Thru-Hiking with a Toddler
Are the difficulties of taking a toddler on a 200-mile hike worth the rewards?
It’s 8 a.m. on an August morning, and I’m standing at the Mono/Parker Pass Trailhead in Yosemite with 40 pounds in my backpack. If that sounds a little heavy, it’s because I’m carrying an extra 20 pounds of weight: My 15-month-old daughter Sequoia.
This is the beginning of my eighth hike along the 211-mile John Muir Trail, and my first with my daughter. Besides the two of us, our group includes my husband David, my dad, and three friends who have flown in from Europe to hike with us. Due to permit demand, we’re starting 20 miles from the traditional start at the Happy Isles Trailhead in Yosemite Valley.
Sequoia’s been outdoors as long as she’s been alive: We took her camping for the first time at one month old, and gradually stretched dayhikes into short backpacking trips. We’ve been planning this excursion on the JMT for nine months; while we hadn’t heard of anyone else doing the trip with a toddler, we felt that we had enough experience to pull it off. After a practice run on the shorter, more mellow Tahoe Rim Trail, it was time to go.
Day 1: (16 miles)
It feels good to begin. We take frequent, short breaks every couple of miles to let Sequoia stretch her legs and play, and since I’m still breastfeeding on demand, to nurse her; it’s a comfort knowing Sequoia will have a reliable source of nutrition in addition to the food we carry. Sequoia takes two naps a day in the backpack while we make miles. As she snoozes, we continue hiking and enjoy the silence.
After hiking 16 miles over Koip Peak Pass, we find a place to camp near Gem Lake. Sequoia walks around, climbing on boulders and logs. After dinner, we bundle her up in her down onesie and lie down to sleep under our home-sewn double quilt, with Sequoia in the middle to ensure she stays warm. We also have two long foam pads for David and me and a cut foam pad to fit under Sequoia. It’s a good end to a good first day: After making 16 miles, my confidence in our ability to make it to Mt. Whitney is renewed.
Warmth is important on trail. A good bunting goes a long way in keeping kids cozy.
Day 2: (17 miles)
We’ve learned that Sequoia does best in the backpack in the early morning, so around 7 a.m., David, Sequoia, and I leave camp before the rest of the group. David and I hike well on empty stomachs. We’ve also been cold-soaking our meals, which not only saves weight and lets us prep food on the go, but also avoids the inherent hazard of using a stove around a toddler. Sequoia stays in her onesie for the first couple of cold morning miles and I keep her engaged by pointing out interesting things I see along the trail. Luckily, she doesn’t need much to stay happy and I can save my breath when hiking uphill.
The trail descends to Red’s Meadow, a resort where we enjoy the luxury of buying fresh fruit and drinks from the General Store. (It’s also an opportunity to throw away trash, especially Sequoia’s diapers, which we have been using very conservatively by timing our breaks for when she pees.) Our group reunites here, and after a couple of hours of chasing Sequoia around, we head out. Three-and-a-half miles later we set up camp by Crater Creek and eat cold-soaked ramen for dinner before putting Sequoia to sleep.
Day 3: (14 miles)
Our day begins with a five-mile waterless stretch; we hike as fast as we can before Sequoia gets restless. She still hasn’t developed a big appetite for food and there aren’t a lot of snack options to offer her. Luckily, she enjoys grain puffs and my hip belt pocket is filled with them to hold her over; I pass them back to her one by one.
We pass Purple and Virginia Lakes and stop at both. Sequoia is enthusiastic when there is water to play in and she doesn’t mind the cold. From Virginia Lake we descend into Tully Hole and find a place to camp along Fish Creek.
Day 4: (15 miles)
We’ve settled into a good routine. We leave camp before the rest of our group, hike a couple miles before stopping to eat breakfast, and wait for everyone to catch up. Today we go up and over Silver Pass, which offers impressive views of the mountains. A caravan of horses passes us at the top and the riders stop when they see Sequoia’s smile. She has never seen anything like it before and feeling her excitement among these mountains feels surreal.
Sequoia is a relentless climber whenever she gets the chance. She’s spent most of her time barefoot, but we’ve packed a pair of soft-soled leather shoes to protect her from rocks while allowing her to feel the ground beneath her feet. When we’re ahead of the group, we let Sequoia walk the trail. Although it’s slow going, it’s fun watching her little legs toddle down the path.
