Getting into the great outdoors with baby
Rowan on an early hike.
The pictures rotating through the digital frame in our Seattle kitchen used to be snapshots of my husband and me, with backpacks in the middle of a multi-day hike, or wearing skis getting ready to descend a glacier. All that changed when we decided to start a family. We had grand plans to stay active, but when I found out that I would need to have a C-section for our December baby, it seemed as though our best-laid plans were going astray.
I left the hospital with my new son and an incision on my lower belly, stitches holding together the cut that went to the depths of my body. Unlike friends who had had similar non-pregnancy related surgeries, and left the hospital with detailed discharge instructions, I left without any idea of what my limitations and capabilities were, and I thought of them in that order.
I had heard not to go up or down stairs more than once a day; since our bedroom was upstairs, that complicated getting out very much. Someone else warned of grave complications if I walked any distance at all in the first six weeks.
I managed my post-surgical ignorance-prescribed bed rest for two weeks before calling a friend (who had had abdominal surgery) to get her discharge instructions. When I found out that she had been encouraged to get out walking right away, I breathed a sigh of relief. I worked up to a couple of miles over the first six weeks. In my past, I'd trained for triathlons and marathons; my husband and I had climbed mountains, skied backcountry and gone on remote hiking trips. I hardly felt proud of hauling myself a couple of slow miles on city sidewalks, but admitted, through the haze of sleep deprivation, that this slower pace was a great way to savor my new baby. Still, by the end of the six-week cautionary period, I was lunging at the chain like a rabid dog – holding my belly carefully, of course.
We had some precedents for getting outdoors early; my baby book shows I logged over 100 miles, including several multi-day trips, all before my first birthday. We have friends who have been active, too. This wasn't uncharted territory, despite our reservations. We headed out with snowshoes on the first weekend that we could. Our chosen route was an easy, flat path, but now it was more complicated. What if we needed to change a diaper? What if our baby got hungry? What if he wasn't warm enough?
When we arrived at Gold Creek/Hyak parking lot, I climbed gingerly into the back seat, still cautious with my belly. I asked my husband to turn the car back on for some heat; it was in the upper 30s, but I worried that the baby might get cold. I nursed him and burped him. Then I worked on my first "change a diaper in a car seat" maneuver, considerably trickier than I'd expected, something like wrestling with a puppy. Then I needed to get him into his fleece suit. At each point in the process, my resolve wavered, and my commitment faltered. Finally, nearly an hour later, we were ready to go. My husband strapped our son to his torso in the Baby Bjorn, and zipped up his Patagonia R4 around both of them.
"Do you think he'll be cold?" I asked.
"It's almost 40," said my husband. "And I'm already sweating with him here, so the bigger question is whether he will overheat."
"Right," I said, noting a new worry I hadn't anticipated. We set off.
The Gold Creek loop is a flat, one-mile route around a beautiful pond. We paused on the far side of the pond to take a picture, and Sam, sleeping like the proverbial baby, was so warm to the touch that Peter unzipped his coat. We made it back to the car.
Two weeks later, we headed to Scottish Lakes, a cluster of cabins nestled into the woods on the edge of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, just off of Stevens Pass, accessed by a four-mile snow machine ride. This time we headed out for three hours at a time, breaking our own trail, as Sam slept, warm in the Bjorn.
Sam came with us for a ski trip to Denali National Park when he was three months old and accompanied us again at seven months while we hiked. He rode in a backpack as we hiked trails around Glacier National Park in 75-degree summer weather, wearing sunglasses and a sun hat. He has ridden in a sled behind us for both skate and classic skiing in Mazama and at Snoqualmie Pass in temperatures ranging from below zero to forty, and he has settled into the pack for snowshoe trips.
Each adventure is a little bit easier than the one before, though requirements change as he does, too. By respecting each of our capabilities and limitations, and relishing each minute we spend outdoors with the three of us, we've experienced wilderness as never before.
Now our photos include a lot of chubby fingers and toes, and photos of the three of us with backpacks and on beaches, making our way more slowly, perhaps, but more joyfully, too.
Tips for getting out with your baby
Take your time and check with your doctor before venturing out.
Plan an easy trip for your first outing, and increase the difficulty gradually.
Put an outing on the calendar, and bring a friend. Planning your trip and then motivating yourself to follow through is the hardest step. After you’ve done it once, things become increasingly manageable.
Don’t be discouraged if you have a trip that goes awry.
Remember that the primary purpose of any trip is to enjoy the time outside with your baby.
Be willing to be flexible and turn around at any point.
Redefine success: Count it as a victory that you get to the trailhead, and anything beyond that is pure bliss.
Test all of the equipment you plan to use in advance; give any packs a test spin in the neighborhood and adjust your straps at home before you head out.
Dress your baby one layer warmer than you would dress yourself, and use the same rules for outdoor clothing as you use yourself; dress in layers and use wool and synthetics.
Remember to check for backup diapers, wipes, clothes and, if needed, food, before heading out.
Bring a bottle of disinfectant for hands post-diaper changes, and a few plastic bags to pack out diapers.
Shannon Huffman Polson is a writer and mom focusing on the outdoors, family and faith. Her essays have appeared in Cirque Journal and Trachodon. Polson’s website is www.aborderlife.com.
Editor's note: This updated article was originally published in May of 2011.