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Consider These Hiking Carrier Features and Tips Before You Hit the Trails with Your Kid

Consider these hiking carrier features and tips before you hit the trails with your kid header

By Melissa Hart on September 21, 2021 in Travel

Outdoorsy new parents may worry, in the midst of sleepless nights and endless diaper changes, that they’ll never have the time or energy to hit the hiking trail again. However, exploring nature with your child is essential. Whether you’re walking along a downtown river path or hiking up a mountain, exploring the world fosters a sense of wonder and mitigates anxiety, providing a healthy way for parents to bond with their little ones.

Looking to ensure you and your kid are adventure-ready? Read on for our best hiking carrier tips.

Hiking Carrier Basics

Hiking carriers offer a free-standing frame with padded, adjustable shoulder and torso straps, a “cockpit” in which to place your child, a harness that goes over the child’s head and shoulders, and gear storage. A baby must have good neck and head control to sit up in a hiking carrier, along with the ability to support their head for long periods of time. This means you’ll need to wait until your little one is about six months old and weighs a minimum of 16 pounds. Make sure the harness on your carrier tightens enough to hold your child safely. Most carriers are built to carry a maximum of 50 pounds, so plan on buying a model you can use throughout your child’s toddler years.

Worried your baby might pinch a finger in an exposed spring or get cut on the sharp edge of a metal frame? Don’t be. All kid carriers sold in the United States must meet the Frame Child Carrier Standard from the Consumer Protection Safety Commission, meaning they follow strict safety standards.

You can expect to spend between $150 and $350 on a new hiking carrier. Before making a purchase, head to your local outdoor store with your child to try a few out. Place your child inside, adjust the straps to fit your body, and walk around the store to figure out what’s most comfortable for you both.

Mind the Tiny Details

Hiking carriers come with a variety of features to keep both you and your child comfortable on the trail. Even seemingly insignificant details like storage accessibility and ease of adjustment can make a big difference when you hike. Take note of the following important features of a hiking carrier before you make a decision.

  • Pockets/Storage
    When you’re hiking with a little one, you can’t just stick a granola bar in your pocket and call it good. At the very least, you’ll want to pack baby- or toddler-friendly snacks, a water bottle, diapers, wipes, a plastic bag for soiled diapers, and sunscreen. You’ll also want your phone and car keys, a pair of sunglasses for yourself, another water bottle, and that granola bar.

Different carriers offer different storage options. Some include a hydration sleeve for a water reservoir, which allows you to drink easily from a tube on the go. Others include one or two pockets for water bottles.

Many carriers offer between three and six gallons of storage. Often, more accessible zippered pockets in the torso straps supplement a pocket or two along the top and a larger zippered pocket at the bottom of the carrier. Some even include a “dirty” pocket that keeps soiled clothes separate from other gear and has an easy-to-clean coating.

  • Sun Protection
    Children need protection from the sun year-round. Even on cloudy days, UV rays can burn delicate skin. Look for a carrier with either a built-in sunshade that slides easily into a zippered compartment or one that can be purchased separately. Make sure the shade protects your child from all sides and not just from the top.

  • Rain Cover
    Don’t let an unexpected shower dampen your kiddo’s spirits on the trail. Carriers offer a variety of covers to keep kids dry and cozy. Some sunshades have clear plastic sides for rain protection, but a true rain cover features a water-resistant coating. Most rain covers are available for purchase separately.

  • Ventilation
    The cockpit — that is, the place in which your child sits — can get hot. The trick is to keep air moving around the body. Look for a carrier with openings around the top and mesh sides. Parents can get warm, too, so look for a full mesh back panel which allows space and breathability between your back and the carrier.

  • Comfort
    Parents will want both a padded torso belt that molds to your hips and padded shoulder straps to prevent chafing. A comfortable back panel and a suspension system that keeps your child’s weight closer to your body will provide stability and prevent back strain.

Children will be most comfortable in a soft seat with padded harness straps. Look for a carrier with a cushioned pad in the front which can support a sleeping kid. Older kids will appreciate a stirrup on either side of the seat to take pressure off their bottom during longer trips. Practice with your child in the carrier before you set off on a long hike to ensure you’re both comfortable.

  • Exit Options
    Some parents swear by top-loading carriers, which allow you to gently lower your child into the seat for a hike and then lift them out when you’re finished. Others prefer side-loading carriers, especially to get older kids in and out. Look for a lockable, stable kickstand so you can set the carrier on the ground without fear of it tipping over. Many kickstand models can be tucked away when you’re hiking.

  • Weight
    Carrier weight is critical, especially if you hike several hours at a time. Lightweight packs run between four and five pounds, while those with more padding weigh approximately eight pounds. Consider how much weight you’re comfortable carrying, and set an outside limit, taking into consideration your child’s growth.

  • Weight Limit
    Manufacturers post specific limits stating the maximum weight of a child for each specific carrier. Many carriers can hold children who weigh up to 50 pounds. When considering weight limit on a carrier, think about how many years you plan to hike with your child on your back. Some parents prefer that security until kids are five or six years old. Others want their kids to hike on their own at around four years old.

  • Adjustability
    When shopping for a hiking carrier, think about adjustability. Maybe you’d like a spouse, friend, or grandparent to be able to use it. If that’s the case, look for a carrier that allows the user to shorten or lengthen both the torso belt and shoulder straps, so the cushions offer maximum support. Growing children need an expandable harness system as well as a height-adjustable seat so they sit up high enough to look around. Before embarking on a major trip, consider tips for adjustment so you and your child will be comfortable regardless of height and weight.

  • Fabric
    We’ve already mentioned the importance of mesh sides and a mesh back cushion for air flow. Many parents also appreciate a washable front “drool pad” and a cockpit and/or pockets with a lining that’s easy to clean.

  • Extras
    Some hiking carriers include a daypack that zips off for a partner to carry, or a detachable kid-sized backpack. A carrier may include a mat to use for diaper changes, a pillow that affixes to the cockpit for extra head and neck support, or an aluminum bar that an energetic child can stand on. Some carriers are extra portable and allow you to fold them up for air travel.

Many parents find that they look forward to outdoor adventures with their children so much that the hiking carrier becomes a beloved piece of outdoor equipment. For this reason alone, it’s crucial to find one that works for you, with the comfort and safety features that best suit your body and lifestyle. With a little research, plus a boots-on-the-ground try-on in a local store, you can look forward to years of exploring nature trails with your child on your back.

Melissa Hart is a consultant for Say Insurance. She's the author of Better with Books: 500 Diverse Novels to Ignite Empathy and Encourage Self-Acceptance in Tweens and Teens and the award-winning middle grade novel Avenging the Owl. She's contributing editor at The Writer Magazine and a Creative Writing instructor for the MFA in Creative Writing program at Southern New Hampshire University.