You've recently had a baby—congratulations! But if you're concerned that you'll no longer be able to enjoy your outdoor activities with a little one in tow, think again. Child carriers make it easy to carry your child while keeping your hands free.

This article gives you the basics on how to shop for one.

The Basics of Child Carriers

For newborns, start with an infant carrier. This is a simple, frameless pack that snuggles your baby right in front of you. Most can hold an infant plus some baby gear to a total weight of up to 30 lbs. or so.

For a larger child, you'll want a child carrier with built-in frame that holds the child behind you. To use a child carrier, a child must be capable of sitting upright without assistance. The smallest child appropriate for a child carrier is about 16 lbs., which typically means a child about 6 or 8 months old. If unsure about your child's readiness, check with your pediatrician. The largest child appropriate for a carrier is about 40 lbs., with some models supporting extra weight to accommodate gear, too.

Child carriers are best for travel, hiking and use around town. Because the added weight and movement of your child could cause you to lose your balance, child carriers aren't recommended for hiking on loose rock, climbing, skiing, inline skating, biking or other high-speed activities.

Compare Features

Most child carriers share basic features such as adjustable shoulder and waist straps, adjustable child harness, a foldout kickstand and an external frame.

Fit is paramount. A child carrier should fit just like a backpack, except that the weight rides higher. The weight, however, will not be an issue if the child carrier fits you right.

Here are some of the variables to consider:

Suspension system: This is the key to parental comfort. Most child carriers feature an easy-to-adjust ladder suspension, just like the ones found in many backpacks. Its adjustability is measured by the torso range (listed under the Specs tab on product pages). Read more about how to measure your torso size. A few models offer a fixed suspension, which limits adjustability but reduces carrier weight.

Tip: Torso adjustments are simple: If you're tall, move the suspension setting up higher on the back (or, if you're a shorter adult, move it to a lower setting).

Kickstand: This bar provides a stable platform for loading and unloading your child. Most can be manually extended and retracted to the loading position with a simple tug. Other models feature a fixed-position kickstand (to save weight) or a spring-loaded kickstand (which extends and retracts automatically).

Frame: Most child carriers feature an external frame of tubular aluminum. A few models use an aluminum stay for support, much like those used in internal-frame backpacks, and may offer a daypack option. As noted earlier, frameless carriers are intended only for infants and gear totaling up to 30 lbs. or so.

Accessories: If you plan on using a child carrier only occasionally, you might not want lots of bells and whistles. But if you plan to head off-road or carry lots of gear, consider models with the following extras:

  • Gear-storage capacity, including removable diaper bags or day packs
  • More adjustability options for a better fit
  • Diaper-changing pad
  • Hydration-system compatibility
  • Removable rain/sun hood (sometimes sold separately)
  • Removable bug netting (usually sold separately)

Fit the Child Carrier to You

First, adjust the child carrier to fit you. This is the main factor for your comfort. When making your initial adjustments, use books to weight the pack instead of your child.

  • Adjust the suspension system to fit your torso, so that the hipbelt rests on your hip bones (not your waist) and the shoulder straps rest on your shoulders.
  • Tighten the hipbelt so roughly 80% of the weight is on your hips.
  • Tighten the shoulder straps so the child carrier is stabilized and the remaining 20% or so of the weight is on your shoulders.
  • Adjust the sternum strap across your chest so that it doesn't interfere with your breathing.

Fit the Child Carrier to Your Child

Before putting your child in the carrier, adjust the height of the child seat. Make sure the child's straps are loosened and the kickstand is fully extended.

  • Put your child in the carrier, and make sure his or her feet come through the leg openings.
  • Buckle and tighten all straps, including the hipbelt, shoulder straps, leg strap adjustments and sternum strap. Note: Not all child carriers have all of these strap options.
  • Tighten the side compression straps, if available.
  • Check to make sure the child's shoulder straps fit smoothly over his or her shoulders and that the leg straps are comfortable.

Tips on Using a Child Carrier

Lifting an occupied child carrier is similar to hoisting a heavy backpack (see our pack-hoisting video for instructions). The first few times you do so, have someone help you put it on your back. The steps: Lift the child carrier by the top handles, slip on the shoulder straps and buckle the hipbelt. When removing the carrier, loosen the shoulder straps and unbuckle the hipbelt. Grabbing the handle behind your head, bring the carrier around to your front, and grasp the second handle to help you set the child carrier on the ground.

Some additional pointers:

  • Don't leave your child unattended while he or she is in the child carrier.
  • Children tend to fall asleep in child carriers; occasionally check your child's position and comfort.
  • Child carriers aren't adequately stable to be used as a chair, nor should they ever be placed on elevated surfaces such as a bench, table or bed.
  • Do not use a child carrier if the frame or fasteners are damaged.
  • Make sure your child is protected from the weather.
  • Consider wearing a hat so your child can't grab your hair.