Climbing with an Infant

Kids luv the crag! Lucas Anderson at the RRG at 4.

Kids luv the crag! Lucas Anderson at the RRG at 3 years old.

A couple of my friends recently introduced future rock stars into the world, so with them in mind, Mike and I asked our wives Janelle and Kate to help us draft a few tips on climbing with an infant.  Everything written here is twice mother-approved (grandmother, not necessarily 🙂 ).  This post assumes mother and father are climbing together with baby, and without a dedicated sitter. Obviously its optimal to have a third adult to help with baby, but we are realists, not optimists.  In my experience, if you only climb when you have a third adult, you won’t climb very often.  I know there are many other climbing parents reading this, some with far more experience than I have, so if you have any useful tips, please share them!  For those of you who don’t have kids (yet?), perhaps this post will take some of the mystery away and reduce any potential apprehensions to climbing parenthood.

Kids are constantly evolving, so what works one season may be obsolete the next.  As climber-parents, we need to be constantly adapting and thinking about ways to improve the crag experience for our kids.  These tips are intended for kids who haven’t started crawling.  For new parents, this will likely be the simplest time to take your child climbing for at least three or four years.  At this age, babies mostly sleep, they’re immobile, highly adaptable, and the absurd amount of “stuff” you have to drag along to the crag is relatively small and light.  As with many aspects of parenthood, it never really gets easier as your child grows, it just gets different.

Logan at Shelf Road on his 39th day.  At this age, babies sleep as much as 16 hours a day.

Logan at Shelf Road on his 39th day. At this age, babies sleep as much as 16 hours a day.

The first question to consider is how early to start climbing outside with your new baby.  Healthy babies are tremendously resilient.  What’s more, they love being outside–they like to look at trees and rocks, listen to birds chirp, and watch the clouds float by.  They don’t like being pent up inside for weeks on end any more than adults do.  I just finished reading Ambrose’s “Undaunted Courage”, a biography of Meriweather Lewis, and he notes that while the most accomplished woodsmen of their time gallantly struggled to traverse our vast continent, a teen-aged Sacagawea managed the trip, sans complaint, with a newborn baby boy in tow (and he turned out just fine).  The real question is, how soon can mother start climbing outside?

Axel RRG.

Don’t do this!

Obviously that depends on a lot of factors.  Make sure she can wear a harness safely and comfortably before committing to any roped climbing (in some cases, a full body harness can be helpful).  Wait at least until mother’s doctor gives the thumbs-up at the six-week checkup.  Even then, it’s probably a good idea for mother to stick to topropes for a few more weeks after that.  Timelines will probably be significantly longer for Cesarian deliveries (if anyone out there has a data point, please share!).

Furthermore, despite our society’s advancements in gender equality, it seems that climbing with baby is still far more taxing and stressful for mothers than it is for fathers.  If mother is psyched the experience will be much better for everyone.  Usually after a month or two of sitting around the house, mother will be antsy to get outside and do something.

Amelie climbing near Estes Park, CO at about 9 weeks old.

Amelie climbing near Estes Park, CO at about 9 weeks old.

Once the family has agreed to take the plunge, the next pressing matter is crag selection.  Mutli-pitch climbing is right out, so you can cross the Black Canyon off your list 🙂  Bouldering, Sport climbing, and single-pitch trad are all potential options, as long as you can lower-off the routes you plan to climb.  The most critical factor is rock fall (for that reason, ice climbing is not recommended).  Ideally you can find a crag with solid, monolithic stone and minimal loose rock.  Furthermore, the steeper the crag the better.  Assuming mom &/or dad will be lead climbing, the belayer will need to be near the cliff base (and baby should always be within arm’s reach of the belayer).  Usually when rock falls from an overhanging route, it lands far away from where the cliff meets the ground.  If you must climb at a vertical (or under) crag, find an overhang or alcove low to the ground where baby will be sheltered from rock fall.

Logan perched under a low roof at Shelf Road to protect from rock fall.

Logan perched under a low roof at Shelf Road to protect from rock fall.

