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Backpack carriers

Backpack carrier buying guide

Last updated: November 2012
Getting started

Getting started

Backpack baby carriers aren't just for people who want to take hikes on nature trails with their tots in tow. Many parents use the carriers for less exotic trips to the mall, the zoo, or just to walk the dog.

Most backpack carriers are for children old enough to sit up independently, with full head and neck control. That's usually around 6 months of age. Although some carriers feature moldable head and neck support for children as young as 3 months, we don't recommend them.

Backpack carriers can typically be used to carry a child and gear totaling 30 to 50 pounds, although some models can carry as much as 70 pounds. The weight of the pack itself can add another 4 to 7 pounds to the load, so consider that when choosing a pack. A heavier model might make it more difficult for you to carry your child.

Most backpack carriers have an aluminum or aluminum alloy frame, which, together with the waist or hip belt, distributes the weight of the baby and your gear along your back, shoulders, and hips, rather than all on your shoulders and neck, as some front infant carriers do, especially those without a waist belt.

Wearing a pack with a padded hip belt that feels comfortable is critical, says Scott Bautch, a chiropractor, CEO of Allied Health Chiropractic Centers in Wisconsin, and father of six. "The majority of the weight should be carried on your hips. The shoulder straps are only there to control the motion of the backpack. You should fit the pack from your hips up, not your shoulders down."

Backpack carriers are a good choice when your child can sit up completely by herself, will have full head and neck control for the length of time you plan to put her in the carrier, and fits comfortably in the pack. But even though your child's weight is evenly distributed by the carrier, don't expect a backpack carrier to make your load light. A 25-pound child will still feel heavy after awhile.

Most framed backpack carriers come with a built-in stand that makes it easier to load your baby in and mount him on your back. The carrier can stand up while you get baby settled and prepare to strap it on. But this feature definitely doesn't mean the carrier is stable enough to be used as a baby seat on the ground or any other surface.

Seats and shoulder harnesses on backpack carriers are made of moisture-resistant fabric. Many models have multiple positions for the wearer as well as the child. The carriers usually have densely padded shoulder straps and hip belts, storage compartments, sun/rain hoods, and toy loops. Extras may include a changing pad, a removable diaper bag, a rear-view mirror to watch your baby without removing the pack, a removable insulated bottle holder, a detachable pillow so your child can nap on the go, and multistorage compartments for baby gear.

Backpack carriers can be cumbersome and expensive, though. Many are designed for the great outdoors and might be more than you need if your idea of an adventure is a trek to the grocery store with your baby onboard. And those with a substantial aluminum frame can also take up a lot of storage space.

Some smaller backpack carriers are better designed for everyday use. These "urban" carriers look more like a regular backpack but still have a structured frame to support your child. They're less bulky than some of the more traditional backpack carriers and are more easily packed for short trips.

Recommendations

Before buying a backpack carrier, think about how much you'll use it. That will help determine what type to buy and how much to spend, though we've found that price isn't necessarily a reliable indicator of quality. Consider sharing one with friends if you expect to use a backpack carrier only occasionally.

If you plan on longer or more frequent outings with your baby, consider models that will have more storage features, better padding, and a more comfortable fit. As we mentioned, don't use a backpack carrier until your child can sit up unassisted (usually no younger than 6 months) and has full head and neck control. Check with your pediatrician if you are unsure about whether or not your baby is ready to ride in a backpack carrier.

Before you venture out, become familiar with your backpack carrier. For example, if the directions are unclear about how to secure your child in the seat, how to use the seat's child harness, or how to assemble an accessory such as a rain hood, call the manufacturer. Keep all instructions for future reference; don't wing it. The backpack carrier should be set up properly and the straps should be adjusted correctly and securely. Your child's safety depends on it. And be sure to send in the product registration card so you'll be notified in the event that the backpack is recalled.

