Editor’s note: Inventory can be unpredictable with COVID-19, so some of the items in this list might be temporarily out of stock when you read this guide.
Hiking with kids is tough as it is—you don’t need an uncomfortable child carrier to make the experience even more difficult. But thankfully, the days of wooden boards and leather straps are in the rearview mirror. Outdoor companies understand that families want to spend time together in nature. With modern technologies and materials, the new generation of kid carriers comes equipped with greater suspension systems, more dialed-in fits and bevies of features not previously available. But which kid carrier is the best for you?
More than a dozen co-op members around the country put foot to trail—with kiddos in tow—in an effort to test the best carriers sold at REI. They hiked Fourteeners, slogged through rainforests, handled diaper blowouts and negotiated toddler peace treaties to bring you the six best kid carrier backpacks of the year.
Test Results: There isn’t a single kid carrier to rule them all, but the Deuter Kid Comfort comes close. Not only did our big testers rave about it, but our littlest testers gave this chariot two thumbs up, too. So to what does this pack owe its best-in-test comfort? An arched profile transitions nearly 70% of the load to the wearer’s hips, making uneven terrain easier on adults with wriggling toddlers. “Our son is like a bobblehead, always moving side to side in the pack to catch a glimpse of everything, but the low center of gravity on this pack meant I never felt off-balance,” our Hawaii tester said after a steep hike up Oahu’s Koko Crater Trail. The ultrapadded hipbelt felt cushy against bony hips, unanimously pleasing all of our testers.
The plush, removable head pillow made toddlers practically narcoleptic: Once their heads hit the soft fleece, it was lights out. “Our 2-year-old fell asleep on every single hike,” said our Hawaii tester after two weeks of testing. And getting disinclined toddlers into the Kid Comfort was as easy as opening a door thanks to the side-entry panel that eliminates the need for loading from above. Plus, a height-adjustable child seat ensures kids will have plenty to look at at every stage.
There isn’t enough storage for overnight gear, but our testers deemed it enough to suit most day trips. Two elastic side pockets are easily accessible and great for things like your kiddo’s water bottle, and a large stash pocket and zippered bottom compartment on the back hold diapers and dirties, wipes, extra layers and a down-filled picnic blanket. Two zippered hipbelt pockets fit a trail bar each. It has an included sunshade. Buy here.
Bottom Line: A longtime favorite, the Deuter Kid Comfort stays true to its name with superior comfort and a handful of features, making it a can’t-go-wrong choice for short trips.
- Total mileage: 75
- Testing states: California, Colorado and Hawaii
- Best testing story: One tester hauled her 7-month-old daughter on Junior’s first-ever multi-night backpacking trip in California’s Ansel Adams Wilderness.
Test Results: Kids and gear weigh a lot, but the newly redesigned Poco Plus handles the load with ease. Osprey ditched its anti-gravity suspension used in previous models in favor of a fully suspended mesh back panel that is completely separate from the hipbelt (it was a continuous system before). This means the tensioned back panel fits comfortably and breathes well, while the hipbelt supports heavy loads with ease. “Carting a kid up the mountain is never easy—especially when she throws her weight from side to side—but this pack seemed to minimize the jostling and keep me centered,” said one California tester after five nights in the Ansel Adams Wilderness with her 8-month-old. (This redesign also fixes the rubbing hipbelt that some testers disliked in the previous model.)
With 26 liters of gear storage (tied for the most in our test with the Kelty Journey PerfectFIT Elite), the Poco Plus can easily handle bonus gear on long hauls. Two large zippered compartments on the back can swallow an ultralight sleeping bag, sleeping pad, trail snacks and a few extra layers, while a stretchy stash pocket handles diapers and wipes. Two zippered hipbelt pockets hold lip balm and a snack, but are too small for most smartphones.
Every tester in our crew called out (and praised) a single feature: the included sunshade. It tucks away in a small pocket but easily deploys with small tabs to protect your babe from sun rays or light precip. Stiff mesh paneling on its sides allows for a breeze to pass through and make it strong enough to prop up a snoozing baby’s head. Buy here.
Bottom Line: Thanks to a smooth-riding suspension and ample gear storage, the Osprey Poco Plus is a workhorse of a kid carrier for epic adventures.
