The smell hit me as we drove into Morrow Mountain State Park.
My 15-month-old son, Jacob, was in the back seat, where he’d been fussing off and on for the hour-long drive from Charlotte. I figured it was past time for a diaper change, so I pulled over in a small parking area by the main entrance.
My plan was to squeeze in a four-mile hike with Jacob before it got dark to close out the weekend. The sight that greeted me when I rounded the passenger side brought me up short. Jacob sat, placid and unperturbed, in a giant pool of vomit that was soaking into his clothes, his carseat, and my car.
My vision of our quick jaunt through the early fall woods evaporated. I didn’t bring a change of clothes (an unpardonable sin for baby parenting), and even if I had, the kid was going to need pressure washing, not a state park bathroom sink rinse.
Every new parent probably has some version of this story. It’s a tricky business, trying to bring a small human who cries, poops, pees, and randomly falls asleep at inopportune moments into the world beyond your house.
One of my biggest fears when we decided to have a baby was that I would lose this part of myself. It might sound selfish to worry about how much time I’ll have left in the woods, but some part of me needs to see wild places, to walk where the earth has worn away and exposed the rocky spine of the world.
I came to hiking later in life, but over the last decade it’s become an important part of who I am — and a source of sanity. Since moving to Charlotte in 2009, I’ve ranged farther and farther, from day hikes at Crowders to state parks to multi-day solo sections of the Appalachian Trail and beyond.
I think all new parents share some version of this fear. A baby’s needs are endless, and parents’ time is not; simple math dictates that you’re going to do less of something after the birth, whatever that is.
Staring at the macabre scene in my car at the foot of Morrow Mountain, I made a snap decision: We were going to hike anyway. It was an hour-plus back to Charlotte either way, and I couldn’t bear to get back in the car and confront the stew of odors I’d be facing.
My calculus would have been different if he seemed ill or upset, but Jacob smiled and wanted to run around as soon as I took him out of the car seat. I chalked the vomiting up to car sickness. I took off his dirty clothes, then my shirt. I popped the shirt over his head, giving him a snuggly oversized tunic.
Then I put him in our hiking backpack and we set off for an abbreviated loop. He slept the whole way home, while I gagged. Another successful hike.
In the first year-and-a-half of his life, Jacob’s been hiking at Morrow Mountain, Crowders Mountain, Lake Norman, Jockey’s Ridge, South Mountain and Stone Mountain state parks, several Mecklenburg County nature preserves, and off the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Becoming a parent didn’t mean giving up hiking, but it did require accepting some changes, and the flexibility to adapt.
Here are six tips for getting out into the woods (or anywhere, really), with a baby:
(1) Match the itinerary to what your baby can handle.
I love spending all day on the trail, pounding out 20 miles or more. But it’s not realistic to expect Jacob to handle that, riding in a backpack.
His first-ever hike was at four months: a 15-minute walk along a trail that started from the Blue Ridge Parkway near Asheville, strapped to my chest in an Ergobaby carrier. Now he does five-mile loops riding in my Deuter backpack without complaint.
State parks within 90 minutes of Charlotte (Crowders, South Mountain, Morrow Mountain, and Lake James) offer a variety of hike lengths to choose from.
(2) Break it up.
Whenever we do a longer hike, we take at least one break in a safe spot for Jacob to run around and get his energy out.
The grassy field at the base of South Mountain and the fenced picnic area at High Shoal Falls are excellent for this, as are the top of Morrow Mountain and the much-less-crowded Boulders access at Crowders.
(3) Start easy — really easy.
Facilities like Evergreen, Ribbon Walk, and McDowell Nature Preserve are all in Charlotte. Before I took Jacob out to Crowders for the first time, I convinced myself we could both handle it by rambling through all three of these closer-in woods.
Mecklenburg County’s nature preserves are a great way to take your baby hiking without the pressure of a full-day trip to the mountains.
(4) Invest in a good carrier.
For the first six months or so of his life, Jacob fit easily in the Ergobaby carrier on my chest. But he’s a big kid. Since then, I’ve used a Deuter Kid Comfort Air hiking backpack, which has the advantage of a few more liters of storage space for water, snacks, clothes, etc.
They’re not cheap (the Ergobaby 360 retails for $140, and the Deuter Kid Comfort, not currently available, was $180), but if you use them frequently, it’s worth it, and your back will thank you. Less expensive options are available at retailers such as Target and Walmart.
(5) Bring more of everything than you think you need.
Diapers, a changing pad, wipes, and a bag for your dirty diapers are a must, along with snacks and water. But also, bring an extra hat, sunscreen to reapply, and gloves.
Last winter, we were hiking at Evergreen Nature Preserve, off Central Avenue, when I noticed one of Jacob’s mittens had fallen off. I went back and looked, but we had to cut the hike short after I couldn’t find it and his hand was getting cold.
Bring spares of everything.
(6) Be careful — but believe you can do it.
Things I don’t think twice about when I’m hiking alone — walking over wet, uneven rocks at South Mountain, climbing over the short, rocky scramble to the top of King’s Pinnacle — make my hands sweat when doing them with my son on my back. Care is advisable, but remember that it will be fine.
Kids are adaptable. They’ll fall asleep in the carrier, love playing with the pebbles trailside, and stare in awe (or boredom — it’s hard to tell with a baby) at the endless acres of crenellated, fall-clad forest stretching before them from the top of a mountain. All you have to do is take them.
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