Q&A about backpacking with a toddler
The logistics of taking a toddler backpacking might seem overwhelming and intimidating. I know you have a million questions and concerns about it because I had the same questions and worries before we started backpacking with our daughter. I already wrote a blog and did a Q&A about Backpacking with an Infant but I decided to write another one about backpacking with a toddler. A lot of things stayed the same but there were also some changes because now she is in a backpack carrier instead of the front one, she eats solid foods, naps less, and runs and explores everywhere. I hope to break it down for you and provide necessary information. In reality backpacking with a toddler is not as intimidating as it sounds. The hardest part is probably getting out of the door.
When did you start backpacking with Zoey?
We started car camping, road tripping and hiking when our daughter was only three weeks old. We took Zoey on her first backpacking trip when she was three months old and we did a number of backpacking trips with her that summer. We knew that it was important to get her used to it from a very young age. We also didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity to do more difficult hikes while she was a baby and was more easy to deal with and much lighter to carry. I strongly believe that starting backpacking with her early helped us a lot in many ways as she was growing up.
How far do we hike?
We try to hike no more than 3-5 hours per day now because it’s hard for Zoey to be in the carrier for that long as eventually she just wants to run around and explore. This time normally allows us to hike 6 to 10 miles depending on terrain and elevation gain. We also try to take a long break in the middle to make sure that Zoey gets to run around and explore. Now that she is getting heavier we are definitely planning shorter distances per day because it’s physically more demanding (at least for me).
How do we entertain our daughter while hiking?
This might be one of the most asked questions. Unfortunately, I am not a big help with this one. Our daughter doesn’t mind being in a carrier. She enjoys looking around and often takes a nap while we are hiking. I think that this is due to the fact that we were doing it from a very young age and now she is simply used to it because she is not a patient kid normally and always wants to run around like crazy. She does get cranky after several hours of hiking, and we try to distract her with snacks, sticks, leaves and flowers we find around. I can imagine how demotivating it can be when your kid is whining or freaking out in a carrier. Sometimes I think that my daughter knows that perfectly annoying pitch of whining that I can’t simply stand so she gets whatever she wants. So just do what you can and what you think is best for you and your child. We have our own struggles with other things, and we just adjust, bend, sacrifice and get creative. But one thing I also learned is that sometimes it takes some crying and whining to get them used to something new, and there is not much to do about it so just bare with it. It might take couple of backpacking trips with a whining child which is not fun but I think it will be worth it after a while for you and your child.
How do we distribute the weight between the two of us?
Because I carry Zoey and I am not as strong as my husband, I pack all the light stuff. Carrier also doesn’t have a lot of extra space for gear. I normally pack all of Zoey’s essentials such as diapers, wipes, bottle, sippy cup, snacks, her clothes, sunscreen, bugspray, carrier rain cover etc. (some items do vary depending on the season and weather). I also carry my own clothes and toiletries plus a sleeping bag or a pad, my mug, water bottle and camera. My husband aka “ The Hulk” carries the rest of the gear: tent(Big Agnes Copper Spur), the other two sleeping bags, pads, pillows, Jetboil, water filter, food, Garmin satellite communicator, first aid kit, his mug, his clothes, water bottle, camera gear. Having lightweight gear and taking it one step at a time is the key. There is no way around the extra weight but you would be surprised what your body is capable of. Also, the second and third day of backpacking will be a lot better than the first day as your body will adjust to the weight.
What clothes I pack for Zoey?
Depending on the number of days, I bring her two or three sets of clothes for the day(pants and shirts) one or two pairs of pajamas, and layers for cold weather witch vary depending on temperature. If it’s cold at night we bring her Patagonia down suit which we use as a sleeping bag, and if it’s not too cold I have a fleece suit for Zoey to sleep in. Sometimes I bring both of these layers so that she can wear a fleece suit to play outside and get dirty, and keep her down suit clean for sleeping at night, or we might also bring rain clothes if needed for playing and exploring outside when it’s wet and muddy. Sometimes I will also bring an extra fleece jacket as an extra layer for warmth, and ,of course, accessories such as beanies, socks, gloves, sun hat. I make my decision based on weather conditions before we pack. We just embrace the fact that she probably will be wearing dirty clothes for couple of days in a row, and that’s okay because it’s a part of the game. When she was a baby I packed more changes of pants and onesies because of blowouts but at toddler age it’s not a concern anymore.
What do we do about naps?
Our daughter enjoys her carrier and often gets her naps while we hike. But there were also a number of times when she would stay awake and alert for most of the hike and fall asleep half an hour before we get to our campsite. We also try to put her down in a tent and lay down with her so that she can fall asleep but ,honestly, it worked only a hand-full of times because she is a very active kid and, of course, wants to explore a new place. We compensate the lack of naps by going to bed early, and we also don’t make a big deal about it as long as she is happy and having fun. If it’s a multi-day backpacking trip she normally does better napping in her carrier or even in the tent after day one as the novelty of the new adventure wears off and she is less stimulated and excited by her surroundings.
