Matt and Kimberly Kinney always travel light when they head into the woods, leaving behind everything but the necessities and keeping their backpacks as slim as possible. Two summers ago they decided to add one very heavy item to the packing list: their 22-pound infant.
In July 2015, the Sacramento parents took their son Thomas, then 11 months old, backpacking on the 165-mile Tahoe Rim Trail. The adventure was so successful that they plan to repeat it this summer, this time adding their second son James to the mix. Earlier this month, Kimberly, a speech pathologist, and Matt, a geologist, spoke at REI Sacramento about how to successfully backpack with little ones, sharing their trials and tribulations with about a dozen curious families.
Bringing an infant into the elements sounds bizarre to most people, Kimberly said, but it felt like a given for the young couple, who have been logging miles together for about six years.
“Generally, people were concerned about mosquitoes and bugs and him being dirty,” she said, recounting others’ comments before they left. “Everything out on the trail and in the mountains, for us, gets very simple and very easy. You don’t have to worry about the things you do in everyday life out there. All you have to focus on is putting one foot in front of the other and staying happy – that’s it.”
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While the family did achieve a sense of tranquility on the trail, they were frantic with questions leading up to the hike, Kimberly said. How would they all sleep? What medicine should they bring? Where would they put Thomas’ dirty diapers?
While some parents have blogged about their backpacking experiences, there weren’t a lot of specifics on the web, she said. After speaking with their pediatrician and doing countless hours of research, the couple came up with 46 items totaling about 95 pounds to cover Thomas’ trail needs and their own. They set up supply boxes every three days to restock on food and diapers.
REI carries half a dozen hiking packs designed to carry infants and toddlers, with models in which children sit upright behind the pack as well as soft carriers, usually worn against the front, which can be used for smaller babies.
Dr. Michelle Ernst, a pediatrician at Kaiser Permanente’s Roseville Medical Center, recommends saving long hikes, and especially backpacking trips, until the child is 6 months or older and can hold their own head up in a backpack. Day hikes and regular overnight camping may be feasible earlier as long as the weather is nice and you have a way of keeping the child warm at night, she said.
When it comes to preparing for a trip, sun protection, insect repellent and water filtration are the biggest concerns for children, Ernst said. Parents should be prepared to supervise their children more intently in the wilderness than they would indoors.
“You have to be incredibly safe because there are bodies of water, there are rocks; granite is very unforgiving,” she said. “But even just getting kids out there and hiking, I’d highly recommend it for every family. It’s good, quality bonding time.”
The Kinneys fretted over everything when it came to protecting Thomas on the trail, they said. But in the end, it was an experience they wouldn’t trade for the world.
“People are generally afraid of the elements – the sun, the cold, the heat, the wind – those things you can’t predict,” Kimberly said. “You can what-if and be scared until you actually do it, and then it ends up being a lot more simple.”
“This is something (the kids) are going to remember forever – being in a place with no roof over their heads,” Matt said. “It’s really a great chance to foster in your child a love of something that’s bigger than they are.”
Here are some tips and tricks for successfully camping or backpacking with babies:
Fevers, ear infections, hypothermia and heat exhaustion are just a few of the worst-case wilderness scenarios that might keep some parents from hitting the trail. Worried about emergencies, the Kinneys chose a route with easy access to civilization and purchased a high-end communication device to call for help.
Their Garmin InReach Explorer, priced at $450, kept the Kinneys from getting lost in the woods and could have hailed a helicopter from any remote location.
“I wanted to be able to hike with a baby and know that I could get out at a moment’s notice and be as close to home as possible,” Kimberly said. “The single thing that kept me sane about my child was having that device and knowing I had an out.”
The Kinneys also attached a small mirror to the top of Matt’s pack so he could keep an eye on Thomas during the hike to make sure he looked healthy and happy.
For first aid, Ernst recommends bringing along Band-Aids, gauze and topical antibiotics. She does not recommend bringing an EpiPen for allergen exposure, as they should only be used if professional help is nearby. Parents worried about insect or other allergies could consult their physicians.
Getting a baby to sleep at home can be a difficult task, which makes sleeping on the trail an extra challenge. The Kinneys recommend a “pad coupler,” which keeps two adult sleeping pads close together to create one large surface for parents and children to sleep on. The pads insulated Thomas from the cold tent floor, and an ultralight backpacking quilt kept him warm, they said.
The Kinneys gave Thomas plenty of time to crawl around on the dirt and play in the water once they made camp each afternoon. Then they took off his dirty clothes, put on clean pajamas and piled into their cozy tent. The next morning it was back into the hiking outfit, which meant they only had to bring two outfits total – a nifty trick for saving weight.
Babies should not be taken into high elevation until their lungs are developed enough – typically after 3 months. The Kinneys did plenty of practice hikes with Thomas to see how he handled elevation, and he did not experience altitude sickness. If a baby seems unhappy during training hikes at moderate altitude, consult a physician about taking them higher up.
Some parents use reusable diapers on the trail, stopping periodically to wash and dry them for later use. The Kinneys opted for disposable diapers, packing a few days’ worth at a time and then putting the dirty ones in Ziploc bags. Every few days they stopped at a resupply station to dump old diapers and pack new ones. They also packed a large towel for changing and plenty of wipes for general cleanliness, which they also tossed at resupply stations.
Food and water
The Kinneys pretty much ate what they eat at home, except with more calories, they said. Candy bars and potato chips were common indulgences, and with a 12- to 17-mile hike every day they didn’t feel guilty about it.
Because Kimberly was nursing Thomas on the trail, she was careful to drink plenty of water and eat every one to two hours to keep her milk supply up.
For water, Ernst recommends skipping chemical treatments such as iodine tablets, which are rough on young tummies and aren’t guaranteed to clear the water of Giardia and other parasites. Instead, use a water filter to pump water from streams and lakes. Matt Kinney recommends the Sawyer Squeeze, available at REI.