Nursing on the Trail 101
From breastfeeding while walking (it's possible!) to bottle feeding and pumping on the trail, here are the best options for parents on the go.
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I’ll never forget the moment I learned to nurse on trail. It was life changing. Before, I would arrive at a hike an hour before the proposed meeting time so I could nurse Mason in the car, change him, and get myself ready. I was still in that phase of needing the perfect lighting, comfortable seating, and privacy that a new mother often thinks is necessary to nurse. But it was so exhausting that I sometimes questioned if I even felt like hiking afterward.
Then, one morning, while hiking with a group of moms, I saw one nursing her baby as we walked. She didn’t even pause a beat as she zipped down her shirt inside her carrier and fed her child. No stopping to sit awkwardly on a log, holding up the group. She just fed her baby, and along we went. I asked her to teach me how.
Ten minutes later, I too was nursing while hiking. It took me a few tries to master, but it’s a great way to get comfortable with feeding on the go in other public spots. Start with nursing on the trail—which is way more relaxing and private than most places—and soon you’ll feel comfortable doing so in the grocery store or on an airplane.
Nursing isn’t an option for every family, but there are tricks and gear that make feeding time on the trail easier no matter what your method.
Especially if you’re just starting to nurse on the trail, it’s key to wear comfortable tops that stretch down all the way so you don’t have to pretzel your body out of a shirt or bra. The Undercover Mama Basic Strapless Tank, which attaches to a regular nursing bra, is a popular option. Also check out Motherhood Maternity and H&M for nontechnical yet functional tops. If you are larger-chested and need something more supportive, consider a comfortable nursing bra and a top that zips down easily, like the Columbia Women’s Outerspace III Zip Top. This was my favorite for postpartum hiking—I liked the soft, stretchy feel of the material as my body changed, and it was warm enough for seasonal changes. For nursing bras, you don’t necessarily need to start expensive. Really stretchy yoga tops with a built-in shelf or yoga bras that you can pull down also work great.
If you’re using wraps or slings, it can be tricky to get your baby comfortably situated on your breast without stopping. Consider investing in a good soft-structured carrier like an Onya Baby Outback. Its nylon fabric is breathable, stretchy, and easy to adjust and loosen. The first few times you try this out, ask a friend to help you loosen any buckles and retighten them once the baby has latched. You’ll get the hang of it on your own soon enough.
If you’re not using a wrap, bring a muslin cloth in case your baby is distracted and you need to cover their head. The woods are exciting, with birds flying and people walking by, so it’s good to have a thin cloth to keep them focused.
One of the best tips I ever got about bottle feeding on trail came from Joe Gawron, a stay-at-home-dad. His wife was in medical school, so when he hiked with his daughter, Olive, he needed to figure out a way to feed her warm bottles of breast milk. His technique: carry frozen single-serving bags of milk in a little thermal pouch to prevent the milk from spoiling, plus a Hydro Flask 12-ounce food container (the kind you use for hot soup) with hot water. Pull out the milk bag when you’re ready to use it, put it against your skin, and keep hiking so it can defrost for a bit. Then drop the bag into the Hydro Flask to warm it. Bonus: Put a tea bag in the warm water for yourself, or get the kid version of the Klean Kanteen insulated bottle and fill it with hot chocolate when they’re older.
Of course, you can premix formula and keep it warm in the thermos, but always use bags for breast milk. It will slosh and “churn” on a hike, thickening up like butter, especially with small amounts. Bags give it less room to move around and are easier to defrost.
There are a number of options for moms who need to pump on a long hike, maybe because their baby is no longer breastfeeding or is a bottle feeder. Hand pumps require no batteries, and many are super-lightweight. Battery-operated electric pumps are fairly lightweight and easy to throw into a pack and take on the trail. With more traditional versions like the Medela Freestyle that have bottles attached, you’ll need to chill out on a log and pump for maximum milk expression. There are also plastic tubes and parts that can get lost and need to be cleaned daily. If this feels too cumbersome, the Willow is a fancier, more expensive option: It’s battery-powered and fits directly in your bra over your breast, so you can literally pump anywhere at anytime without anyone noticing.
The truth about pumping is that it’s challenging and takes time no matter how you do it. If you can build up a surplus of frozen milk at home, great. But don’t forgo long hikes and climbs just because you have a little one. It can be done out in the wild.