The Babywearer’s Guide to Hiking – Part Two: Carriers

So you want to hike while wearing your child? Maybe you have experience wearing already or maybe you’re new to the world of carriers, acronyms, and stashes. Regardless, you may need some specific advice on the types of carriers you can use while hiking.

Frame/Backpack Carriers

This may be the first carrier that comes to mind when you think of “hiking” and “babies” in the same sentence. Framed backpack carriers are modeled after hiking backpacks, and most have a lightweight aluminum shell that serves as the “frame.” These may seem like an obvious choice for your adventures while wearing your child. “I’m going hiking, right?” You may say to yourself. “I should probably get a hiking backpack carrier.” And you may be right!a smiling brown-skinned woman wearing a framed backpack baby carrier with a toddler inside stands on the sand with the ocean crashing over rocks in the background

PROS:

  • Some hikers find these more comfortable, especially as their kids get older or for longer hikes. If worn correctly, they are designed to displace the weight over your body, with most of it resting on your hips rather than your shoulders. Those who have certain back or shoulder issues prefer this type of carrier.
  • They come with a lot of storage options. You can carry water for yourself and your children, snacks, diapers, wipes, sunscreen, bug spray, and pretty much anything else you may think you’ll need on your adventures.
  • As well as storage, some come with nifty features, like sun shades or even built in changing pads. Many of them are also easy to wipe clean, so that means you can avoid using your washing machine and waiting a whole day for your carrier to drip-dry.
  • Almost all of them have a kickstand feature, which allows the carrier to stand on its own whether with or without your child inside. This can be nice when you want a break from carrying your child, but you don’t want to place a crawling explorer down in the middle of a mud patch.

a smiling white man and woman wet from recent rainfall stand on the pavement in front of a grassy background; the man wears a framed hiking baby carrier with a baby insideCONS:

  • Most of these carriers aren’t recommended to use until your child has enough head, neck, and trunk control to sit unassisted, which is usually around six months.
  • Some wearers complain that large frame carriers throw off their balance. This could lead to more falls while hiking, which is extra dangerous while wearing your child.
  • They are strictly back carriers, meaning your child has to be on your back. If you still have a baby who likes to snuggle in close on your front or you need to feed your baby on the go, whether be it by breast or bottle, you will have to take this carrier off and baby out.
  • They are big and bulky, whether in your garage, a corner of your house, the trunk of your car, or your body. This means that, even though many are made of lightweight aluminum, they are still substantially heavier than many other types of carriers. Also, they usually add to your height, which can make some hiking obstacles, like low hanging branches, more difficult. You may even have to take off your carrier to get around these obstacles.
  • It can be difficult or downright impossible to reach the storage compartments while actually wearing the carrier. This means you have to take the whole thing off in order to get water, snacks, diapers, wipes, sunscreen, or bug spray.
  • Even when using the kickstand feature properly, the height and balance of the carrier puts it at a risk of falling over, even with your child inside. So, even if you’re taking a break, you still need to watch your child carefully.
  • Due to their size and weight, they are not as practical for everyday use. If you’re looking for a carrier to wear while hiking AND around the house, for walks in the neighborhood, or trips to the grocery store, this may not be the right kind for you.

BOTTOM LINE: I recommend this type of carrier only if you plan on regularly doing more extreme hiking, like backpacking, camping, or trails that are 8+ miles long, or if you have certain shoulder or back problems that may be exacerbated by other types of carriers. I’ve heard in the past someone describe frame backpacks as carriers for hikers who want to wear their babies, and I definitely agree.

a landscape that includes mountains, the ocean, and grassy hills in the distance with a rocky path and long, dead grass in the foreground; a brown-skinned woman stands on the path in the top right in profile looking out; she wears a framed backpack baby carrier with a baby insideSoft Structured Carriers

