The Best Hiking Carriers for Mountain Kids
This project’s been a while in the works, mostly because every time it seems ready to wrap, a new state-of-the-art baby carrier hits the market. This is a good thing for parents, who not so long ago used to be resigned to a couple of less-than-ideal options: cumbersome external frame packs or saggy soft carriers that put all of the weight on your shoulders, guaranteed back-busters when you hit the trail. The truth is, different packs work for different parents and different stages of your child's growth. Here’s a roundup of six stellar choices for hitting the trail with newborns to preschoolers. We did the leg work so you don’t have to.
ERGO CLASSIC BABY CARRIER
Best for: Birth to 40 pounds
For unrivaled baby-and-parent comfort, the Ergo Classic was my go-to hiking carrier for the first couple years of my daughters’ lives. I used it from about two weeks post-partum, in all seasons. With the help of a comfy padded waist belt, this soft cotton canvas carrier distributes most of the baby’s weight on your hips and not your shoulders—a boon to new mothers with achy backs.
The Ergo is designed to carry infants on the front and older babies on the back or side. For the newborns under three months, you’ll want to cushion the baby in the carrier using the infant insert (not included), a thick foam pad that wraps around the baby like a taco. From the age of about two weeks, both my daughters would fall asleep almost immediately when I swaddled them in the insert and placed them side saddle in the Ergo; it must have been comfortable because they’d sleep for nearly all of the two-hour hike up and down Picacho Peak, the only sound coming from my chest a contented snoring.
Figuring out when to switch the baby to your back depends on his temperament and size. My extremely curious older daughter refused to ride face in on my chest after about eight months, while my younger daughter was content to snuggle there until about a year, when she got so big it became difficult to see the trail under my feet. A poplin hood stuffs into the small front pocket and can be pulled over the baby to support his head during naptime or as shelter from sun, wind, and other weather.
PROS: Lightweight, flexible, and the most comfortable of any tested. At only a pound and a half, it’s great for traveling. With a carrying capacity equal to those of the backpack-style carriers, it’s the most versatile option on the market.
CONS: Very little storage, so on longer day hikes you’ll need to foist your gear onto your partner or wear your own daypack on your back (or front—awkward). It can also be challenging to put on by yourself, especially with baby on the back. And because your little one rides so close to you, it can be kind of a sweat factory in warm weather. $115; www.ergobaby.com.
DEUTER KANGAKID CARRIER
Best for: Nine months (or sitting up their own) to 33 pounds
Built for longer hikes when you need to bring gear, the KangaKid is a daypack and a baby carrier all in one. There’s an ample storage area for rain jackets, layers, lunch, and diapers, and a back compartment that unzips to become a padded baby seat, complete with adjustable safety harness. I used the KangaKid to tote my 13-month-old up 14,265-foot Quandary Peak, outside Breckenridge, Colorado, last summer. Slogging 3,500 vertical feet in just over three miles with a kid on your back is never going to feel easy, but with the Kanga, at least it wasn’t painful. I’m only 5’6”, and the pack fit me snugly without towering over my head or throwing me off balance. I had only minimal rubbing under one of the shoulder straps—a minor complaint given how content Maisy seemed, especially when she got tired around 13,000 feet, leaned her head against my shoulder, and fell asleep. The pockets were ample enough to hold both of our foul weather mountain gear, a small grocery store worth of snacks, and her diaper kit, and two external mesh pockets keep water bottles and baby bottles close at hand.
PROS: Lightweight, at 4 pounds, 8 ounces, with plenty of storage and none of the bulk. The Kanga’s an all-around bomber choice when you need to pack for more than just a mellow day hike; also great for easy-in, easy-out when you’re traveling.
CONS: Without an external frame, the pack has no way of standing up on its own when the baby’s inside, so you’ll need to prop it up manually when you’re loading baby. Same thing on the dismount: lower carefully and then hold it up so she doesn’t tip over. No rain-or-sun fly—bring Gore-Tex. $160; www.deuteroutdoor.com.
KELTY KIDS FC 2.0
Best for: Nine months (or holding head up) to 50 pounds
This medium-size backpack-style carrier strikes a happy balance between storage and comfort. Like all Kelty Kids products (the company pioneered backpack carriers for toting children), safety is paramount, and the five-point harness clips easily into padded shoulder straps. The contoured hip belt offers plenty of support and four generous, zippered pockets where you can stash all of your essentials for a day on the trail. But don’t bother packing a diaper pad—a mesh changing station comes with the pack.
Of all the backpack-style frame packs in this review, I found the FC 3.0 most comfortable for my size. The adjustable frame is compact enough that it never bumped the back of my head—annoying when you are trying to look forward on the trail—though I had to cinch the hip belt to its smallest size in order to keep the bulk of the weight where it’s meant to be: on my hips, not my back. Smaller women than I might have fit issues.
The sun-and-rain fly stuffs into a small pocket and has see-through mesh panels front and back, but it’s freestanding and needs to be attached using four flexible rods. Suggestion: Don’t wait until it’s raining to fish it out and set it up. You’ll get wet. I wish I’d thought to attach a couple of dangly, plastic distractions on a hike with my three-year-old to the top of the Santa Fe Ski Basin; they might have come in handy when the whining began.
PROS: Good storage, diaper pad included, and an adjustable frame that can be sized down for smaller torsos makes this an all-around solid choice that will fit most parents.