Finally, before doing a lot of walking with a backpack carrier, make sure you're in good physical shape. It's easy to underestimate the strength you'll need to lug around a baby. And stay within the recommended weight limits. When your child outgrows the backpack carrier, stop using it. (See Enjoy new-parenthood--without injuring your back.)

Types

Do you like the idea of heading out into the woods for a few hours of hiking with your baby strapped on your back? Maybe you're less adventurous and prefer to stroll around the park or mall. Before you buy a backpack carrier, think about how and when you'll use it. Here are the two types to consider.

Framed carriers


These rugged carriers are made with substantial aluminum frames, and many have extra storage space to carry water, snacks, and diapers.

The Deuter Kid Comfort II Child Carrier (pictured), about $230, has an aluminum frame and can hold a maximum recommended weight--your child plus your gear--of up to 48.5 pounds. The carrier itself weighs about 6 pounds. Some heavy-duty carriers like this one, aimed at serious hikers, have removable pouches so you can choose how much to schlep. No matter what you choose to pack, make sure not to exceed the maximum weight limit of the carrier.

The Kelty K.I.D.S. FC 3.0 Frame Child Carrier has a 50-pound total weight limit (child plus gear). The carrier itself weighs in at nearly 8 pounds, and sells for about $150 to $250, depending on the additional features you choose.

There are framed carriers that aim to be less bulky. The Chicco Smart Support Backpack, about $85, for example, is a bit smaller than some other carriers. It can be used with a child up to 40 pounds. The Eco-Classic Carrier by KoKopax, about $180, is another lightweight option. It has a frame, but according to the manufacturer, is small enough to fit in an airplane's overhead bin. You can use it with a child from 6 months to 2 years old--it has a maximum weight limit of 35 pounds--and unlike most carriers, the seat for the baby is made of cotton canvas. It doesn't have a large padded hip belt, which might be uncomfortable on long hikes.

Lightweight or "urban" carriers


Better designed for everyday use, these carriers look more like a regular backpack but still have a structured frame to support your child. They're less bulky than some of the more traditional backpack carriers, and are more easily packed for short trips. The Kelty TC 3.0 child carrier backpack, about $180 (pictured), for example, has a small lightweight internal frame, but still has a fairly high 40-pound weight limit. It weighs less than 6 pounds. The ERGObaby Performance Baby Carrier, about $135, is another slimmed-down model, with a weight limit of 45 pounds. It can be used by adults from 5 feet to 6 1/2 feet tall, and can be worn in the front or on the back.

There's a wide range of carriers out there, so it's a good idea to go to stores where you can try them on with your baby to see if both of you like the fit and feel. Camping goods stores such as REI often have a range of carriers in stock. The Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association has certified three brands of backpack carriers: Chicco, Kelty Kids, and Kokopax, LLC.

Features


Once you've thought about how much you'll use a carrier--and how rugged you need it to be--there are other features to consider.

Will one adult be using the carrier or will it be shared? Your carrier should be adjustable to fit all users comfortably and safely. The Sherpani Rumba, for example, adjusts to fit torso lengths from 16 to 22 inches. It can also be adjusted at the waist, fitting adults with 29-inch to 42-inch waists. The sternum strap can also be adjusted. The Deuter Kid Comfort II Child Carrier has shoulder straps that can be adjusted for adults of different sizes and heights, as well as a sternum strap and a padded hip belt you can adjust. (It fits a waist and hip area of up to 46 inches.) Back pain can be a problem for many parents, so take time to make sure the carrier fits you well to avoid any problems.

Of course you want to make sure your baby is comfortable, too. While most carriers allow for some adjustment, it's important to know the weight limit and read the manufacturer's user manual. Most carriers feature a five-point adjustable harness that keeps a child safely secured. The baby's seat inside the carrier is often called the "cockpit," and some carriers make it easy to remove its fabric lining for cleaning. Some features might be more important to you than others. Read through the features below and make a list of the ones you consider must-haves. Then try on and compare different models with the features you want.

