Gear Selection: Baby Carrier

Our hopes for the summer of 2021 have been set high for attempting a thru hike with our baby, “Toothless”NOTE1, during our parental leave. A key piece of gear to select is a way to carry him.

The trip planning itself is still in progress because it’s much slower to plan a thru hike when you have a baby at home, and we were kind of holding out rather late hoping to do the PCT (until it became quite apparent that it wouldn’t be feasible in 2021 due to the pandemic). We do have our favourites. Whichever hike we do, and we’ll be flexible, we know it will be local and it won’t be as well established as the PCT or AT.

Another problem is – well, Toothless can’t quite hold his head up on his own yet, but he will by the time we do the thru hike. And he’ll continue to grow. He’ll be about 7-8 months when the hike starts and close to 10-11 months at the end. So our system of carrying him now may not be the same as when we do the thru hike. Babies can’t be carried in back-pack carriers until they can hold their heads up on their own. This normally is at around 6-7 months, but varies child to child. This is hard because his needs are constantly changing and whatever gear we select needs to work for all of us, without weighing a tonne.

So we’ve been tossing around ideas on how to carry him. Currently we carry Toothless using an Ergo front carrier that was handed down to us from our friends. We love it for day hikes and walks so far, but it’s not something I envision taking on a thru hike. it’s denim and bulky. Those same friends gave us a MEC Happytrails carrier as a hand-me-down. While old, this thing is pretty sturdy, competitively light and has a competitive pack volume. So we’ve given it serious consideration.

Requirements

Requirements are not much different than a normal back pack, but there are a few more:

  • Minimize mass of the pack
  • Appropriate volume to carry gear
  • Comfortable for the wearer (in this case, it may be beneficial for both parents to be comfortable carrying a single pack)
  • Comfortable for the baby
  • Easy access to baby items that are needed quickly
  • Must be able to keep baby and baby gear dry, warm and generally protect from the elements
  • Must be safe

Mass

As with any pack, the intent is to minimize the mass. Also with a baby carrier, ensuring the mass is distributed comfortably is key. Structured baby carrier backpacks can place the load quite far away from the back.

What also needs to be considered is the baby will also be heavy, and will gain weight throughout the hike. Although we are in Canada, the USA CDC website has a helpful table of weight vs age for babies. If you know your baby weight for the first few weeks or months, you can follow the same trend (or use the same “percentile” column) and estimate what it may be when the hike starts. In our case Toothless might be somewhere in the range of 16-18 lbs at the start of the hike depending on how he develops and when the hike actually starts.

So having a pack that is able to support a child, while remaining light enough as a pack, is important. You can’t cut the handles off of your baby. In fact, having your baby grow and gain weight is one of the goals!

Volume

While we don’t have a full pack-list yet for Toothless, we know that we need to bring the essentials.

  • We are breastfeeding, so no bottles or formula is necessary
  • Diapers, and cloths or wet wipes
  • Z-Lite sleeping pad (rigid sleeping pad)
  • Morrison Outdoors sleeping bag
  • Clothing (warm clothes, sun, sunscreen, etc)

We estimate the baby items will be approximately 10 L, but this is an estimate. We have cloth diapers (although different than what we will take on the hike), the sleeping pad, sleeping bag and some idea of what his clothes will look like.

During our GDT hike in 2018, and for our other major hikes, we typically do not fill our packs above the frame or top of the shoulder straps. For our packs I estimate that to be 45-47L each.

So adding this together gives us 100-102 L volume total that we approximately need to carry, which includes food but excludes the baby.

Comfort

The person carrying the baby needs to be comfortable – in terms of how the pack fits (straps, weight distribution, etc) and cooling. Some carrying options might have less ventilation than others.

The baby needs to be comfortable as well. The same factors apply. The baby needs to be comfortable in the seat, content (does he like being carried like that? does he want to see things and look around?) and stay cool in the heat and warm in the cold.

Access to Baby Items

So it’s not a huge panic that TV makes it seem, but you need to be able to access diaper supplies when the baby needs to be changed. This is no different than me needing access to our cat-hole shovel and hygiene supplies.

