Choosing a carrier: External-frame Vs Soft Structure carrier

Choosing a carrier: External-frame Vs Soft Structure carrier

posted in: Camping with Kids, Tips | 0
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Someone is carrying the carrier with no child in it.

I spent forever picking out a carrier. We ultimately chose the Dueter Kid Comfort III because it was comfortable for me, kept Sprout off my back (so it was cooler on our summer hikes), the chin rest was large and padded (seemed like LO would sleep better that way), there was a built-in awning for sun and light rain, and the back came up high so if we fell, Sprout’s head would be protected. Well, Sprout likes being on us, as in right on us. She hates the awning, and likes to do some of the hiking herself, which leaves one of us carrying an empty carrier. The seat on the Dueter is not as wide, so it does not support her legs knee to knee (like an ergonomic soft structured carrier would). We started using our Ergo again (this was our main carrier for her from 1 – 12 months old) and she was much happier, so we returned our Dueter and started looking into other carriers since Sprout really was outgrowing her Ergo. All this is to say, that even the best thought out plans do not always work out. Kids have their own preferences, just as we do.

We ended up buying a Lillebaby airflow toddler. We choose this one because it was a good deal (Black Friday sale), it is very adjustable, and we thought the mesh panel would help keep Sprout cooler in the summer. She will still be on our backs so it will get warm, but perhaps this will help. The other benefit is that when Sprout decides to do some of the hiking herself, we aren’t left with a large pack on our back.

Given our experience with both types of carriers, I wanted to share some of our thoughts about the benefits of using a framed hiking pack vs Soft Structured Carrier (SSC). (If you want to just have a summary, jump to the bottom of the page).

There are a few things I would consider when thinking of what type of carrier to use.

When will you typically be using it (summer vs winter hikes)?

Awning was nice when we had light rain (and for the sun too), except Sprout tried to rip it off. She hated it.
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Sprout was nice and warm on her Mama!

If you are primarily using it in the winter, a soft structured carrier can be really useful. They make toddler versions of SSC (Tula, Lillebaby, Onya, Beco, Ergo, Lenny Lamb, etc.), which work really well for snowshoeing and hiking. The child is right up against the parent, so this helps keep them warm (and the parent warm). It is also easier to have them layered in the SSC than in one of the metal framed hiking packs. With the hiking backs, the straps are like car seat straps, so with heavy clothing, it may be hard to get a secure fit. With the Deuter Kid Comfort (for example), the lower part of the strap is strapped in by the child’s belly button, which is actually a little challenging to do even in summer clothing. It would be really hard with winter clothing.

For the summer, a hiking pack can be nice because it keeps the child suspended off of your back. Similarly to how a good hiking backpack would allow some airflow between you and the bag. You will still get warm, of course, but not as warm as you would with a 98.6 degree body up against your back.

Who will be using it most (you, a spouse, or both equally)?

All carriers fit slightly differently, so you want it to be comfortable for the person who will be wearing it most. If there is a store near you that carriers any of these, I highly recommend that you go and try a few one. Walk around the store, put your child in the pack (or use the weighted bags that many stores have for testing purposes), and see how it fits. If you are considering a soft structured carrier (SSC), you may want to see if there is a local Babywearing International chapter by you. Some members of the group likely have a toddler carrier and they may let you try it on. The group may also have a lending library, which will allow you to borrow a carrier to test it out.

Will you be using it alone with your child or will you most often have an adult hiking partner with you?

If you will be using it by yourself, then a framed carrier may be good for you, because they typically have storage space (for diapers, snacks, etc.) and a pouch for a water reservoir.

It is possible to wear a child in a SSC and a backpack simultaneously, but this gets harder with a larger baby or toddler. If you choose to go this route, you would have to wear the child on your front and a backpack on your back. I have found it an ergonomic women’s backpack is most comfortable when I am also carrying Sprout on my front.

However, if you always hike with another adult, you can divvy up the carrying responsibility by having one person carry the child and the other person carry a backpack with the necessary gear (i.e. water, snacks, first aid kit, etc.). This is what we have always done, even when we had the bigger pack.

How old is your child? 

One of the things I really like about the hiking packs is that they have a stand so you can sit the pack down, with your little one in it, and it can still be upright. This is great IMG_20151004_103423_287for when you want to stop for a snack and you want little one to have a secure area to eat, or if the ground is wet (not so great for a child to sit in). Soft structured carriers are not able to do this.

If you have a slightly older child who can do some of the hiking, a soft structured carrier is helpful because some of them have higher weight limits than the hiking packs, and they are nice and compact for when you are carrying it, but the child wants to walk on their own feet.

Pros & Cons of an External-Frame Hiking Pack

  • Pros
    • Suspends little one off of the adults back, which helps keep the adult feel cooler and prevents little one from getting damp with the adult sweat (gross, I know).
    • Storage areas are great, particularly if only one adult will be hiking with the child.
      • However, keep in mind that anything you pack in the bag factors into the maximum weight the packs can carry (a gallon of water weighs over 8lbs). The max weight is typically around 45lbs.
    • Built in reservoir sleeve so you can easily carry water on your hike.
    • Weight distribution great for adult.
    • Can have an awning for shade (not all come with one though).
  • Cons 
    • Lower weight limit than some of the SSCs
    • A wiggly child can throw off the adults balance more easily (the suspension makes a child’s weight carry more force)
    • Bulky
    • Heavier to carry when a child is not in it.
    • More expensive (typically)

Pros and Cons of a Soft Structure Carrier

  • Pros
    • Higher weight limit (typically 50lbs, but some up to 60lbs)
    • Lightweight and compact
    • Ergonomic for child
    • Great weight distribution for adult.
    • Less expensive.
  • Cons
    • No (or little) storage space.
    • Child right against parents back – can get hot.
    • No space to store water.

I did not discuss specific brands here, because I think many of the most popular brands are very high quality and work well for many people. I have personally tried on the Deuter Kid Comfort III, Osprey Poco Plus, Tula toddler, Lenny Lamb toddler, and the Lillebaby CarryOn. I found the Tula to be the most comfortable, but you may not. I also found the Deuter more comfortable than the Osprey, but much of this is personal preference.

If you decide on a framed pack, I would go to REI (or a similar store) and try on the ones they have. If you happen to be near Campsavers, they also carry the Onya, in addition to framed packs. See if you like them, have your partner try them on as well if they will be using it too, AND walk around the store with little one in it. Pick the one that you, hubby, and LO find most comfortable… and buy it from somewhere with a generous return policy just in case you end up not liking it after you have used it a few times. If you find a good deal on one used, that is great too, but still make sure if it comfortable for you before buying it.

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