- Total mileage: 79
- Testing states: California, Colorado and Oregon
- Best testing story: Our Oregon tester’s daughter loved the Poco Plus so much that she requested to sit inside it—even in the house.
Test Results: If we were in the business of reviewing testers instead of the gear they test, we would most certainly give this one high marks: Our 5’2” mama loaded the Elite up to its 50-pound capacity with overnight gear and her 3-year-old, then strapped her infant to her front for good measure. The trio trekked nearly 8 miles on the Pennsylvania Gulch Trail in the Rockies with nary a sprained ankle.
Our tester was able to fit a rain jacket, a puffy, diapers, wipes, sunscreen, a medical kit and a dozen snacks in two large back compartments in the Elite (her partner carried the rest of their gear in a regular overnight pack). But, as anyone who’s tried knows: Backpacking with toddlers can be foul. Thankfully, Kelty took that into account and created the only pack in our test with a zippered “dirty” compartment that seals away stench and mess. Our testers used it like a hamper for soiled clothes or simply to partition dirty diapers away from everything else. The pack has two additional zippered hipbelt pockets, two side mesh pockets and one zippered organizer pocket to hold small items like car keys and lip balm.
The Elite’s adjustable back frame fit our 5’2” mom fine, as well as her 6’ husband. “I could even cinch it tightly around my hips, and that never happens,” she raved after the family’s trip to Colorado’s Silver Dollar Lake. Caveat: The pack’s center of gravity was a bit high, which was especially noticeable when the toddler zoomies took effect. Other features include a hydration sleeve (but it only fits a bladder horizontally, which posed a problem for testers with vertical reservoirs) and a sunshade. Bummer: The kid harness doesn’t allow for side access, causing exhausted parents problems everywhere. Buy here.
Bottom Line: The feature-rich Kelty Journey PerfectFIT Elite has all sorts of pockets, including one specifically for dirty gear, making it a versatile option for Type-A packers.
- Total mileage: 45
- Testing states: Colorado and Utah
- Best testing story: “I found myself picking up toddler turds off the trail with a plastic bag, just like I do with my dogs,” said one Colorado tester after a 6-mile trek on the North Ten Mile Creek Trail. “I stashed them in the special dirty pocket and promptly forgot about them when I left the pack in the car for three 90°F days. It smelled like a dead animal inside the pack, but you couldn’t detect even a whiff outside.”
Deuter Kid Comfort Active SL Child Carrier - Women's
Best Kid Carrier for Women
- Score; 92:
- Weight: 5lbs. 13 oz.
- Gear capacity: 14 liters
- Max weight (gear, child and pack): 48 lbs.
Test Results: Moms have a lot of opinions, and Deuter harnessed those thoughts to create the first women-specific Kid Comfort. Narrower S-shaped shoulder straps fit most women better than unisex packs, as does the more conical hipbelt (better for wider hips). An adjustable torso range meant our 5'1" tester carried the pack as easily as our 5'9" tester.
The Active SL also has a slimmer profile and is more streamlined than the regular Kid Comfort, making it the lightest (and most affordable) pack in our test. But it still boasts all the features a parent could want for a few hours outdoors: A stretchy, mesh pocket on the back and a drawstring pocket on the bottom provide enough storage for diapers, wipes, a few snacks and an extra layer. Blessedly, Deuter kept its side-access door from premium models: “My son hates getting into any pack, so I’m convinced I’d be stuck on the trail forever without the side door,” said one exhausted mother after a long day hiking with her toddler to Colorado’s Devil’s Head Fire Lookout Tower. Trade-off: There are no accessible pockets while hiking and no sleeve for a hydration bladder. And the sunshade ($30) is sold separately.
For its minimalist design, the Active SL is a relatively comfy ride for kids. The soft, detachable chin pad protects your child’s face from abrasion, and mesh side paneling encourages airflow. Thanks to an adjustable seat height and stirrups, kids can sit up high to watch the scenery. Buy here.
Bottom Line: For women who haul the load, there’s no better kid carrier than the sleek Deuter Kid Comfort Active SL with its superior, gender-specific fit.