Also sunscreen, hats, pacifier (if still needed), and any toys are necessary. Babies also spit up and drool so a small towel is needed to keep his face and neck dry. This can be handled with hip-belt pockets or side pockets. Doesn’t have to be part of the carrier.

Protect from Elements

The baby isn’t hiking, so it’s not keeping itself warm. So he needs to be shielded from rain and wind if possible, and have the ability to stay warm and dry. Layers and clothing can be used but some carriers will make it easier to add/ remove gear than others. ie: a backpack carrier is probably a little easier to dress baby up and down in layers frequently, but is less shielded from the elements so might need that to happen more often than a soft carrier.

Safety

Obviously, the baby needs to be secure. And safe from getting hit by tree branches, etc.

Options

There are two main architectural options to choose from:

  • Soft carrier (front or back)
  • Structured back-pack carrier

Each one of these categories have a lot of options in both design and products. Examples of these are what we already have, the Ergo and the Happytrails. One carries the baby on your front (or your back depending on the design) and the other carries the baby on your back with gear. The soft carriers have different configurations – you can have the baby face inwards, towards your chest, or outwards towards the environment.

There are a number of well visited websites showing backpack carrier options. I tried to cast my net a little wider than this.

Soft structured carriers are also abundant, but there are fewer hiking specific resources for these. This also means that the overall volume or weight of the carrier itself isn’t specified on product websites or data sheets.

If a soft carrier is used, it would likely be used along with a normal hiking backpack for a thru hike. This means the carrier needs to be compatible with also wearing a back-pack.

Structured backpack carriers typically come with a rain cover, which can protect the child from rain and wind. We are also considering getting an ultralight umbrella instead of the rain cover so both the parent and Toothless can get some rain cover, but this would come at the expense of losing some wind protection. So a poncho might be needed for Toothless.

Front carriers hold the baby close to the parent, and we can use a poncho or rain jacket to cover both parent and Toothless. An umbrella may be used here as well.

I listed a number of options (and added some notes and more information on my personal spreadsheet) to try to get a handle on the options.

  • -1 volume means that there is no volume documented on the product website or elsewhere I could find
  • “blank” mass means there is no mass listed on the product website, but is of a similar mass as other equivalent options.
DescriptionBrandTypeVolume (L)Mass (kg)
Happytrails Child CarrierMECBackpack; Framed182.9
Kid Comfort Active SLDeuterBackpack; Framed122.65
Kid Comfort ProDeuterBackpack; Framed223.55
Voyager S5 Child CarrierLittleLifeBackpack; Framed282.9
FillyToughTravellerBackpack; Framed9.21.9
Premium Baby CarrierluvdbabyBackpack; Framed-12.9
Clevrplus Cross CountryClevrplusBackpack; Framed-12.5
Journey PerfectFitKeltyBackpack; Framed262.9
EscapePhilandTedsBackpack; Framed303
ParadePhilandTedsBackpack; Framed-12
PocoPlusOspreyBackpack; Framed263.6
PocoOspreyBackpack; Framed203.5
Baby Carrier MiniBabybjornUnstructured; Front00.23
Happy OnbuhimoHappyBabyUnstructured; Front0 
SakuraBloom OnbuhimosakurabloomUnstructured; Front0 
LennyLamb OnbuLennyLambUnstructured; Front0 
Didy OnbuhimoDidymosUnstructured; Front0 
Baby Carriers under Evaluation

I plotted the mass vs volume data to make it more apparent. There is a trendline to help visualize which options have a better mass/ volume relationship.

Baby Carriers – Mass vs Volume Plot

Some notes worth mentioning below:

MEC HappyTrails

The MEC HappyTrails could potentially have more volume (shift right in the plot) if hip belt pockets are added or if we customize the bag. I looked at a few options here, and decided that if we did go that route we could probably add about 10 L to the pack by making custom attachments or making a custom compartment. And adding hip pockets and external attachments to the side of the baby compartment could add an extra 2-4 L.

