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Beginner Skills

Pass/Fail: Backpack With a Baby

Are mother and son ready to trade the crib for a tent?

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“Ok, here’s my biggest fear,” I told my friend Norman, as I zipped my 13-month-old son into his fire engine jammies at our campsite in Rocky Mountain National Park. “Sam will figure out how to unzip the tent. Then he’ll wait until we’re asleep, sneak out silently, wander down to the creek, and drown.”

Norman, bless his heart, didn’t laugh. “I really don’t think that’s going to happen,” he said. So I moved on to my second-biggest (and much more realistic) fear: that Sam would respond to his first backpacking trip by howling all night, spooking the wildlife, and making me regret the whole experiment. He’s a challenging sleeper under the best of circumstances, so maybe the cold, the 8,000-foot altitude, or just the weirdness of sleeping in a tent would add up to a miserable night. As I ran through my list of worries, I wondered: Was I forcing Sam into a situation he wasn’t ready for, just because I really wanted to introduce him to backpacking?

But it was too late for second-guessing. I’d already decided it was time to share one of my biggest passions with my son. He loves riding in his kid-carrier pack for hikes—he’d already ticked off day trips in Colorado, Montana, and Alaska—but we hadn’t yet made a night of it. I didn’t want to start with car camping, in case he started screaming and woke up everyone within earshot. Backpacking, despite the extra challenges, seemed like the better—and, ideally, more fun—option. I dream of spending the next 17 years or so watching my son fall in love with the outdoors, one sunset, shooting star, and s’more at a time. Why wait to get started?

So I studied the map and drew up a packing list. I chose a spot 1.5 miles from the trailhead, along Rocky’s mellow East Inlet Trail, in case we had to beat a hasty retreat. The morning’s foreboding bank of clouds magically cleared as we finished loading up at the parking lot, triple-checking our supply of the baby happiness trifecta—diapers, wipes, and snacks. Sam babbled happily on my back as we skirted a meadow with views of round-topped Mt. Craig and climbed a rocky rise overlooking a beaver pond; he alternated between pointing at birds and yanking on my ponytail. So far, so good. Maybe I’d been silly to worry.

But we hit a snag upon arriving at our campsite. Somehow, in the last 1.5 miles, Sam’s diaper leaked pee all over his pants and the kid carrier. “This hasn’t happened on dayhikes,” I said as an excuse, remembering that I’d only brought him one pair of pants in an effort to save weight. But it was a warm summer day. “I suppose it won’t kill him to stay in these,” I said.

Sam was much too excited about exploring to let damp pants bring him down. Norman and I switched off camp-pitching chores and hovering as Sam toddled around the site—at least one extra set of hands was required to make sure he didn’t poke himself in the eye with a stick, roll down the slope to the creek, or eat (too much) dirt. He was thrilled, and his joy only grew as the light faded.

At dusk, I had one very excited (and overtired) baby on my hands. Still, it was easy to be patient with him as we listened to the wind swishing through the trees. Bundled in his footie PJs and tucked into my sleeping bag, Sam finally drifted off with his head on the bag of clean diapers.

Norman and I stayed up, whispering into the night. A fox glided through camp, revealing itself only by the gleam of its eyes. The Milky Way practically shouted for attention overhead. Pregnancy and infant care had kept me from backpacking for nearly two years. I’d missed it.

Then, that familiar, primal shriek: Sam was up. Norman held him while I rushed to load up our bear canister, but he didn’t stop screaming until I slid into the bag with him. This could be a long night.

And it was. It wasn’t so much that Sam woke up crying (twice), but that my sleeping pad turned out to be too narrow for the both of us. Frozen in one uncomfortable position on the edge, I slept little.

But in the morning, Norman and I opened our eyes and realized we’d made it through the night. When Sam woke a moment later, his face immediately broke into an incandescent grin. We are still outside! This is the greatest day ever!

Sam’s smile matched mine. My instincts had been right after all: He was ready to discover the joys of backpacking. And more than that, I felt like I’d reclaimed a missing piece of myself. Of course, parenthood demands sacrifices—but I now knew the outdoors wouldn’t be one of them.

The Verdict: Pass

It might not have been easy or comfortable, but Sam not only kept his dirt diet in check—he had a great time.

Skill: Keep Baby Happy on the Trail

Clothing Pack clothes for your baby as you would for yourself: long pants and sleeves, insulation, raingear, and a warm hat and socks (depending on weather). Always pack extra layers; this is not the time to go ruthlessly light.

Feeding Squeeze pouches of pureed baby food are lightweight and not too messy. For infants, breastfeed or mix powdered formula with purified water.

Diapers Figure out how many your baby usually goes through for your trip duration, then add three. The keys to wilderness diaper changes: A small changing pad, plenty of wipes, and hand sanitizer. Double-bag the dirty ones, store them in your bear bag or canister, and pack them out.

Bedding Share a roomy sleeping bag with your baby if you feel comfortable; use a 25-inch-wide pad or add a lightweight foam pad of his or her own next to yours. Couples can zip bags together and sleep with baby between them (double pads are great for this).

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