Earlier this year, my wife and I welcomed our first child into the world. Theo is a great little dude. But that doesn’t mean it’s been easy. Sleep is in short supply. Most nights feel like international flights, leaving us with something akin to chronic jet-lag. And all the time we once had to do whatever we wanted is now a thing of the past.
Even so, for the most part, we’ve managed to relish the chaos. I attribute this to a combination of time exercising and being outdoors as a family. Both are proven, by loads and loads of research, to improve not just physical health but also mental health and general well-being. I’ve written a book on Peak Performance and I write a column for Outside on the same topic, so I know at least a little bit about this stuff. I can honestly say my top advice to any new parent, by far, is to get out and move in nature.
Nothing makes this easier than a good child-carrying pack. Not only do these bad boys keep Mom and Dad mentally and physically fit, but they also give kiddo a hi-def view of the great outdoors, not some silly screen. Fresh air, trees, flowers, critters—all that stuff is great for developing minds.
Over the last few months, Theo and I have tested four different packs. We’ve taken them on everything from short walks in local parks to day hikes at elevation. It’s true that I’ve never written a gear review before. But as a self-help writer just under seven months into fatherhood, I think this is one of the most important pieces of service I could possibly offer. Seriously—get one of these packs and use it as often as you can.
ErgoBaby 360 ($160) + Infant Insert ($25)
Best Hiking Carrier For: Newborns
Don’t wait weeks to get outside with your baby. I took Theo on his first walk, a modest 45-minute stroll around a local lake, when he was just six days old. The ErgoBaby 360 with the infant insert is a pack that lets you do this. Theo started facing inward, snug against my chest. He enjoyed the natural rocking sensation that occurred with walking, something that almost always put him to sleep. As he got bigger and his neck got stronger I switched him to an outward-facing position so he could look around, which he absolutely loved. Eventually he’ll be big enough to ride in the rear position, on my back. This pack is super light and easy to take on and off. But it’s not meant for longer hikes. Though the fabric is breathable, your baby rests right up against your chest or back. After two hours of hiking on any day above 60 degrees Fahrenheit, I started sweating all over Theo. This pissed him off and he didn’t hesitate to let me know.
Kelty Journey PerfectFit Elite ($300)
Best Hiking Carrier For: Challenging Day Hikes
Once Theo was strong enough to fully hold his head up (at around five and a half months) I switched him out of the ErgoBaby and into the more built-up rear “cockpit”-style packs. The biggest benefit of these is the space between your back and your baby, so overheating and excessive sweat aren’t issues. The Kelty Journey PerfectFit Elite was my favorite all-arounder. The cockpit has adjustable shoulder and hip straps, so Theo was snug and well supported. At the same time, the PerfectFit Elite is also the lightest pack in its class, weighing in at just under seven pounds, so it was also very comfortable for me. Like the packs below, the PerfectFit Elite comes equipped with a bladder-ready hydration pouch but no good spot for a traditional water bottle. This pack also has an easy-to-use pop-out sun shade that covered the top of Theo’s head, though it lacked robust side screens. The upside: Theo loved having his peripheral vision. The downside: a bit less sun protection.
Osprey Poco AG Plus ($217)
Best Hiking Carrier For: Long Backpacking Trips
By far the sturdiest, most durable, and most stable of all the packs I’ve tried. This, of course, means extra weight (it weighs 7.6 pounds), which I didn’t love. But I did love having tons of storage space for all my—and far more important, all of Theo’s—stuff. The kickstand was the easiest to use, and in less than a second it converted the Poco AG from a backpack to a camping chair for Theo. This pack also had the best sun shade, complete with side panels—something to consider if you’ve got a fair-skinned baby or plan to hike at altitude often. The waist strap on the Poco AG chafed against my hip a bit more than the others, but that probably has more to do with my individual anatomy than anything.
Deuter Kid Comfort 2 ($175)
Best Hiking Carrier For: Older Kids
I wouldn’t be surprised if this turns out to be the best pack for Theo in about a year or so. The cockpit on this pack gives your kid the most room and flexibility. This is great for a two-year-old, but Theo, at six and a half months, at times struggled to sit upright. All the above packs have “drool pads,” a critical barrier between the baby’s food and Dad’s back. However, the Deuter’s was the most built-out and plush—something I could see becoming increasingly important as Theo starts to eat more solid foods. Another thing I loved about this pack was the mobility it afforded me. The shoulder and waist straps moved in harmony with my body; the pack felt like an extension of me.
Tips for Taking Your Kid Outside
Don’t wait to get started with a pack like the ErgoBaby. If your child’s first days of life include time on the move outside, you won’t have to convince him to try it later; it’ll just be a normal part of life.
Transition positions and packs gradually. How your baby develops “neck fitness” is no different from how you develop strength. Think: stress + rest = growth.
Bring more of everything than you think you need. I’m a minimalist. The few times I didn’t heed my wife’s advice (e.g., extra diapers, rags, food) I paid for it.
Your baby is the captain, for the most part. The goal isn’t for Mom and Dad to crush a PR hike. It’s for you to instill a love of nature and movement in your kid, so you can go out over and over again. You’ll probably have to stop a few more times than you normally would. That’s OK.
Bring a few toys that you can clip onto the pack. And though I’m on the record as being anti-devices in nature, for when all else fails, be sure to have downloaded some tunes that your little person likes. I highly recommend “Baby Shark.” This song is magic.
Brad Stulberg (@Bstulberg) writes Outside’s Do It Better column and is the author of the book Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success.