CONS: At 7 pounds, 2 ounces, it’s the lightest of the backpack-style carriers we tested, but until you acclimate to carrying a 30-pound kid on your back, any extra weight can feel like overkill, especially on steep trails.
NOTE: I tested the 2011 model; the comparable pack for 2012 is the Journey 2.0. $230; www.kelty.com.
OSPREY POCO PREMIUM
Best for: Nine months (or holding head up) to 40 pounds
Several features set the top-of-the-line Poco apart from its rivals: One, no question the “Fit on the Fly” hip belt adjuster was the easiest and fastest to cinch down and size to my waist. At its smallest setting, it fit me snugly, with no extra room for rubbing. Two, it has the most ample, sun-and-rain cover. Pre-attached, it unzips from its sleeve and pulls forward to attach via clips to the side of the shoulder straps. Three, the zip-off daypack compartment is ideal for shorter outings when you need less gear. No need to haul the extra weight; simply unzip and go. There’s still a cavernous lower compartment for diapers (changing pad included), snacks, and a change of clothes. Better yet, when your child wants to walk, the low-profile daypack can become your child’s “practice” pack. When they get tired, just zip it back on. Four, stirrups. Yup, this ride sports a pair of nylon stirrups that keeps tired little legs from dangling (and, as we discovered on a hike up New Mexico’s 12,200-foot Deception Peak, lets them play “horse”). Other niceties: A hidden hydration slot holds a bladder, and the child’s harness was the easiest of the batch to attach; ample padding keeps the strap from disappearing into the cockpit, so no more rooting around for tangled shoulder straps. True to Osprey’s pack-building pedigree, the Poco has no fewer than seven smaller pockets, both mesh and zippered, including a small one sized for a cell phone or pacifier on the chest straps.
PROS: All the bells and whistles you’d come to expect from Osprey.
CONS: Despite four settings for torso size (XS-L) and numerous attempts to adjust it, I was unable to prevent the top of the pack from nudging me in the back of my head, which made walking up steep inclines uncomfortable. My husband, however, had no issues and voted this one his fave. $299; www.ospreypacks.com.
DEUTER KID COMFORT III
Best for: Nine months (holding head up) to 40 pounds
If you’re looking for the Suburban of child carriers, where size is no issue and bells and whistles come standard, this fully-loaded backpack may be for you. The tallest and heaviest of the packs tested—at 35” high—the Kid Comfort III offers baby the roomiest compartment, with a fully-padded head rest and a hidden rain hood that accordions into its own pocket when you’re not using it. A removable padded “pillow” snaps onto the front of the carrier at baby’s chest height, perfect for lolling heads (and can be detached for easy washing). The coolest detail of all, though, might be the convenient side entry via snapping buckle—no more trying to shove the baby through the leg holes from above. There’s seemingly no end to the storage options, either: Twin exterior mesh pockets keep essentials like pacifiers, sunscreens, snacks, and toys close at hand; two small pockets on the hip belt are designed for cell phones, small cameras, and, get this, even a small rear-view mirror (included); roomy zippered compartments stow rain jackets, extra layers, and diapers; and—look closely— a zippered sleeve tucked into the back frame stashes a hydration bladder.
Bigger’s not always better, though, when you’re hiking up the side of a mountain. My husband, whose six-foot-tall frame was better proportioned for this massive pack, found the Kid Comfort much more comfortable than I. At more than half my height, it was simply too tall for me, especially when climbing steep pitches, and I had trouble cinching the padded waist belt to fit my hips, though my husband had no difficulty. This one’s so comfy our older daughter had no problems dozing off on a long hike above 10,000 feet, but beware of droopy branches. Like driving a U-Haul into a parking garage, two words come to mind: low clearance.
PROS: Thoughtful features ensure baby’s comfort and easy storage—teddy bear included.
CONS: If you’re small, this one may overpower you. Not surprisingly, it’s also the beefiest of the bunch, at 7 pounds, 10 ounces. $299; www.deuteroutdoor.com.
Best for: Age 2 1/2 to 60 pounds
As child carriers go, the Piggyback Rider is the most minimal set-up we tested. One step up from, well, a piggyback ride, it’s basically an aluminum foot rest attached to a nylon shoulder harness. As such, it’s ideal for kids who are big enough to want to hike on their own, but who still get tired and want to ride. No more lifting them in and out of heavy backpacks every five minutes. All they have to do is climb on, put their feet on the bar and hold on to two nylon hand holds on the shoulder straps, and voila: They can ride piggyback style without choking your neck, dangling their legs, or, worse, losing their grip and tumbling off. A child safety harness tethers the child to the carrier, so even if their feet slip off the bar (which happened to our three-year-old a couple of times), they won’t fall off.
At less than three pounds and designed to be super streamlined, there aren’t many bells and whistles (well, there is one actual whistle, integrated into the chest strap, in case you need to scare off a bear or rein in your kid). The adult shoulder harness isn’t padded, nor are the edges of the aluminum bar, which, if you’re not careful with your adjustments, can press right into your lower back. Ouch.
PROS: Lightweight and affordable; a great “transition” carrier for kids who like to hike but sometimes need a lift. Has the heaviest carrying capacity of any unit we tested.
CONS: Takes practice to bend over and load and strap the child. No storage whatsoever—if you need a small pocket, upgrade to the Deluxe. $89.99; www.piggybackrider.com.