I evaluated these options and they are high effort, and as stated above, do not offer much additional volume. But they can be considered.

This pack also does not fit Natasha very well, but is very comfortable for me.

KidComfort Active SL

The KidComfort Active SL fits both Natasha and I quite well, but does not have much volume at all. This was tempting to consider but has quite a poor mass/ volume ratio.

ToughTraveller Filly

I’m not actually sure if this is even available beyond e-bay listings.

I stumbled on this and was very pleased that the company makes custom bags, which got me interested. But the website does not list the baby carrier (although an older webpage that’s still hosted, but not linked off of the front page does list the options). Internet search shows some very old but positive reviews endorsing them, but also brought to light a voluntary recall from many years ago. I wasn’t overly concerned about the details of the recall itself (looked like an easy to solve issue) and wanted to know if the child carriers were still offered so I reached out recently to the company through their web-form. Once I get a response I will update this post.

If they do make these carriers still, then this could be a great option if they will accept a custom order to include a larger storage compartment. This would make this pack very competitive since it is very lightweight already. It’s the lightest structured baby carrier I could find.

Babybjorn Baby Carrier Mini (Mesh)

This is the only synthetic back-pack compatible soft carrier I could find. There is no hip belt and the shoulder straps are flat and cross in the back securely in an X. This appears like it would fit with my normal backpack on. The synthetic material seems quick to dry and a little cooler than other options.

HappyBaby Onbuhimo

They have a bunch of options, but this style carrier also has low profile straps and no hip belt. It does only come in organic fibres which do not appear at first glance to be very cool or quick to dry.

Natasha found a number of recommendations for this online, and it sparked my looking for other similar options. The other options I could find did not have very low profile shoulder straps so do not seem compatible with a backpack.

Other options would be a normal wrap style carrier, but while this is secure and we use one at home, I want something bomb proof and secure (with no chance of me messing it up with cold fingers) so I can be confident hiking in water with Toothless.

Narrow down the options

We haven’t made a decision yet, but we have worked out a few scenarios. Keeping in mind our need to have a minimum volume we can carry, the options are:

OptionNatashaKyleComments
1Existing Pack
+
Front Carrier
(1/2 time)
Existing Pack
+
Front Carrier
(1/2 time)
Existing packs can carry up to 120 L. Exceeds 100 L requirement.
Both Natasha and Kyle can carry baby (re-pack gear depending on who has baby)
285 L Pack (NEW)MEC HappyTrailsWeight would be poorly distributed – not equitable.
Natasha can’t carry baby.
Could maybe decrease new pack size to 70-75L if modify HappyTrails bag.
3KidComfort Active SL90 L Pack (NEW)Weight would be poorly distributed – not equitable.
Both Natasha and Kyle can carry baby, but Natasha can’t carry 90L pack.
475 L Pack (NEW)P&T EscapeWeight would be poorly distributed – not equitable.
Unclear if Natasha can carry baby, but only one of us could carry the 75 L pack.

It’s quite clear that the structured back-pack child carriers just don’t have enough volume to keep us from having to buy a new, much larger, pack. The largest option (Escape) would give us about the same volume and mass as if we modified the HappyTrails and both would require a 75L packs. So it might be better to just modify that rather than buy new.

And if we buy a new 75L pack, then it will only fit one of us. So then the weight distribution will not be very equitable. When Toothless is older, and heavier, this might make the weight distribution more equal but that’s unlikely for now. And besides, Natasha and I are similar sized and 75 L packs are starting to get quite large for us. Its borderline.

Also, our HappyTrails is pretty competitive and may be suitable for short trips and definitely suitable for day hikes.

While we haven’t ruled structured packs out completely, I’m leaning towards unstructured front carriers, either the HappyBaby or Babybjorn depending on how they fit. The Babybjorn looks tempting due to the material option.


Note 1: For our baby’s privacy, we will be calling him “Toothless” in our blog, until he is old enough to consent having his name shared with the public.

2 thoughts on “Gear Selection: Baby Carrier

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