If framed backpack carriers are carriers for hikers who want to wear their babies, then soft structured carriers (SSCs) may very well be the carriers for babywearers who want to hike. SSCs were modeled after another carrier called a mei tai, and they both still have a main panel in common where your child sits. The main difference is that, whereas mei tais have long ties at the waist and shoulders, SSCs have buckles. The Hiking with Keiki Facebook group has over 5000 members, and at least 200-300 of them actively attend group hikes offered multiple times each week. The vast majority of the ones who carry their children on hikes use SSCs. Is this the right carrier for you and your little hiker?

a brown-skinned woman stands in front of dry, tall grass and leaves with her back to the camera; to her left stands a brown-skinned toddler who faces the camera but looks off to the side; the woman wears a rainbow patterned soft-structured carrier handing down around her waist; the picture cuts off at her shoulder blades

PROS:

  • They have a short learning curve and can be worn by different caregivers with some adjusting.
  • They are easy to get on and off quickly, which becomes more important when your riding baby becomes a walking toddler who may need to be worn if she gets tired on a hike or faces part of a trail that is too difficult or dangerous for her.
  • They are lightweight and fold up easily when your child wants a break from being worn. They can also clip easily to diaper bags or around waists for transport. They take up minimal space for storage or in the car.
  • They come in a variety of fabrics, sizes, and styles. This means you have a wide selection to choose from and you can size up as your child grows.
  • Many can be used from birth or close to it with an infant insert, and some styles allow you to wear a very young infant without any other accommodations.
  • Without the infant insert, these are one-layer carriers, which is an important consideration for warm weather hiking. Certain styles are made of all mesh or have mesh panels to keep the wearer and wearee cooler.
  • They can all be worn on the front or back and many styles can also be worn on the hip or on the front with baby facing forward. This allows for a wide variety of carries and activities. If baby needs to be fed or simply needs reassurance that you’re there, you can wear her on the front. If you need to see the terrain you’re adventuring across, you can switch baby to your back if she has enough head, neck, and trunk control to prevent herself from slumping and is large enough to fit the carrier without modifications.
  • Some styles have storage pockets or pouches for things like keys, identification cards, and cell phones.
  • Most varieties come with hoods, which can provide sun coverage or head support for your child, especially if she falls asleep.
  • They are easy to use both on and off the trails.

a smiling, white man and woman stand in front of a flowing waterfall and rocky background; the man holds a toddler in his arms and the woman wears a baby in a porcupine patterned soft structured carrier on her front

CONS:

  • It can take some people a bit of adjusting to finally find the sweet spot where they are most comfortable in the carrier. If you plan to frequently switch from one wearer to another, it may become annoying to constantly adjust and readjust your carrier.
  • You may have to buy different sizes as your baby grows. Many caregivers start off with an infant or standard size that then becomes less comfortable as baby transitions to toddler and toddler transitions to preschooler. Depending on how long you want to wear your child, sizing up may be necessary.
  • The infant insert required by many SSCs to safely wear smaller babies can get hot, which can lead to baby overheating. However, without the insert, smaller babies are at risk for falls or suffocation from slumping. Some companies offer SSCs that can be worn from birth without an insert, but these would then usually need to be changed out for larger carriers as baby grows.
  • Some styles do not come with any storage options and many that do are not large enough to carry hiking supplies.
  • They are not as easy to clean as some of the framed backpack carriers. You may have to spot treat them and then wash them with gentle detergent on the delicate cycle in your washing machine and then line dry.
  • The buckles are made of plastic and can break with heavy use or a simple mistake, like stepping on a buckle or closing it in a car door.
  • Although some budget-friendly options exist, SSCs can be pricey, and some rare versions can sell for hundreds or even thousands of dollars (this can be a pro if you’re looking to resell).