The cockpit


Higher-end backpack carriers tend to offer a roomier ride for babies and might include stirrups so a baby's feet won't dangle. That support might help reduce the chances that your baby's feet will fall asleep during your outing. The Escape carrier by phil&teds, about $200 (pictured), has "kiddie foot stirrups" so Junior can rest his tootsies. The carrier has a maximum weight capacity of 40 pounds. Padding can keep your baby more comfortable, and some parents say their children seem happier in a cushier ride. Finally, some carriers make it easy to remove the cockpit's fabric lining for cleaning.

Five-point harness

On framed or urban backpack carriers, always look for an adjustable five-point harness (two straps over the shoulders, two for the thighs, and a crotch strap), also called a "chest plate." Don't purchase a carrier that relies on a lap belt that's separate from the shoulder and crotch straps, leaving openings at the side that could potentially be big enough for a child to slip through.

Fabric


Backpack carriers are usually made of durable nylon similar to that used in regular hiking backpacks. Fabrics vary from lightweight to heavy duty. The Deuter Comfort II Child Carrier, about $230 (pictured), includes such features as a ventilated area in the back to reduce perspiration, and lots of "air-mesh linings."

The material in your carrier should be sturdy, moisture resistant, and easy to clean by wiping with water and a mild detergent. Let the carrier air out for a few days if it gets wet. Light-reflecting piping or stripes can help drivers see you when it gets dark, but keep a safe distance from traffic. Avoid using a baby carrier after dark or anytime visibility is poor.

Fasteners

Carriers have a variety of buckles and fasteners on the shoulder and waist straps for adult and baby. Buckles that hold shoulder and waist straps should be easy to adjust and hold the straps tightly so that they can't get loose when the carrier is in use. Snaps and buckles should be sturdy and difficult for babies to unfasten.

Kickstand


The kickstand should lock firmly in the open position and have hinges with spacers so that fingers won't be pinched. When the carrier is on your back, the kickstand should close so that it doesn't snag on objects as you walk. The Deuter Kid Comfort II has a kickstand that releases when you push a button. When the carrier is on the ground with the kickstand open, it should be hard to tip over. Still, as we mentioned, never use a carrier with a kickstand as a baby seat. Some carriers let you open the kickstand while you're still wearing it, making it easier to put your load down when you're alone with the baby and want to take a break. The Kelty FC 1.0 (pictured), for example, has an "auto-deploy kickstand."

Leg openings


The child's seat should have leg openings that can be adjusted to be small enough to prevent your baby from slipping out. But they should also be fully adjustable to fit snugly around your baby's legs as he grows. The Kelty K.I.D.S. FC 3.0 Frame Child Carrier (pictured) features an adjustable five-point harness, an adjustable seat, and "custom-fit" leg straps in the cockpit area.

Padding


Look for a backpack carrier with padding that covers the metal frame near your baby's face. You want padding that's firm rather than mushy. You also want well-padded shoulder straps and hip belts--just as you would on any backpack you're going to carry for a long period of time. The Sherpani Rumba Superlight Child Carrier (pictured), for example, has a fully padded "bucket seat" for the baby, a padded back area for the adult, and a padded hip belt.

Seats and seat belts


Look for a seat that adjusts so your child will sit high enough in the carrier to see over your shoulder from the beginning, though not so high that she could fall out. The cockpit should be padded for comfort and have enough depth to support your baby's back. And it should have leg openings that can be adjusted to be small enough to prevent your baby from slipping out. Check all buckles and other securing hardware and be sure that seams won't tear and straps won't slip. For example, the Kelty 3.0 (pictured) comes with "custom leg straps" for a baby.

Shoulder, waist, and chest straps

Shoulder-strap padding should be firm and wide. Putting your baby in and strapping the carrier on should be fairly simple. Shoulder straps should have an adjustable chest buckle that keeps the straps on your shoulders while preventing chafing at the neck. They should also be adjustable even while you're carrying your baby.