Next, consider the popularity of your destination.  As many an internet forum has concluded, nobody wants to climb near a screaming baby, but that’s not the best reason to avoid crowded cliffs.  Once again, rock fall is the most critical factor.  Greater crowds increases the risk of rock (or other random objects) flying through the air toward your precious bundle of joy.  If all nearby crags are always crowded, consider visiting the crag on a weekday.  Dogs are another consideration.  It’s hard to predict how somebody else’s dog may react to your child, so best to remove any doubt and seek isolation.  Most parents prefer solitude anyway, because when baby inevitably starts crying, as all babies do whether they are at the crag or at home, there is nobody outside the climbing party to offend.

Follow your pediatricians’ recommendations, but generally newborns should not be exposed to direct sunlight, especially in high-altitude environments where many crags are located.  Ideally your destination will have enough shade to keep baby out of the sun at all times, but if not, bring a white sheet (large burp cloths work well) to drape over baby’s chair to create shade.  Have infant sunscreen on-hand in case you’re unable to avoid sun exposure, but generally you shouldn’t plan on using it.

Driving time is also worth considering.  Logan would not tolerate more than 2 hours in the car until he was about 1-year old.  Your mileage may vary.  If every drive to the crag culminates in an hour of nonstop screaming, you can bet you won’t be climbing as often as you’d like.  Best to select crags within a reasonable range of home, and reduce the stress for everyone.  Feeding baby just before departure will allow you maximum range.  Finally, a few choice crags offer stroller-access.  These crags are ideal because baby doesn’t need to be awakened for the approach, or during transitions from crag to crag.

A Baby Bjorn lets you wear your climbing pack. Never leave a child with a man like this!

A Baby Bjorn lets you wear your climbing pack. Never leave a child with a man like this!

Once you’re at the crag, here are a few items we’ve found useful:

-Baby Bjorn (or similar).  Assuming no stroller access, you will need to carry baby from the car to the cliff, and front-carriers like these work great, while allowing you to carry a pack on your back.  Furthermore, if its cold you can usually zip baby up inside your jacket for added warmth.

-Baby Bunting Bag (or similar).  A “bunting” is essentially an insulated sleeping bag for your baby.  Most have a hood, with a zippered sack for the feet.  This is the key item for climbing in colder climates. Even in warmer temps, this will keep baby warm and cozy, which are two key ingredients for sound sleep.  These come in many shapes, sizes and prices.  Be sure to get one that breaks the wind.  Some have sleeves and others don’t; we’ve always used an over-sized bag with sleeves, which the kids can grow into.   We’ve had both our infants snug and happy in below-freezing temps in these bags.  That said, we generally avoid climbing with the kids in temps below 50 degF.  If you must, bring blankets and an extra down jacket to layer over baby.

An oversized "bunting" like this will work for newborns, but still fit nearly a year later.  Sleeves aren't essential at first, but once baby is 3 months old or so they're nice to have.

An oversized “bunting” like this will work for newborns, but still fit nearly a year later. Sleeves aren’t essential at first, but once baby is 3 months old or so they’re nice to have.

-Baby container.  You will likely want some device to hold baby while you’re climbing.  At steep crags with soft, flat bases, a simple blanket can work, but at rocky areas where soft sleep surfaces are hard to find, a low profile, reclined “bouncer seat” is really nice.  We’ve used one like this for both our children.  This model is very light, easy to strap on the outside of my pack, and includes some bonus features like a music box, vibrator, and dangling toys for the kids to stare at.  Although rarely necessary, it’s also easy to disassemble for packing.  Baby can be strapped securely into the chair, and then the chair can be moved around the crag with ease.  Furthermore, having baby in a slightly more upright position makes it easier to see baby’s face and allows for regular eye contact while belaying (which will help keep baby happy).  This chair is amazingly stable and durable.

Our trusted bouncy seat has served us well for 3 years.  Note the stick clip and down jacket poised to create shade in the upper left.

Our trusted bouncy seat has served us well for 3 years. Note the stick clip and down jacket poised to create shade in the upper left.