How does Zoey sleep in a tent at night?
She loves sleeping in a tent because we were doing it from a very young age. The problem the very first night of backpacking is that she gets too excited and jumps all over the place and has hard time falling asleep. If she is in this crazy/excited mode we just let her get crazy in the tent until she eventually falls asleep. She usually falls asleep soon after it gets dark, and after that we move her in her spot and cover with the sleeping bag. She usually falls asleep better on day two of backpacking.
What is our nighttime sleeping setup?
We bring three pads: two Therm-a-Rest Neoair Xtherm and one Therm-a-Rest Z Lite SOL. Zoey sleeps on Z Lite SOL pad sandwiched between our pads. We also bring for her a lightweight sleeping bag Mountain Hardware 28 degree bag. It’s super lightweight so we like to have it for Zoey to lay on, and also to be used as a blanket. I actually also have my eyes on the new Mountain Hardware Ghost Whisperer 40 degree bag which looks awesome and even lighter but the one we have already works great too for now. She usually sleeps in her Patagonia down suit or fleece suit though because she moves in her sleep and gets uncovered. We are planning to take Zoey winter camping soon so we’ll have a different setup. I we’ll keep you posted on our changes of gear for winter and what we will learn.
How do we deal with cold temperatures?
We haven’t done a lot of long winter hikes with Zoey as a toddler. When Zoey was a baby my husband would carry her in the front carrier inside of his puffy jacket so she stayed very toasty that way. We try to keep wipes close to our bodies so that they don’t freeze or get really cold. We also change Zoey in the tent while she is covered by a sleeping bag or a jacket but she also doesn’t mind being exposed to cold for couple of minutes while being changed. We definitely try to do shorter hiking distances when it’s cold outside, and bundle her up at night.
Diapering while backpacking?
We do the same thing as when she was a baby. We use gDiapers with biodegradable liners while backpacking. Biodegradable liners can be discarded in pit toilets or buried in the ground. These diapers have a cotton cover so we try to bring several of them(I think 3 is ideal) so that we can change, wash and dry them if needed because they don’t dry very fast. Also, important to note that these diaper liners don’t absorb and hold as much as the regular ones and require to be changed more often. We also often rotate these liners because the front gets wet but the back part is still completely dry, this way you get more use out of them and they last longer. We also just pack all the dirty wipes out with other garbage.
What do we feed our daughter while backpacking?
This is a challenge for us because it’s always hard to feed our daughter. We bring Annie’s Mac’n Cheese because it’s always a safe bet and something she loves eating. We also feed her Good To-Go dehydrated meals. Pasta is what she enjoys the most, but we also had luck with mushroom risotto and vegetable korma. She always eats instant oatmeal for breakfast and we mix in nut butters for more nutrition. For snacks we bring crackers, fruit squeezes, bars (LARABAR is her favorite), energy balls, dry fruit, nuts. Zoey still drinks her bottle. We’ve been giving her watered down almond milk at home, and I bought powdered coconut milk for backpacking which we dilute with water. It is mostly a comfort thing for her, and she also likes her bottle warm temperature. That being said, it really depends on what your child is used to eating and how much you are willing to carry but you can figure out what works best by trial and error. I learned not to stress about her nutrition too much while backpacking as long as she is happy and healthy.
What are the most essential items?
All items that we bring on our trip are needed and essential. Of course, some are probably more essential than others. I’d say diapers and wipes, bottle, food, Jetboil to make food and water filter, toddler clothes and sleeping setup. Haha, so pretty much most of it. You just pretty much need items to keep your toddler happy and taken care of. Nobody likes to deal with a cranky child in the middle of nowhere. Make sure your toddler is fed, hydrated, changed, warm and rested and you will have a happy little adventurer. We also always bring Garmin satellite communicator and first aid kit for emergencies. We never had an emergency situation but it’s important to be prepared. It’s also important to have a first aid kit not only for your child (we bring baby Tylenol and Benadryl) but also for you. Since your child’s safety and wellbeing depends on yours make sure to take care of yourself. I did get sick couple of times in the backcountry and it wasn’t fun so it’s important to have some medicine with you.
What carrier do we use?
I haven’t tested a lot of carriers in the backcountry but the one we have I bought because of all the research we’ve done beforehand. We use and love Thule Sapling Elite Child Carrier. It is super comfortable, adjusts for height so that both my husband and I can use it, and it has a roomy compartment for gear underneath the seat, great pockets in various spots, sun shade and a detachable daypack on the front. I also bought separately a rain cover for this carrier which is also very useful if it’s really windy. Zoey is also very comfortable in this carrier, and always gets excited when we pull it out and tries to get in it on her own because she gets impatient to go on a hike.
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