We make our way to the Mono Creek footbridge where we stop for a swim and snack before completing the day with another five-mile stretch up Bear Ridge. Sequoia isn’t in a good mood, so I end up talking and singing our way to the top. There is sweat running down my forehead and Sequoia’s whining behind my head makes me feel like I’m losing my mind. Not every trail mile is happy, but I still feel grateful that I’m able to do this with her. We make camp at the top just in time to see a beautiful panorama of the valley below us as the sun sets.
Day 5: (15 miles)
We spend hours bathing naked at Marie Lake and Sequoia is thrilled. The shallow, sandy edge of the lake is safe for her and we feel that we can relax and watch her from a distance while we eat. She splashes in the water and runs in and out of the lake laughing. It’s a huge morale boost for David and I, and our spirits are high as we climb the switchbacks to Selden Pass. The trail then descends for more than six miles to the Muir Trail Ranch, which marks the halfway point of the John Muir Trail and is our only resupply spot for food and diapers.
At the ranch, Sequoia runs wild, making it near impossible to complete our task of restocking on food. But then the rest of our group arrives to help and within minutes, our bear canister is full and Sequoia’s dirty diapers are thrown away. We hike out a half mile to a campground, where we leave our stuff and cross the San Joaquin river to enjoy the local Blayney Hot Springs. The warm water is relaxing, but we get little rest as we take turns running after Sequoia, who is oblivious to the number of miles I have carried her to get here.
Want to start hiking with your baby? You'll need a reliable carrier. One good pick: The Osprey Poco AG.
Day 6: (11.5 miles)
The day begins by returning to Muir Trail Ranch to throw away last night’s diaper; not having to carry it for the next 100 miles makes the short detour well worth it. The whole day after that is a steady uphill.
We didn’t bring any toys, so playtime is improvised. Digging in the dirt with sticks, throwing rocks in the river, chasing squirrels, watching bugs, and sifting through our gear is enough to keep Sequoia occupied. After lunch we go up switchbacks and enter Evolution Valley, where the trail meanders through meadows and up a creek for six miles. We make an early camp near McClure Meadow where Sequoia finishes the day with a naked bath in the creek. As the sun sets, we watch the moon rise from behind the spires in the east.
Day 7: (13.5 miles)
After an early-morning departure, we breakfast by the shores of Evolution Lake, where Sequoia climbs on rocks and runs across huge slabs of granite. We spend a good hour here, marveling at the mountains and restoring our energy for the hike over Muir Pass. Sequoia sleeps in her backpack most of the way there, where we take shelter from the sun in an emergency hut. A steep descent towards Le Conte Canyon finishes out the day.
Day 8: (14.5 miles)
We spend the morning finishing the descent into Le Conte Canyon while singing songs to Sequoia. Occasionally I have to stop hiking and take a break to breastfeed her, or let her walk a short section of trail, but for the most part she likes riding in the backpack. The steep climb up to Palisade Lakes is enjoyable, and there, we find at least a dozen horses grazing, which thrills Sequoia. There’s a chilly wind at the lake and we decide it best to make camp here instead of continuing further up towards Mather Pass.
While setting up our tent we lose track of Sequoia and she disappears into the maze of bushes. My heart pounds as our entire group spreads out to look for her. In an instant, the day has gone from idyllic to scary. I climb some rocks above our camp to finally see her heading toward the lake. It’s a good reminder of a toddler’s unpredictability.
Day 9: (12 miles)
The morning miles up to Mather Pass are cold and Sequoia is feeling the wind on her cheeks. For clothing we brought her a down onesie, two shirts, two pairs of pants, two pairs of socks, two bibs, a hat, a rain jacket, and rain pants. We’ve been washing her clothes daily and she has plenty to wear despite getting dirty very quickly. Sequoia hikes most of the flat trail below the pass. She is getting better at hiking and I’m amazed at her 15-month-old legs maneuvering around obstacles, jumping from rocks, and balancing.
We pass a woman who complains to us about the weight of the unnecessary food she is carrying. When we tell her we are running low, she gifts us some snacks.
When our group reunites, my dad takes Sequoia for a walk while David and I dig through our bear canister. Despite the donations, we are still short on food. Sequoia’s favorite food on trail is breast milk, so our worries are only about David and I having enough snacks to hold us over between meals.