- Total mileage: 52
- Testing states: Colorado, Hawaii, Utah and Washington
- Best testing story: One member carried her 22-month-old daughter on hikes in three states with the Active SL: Colorado, Washington and Hawaii.
Other Top Performing Child Carriers
Test Results: Gear junkies who geek out on design will love the bevy of features offered in this tricked-out carrier. Massive hipbelt pockets (the largest in test) house three or four toddler pouches each, along with lip balm, a cell phone and an included rearview mirror that lets you creep on your kid. Dual-access loading means you can insert a squirmy child from either side, while a removable backpack zips off the back panel for smaller adventures. (It also has a removable sunshade.) Thule’s two-legged kickstand was uber-stable on uneven ground, but our testers with shorter arms found it impossible to deploy while wearing the pack. Bummer: Not only is the Elite Sapling the heaviest carrier in test, but also the priciest. Buy here.
Test Results: Kelty cut the junk in this sleek-and-minimalistic kid carrier, giving it perhaps the best bang for your buck in our test. Well under seven pounds, the Signature was the second-lightest pack (after the Deuter Active SL), but it includes a handful of storage pockets for parents hauling more gear. A large zippered pocket on top and a zippered compartment on the bottom easily swallowed extra layers, water and food, and the hipbelt pockets stashed lip balm, keys and a few gels. The included sunshade neatly stows away inside its own pocket. Trade-off: The center of gravity sits higher in the Signature, so smaller testers with heavier children struggled with upper back discomfort on trail. Buy here.
Before taking a look at a kid carrier, take a look at your kid. If your babe is still an infant without any neck strength, your family is not yet ready for a backpack-style child carrier. Instead, opt for a soft front-carrier until Junior can sit upright on her own (and weighs more than 16 pounds). Once your family is ready, there are a few components to consider.
Parental comfort on the trail is arguably more important than kid comfort (although a fussy toddler may beg to differ). If you know you will be sharing the carrier with a partner or spouse, consider a pack with an adjustable suspension like any in this roster. You want the hipbelt and straps to fit each carrier, of course, but being able to correctly size the back panel to each wearer’s torso length will help transfer the load to the hips, no matter whose hips those are.
While it sounds great to have copious amounts of storage, not every family needs six different pockets. After all, more features mean more weight, so why carry extra ounces if you don’t need to? Evaluate how you and your family will use the kid carrier. If you know you’ll only be out on mellow day hikes, opt for a slim-and-trim design that cuts pounds like the Deuter Kid Comfort or Deuter Comfort Active SL.
If your family loves multiday journeys, snag a carrier that weighs more but comes with surplus storage like the Kelty Journey PerfectFIT Elite or the Osprey Poco Plus. Your needs are personal to your family, so strongly consider those before stepping foot into a store.
Try It On
Backpacks are like strong opinions: They look a bit different on everyone. When possible, try the kid carriers on. Not only can one pack fit two adults quite differently, but kids have strong feelings about the cockpit, too. Avoid any trail time surprises by outfitting yourself in the store so you can ensure everyone is happy with your family’s investment.
Our 10 testers tallied more than 500 miles while putting eight kid carriers through their paces. Over the span of four months, our duos summited peaks and slogged through rivers, scaling more than 100,000 vertical feet combined across nine testing states. This, all while handling 22 backcountry blowouts, which our co-op members deftly handled with grace, humility and just a bit of parental chagrin.
At the close of the testing cycle, our testers collected their stories and rated each kid carrier on its parental comfort, child comfort, suspension, storage, durability and features. We tallied up the scores, found the averages and included the best of the best in this guide.
Article by Heather Balogh Rochfort. Heather is a freelance writer and author specializing in the outdoors and adventure travel, particularly as they apply to women and families. Her organization WildKind educates and empowers families to find their wild. As a lifelong Colorado resident, Heather loves Type-II fun above treeline where the sun is hot and the oxygen depleted. Things she does not like: rock climbing. REI member since 2008, which she thought was impressive until learning that her husband was a member before he was old enough for a bank account.
Photography by William M. Rochfort, Jr. Will is a freelance writer and photographer based in Carbondale, Colorado. His hobbies include backpacking, bikepacking and skiing with his wife and daughter, but he is mainly known for his rare ability to double-fist milkshakes prior to meals. REI member since 1998.