BOTTOM LINE: These are popular carriers both on and off the hiking trails. Many companies have loyal followers, and many people own several different styles and sizes. They are easy to get on and off and are a breeze to carry around and store. You may find yourself investing in more than one for a variety of reasons, like a growing child or multiple wearers. I highly recommend them, especially for caregivers of toddlers who are starting to hike on their own, but still need to be worn at times on the trails.

a brown-skinned man and white-skinned woman sit on a bench with their backs to the camera; they gaze lovingly at each other; a toddler sits between them looking out and the woman wears a baby on her back in a green soft structured carrier; in front of them are green bushes and in the distance are green hills and the ocean

Mei Tais

The mei tai is a traditional carrier from China, although the version most commonly seen now has been changed a bit from its original ancestor. There are some variations, but the basic mei tai has a rectangular panel that provides most of the support for baby and ties at the waist and shoulders. I have a soft spot in my heart for mei tais. Although I personally own one SSC and almost exclusively use it for hiking now that Lena is bigger, heavier, and more mobile, the mei tai was the first carrier I borrowed from Babywearing International of Oahu. I have since bought two of my own, and I used them on all of my hikes until Lena was about fifteen months old. Maybe it’s the right fit for you too!
a brown-skinned woman stands in profile facing and smiling at the camera wearing a baby on her back in a rainbow mei tai; she stands in a clearing next to dead wood on the ground and surrounded by green trees and bushes; there is an opening in the greenery and Diamond Head creater can be seen in the distance

PROS:

  • They are fairly quick to put on and take off once you get the hang of tightening, but there’s a slight learning curve.
  • They fold up small for easy storage and transport and can be worn around the body when not being used for carrying a child during a hike.
  • The wearer must adjust the carrier entirely every time it is put on, so this allows a very easy transition from one wearer to the next. It also allows for easier breastfeeding, at least in my opinion, than an SSC.
  • Like SSCs, there are many companies that make them in a variety of fabrics, styles, and sizes. This gives you a wide selection to choose from and allows you to size up with your child.
  • They can be a bit more budget friendly than SSCs, but expensive varieties exist.
  • Like SSCs, they are a single layer carry, which is important in warmer weather hiking.
  • Almost all can be modified to use from birth without the use of an infant insert.
  • They can all be worn on the front, hip, or back. Like the SSC, this allows for a wide variety of carries and activities. If baby needs to be fed or simply needs reassurance that you’re there, you can wear her on the front. If you need to see the terrain you’re adventuring across, you can switch baby to your back if she has enough head, neck, and trunk control to prevent themselves from slumping down in the carrier (note: more experienced wearers can begin using a mei tai on the back before it is safe to do so with an SSC).
  • Many varieties come with hoods, which can provide sun coverage or head support for your child, especially if she falls asleep.
  • They transition easily from on to off the trails.

a close-up of a smiling brown-skinned woman and white-skinned man; the man wears a baby on his front in a black mei tai; in the background you can see a paved path, some green grass, and mountains that fill the frame

CONS:

  • They are objectively a bit more difficult than the SSC to learn.
  • The long straps will frequently touch or drag on the ground when putting a child in or taking her out.
  • Because some companies make various sizes, the mei tai you start out with may not be comfortable for the duration of time you may want to wear your child. If this is the case, sizing up may be necessary.
  • Few, if any, styles come with built-in storage options. Those that do will not provide enough storage for hiking necessities
  • They are not as easy to clean as some of the framed backpack carriers. You may have to spot treat them and then wash them with gentle detergent on the delicate cycle in your washing machine and then line dry.

