Baby on board

Posted: Friday, May 04, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The snapshot of Jennifer Aist is so Alaskan. Goofy hat. Comfortable clothes. Big grin. Her back is weighted with a tent, sleeping bag and other overnight gear. A crystal-clear stream, with a grassy, green bank and moss-draped stones, flows behind her.

Now, look closer and you'll see what made this 10-mile trek down Resurrection Trail a few years ago worth writing about. Two bright little eyes peek out from a sling around Aist's shoulders. That's the hiker's daughter, Alisa, who at the time was just 4 months old.

A three-day journey into the wilderness with an infant? Friends said Aist was insane, but she paid no mind. ''We just went, and we had a blast, and it was fantastic,'' she said.

Aist, a Californian, moved to Alaska for its backcountry. When she started having children, she resisted the tendency of new parents to sit tight for a few years until baby is old enough to walk. She wanted trail time.

With a baby, that meant learning how to pack days worth of poopy diapers out of the woods (double-bag it and tie it on the outside of the pack of the last person in line). It meant improvisation, like the modified pulk Aist built with a $5 car seat from Value Village and a plastic sled. And it required creativity, like sewing mittens to the cuffs of sweatshirts to solve the cold-hands dilemma.

Aist, education coordinator for the Center for Child Development at Providence Alaska Medical Center, shared some of her backpacking experiences, problems and solutions with other parents earlier this month in a ''Babes in the Woods,'' class she teaches to get parents and their infants out on the trails this summer. Her workshop includes notes on gear, including packs, joggers, bike trailers and pulks.

For easy trails, a jogger and sometimes even a stroller works fine. The joggers and trailers are usually more limited by width than rugged ground, since they have oversized wheels that can navigate roots and rocks. Pulks are for snow and work fine if you are a decent skier. Make your own with plastic pipe, cords and a cheap sled.

Look for a baby backpack with adequate neck support. Babies usually fall asleep on the trail and their heads flop over. Aist likes a line called Tough Traveler, which cushions little heads. Load your baby into the pack and walk around the store a good while before buying. Make sure the pack doesn't pinch you or put your arms to sleep.

Aist can't say enough about a $32 one-piece toddler rainsuit made by REI. Cuffs fold over the hands, and when baby plunks down in a puddle, the water trickles off instead of spilling over his pants into his diaper. The suit rolls up into almost nothing and can be stuffed into a pocket.

Babies hate gloves, so fold-over cuffs or sewn-in mittens are helpful. Eschew cotton garments in favor of wool, silk and polypro.

After you've made sure your kid is warm and dry, there are two main concerns: bugs and sun. Aist applies bug dope to her pack, but you can't put it on a baby, so bug netting is important. Some packs come with detachable netting. Also, look for packs that have detachable rain hoods. As for sun, Aist is a firm believer in a hat for every head. A hiking friend always carries an umbrella. Make fun if you like, but it works.

Before you buy any gear at all, advised Aist, take a few day hikes around town, with one of those inexpensive snuggle carriers. It's a good way to get your skills up and learn how your baby reacts to the outdoors.

Aist usually travels in numbers because it's safer. She describes one trip that included five children under 4 and six dogs.

''Most people would not consider that a fun trip,'' she said.

Her memory of it -- the kids got filthy dirty, they all crashed at night and everyone had a great time.

Another reason to take three of your mommy friends -- there's more hands to help in a bind. And there will be binds.

The first thing that usually happens after 10 minutes on the trail? Big poop. Everybody sighs, then starts unloading. You just can't let that one go, said Aist. Some people take washable diapers, but she finds disposables the lesser of two evils, even when it means packing them out. For grimy hands, she carries waterless soap.

Hiking with a baby requires more stuff and more weight, but resist the urge to jettison the water. Aist carries a filter and consults maps to make sure she'll always be near an adequate water source. She takes lots of Band-Aids and wears bear bells -- the bells may be worthless, but they make her feel better. She instructs kids to keep food away from tents and sleeping bags.

In general, taking a 4-month-old along is much easier than hiking with a 2-year-old, said Aist. Once they're mobile, they're no longer captive. It's harder to keep kids confined in packs or strollers, so keep timing in mind. If you drive two hours to the trail head, baby has probably slept. She isn't going to want to be loaded into a pack for hours on the trail. Schedule in some playtime first.

Take along a few luxuries. A grass mat weighs almost nothing and makes a desirable place to sit or nap in the woods. Leave bottles behind if you can. Nursing works better on the trail, since it's hard to keep milk fresh. Snacks are critical, so keep them handy in a front-loading fanny pack, along with the camera and a toy.

Winter has its own challenges. Aist applies a water barrier, like Lanolin, to the faces of her children, especially under the eyes and nose. Moisture will create the potential for frostbite. It was easier going out in winter when her children were babies, since she could keep them warm wrapped next to her skin. In carriers, they need more protection, and at zero, she limits the hikes and checks the kids frequently.

Don't think you're going to keep the same pace you had when you were childless, she said. Hike for an hour. Take a snack break. Check the diapers.

Some people hire sitters to watch their kids while they go off for a wilderness weekend. To each his own, said Aist, but it's really not that hard to take your kids along. In summer, she and her family do at least two trips a month. The shared experience may not always be easy, but it's rich.

''What a wonderful thing to share with your child -- something you love,'' she said.


(Distributed by The Associated Press)

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