Overall, look for as much flexibility in the straps as possible. The chest strap (or sternum strap) should be adjustable as well as the waist belt. Don't be swayed by fancy looking padding, particularly on shoulder straps, which shouldn't bear a lot of the load anyway. Shoulder-strap fit and the firmness of padding are more important than padding thickness, especially at the shoulder.

Some well-made carriers have a large pad to cushion your lower back. The hip strap will help distribute some of your baby's weight from your shoulders to your hips and pelvic area, preventing strain on your lower back. Carrying the weight lower on your body is definitely more comfortable and better for your body. In the store, fasten the belt to see if it's long enough, and neither too high nor low on your waist when the carrier is in place.

Scott Bautch, a chiropractor and father of six, says parents should make sure the weight of the pack is being borne by the hip belt and not the shoulder straps. "You should be able to take three fingers and slide them under the shoulder straps easily," he says. "Your posture will go forward if you have too much weight on your shoulders, and that changes everything. It will affect your gait in a negative way."

Storage pouches


If you can't leave your house without lots of toys, snacks, and diapering supplies, or you'll be traveling with your baby on longer expeditions, you'll need a carrier with ample storage. Some models have only a small pouch for a cell phone or bottle. Others are loaded with pockets, pouches, and toy loops built into the waist belt. Zippered pouches or those with a Velcro closure are better because things can't fall out. Plastic-lined pockets are good for toting damp items. Bottom storage compartments can accommodate enough stuff for a day's outing. The Deuter Kid Comfort II, for example, has a large pocket in the hip belt and two side mesh pockets near the kid's cockpit that can hold toys, sippy cups, and more.

Some heavy-duty carriers for serious hiking have removable pouches so you can choose what to add or remove. The Escape carrier from phil&ted's has a day pack you can zip off. The Kelty K.I.D.S. FC 3.0 (pictured) has a diaper bag that can be removed. Just remember when packing not to exceed the maximum weight for the carrier you choose.

Sun/weather shield


Because a baby's eyes and skin are sensitive, you should protect them from sun and bad weather. Most backpack carriers come with a sun/weather shield or offer one as an accessory. The phil&teds Escape carrier (pictured), for example, has a sun hood and comes with a removable wind and rain cover.

Some have mesh on the sides to keep air flowing in and bugs out. If the carrier you select doesn't come with a shield, buy one separately. Not all sun/weather shields are created equal, though. The better shields are "hoods" that provide full coverage. Even with a good shield, be sure to have protective clothing for your baby--ideally a hat with a 3-inch brim all the way around or at least a hat with the bill facing forward, and a long-sleeved shirt and long pants made from tightly woven cotton. Apply sunscreen to her face, ears, arms, and legs.

Mirrors


Some parents like to attach a mirror to their carrier so they can see what their child is up to (like whether or not he's fallen asleep). The LittleLife Voyager S2 pack (pictured) comes with one. If your carrier doesn't come with a mirror attachment, you can buy one from a retailer such as REI.

Brands


Chicco

One of the largest baby brands in Europe, this 50-year-old company is part of the global Artsana Group, a lifestyle company that encompasses everything you need to care for all generations of a family, from baby feeding systems to cosmetics to medical supplies. Chicco (pronounced "kee-ko") is sold in more than 120 countries over six continents. Available wherever juvenile products are sold.
www.chicco.com

Deuter Kid

Situated in Longmont, Colo., this company was founded in 1898 by Hans Deuter in Augsburg-Oberhausen, Germany. At the turn of the century, the company supplied the Bavarian Royal Mail with mailbags and post sacks. In 2001 Deuter International set up the "Deuter USA" subsidiary. The company’s high-end backpacks, tents, and accessories are available at outdoor sports shops and online.
www.deuter.com