-Backup Binky.  Mommy has two pacifiers permanently attached to her chest, so this responsibility will often fall to dad.  Just bring 3 or 4 pacifiers everywhere you go.  The crag is no exception.  You won’t regret it.  Another nice accessory is a pacifier lanyard which will help keep the binky out of the hanta-virus-infested dirt and rat feces at the base of many sport crags.

The orange lanyard shown here is girth-hitched to the blue pacifier (on the right end), and then clips to baby's outfit (on the left end).

The orange lanyard shown here is girth-hitched to the blue pacifier (on the right end), and then clips to baby’s outfit (on the left end).

-Diaper Bag contents.  By the time you hit the cliff for the first time you should be an expert at changing diapers.  Doing it outside is nothing special.  It’s a good idea to bring a plastic bag to pack out dirty diapers.  Enough said.

-Sun shade, sun hat for baby, and backup sunscreen.

A make-shift sunshade protects baby Axel at the RRG, KY.

A make-shift sunshade protects baby Axel at the RRG, KY.

-Play Tent This is optional, but helps protect baby from sun, bugs, and free-range dogs. It also pens them in when their mobility becomes a danger to themselves.

A cheap play tent like this can be very useful, especially when they become ambulatory.

A cheap play tent like this can be very useful, especially when they become ambulatory.

Once baby is situated, climbing can proceed pretty much as normal, but build in some extra time for feeding, burping, and changing the baby.  If you’re accustomed to precisely timed 45-minute rest increments you can just toss that right out the window 🙂  Theoretically it’s possible to get a full climbing day in, but realistically everyone involved will tire much earlier than usual.  If you manage to tie in four times, at any interval, you’ve had a good day.  I’m usually able to get 2-3 warmup pitches and 2 longer burns on my project.  We’ve managed to pull off more on some occasions, and on others we’ve felt lucky to accomplish less.  If you’re able to climb twice your first time out, you’ve done well.

Two-time mother Janelle Anderson cruising "Bacup Binky" in Sinks Canyon, Wyoming.

Two-time mother Janelle Anderson cruising “Backup Binky” in Sinks Canyon, Wyoming.

Each climber should be prepared to go “straight in” whenever its necessary for the belayer to attend to baby (for this reason, Sport Climbing is a bit easier than single-pitch trad).  Be prepared to sing songs or play peek-a-boo during belay duty.  I find I prefer to work projects at this stage of parenthood (as opposed to onsighting), because when projecting I’m basically on toprope most of the time, and I can quickly go straight in, so the belayer can focus more attention on ensuring baby is safe and happy.  Also, projecting allows us to spend most of the day in the same spot, with minimal shuttling of gear, etc from route to route.  Once you’re ready to send, ask a third adult to come along to help out, or visit the crag while baby is with a sitter.

Mike's son Axel at the Red at 9 months old.

Mike’s son Axel at the Red at 9 months old.

Finally, the most productive thing you can accomplish as a climbing parent is to create a safe and fun crag experience for everyone involved.  Obviously, safety is paramount.  Furthermore, if its no fun (for mother, father, or baby), it won’t last.  Consider your first few trips “reconnaissance missions”, where the goal is simply to figure out your system, rather than to send lots of routes.  Develop a system that is safe, enjoyable, and therefore sustainable.  That approach will provide your family with the most opportunities to climb outside together in the long run.

Sam climbing with his centaur dad Steve Bechtel in Sinks Canyon.

Sam climbing with his centaur dad Steve Bechtel in Sinks Canyon.

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24 thoughts on “Climbing with an Infant

  1. Pingback: Climbing with an Infant – New Post on RCTM.com | Lazy H Climbing Club

  2. This is awesome! Thanks for sharing. We’ve had many of these experiences. We used the playpen when we knew the base was relatively flat enough. And it’s true that as soon as they can walk, the challenge level jumps significantly.