Day 10: (14 miles)
Pinchot Pass is an ideal spot to wait for our group and have breakfast. Once reunited, we descend to the suspension bridge at Woods Creek. There are bear boxes here, and it’s amazing how something so ordinary can entertain a toddler who has been in the mountains for 10 days. She rattles the chain, climbs inside, opens and closes the door. The rest of the day is a subtle, four-mile uphill to our camp at Dollar Lake. My dad’s knees are hurting him, so he takes Sequoia on a walk to see how it feels without the weight of his backpack. As much as I enjoy bonding with our daughter, it is very demanding work and I cherish the quiet moments when someone takes her off our hands.
Day 11: (11 miles)
David and I hike fast, because the faster we go, the longer of a break we can take before our group catches up. Sequoia’s positive mood seems to depend on long breaks. Every day she gets braver and faster—as nerve-wracking as it is to see her little body running through this harsh landscape, we laugh about the absurdity of being out here with a toddler.
The group is feeling the trail and we stop after just eleven miles. David finds a bag of chips in camp and we rejoice at the extra food. But my dad’s knee isn’t doing well and he decides to hike out the next morning. I fall asleep unsure if continuing without him is a good idea.
Day 12: (20 miles)
Faced with dwindling food supplies, we look at the map and decide it’s best for David, Sequoia, and I to split off from the group and finish fast. Although there are still 35 trail miles left, our legs feel strong and we are confident we can finish in two days. We pack up, say our goodbyes, and begin the long ascent to Forester Pass.
It’s a tough trail to the top and our packs are heavy with dirty diapers. Forester Pass is cold and windy. It isn’t a very safe place for a toddler: Behind the sign welcoming us to Sequoia National Park is a giant cliff that makes us nervous. We stop only to eat and take some photos. It’s a relief to descend into the valley where sunshine greets us in time for lunch.
Day 13: (15 miles)
It’s 3:20 a.m. on the last day of our John Muir Trail hike. We’ve got all our gear packed and I'm standing by my backpack shining my headlamp at Sequoia as she squirms and cries into the darkness around us. We’ve woken her up and she’s not happy about it, but we want to see the sunrise from Mt. Whitney, so we have to start hiking.
I shoulder my pack and quietly sing to Sequoia so as not to disturb the other hikers camping around us. As she nods off, we climb the switchbacks up Mt. Whitney’s back. The moon emerges from behind the mountains and illuminates the trail well enough that we turn off our headlamps and enjoy the romantic feel of the moonlit trail. We get to the top of Mt. Whitney just minutes before the sun makes it over the horizon. All around us, the predawn night is still.
That’s when Sequoia wakes from her sound sleep and a terrible tantrum commences. Suddenly, David and I wonder why in the world we brought a 15-month old to 14,505 feet. My stomach knots up and all I want is to go down. It’s cold, windy, and we have an unhappy child. I try breastfeeding Sequoia to calm her, but it does little to help. We put her in the backpack and wrap a blanket around her for extra warmth, then descend as quickly as possible.
We finish our hike at noon, and meet my dad for lunch. It’s a relief to be finished, but nostalgia for the trail hits me as soon as we take our feet off the dirt path. Taking Sequoia backpacking along the John Muir Trail wasn’t just a challenge—it was a fantastic way for us to bond as a family, to show us how capable we are of taking care of ourselves and our daughter, and to give Sequoia a unique beginning to her life.
Pulling off a long backpacking trip with a baby takes lots of planning and practice. Here are our top tips:
1. Gear up. It can be useful to test out several child carriers to choose the one that fits you best. Sequioa and I like the[Osprey Poco Plus pack for comfort and capacity. Sequoia’s down onesie—the Patagonia Infant Hi-Loft Down Sweater Bunting—kept her warm and was practical for sleeping.
2. Pack right. Split the load between yourself and a partner. David and I decided that I would carry Sequoia along with her clothes, my clothes, clean diapers, and some snack foods. David carried everything else, including the tent, food, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, trash, and dirty diapers.
3. Team up. Even though we were able to carry all our gear, hiking in a big group was helpful for entertaining Sequoia on breaks and giving us rest in camp.
4. Build up to it. In a sense, we began preparing Sequoia for backpacking trips as soon as she was born. We exposed her to nature frequently so she could build her confidence and familiarize herself with different landscapes. We went hiking with her every day, even in the rain, which gave us confidence in our ability to take care of her needs in different situations. The short backpacking trips we did leading up to the JMT helped us decide which gear was important to take and how we would carry it.
5. Be flexible. Establishing a routine and understanding your child’s tendencies makes life on trail smoother. At the same time, hiking with a toddler is unpredictable—maintaining the ability to adapt to change will help keep everyone happy and inspired to continue.
Written by Marketa Daley for Backpacker and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to email@example.com.