. It would really be beneficial to those with young children. And I love the big pic of Drake in his snowsuit! So handsome!

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