Baby Systems

Pulling up to the South Cottonwood trailhead, I take a moment to survey the half-full parking lot of fellow outdoor enthusiasts milling around their cars, preparing to hike, bike, or run the trail with a small pack and a willing dog in tow. I can see on their faces that they’re here for a good workout and some head-clearing time. I glance to my back seat and take inventory of my own gear:

Pack with water and snacks: check.
Extra warm layer: check.
Baby carrier and a bundled, fed, sunscreened baby girl: check.

Most everything I need, these days, for a rejuvenating trip in the woods.

It wasn’t always like this. I used to spend weeks in the Spanish Peaks and the Gallatin Range, working as a wilderness instructor with high-school kids. My backcountry systems were dialed. I always knew what I needed in the field, where to find it in my pack, and how to be ready to go at a moment’s notice. I have never been one for carrying more than I need (in and out of the field), and after each shift I would sort through my gear to identify items I could ditch next time.

In the backcountry, having reliable systems is key to being able to juggle everything that’s happening around you. When taking care of teenagers in the woods, I wanted to be the first one unpacked in the evening and the first one packed up in the morning. If the weather turned quickly, I didn’t have time to empty my entire pack looking for an extra layer or rain gear. Cultivating these systems can take time, but they add comfort and control to an unpredictable environment.

When my daughter entered my life last summer, my systems began to break down. I didn’t know what I needed, I didn’t always know where to find it, and it could take me hours to leave the house. And I wasn’t dealing with teens anymore—people who could tell me their needs, and I could teach them to help themselves. With an infant, that process isn’t so, well, straightforward.

As a new mother, it can be hard to find the motivation to leave the house. In the morning it seems like it will be easier to stay at home, to not have to load everything the baby and I need into the car to make even a short outing. But at the end of those days, I found myself feeling housebound, overwhelmed, and irritable. I soon realized that just as I had to climb the learning curve of finding comfort with my systems in the field, I would need to make that same climb with my baby systems and find a way to do the outdoor activities I loved so much before becoming a parent.

When I first thought of taking my newborn baby on a hike, I worried about having to change her diaper, nurse her, deal with temperature extremes, or take her out of the carrier if she was fussy. But as a breastfeeding, baby-wearing mother, I soon understood that the closeness and connection I feel with my baby easily transfers over to our outdoor adventures together. As we became more in tune with each other during the first few months of her life, I realized that next to me is exactly where she wants to be, and the constant swaying of the carrier and subtle silence of the landscape often lull her to sleep and pacify her in a way that being at home doesn’t do. And because I am everything she needs, I learned to pad her diaper so she would last through the hike, to nurse her easily on the trail, and to understand that the warmth of my body keeps her snug and comfortable. Most important, I learned that my own peacefulness affects the mood of my baby. When I’m outside feeling relaxed and rejuvenated, so is she.

So now, not bound by the limitations of a stroller or feeding schedule, I hike and ski my usual trails around Bozeman, often gazing upon the small cherub who is content to watch the world go by with her head nestled into my chest. And I know my outdoor baby systems are taking shape, and that I am a better, balanced mother for it.