How to Choose the Best Baby Backpack

Baby loaded in and ready for a hike in the Kelty Journey 2.0
Article By:
Jessica Stevenson
Review Editor
BabyGearLab

Last Updated:
Monday


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After three months of extensive, hands-on testing with six of the industry's leading Baby Backpacks, we learned quite a few things about what's important, and which additional accessories really matter when you're out on the trail. With their extensive list of features, competing baby backpack products have taken on many varieties, styles, and new technologies, giving the modern parent countless choices to consider. After putting each backpack through the wringer, we now have a pretty good idea about which qualities truly make up a superior baby backpack. In this article, we'll be sharing the lessons we learned, with a goal of helping you choose the very best backpack for you and your baby.

Why Get a Baby Backpack?


Phil and Teds Escape on a cool winter walk with a 20 month old in the pack.
Phil and Teds Escape on a cool winter walk with a 20 month old in the pack.
In the early months of your baby's life, you'll most likely find that they are happiest snuggled up to you in your arms or in a specially designed baby wrap or front carrier. Some are also content buckled into their infant car seat while on-the-go, making it easy to transition from car to stroller and back when out in public.

As baby gets older and more alert, you may decide that you're ready for a new carrying option and/or more exciting and lengthy adventures away from home. While a regular wrap or sling will do for a while, once baby is over 16 pounds and able to hold themselves upright, you may want to consider a Baby Backpack.

Baby backpack has a sturdy, aluminum frame that is designed to comfortably carry baby for long periods of time in addition to all of the gear for a day on the go. It allows a parent to carry baby while being hands-free, much like a baby carrier. However, if you're still wondering how often, if ever, you might use a baby backpack, see if any of the following apply to you:
  • Active Lifestyle Pushing baby in a stroller through the woods is usually not an option (at least in our experience), so if you want to enjoy the same activities that you did pre-baby, such as hiking, camping, or heck, even mowing the lawn, consider investing in a quality pack.
  • Limited Storage The six backpacks we tested fold fairly flat and are certainly easy enough to store in a closet or even under a bed. If you need to climb stairs to get to your apartment, have limited storage space, or even use the subway with baby on a regular basis, a backpack might be a great alternative to a stroller.
  • Safety Wearing your baby provides a safer environment for her, keeping her nice and close to your body. Add with an appropriately fitting 5-point harness, a sturdy aluminum frame, and a protective sunshade covering, baby is good to go.

Wearing your baby on your back is a great bonding activity, but care must be taken that the pack is fitted correctly for both wearer and baby on board. In addition, all buckles and straps must be attached appropriately and double-checked use. When needing to access the ground, lower yourself and baby down upright by bending at the knees NOT the hips. This avoids risk of baby spilling out of the carrier. Also, use care not to bump into objects with baby on your back.

  • Light Shopping with Baby For places like farmers markets, crowded stores, or even just busy sidewalks, strollers can sometimes prove to be awkward and cumbersome, taking up more space than is available. While storage is somewhat limited in a baby backpack, it can make quick errands that much easier if you have both hands free.
  • Exercise Staying in shape after having a baby is challenging in more ways than one. Babies can ride in a backpack style carrier as soon as they reach about 16 pounds and can hold their head up. Add that 16 pounds to the backpacks six-or-so pounds, along with whatever you pack in it, and you've got yourself a workout in and of itself! Quality time with baby plus a quality workout = win, win!

Once you decide that investing in a Baby Backpack might be for you, you'll want to take into consideration the following as you navigate your buying decision:

Parent Comfort


Most people look at purchasing a baby backpack with the intention of using it for extended periods of time. Therefore, we think it's imperative that you feel comfortable while wearing baby, especially considering the strain a backpack can put on your shoulders, neck and back. Given that these backpacks, on average, will hold upwards of 40 pounds, parent comfort was a rating we paid very close attention to during our tests. A backpack with wide, well-padded shoulder straps, torso adjustments, and an adjustable waist belt is typically the best bet. A good waist belt can make all the difference as it can support the majority of baby's weight so your shoulders don't have to. When it comes to shoulder padding, "the more the better" is a good motto to have.
If you are willing to sacrifice some lumbar padding for increased airflow, we urge you to check out backpacks like the Deuter Kid Comfort Air and the Osprey Poco Plus, which both offer mesh backing for increased ventilation.
The Kelty Journey 2.0 (L) offered plenty of padding and breathable mesh fabric  as opposed to the Chicco SmartSupport (R)
With the Osprey on it's lowest torso setting  baby's head would be at least ten inches above mom or dad's head.  This creates a serious balance issue which not only caused some discomfort  but also a safety concern for us.
 

However, please keep in mind that neither of these backpacks performed well in parent comfort for our reviewer, who is just under 5'3" tall. This was because the torso adjustment for these two packs is done by lowering the shoulder straps significantly, thus moving the child higher up, farther away from your center of gravity. This, in turn, caused a pretty significant comfort issue. Wearing the backpack this high meant that the child's chin area was hitting the back of the wearer's head which made it difficult to look up to get a drink of water or see where one is going, which gets very uncomfortable very quickly. We'd recommend taking the height of anyone who will be wearing the pack into serious consideration, and, if you have the opportunity, try before you buy. The Phil and Teds Escape did not cause this issue because it adjusted by moving the waist belt up or down rather than the shoulder straps so baby was much less likely to become top-heavy. Just another reason we awarded it our coveted Editors' Choice Award.

Storage


As seasoned parents ourselves, having adequate storage is something we have learned to take very seriously in a backpack. We have learned that being prepared (or not) for the unexpected can make or break any outing with baby. This is especially true when you begin to consider heading out into the wilderness with your little one. You'll want to bring along all your basic baby essentials including diapers, wipes, a change of clothes, water bottles, snacks, and maybe a favorite toy or lovey. On top of that, when exploring the great outdoors, you'll also want to include items like sunscreen, bug spray, hats and/or sunglasses, sun shades, first aid supplies, and the list goes on. The ability to not only carry all the supplies, but to also carry them in a somewhat organized, accessible fashion, is a fundamental aspect of any backpack carrier.
The placement of the zipper directly under the kickstand made it quite difficult to access the storage space while hiking.
The placement of the zipper directly under the kickstand made it quite difficult to access the storage space while hiking.


Important storage options we recommend:
  • Water Carry — Expandable pockets for water bottles and posterior space to carry a water reservoir/bladder will come in handy during exercise or long outings with baby. The Phil and Teds Escape and the Kelty Journey 2.0 have hydration bladder storage, though bladder needs to be purchased as a separate accessory.
  • Attachment Loops — For critical items like car and house keys to easy access items like sun hats, a carabiner can be easily attached to outer or inner loops of a pack to which any number of important items can be clicked on and retrieved with zero fuss.
  • Zippered Pouches on Waist Belt — These come in handy for quick snacks, cell phone, sunscreen and the like that can be located and used without disrupting baby.
  • Removable Day Pack — Many backpacks come with a smaller, removable day pack for shorter outings. When baby is older, he/she will enjoy having this extra matching pack to tote things around when not carried on parent's back.
  • Specialized Storage Pockets — Some backpacks have handy spots to contain included accessories like sunshade and user manual for availability when needed. For a smaller-sized pack, the Kelty Junction 2.0 offers a great amount of storage space, though no designated spot for a water bladder.

Some carriers, like If you are not so much concerned with water storage, but would prefer more space to hold other items, check out

Child Comfort


Now that we've addressed how important it is for you to be comfortable while carrying everything, let's not forget the most important cargo of all: baby! Wearing your baby in a backpack should be a fun and rewarding experience for everyone. But, if baby isn't comfortable, no one is going to have any fun.
Mom and dad's steady stride often lulled baby to sleep.  A comfy  padded ride is key because of this!
Mom and dad's steady stride often lulled baby to sleep. A comfy, padded ride is key because of this!