ERGObaby

Situated in Maui, Hawaii, this family-owned-and-operated company was founded 2003. The baby carrier was initially developed out of a personal need when Karin Frost, the owner and designer, had her son in 2001 and created a carrier for him. With help and feedback from other parents, the ERGObaby design was born. The company’s backpack carriers, backpacks, and papoose coat are available at specialty shops and online.
www.ergobabycarrier.com

Kelty

Since 1952, Kelty has created affordable, reliable outdoor gear for everyone, from the first-time camper to the experienced mountaineer. In 1992, Kelty entered the kid-carrying business with the Kelty Child Carrier. Its full line of camping equipment and backpack carriers is available at outdoor sports shops and online. Check the company’s website for a retailer near you.
www.kelty.com

Kokopax

Founded in 2007 in Henderson, Nev., by Sarah Spoor, the company name comes from two of the founder’s favorite childhood books, "Patty Cake" and "Koko’s Kitten," in which monkeys and gorillas carry their babies on their backs. The “pax” play seemed logical because it sounds like “packs,” but means “peace” in Latin. Its baby carriers, totes, hats, and organic accessories are available online; retailers are listed on the company’s website.
www.kokopax.com

LittleLife

Designers and manufacturers of outdoor products for parents and young children, the company has turned to creating lightweight (6 pounds/3 kilograms.) child carriers. Situated in the United Kingdom and Canada, its baby carriers, tents, sleeping bags, and other outdoor equipment are available at REI and online.
www.littlelife.com

Sherpani

The name of this company comes from the Nepalese term used for a female sherpa. This Boulder, Colo.,-based company designs and manufactures products that are made of natural fibers and recycled materials whenever possible. Along with its high-end baby carriers, it offers a line of shoulder, travel, sports, and gym bags that are available at REI, Zappos, eBags, and outdoor sport shops.
www.sherpani.com

phil&teds

This New Zealand-based company makes strollers, travel systems, sleep-and-go carriers, on-the-go child seats, backpack carriers, and accessories. Products available on its website.
www.philandteds.com

Shopping tips

Here are some steps to take when you shop for a backpack carrier.

Take your baby

When your baby is the right age and weight, take him with you when you shop for a backpack carrier, and do a trial run in the store. If you expect to wear the backpack during cold weather, try it over your coat.

Practice in the store--and at home

With the help of knowledgeable sales staff, practice putting carriers on and taking them off. If you have a partner, have him or her do the same. Try adjusting the straps to fit each person's torso to see if it's easy to do. Walk around wearing the backpacks to see if the frame hits the back of your head or digs into your lower back after a few minutes. Make sure it's not too long for your torso, and that the straps fit properly and don't slip off your shoulders. Carrier directions should be clear and easy to follow.

As you practice, keep in mind that you're taking up more space with a child on your back. An older child's head could be as high (or higher) than your own. It's easy to forget you have another foot or so of carrier and child behind you, so be careful when moving through doorways or in tight spaces not to whack your child into anyone or anything.

Look for a snug-fitting safety harness

The safest backpack carriers have a five-point harness for the child that connects the shoulder straps with the crotch, torso, and hip restraints for a snug fit. Don't purchase a carrier that relies on a lap belt that's separate from the shoulder and crotch straps, leaving openings at the side that could be big enough for a child to slip through. This sometimes occurs when children pull their legs up and subsequently put both legs into one opening. Several backpack models have been recalled because of lap belts that were separate from the crotch and shoulder straps. We consider that style of harness inadequate and dangerous for a small child.

Beware of secondhand equipment

Buy a new backpack to ensure that you're not using a recalled model. But new carriers can be subject to recalls, too. So check the Consumer Product Safety Commission website for the latest information, or sign up for the CPSC's free recall e-mail notices. Finally, as with any baby product, send in the registration card for the backpack carrier you select so you'll be alerted directly by the manufacturer if it's recalled.