BOTTOM LINE: This is another great carrier for babywearers who want to hike, but who also want a carrier to use around the house or out on errands. They are quick, once you get the hang of tightening and adjusting them, and they can move seamlessly from one wearer to the next. They are extremely easy to nurse in, and most can be worn without any modifications from birth. I highly recommend this type of carrier, especially for caregivers with younger children who may not be walking yet.

a brown-skinned woman stands in profile atop of a cement pillbox structure overlooking a green neighborhood and the ocean in the background; she smiles at the camera and wears a smiling baby on her back in a rainbow mei tai

Woven Wraps

The term “woven wrap” includes any carrier that is made from one long piece of fabric that is woven together. Woven wraps can trace their origins back to many ancient cultures around the globe, and modern companies either handweave or machine weave their products. They are made in countless colors, patterns, and fiber combinations, and they typically come in a range of eight lengths. They are gaining popularity in the western world, but they may not be the type of carrier that comes to mind when you think “hiking.” But maybe it’s the right one for you!

a brown-skinned woman stands with her back to the camera on a dry dirt path with tall dry grass around her; she wears a toddler on her back in a blue striped woven wrap; in the distance is a green neighborhood, the ocean, and two islands

PROS:

  • All woven wraps can be worn a variety of ways with the wearer tying them into different carries. The types of carries you can do with a particular woven wrap depends on the length of your wrap, your size, and the size of your child. With the right size (beginners are recommended to start with their “base size”), you will be able to do a variety of front, hip, and back carries.
  • They come in a wide variety of styles, colors, fabrics, and sizes. If you look long enough, you’re bound to find something you fall in love with.
  • Certain carries can be used with a single layer of fabric, which will keep both caregiver and child cooler during warm weather hiking. However, these can be less supportive than multi-layer carries.
  • They can be used from birth without any modifications or accommodations. Extremely experienced wearers can even back carry their newborns in a woven wrap.
  • The wide variety of fabrics and possible carries allows you to use a woven wrap through toddlerhood.
  • There are budget-friendly varieties.
  • Due to their versatility, these carriers are perfect for day-to-day life off the trails.

a tan, but white-skinned woman stands in semi-profile with her back to the camera in front of a pond with four ducks swimming close by and a green field with trees in the distance; she wears a toddler on her hip in a blue and pink woven wrapCONS:

  • To achieve most supportive, two-shouldered carries, which are the kind I’d recommend for hiking, most wearers would need at least four meters of length in a woven wrap. This is quite long when not worn, so it can be difficult to carry on a hike. You also run the risk of the tails of the wrap hitting or dragging on the ground when you’re setting up your carry.
  • Although one woven wrap can be used from newborn through toddlerhood and beyond, many people prefer lighter and “glidier” fabrics for newborns, but more textured and thicker fabrics for toddlers, which may necessitate buying more than one wrap.
  • Some carries, especially ones that are more supportive for longer hikes or larger children, use multiple layers of fabric, which can add to overheating during warm weather hiking.
  • Because of the variety of carries and reliance on the wearer to go from one long piece of fabric to a fully functioning carrier, woven wraps have one of the highest learning curves of all carriers. However, they can be quick once the wearer becomes comfortable with use.
  • They do not come with hoods, but many carries can be modified to add support for a sleeping baby.
  • All woven wraps require careful care in special detergent when washing and most need to be drip-dried after. Depending on the fabric content, some may be handwash only or need to be ironed.

BOTTOM LINE: Woven wraps are amazing options, but I would not recommend them to the average caregiver who is interested in hiking while babywearing. They are definitely usable on the trails, but I probably wouldn’t tell you to purchase one as your go-to hiking carrier. I will say, however, that one of my close friends, founder of Hiking with Keiki, and fellow educator prefers to use woven wraps when her kids are very young and also prefers to use one woven wrap and one SSC when tandem wearing.

a smiling white-skinned woman stands on a wet, dirt path with one foot up on a short, rocky ledge; behind her is a tree, greenery, and small pool of water; she wears a toddler on her back in a blue woven wrap and a baby on her front in a rainbow woven wrap

Ring Slings/Pouches

Ring slings and pouches are both one shoulder carriers that wrap around the wearer’s torso like a sash. Ring slings are one piece of fabric with rings at one end that need to be threaded before wearing, and most pouches are one continuous loop of fabric. Both of these carriers were modeled after the Mexican rebozo, a one shouldered carrier. Ring slings were created in the early 1980s right here in Hawaii, and now many companies that make woven wraps also convert their wraps into ring slings. The history of pouches is a bit more cloudy, but they also popped up sometime in the 1980s.