Backpacks that offer special head-to-toe comfort for baby like footrests, soft fabrics, extra padding, wide seat, and footrests tend to lull babies asleep. Our baby tester fell asleep while riding in comfy backpacks Every. Single Time. We think the combination of repetitive walking movement and the fact that baby is being carried nice and close to you will put your baby to sleep, too.

Important comfort features for baby in a backpack are:
  • Attention to Fabrics — Soft, wide shoulder straps, like those offered by the Phil and Teds Escape were a favorite of both baby and parent. Scratchy material being close to baby's face doesn't tend to go over well, and we must say that most of the backpacks we tested offered ultra-soft fleece fabrics inside the cockpit area, which was great.
  • A close-up of the soft fleece shoulder straps.  They offered just enough padding to keep baby comfortable and cozy.  What we liked most about this design is that there were no buckles around baby's face or neck area.
    A close-up of the soft fleece shoulder straps. They offered just enough padding to keep baby comfortable and cozy. What we liked most about this design is that there were no buckles around baby's face or neck area.
    Padding — Although most of the backpacks used nice soft fabric, extra padding was hard to come by. Due to the rigid nature of the aluminum frame construction that is constant among the backpacks we tested, some of them had pretty hard sides around the baby cockpit area. When purchasing a backpack, make sure you take a close look at how padded everything is, because baby will surely appreciate the soft ride (especially once they fall asleep). Also, remember to look at backpacks that have breathable mesh fabric around the cockpit area, like the Osprey Poco Plus. This option is nice if you live in a warmer climate, or if you have a baby that tends to run hot, but keep in mind that we found this to require a compromise: breathable mesh fabric, or comfortable padding. It really is personal preference.
  • Wide Seat — A wider seat is more comfortable, especially as baby gets bigger. It distributes their weight so they're not just dangling by the crotch, and contributes to better hip ergonomics. More on this issue in our Safety section below.
  • Deuter's included foot rests worked well even for a smaller child.
    Deuter's included foot rests worked well even for a smaller child.
    Footrests — Backpacks like the Deuter Kid Comfort Air offer footrests that are adjustable to baby's height, giving them a secure place to put their feet. It's a nice option, especially for an older toddler, who wants the feeling of sitting rather than hanging.

Ease-of-Use


Baby inside  with side completely unbuckled for easy unloading.
Baby inside, with side completely unbuckled for easy unloading.
Let's be honest. With the amount of straps, buckles, snaps, pouches and zippers included, baby backpacks are complicated. Some are even downright intimidating! That being said, the more you use your backpack, the more familiar you will become with it, and the easier it will be for you to use. The backpacks we tested were given their score partially on how easy they were to use, while taking into account the inevitable learning curve. Once the backpack itself is set up and ready to go, you'll want to look at how simple it's going to be to get the pack adjusted for the right parent fit, and how easy (or difficult) it iss to get a squirmy baby inside and securely buckled. We really like the packs that opened up completely on the side to help get baby in or out smoothly, like the Phil and Teds Escape and the Deuter Kid Comfort Air.

The torso adjustment on both the Kelty backpacks we tested.  Lift the flap at the back of the waist belt  and you will find a metal lever that pulls to adjust the belt up or down.
The torso adjustment on both the Kelty backpacks we tested. Lift the flap at the back of the waist belt, and you will find a metal lever that pulls to adjust the belt up or down.
Since these backpacks are designed for extended use, there will likely be times when more than one adult will be wearing the backpack during a single outing. That means you'll want to take into consideration how easy it will be to use interchangeably between parents while out-and-about. Easy torso adjustments like those offered on the two Kelty models we tested were some of favorites.

In the end, we think you'll find that the simpler, the better when it comes to ease-of-use. Although we were impressed by some of the fancy adjustment features offered by packs like the Deuter Kid Comfort Air and the Osprey Poco Plus, our top two rated carriers, the Phil and Teds Escape and the Kelty Journey 2.0 won us over by keeping it simple and using the tried-and-true push/pull adjustment straps that we all know and are comfortable using from the get-go.