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  3. Fantastic! I would love to hear your thoughts on climbing with toddlers! I have taken my wife and daughter out before, but that was before she (my daughter) could walk. We hid her under a rock shelter at the Red to climb while she was sleeping. Now, she is almost 2 1/2 years old and hasn’t been out since. We have also added another one to the mix, only 3 months old right now. I’ve been doing a lot of bouldering (solo, since my wife won’t boulder) but I’ve been missing my roped climbing. What do you do when the kids can run and get into trouble?

    As far as training with kids goes, my home wall has been invaluable. It’s easy to go out to climb and train in the barn at home, and my daughter can come with me when I do this.

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    • Chris,

      Glad you enjoyed it! We’ve discussed doing a toddler installment as well, we certainly have plenty of experience with that tricky age.

      You bring up a really great point which I neglected to mention, and that is that it really helps to have a home training facility when you have kids. Getting to the gym becomes far more difficult, and time in general becomes scarce, so having the ability to train at home (eliminating commute time and the need for a sitter), are very helpful. A full-blown home gym isn’t essential (though it won’t hurt!) but at least a hangboard and some free weights will go a long way to maintaining fitness in a pinch.

      Mark

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      • Thanks Mark! I’ve shared this one with my wife who agrees it’s way easier with a non-mobile child. She is in love with me, not climbing, which is the only reason she tolerates our [often brief] climbing excursions. We haven’t been out to climb together since my daughter learned to crawl. I love your posts and I’m looking forward to checking out your book when it goes to print.

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    • Chris, I’m in a similar situation. My wife and I have a 3.5 and 1.5 year old, which makes it difficult to get out. If you climb at the Red often, let me know. We live nearby and teaming up on the kid watching thing may benefit both of us.

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  4. It is so age dependent, but here is a part of our tips so far.

    Ages:
    1. 0-3month old. This was the easiest part. We would bring her under the crag in the car seat and she would sleep most of the time. Make sure you bring backup everything: clothing, diapers, food 🙂
    2. 3-6month old. Baby can not crawl, but can turn around and wiggle a bit. At this stage, we took either another couple or a friend with us. Also, a portable baby play “cage” was carried. Make sure you have triple of everything at this stage.
    3. 6-12month old. Starts crawling, may even walk. So far, this has been the most challenging era. She was really active and if she didn’t sleep in the car, she would not sleep in the crag either. Other adults were necessary. By this time, you relax a bit and double or triple supplies are no longer needed 🙂
    4. 1y-1,5y. We are now at this point. She is walking and falling. She is also getting heavy to take to crags with more difficult approach, so we choose crags with little or no approach. She doesn’t sleep in the afternoon, but the good thing is that she eats what we eat so food is not a problem any more. Adults – still very much needed for support. Bouldering is a good option at this point, if you like that sort of thing

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    • One thing – make sure you either make a baby to another climber or that he/she is REALLY supportive. 🙂 When negotiating with a non-climber and there is a baby involved, you loose 😉 I chose wisely. 🙂

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  5. Pingback: Fontainebaby | the Severe climber

  6. Thanks for this article! We started climbing again at about 2 months. I had a C-section. We took turns climbing as friends belayed. I would go for a walk with the baby bjorn if he’s being fussy. Nobody wants a screaming baby at the crag.

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  7. Oh man, I wish I’d found this sooner! I had a C-section and was told basically no activity (they even said to limit walking) for 8 weeks, and since then we’ve basically been waiting for our Zeke to get old enough to ride in a Osprey pack that we thought we could stand up at rock faces (has to be at least 6 months old for that), but as he gets more wiggly the idea of leaving him alone with the belayer gets more intimidating. Turns out, we should have started a couple months ago! We have taken him to a climbing gym and just left him in his car seat carrier, but that seemed a lot less stable to me out at the base of some rock face. In retrospect… damn, we may have just missed our easiest climbing with baby window!

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  8. Solo climbing has helped us. Either setting a top rope(s) and using ascenders like a Microtraxion or using a Silent Partner for self belay. There are lots of ways to do this with lots of different equipment, but the gist is that one person can tend to the baby(s) while the other climbs. We actually climb more often than we did pre-child.

