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How to Choose A Baby Carrier for Hiking

When it comes down to it, there really is no ‘best’ baby or hiking carrier, only personal preference. Take in the info below, try out some options if you’re able – at a local gear shop or borrow from a friend – and choose what works best for you and your family. This guide will walk you through how to choose a baby carrier for use at home and/or on hikes that is best for you and your family.

Two great kinds of carriers for hiking with your toddler are a soft-structured carrier or a structured backpack. I’ll dive into detail below.

Mother with toddler in backpack carrier on top of Mt Tauhara, New Zealand

How to Choose a Hiking Carrier

Soft-Structured Carriers (SSC)

Soft-structured carriers are kind of like a backpack where the kid is on your chest or back.

Benefits of SSC’s over structured backpacks:

Smaller footprint

Structured backpacks are just big by their nature. They take up a lot of space in a car and are harder to travel with. SSC’s vary in size but are much easier to travel with.

Snuggles

Some kiddos prefer this closeness to you or their care giver.

Lighter

Structured backpack carriers can weigh around 6lbs. SSC’s are much lighter.

There are a lot of SSC’s out there. I have tested a variety of options, but I am most familiar with the Ergobaby and the Co Family Carrier. There is no perfect carrier and all have their pros and cons. 

The Ergobaby has lots of padding, easy access to get your kiddo in and out, easy to breastfeed in, excellent sunshade, and the newer models have pockets for small items.

The Co Family Carrier is less bulky so it’s easier to pack or carry with you when your kiddo isn’t in it. It’s straps cross on your back which means they don’t compete with backpack straps if you have a bag with the essentials, are backpacking, or have a structured backpack carrier with another kid in it on your back. It also holds the weight differently on your body and I find it doesn’t hurt my shoulder blades as much on a long wear.

That said there are tons of carriers out there, do a little research, ask friends to borrow, or check out joyfulbabyco.com to rent a carrier to try if you’re in the US.

Mother holding a toddler on her shoulder hiking in the mountains

Structured Backpacks

The two most popular are the Osprey Poco and the Deuter Kid Comfort. These carriers have a hip-belt structure that helps put the weight of your kid on your legs instead of your back (when properly fitted). They are usually rated for babies 6 months and over and can carry toddlers up to 48 lbs.

Benefits of a structured backpack over a SSC:

Storage Space

Depending on what model you choose, you can end up with a good amount of storage space. At least enough for lunch and the hiking basics, whereas with a SSC you might also need to carry a backpack.

Weight Distribution

These packs are meant to help keep the weight of your toddler on your big leg and butt muscles whereas SSC’s carry it mostly on your back and shoulders. Structured packs are better for heavier kids.

Toddler Comfort 

This may vary kid by kid, but structured backpack carriers give them more of a view, they sit more comfortably, have more space, and enough wiggle room to eat or drink. SSC’s may feel awkward on an older toddler’s neck, especially if they fall asleep.

I have personally only used the Osprey Poco but I’ve helped friends with the Deuter and based on that experience I prefer the Osprey. We had a hard time getting kids to keep their weight centered in the Deuter which meant the parent carrying them was much more uncomfortable.

That said, I recommend going to a local sporting goods store that carries these if there is one available to you and trying them on. Have an employee help fit it for you. Bring your kid to test it out by walking around the store.

I highly recommend getting a structured backpack carrier used if you can. A new Osprey Poco Plus is $330 at the time I write this, but the prices can be half and even much lower in the used market.

Where we used to live, outside San Francisco in the USA, there are many lightly used carriers available on websites like Facebook Marketplace, Nextdoor, and Craigslist. We’ve found some crazy deals as low as $25. That one was a unicorn, but there are plenty of deals around $100 for a barely used carrier.

Other Carrier Types

Woven Wraps

I loooooove a good woven wrap in those newborn days. The softness of the fabric lets squishy baby snuggle right into you, and you to them. It makes for a great transition out of the womb and right back onto you. I used a woven wrap almost constantly with my second daughter so I was hands free to chase my 2 year old around.

I used two different brands, Solly Baby and Baby K’Tan. Here are their pro’s and cons.

Solly Baby

Solly Baby is probably the softest, breeziest wrap out there. It has a nice stretch so you can get it snug and still have some wiggle room. They have delightful colors and patterns too.

The cons are the price tag ($74 at the time I write this), though you can catch them on a sale, and the learning curve for tying it. It is really just one long piece of fabric and every time you want to use it, you have to follow the steps to tie it around you and then stick baby in and get all the pieces in the right place.

This can feel cumbersome at first, and overwhelming if you have a crying newborn beside you. As a first time mom it felt too stressful at times and I found myself reaching for a soft structured carrier I could clip on quickly instead. As a second time mom, though, I found the process to be plenty easy and absolutely loved using the Solly.

Another note: the wrap is so long that when you are tying it, it will drape on the floor. So if you want to wrap it while you’re out, it can feel gross depending on what the floor cleanliness is like. My SIL would wrap it at home before she went somewhere and just wear it in the car – she’s a smarty – which is great if you know you’ll be using it.

Lastly, it really is for the newborn days and only works with babies up to 25lbs. I found it to be comfortable for the first 3 months or so.

Overall, highly recommend if its in your budget!

Baby K’tan

I found a used Baby K’Tan for $25. That is on the very cheap end so it was lucky, but even so, K’Tans are cheaper than Solly.

This wrap is easier to use since it is sort of pre-wrapped. Instead of one long piece of fabric, it comes in two connected circles of fabric, so it doesn’t have the dragging on the floor or taking too long to wrap problems.

Slings

While you do usually have to tie a ring sling, they can be left tied up and just thrown on when you need it.

They can vary greatly in price from cheap to fancy brands that are close to $100.

I like the ease of a sling, but I find they get uncomfortable pretty fast as all the pressure rests on one shoulder right by your neck.

I’ve found it to be most useful in two situations. First, when I’m out and about and think I’ll want a carrier for some small in between moments but mostly my daughter will walk (like at the zoo) so I don’t want anything too bulky to deal with. Second, when I’m at home and just want something quick and easy while I’m making dinner.

Ok and third, which I’m slightly embarrassed by, I think they photograph well so if I’m somewhere I want a cute carrier for photos I might choose a sling.

Trail Magik

Trail Magik is a cool option for both backpacking and that transition space when your toddler needs a ride some of the time but walks most of the time.

It is essentially a rectangle of canvas with a tiny bit of padding where your kiddo’s legs rest and straps that attach to a backpack with an existing hip belt structure. It relies completely on a backpack and cannot be used without one.

It folds up to the size of a water bottle so it’s not a bother to take with you just in case.

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What I Use

Now that you’ve made it through all that, I’ll tell you what my favorite carriers have been with my two kids. I am a serial carrier buyer and baby wear almost constantly, so I have more than you need. That said, here are my favorite carriers by age/stage.

Newborn: A woven wrap like Solly or Baby K’tan.

3 months to 1 year+: Ergobaby (soft structured carrier)

1 year+: Osprey Poco Plus (structured backpack)

Transition from carrier to walking & Backpacking after 1 year: Trail Magik

If you want to buy just one to last you through all the years, I’d recommend a soft structured carrier that works from newborn to toddler. They are convenient to get on and off, work for hiking, usually have sun shades, are relatively comfortable, and there are many brands to choose from.

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