Safety


Look for this certification on these and other baby products.
Look for this certification on these and other baby products.
All six of the backpacks we tested held at least one, if not multiple, industry safety certifications. One of the most familiar, the JPMA Certification, let's you know that the manufacturer meets the standard for the highest in quality, safety, and functionality of their product. Keep an eye out for it when purchasing any type of baby product. Additionally, reading and abiding by the manufacturer's instruction manual goes without saying in order to keep baby as safe as possible.

So with all these safety measures already in place, what else should you be looking for? Here are our recommendations:
  • Restraint System — Look for a 5-point, padded harness. Babies need to feel secure in order to feel comfortable and safe. Parents need to feel confident knowing that baby is buckled in properly, especially given the fact that they will riding upwards of five feet off the ground! We liked harnesses that were easy to buckle and easy to tighten. Kelty took this one step further, making the most important adjustment straps bright yellow. Always take your time to make sure that baby is sitting properly in the cockpit, and that all adjustments are secured before lifting them onto your back.
  • Balance — Backpacks that hold baby close to your center of gravity are ideal, creating the most balance for you, which is critical for safety especially when you are navigating uneven terrain. We found the Osprey Poco Plus to have a higher, more difficult carry, while the Chicco SmartSupport kept baby lower, creating a more balanced feel. Keep this in mind when shopping for a backpack.
  • Good Hip Ergonomics — The way that baby is supported in the cockpit should also be a consideration for safety. A wider seat will not only provide a more comfortable seat for baby, it is a safer option. Although the risk of hip dysplasia decreases with age (infants having the highest risk), it is still a rating we held to a high standard. We'd urge you to read our article on Best Practice Tips for Baby Wearing for some great information on hip dysplasia, and of course, be sure to make time for breaks that allow baby to get out of the backpack and move around freely.
The Deuter's included sun/rain guard came in handy this particular day  not due to sunshine or rain  but to block baby's face from high winds and stray branches.
The Deuter's included sun/rain guard came in handy this particular day, not due to sunshine or rain, but to block baby's face from high winds and stray branches.

  • Effective Sunshade — We appreciated the sunshades for more than just blocking the sun, which of course is the most important use for them. They are also useful for blocking the wind or any unwanted tree branches from scratching baby's face. Our favorite sunshades were not only those that were effective, but also those that were included with the purchase of the backpack and had their own storage place. With the proper sunshade and rain guard, you can be sure that your baby will be protected from the elements during each outing.
  • Eco-Health — Your baby is probably going to be spending extended periods of time right up against the backpack material, so it's an important consideration. Many of the carriers we tested were made of polyester or a polyester blend fabric, and for the most part are not treated with any harsh chemicals. If you ever have specific questions about the chemicals used on a specific baby product, we urge you to email the manufacturer directly.

Conclusion


In conclusion, we say go for a comfortable backpack with features that will best fit your lifestyle. The backpacks we tested that best fit the criteria above offered the most padding for both parent and baby, easy torso adjustment for mom and dad, and had features like storage for hydration bladders, and a place to put our cell phones (sounds silly, maybe, but it's hard to dig out a phone for a picture when it's at the bottom of a backpack loaded with other items!). Our favorite, and Editors' Choice Award winner is the Phil and Teds Escape. In second place is the Kelty Journey 2.0 which offers slightly different features than the Editors' Choice winner, so be sure to check them both out. We think a baby backpack should be a one-time investment that not only suits your child well into toddler-hood, but could potentially be handed down to the next child, therefore making it a worth-while purchase. We hope our rating and review process has helped narrow down the best option(s) for you and your family.

Happy Trails!

Jessica Stevenson
About the Author
Jessica Stevenson is a freelance writer and Certified Health Coach lucky enough to live in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. She loves all things outdoors, and is well-educated on the importance of keeping her family moving and enjoying the fresh air. Along with their three young children, Jessica and her husband especially enjoy traveling, hiking, and camping. Jessica has been featured on the LiveWell Colorado blog, and is honored to have the opportunity to give BabyGearLab readers a unique perspective on baby products.

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