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  9. What an amazing article. My wife and I are due any day now and so excited about getting out to the crag with the baby. I have planned to boulder for the next few years but this article makes me look at routing again with fresh enthusiasm. We have a trip to Albarracin planned for Christmas which will be baby’s first climbing trip so looking forward to putting some of what is recommended here into practice. Thanks so much to all involved in writing this!

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  10. This was a great read and I thought I would share our experience as well. My wife and I have been climbing together for 16 years and our daughter is current 1 year old. Adding the kid to the mix is a big change, depending on how you normally spend your climbing days. If you have always been happy to just get out and don’t have much performance in mind, climbing with a kid is not much different. We both like to project sport climbs, and prior to to having a child, a whole day was dedicated to just balancing the time needed for each of us to get our burns in the most optimum manner. Having a young one along makes this much more challenging of course. We have found the we are best served having a large number of partners and alternating days out. The more partners you have, the better chance of getting someone to join you on your scheduled day out. You get to climb a little less frequently, but the days are quality in terms of climbing. This takes a lot of up front planning each week and we happen to live in an area with many climbing options within 30 minutes to 1 hour away.

    We have brought our daughter to the crag since she was 4 weeks old. In the first few months when the baby feeds frequently, Its very difficult for mom to get much climbing in if she’s breast feeding. Once feedings are a bit less frequent and the baby is still immobile, cragging is pretty easy. They mostly sleep,but having 1 other adult along that can tend to the baby makes for a pretty productive day. Even in this scenario, you still only get a few burns each. We’ve also found that having the right number of people makes a big difference. When the child is young, teaming up with other couples with kids does not really help much because each additional kid requires additional resources. It quickly turns into a picnic at the crag, with little climbing….and that’s fine as long as you expect it. We’ve found the idea number of people is 6 or more. You, your spouse, your baby and a party of 3 or 4 more that don’t have kids. If you just go with another couple that does not have kids, then they will generally try to get in what they are used too for the day and having you and your spouse subbing it significantly slows down the day for them. With an additional party of 3 or more, there’s always someone resting that can give you a catch while someone is still free to watch the baby.

    And then there’s camping….which is also totally doable but probably worthy of another post.

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  11. Thanks for all of the great information! We’re getting ready and planning ahead for getting outside as soon as our little one arrives and this provided some great perspective. Can you tell me the name of the bouncer seat you used, or the brand? The link no longer seems to work. Thanks!

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  12. Hi there! I have a 16 month old and my husband and I don’t agree on whether we can take him out on climbing or camping trips with us. He said “we will have to alternate for a few years” and refuses to even try to take our son with us!

    I read that you were thinking about writing a toddler version of this for mobile children… do you have any tips? Thanks!

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    • Great question. The hardest time to climb outside with a child is the period when they are just starting to walk. If you have a lot of options for venues, it really helps to pick places with flat, open bases where your toddler can toddle without running into a bunch of dangerous obstacles. If that’s not an option, and your child will put up with it, consider taking a pack-n’-play (or similar portable crib) to the crag to contain your little adventurer. It helps to load the PNP with blankets, toys, etc to keep them occupied and cozy. This has worked really well for us in situations where its safe to setup the PNP right next to the belayer.

      Finally, climbing environments are inherently dangerous for obvious reasons. Whether or not to take your child into such an environment is a very personal decision, and I would recommend that both parents should be on board with the decision to minimize stress between everyone involved. I’d recommend a trial run to an ideal crag with low expectations for rock climbing to see how it goes. Maybe you can convince your husband that it’s manageable. No matter what you decide, have your toddler wear a helmet whenever they’re at the crag.

      Good luck,
      Mark

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    • Mrs. looking4rocks,

      I have 3 children, age 5, 3, and 1, and I take them with us climbing all the time. If you go to the RCTM forum and start a thread, I could talk your ear off about it. I have lots of experience and tips climbing with kids. Also, Erica Lineberry has a blog about climbing with kids that is worth checking out.

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