If you use a model you used with a previous child, inspect it for excessive wear, which can weaken straps and seams. Be sure to reread the instruction manual. If you've lost the manual, download a copy from the manufacturer's website or call customer service to ask for another one. Don't use a carrier for which you have no instructions, no matter how simple it might seem. Serious accidents can happen too easily.

Safety strategies

There are three things parents should consider when using a backpack carrier, says Scott Bautch, a chiropractor, CEO of Allied Health Chiropractic Centers in Wisconsin, and father of six. First, make sure the baby is comfortable in the carrier and that his harness fits well. Second, parents should make sure the pack they chose fits them properly. Finally, parents should make sure they're in shape before they try to hike with their baby.

Bautch says that parents make sure their baby's head and neck are properly supported when they're in a backpack, and that they should check to see how comfortable the child is. He says that even if the fit is good, a child's legs can get chaffed in the leg holes by rubbing, especially on long hikes. If that's the case with your baby, or she's uncomfortable for another reason, try adjusting the carrier. And remember to take breaks during your outing so you and your baby can rest.

Bautch also suggests that parents start slowly, with shorter trips, to get used to the carrier. "Don't put it on and go to a fair for the day, for eight hours with the kid, if you have never done it before," he said. "You are carrying something precious, and if you become clumsy it is a danger. You want to understand your physical limitations."

And it's important that parents wear sturdy shoes with proper arch support so that they're surefooted when carrying the extra weight. "Don't wear flip- flops," Bautch says. "And remember, with that extra weight you will sweat more, so you will need hydration and breaks."

Additional backpack carrier safety tips

  • Buckle and tighten all straps on the harness so that your child isn't tempted to climb out when you're on the go. Serious injuries, including skull fractures and concussions, have occurred when children have fallen from carriers.
  • Double-check that buckles, snaps, straps, and adjustments are secure before each use. Snaps can open and adjustments might be incorrect, posing safety hazards.
  • When your child is in a carrier, especially as he gets older, his head could be higher than yours. So be mindful of overhead obstacles, such as doorframes and tree branches.
  • Keep baby's fingers away from a carrier's frame joints, especially when you're folding or unfolding the carrier.
  • Check on your child periodically. Children can become overheated in warm weather or be overexposed to harmful rays from the sun. Make sure that his limbs are secure in the leg and arm openings, but also that his circulation isn't impaired in any way. Because your baby can't tell you if his legs are falling asleep, take frequent breaks as a precaution. As we've mentioned, some carriers have foot stirrups for children; the Sherpani Rumba Superlight Child Carrier has ones you can leave in place or remove.
  • Some parents also carry a small pocket mirror to check on their child without removing the pack.
  • Check the backpack before each use for ripped or weakened seams, missing or loose fasteners, and frayed seats or straps. Never use a carrier with frayed seams or other defects, which can give way suddenly.
  • Don't lean over when you use a backpack carrier. Bend at your knees, not your waist, to keep your baby from falling out when you're reaching for something low.
  • Never carry a child in a pack while in a moving vehicle or on an airplane, and never use the carrier as a substitute for a certified child car seat. When you're traveling by car or plane, always secure your child in the appropriate child car seat.
  • Even though a backpack carrier can give you the freedom to venture where a stroller can't, don't use one in areas where you won't have firm footing, such as on wet rocks, big boulders, icy terrain, or wet leaves. And don't hike after dark, when visibility is poor.
  • Don't leave your child unattended in a backpack carrier. She shouldn't be in a carrier unless the pack is on your back. In other words, don't place your baby in a backpack carrier and then perch her on a kitchen counter, couch, bed, picnic table, or even the floor for a moment. Babies can fall or suffocate much faster than you might think.
  • Don't carry more than one child in a backpack carrier at a time.
  • Only use the carrier for walking, not sporting activities.
  • Metal heats up, so if your backpack has been in the sun, let it cool before putting your child into it.
   

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