a smiling brown-skinned woman stands in her mailroom wearing a smiling toddler on her hip in a floral pouch

PROS:

  • Once you learn to use these carriers, they are quick and easy, which is nice for indecisive toddlers who mostly walk on the trails, but sometimes need to be worn.
  • Made with less fabric than most other carriers, they both fold down very small, especially pouches without padding. They are easily stored and transported.
  • They are both single-layer carriers, which help keep both caregiver and child cool during warm weather hiking.
  • Wearers can carry newborns in both types of these carriers, as long as they are used correctly.
  • Ring slings come in a few sizes that vary according to company. The same ring sling can be used in the same way by multiple wearers without any additional adjustments.
  • Pouches are generally inexpensive, and there are budget-friendly ring sling options as well.

a smiling brown-skinned woman stands in semi-profile with her back to the camera wearing a baby on her hip in a mustard ring slingCONS:

  • They are one-shouldered, single-layer carriers, so they are not as comfortable for long periods of time or with older children, unless you get a very supportive ring sling.
  • Most pouches are not adjustable so it is extremely important that you get the right size. They can be hard to size, and the same size will not last you from newborn through toddlerhood or beyond. The one I own works right now for my 21 month old and me, but I probably won’t be able to wear it much longer as she grows and I definitely wouldn’t be able to safely wear a smaller baby in it. Likewise, my husband probably would not be able to wear it because it would be too small on him.
  • Neither of these carriers come with hoods, but some people use the tail of the ring sling as a cover or modify it to use as additional support for a young or sleeping baby.
  • Both of these carriers have higher learning curves, in my opinion, then both SSCs and mei tais, but they are a bit easier to learn than woven wraps.
  • Many ring slings are made from woven wraps and, therefore, need to be cared for as such. This means washing with special detergent and usually drip-drying after. Depending on the fabric content, some may be handwash only or need to be ironed.
  • The ring slings made from woven wraps have similar price tags. Those that are more inexpensive are usually made of less supportive fabrics.

BOTTOM LINE: I would not recommend these types of carriers to the average caregiver who is looking to hike while babywearing. Although they are great options for everyday errands and as emergency diaper bag carriers, most would not be comfortable out on the trails. Unless you are intending to wear a small baby or to only wear a walking toddler for very short periods of time, I would recommend looking into a different carrier to use while hiking.


The list I’ve provided is certainly not exhaustive. It is compiled from the most common carriers I’ve encountered on the trails. There are other carrier options that you may have more experience with, you may like better, or that may work best for you and your family. The most important things to remember when choosing a carrier to use while hiking with your child are safety and comfort. If you and your child feel comfortable in the carrier for long periods of time and your child is safe and secure while being worn, then that sounds like the perfect carrier to use while hiking!

As with anything in life, it’s great to try out all of these options before buying. That’s where your local chapter of Babywearing International comes in. You can attend a free meeting where you can try on most of these types of carriers and get guidance from experienced educators. If you become a member, you can borrow a carrier for up to a month and really try it out with your family and your lifestyle. The only carriers that may not be available at BWI meetings are the framed backpack carriers. If you are interested in those, I would head to your local sporting goods or wilderness store. There you will find many of these carriers on display, and the knowledgeable staff can help you try them on to see which works best for you and your family.

a brown-skinned woman walks in front of a white-skinned woman on a dirt path surrounded by tall grass, trees, and bushes; they both are walking away with their backs to the camera; the brown-skinned woman wears a toddler on her back in a floral soft structured carrier and the white-skinned woman wears a toddler on her back in a rainbow soft structured carrier

Now that you have your carrier, you’re almost ready to hit the trails. But what will you need to bring? And how can you possibly carry it all while also carrying your child? Find out next week and, while you wait, go find an adventure!

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