I drove to my kids’ preschool at 3:29 p.m., jumped out of the minivan, and ran inside. After finishing work in the early afternoon I had hunkered down in a two hour rope solo session on the local rock and I was just in time for the afternoon pickup.
“Mama! Quinn and Adaline have invited us to go to the fairy houses!” Said my five-year-old daughter Eloise. “Can we go?”
I looked at the girls’ mothers who nodded. We were actually invited to Fluttery Thicket, an imaginative temporary art installation along one of Bozeman, Montanas Walking trails in the city.
“Sure,” I said when we left school. “But I have to figure out how to wear Gus.” Eloise’s little brother weighed about 25 pounds at the time and wasn’t walking yet, and while careful climbing didn’t bother my chronic neck pain, I could barely get him from school to the van in my arms, let alone half the time. Mile to the fairy houses. I didn’t have the baby backpack or the stroller in the car, but I had my climbing gear.
Maybe my climbing backpack would work, I thought.
I opened my packing lid, opened the drawstring, and threw it all upside down, pouring my dishes, gear, and rope into a heap in the back of the van. Then I put Gus feet first in the backpack, pulled the drawstring under his arms and snuggled up against the side straps. It looked happy and comfortable and wouldn’t fall out. Not bad, I thought, especially since he usually screams in protest when I put him in our baby backpack.
That old 32-liter Black Diamond Sphinx became my toddler carrier for the next several months, but practicality wasn’t the only reason. I’ve had this pack since a 2007 expedition to climb mossy granite domes in the moors of Wood-Tikchik State Park, Alaska. It was also a choice to remind me of who I am: writer, business owner, fairytale house mom, and climber.
It wasn’t the first time I’ve repurposed my outdoor gear for parenting, and it won’t be the last. Here are some of my other favorites.
1. A rope bag as a school bag
I thought I was carrying a climbing rope in the 5.11+ Load Ready Utility Tall bag when I got it last spring. But then I stopped climbing during the shutdown and this super durable bag became the kids school bag instead. In winter, it goes with warm clothing and lunch boxes, and in spring, its thick nylon and waterproof base plate make it perfect for the wet, muddy gear we pull back and forth every day.
(Photo: Emily Stifler Wolfe)
2. A puffy jacket to wear
Gus had intense colic for the first three and a half months of his life. Desperate after being outside more than 12 hours a day, I finally strapped it to my chest over a pair of waders, pulled it into a one-size Orvis Women’s Pro Insulated hoodie, and slipped an Orvis Pro Wading Jacket over it, and spent a snowy October day on a guided fly fishing with Big Hole Lodge. I left the zippers open for airflow, and magically Gus slept most of the swimmer. The jackets were tight enough to distribute his weight more evenly on my back than the baby carrier alone would have, which eased the burden. And those moments of peace – plus the four trout I caught on a fly – helped me stay healthy.
In a pinch, a jacket with a backpack can also serve as a carrier: pull the child to your chest, wrap their legs around your waist, close them with a zipper and buckle the hip belt and chest strap of your backpack around your body with them don’t fall out.
3. A ski pack as a diaper and adventure mom bag
It’s not as stylish as a fancy diaper, though Bags, your ski pack has seriously specialized compartments that make it at least as functional as one designed for pulling kids’ gear, if not more. The diaper set slips into the hydration bag, additional clothing is placed in the main compartment, and snacks can be dropped into the scoop / probe pouch.
I use my in-bounds backpack, a Chugach 16 from the north face, to ski with my daughter and bring extra mittens and jackets, hand warmers, treats and water, or a thermos of hot chocolate. In the meantime, my old ski patrol backpack, a much larger (35 liter) Black Diamond Revelation, has become your ski travel bag. It goes with all of her gear, and before she was strong enough to carry her own skis, I strapped her onto the A-frame to haul to the warming shelter we’d been up to before the pandemic.
(Photo: Emily Stifler Wolfe)
4. Climbing equipment as a baby bouncer
Don’t toss the shabby daisy chain you used on your first big wall. During the short-lived but exciting time (for the baby and parents) when a child can’t yet walk but can aggressively jump into a bouncer hanging from the ceiling, your old rigging systems and skills come in handy. The three hand-me-down bouncers we used were all difficult to adjust in height. However, with a daisy chain, it was as easy to adjust to the baby’s fast-growing legs as cutting the next loop higher. To assemble it, tie a figure eight to a bay in the bouncer’s factory belt and secure the bay to a chain with a carabiner. The entire setup hangs on an eye bolt in a ceiling beam. Bomber.
(Photo: Emily Stifler Wolfe)
5. A hunting frame package as a carrier
That afternoon, in the fairy houses, I met a former climbing partner who is now the mother of four children. When I showed her my baby in the climbing backpack, she nodded. “That’s good,” she said. “If it grows out of it, try an external frame hunting package.”
So I dug it up My husband found it in his parents’ garage about 20 years ago and buckled up Gus. At first he wasn’t conscious of squirming out, but now he’s standing on the platform and playing. When he tries to look back, he turns 180 degrees and leans on my back. With three straps to hold it in place, I’m not worried it will fall out, and it wears well – it’s designed for pulling meat, after all.
Main photo: Emily Stifler Wolfe