Baby Carriers for the Outdoors
Updated: Mar 21, 2019
TL;DR: get a Tula...they're ace!!
But seriously....as a disclaimer, before I begin raving about how fab I think Tula brand carriers are, I should probably point out that Tula is the only soft-structured, buckle-style carrier I personally have used. There are a variety of other carriers that do what the Tula sets out to do: that is to provide a structured, rucksack style carry which is much easier to take on and off than a woven wrap but provides the same optimum carrying position for hip development. Just off the top of my head I know that friends have got on very well with an Ergo or a Connecta, and before buying any carrier you should do your research as it's a very personal choice. The sling, wrap or carrier that works best for you depends on many factors, including your body shape, confidence in tying knots for different positions carrying on your front and back, and what you want to use it for, whether lugging Tiddler up a Munro or keeping baby close to you around the house. My other disclaimer is that after breaking my back a few years ago I'm not really able to carry my tot comfortably, so a lot of this is info I have gleaned from Xani's dad who is the person doing most of the carrying.
This is probably a good point to mention the NCT Sling Library. It's a fantastic service, with knowledgeable staff who will advise you on all types of baby-carrying (including wraps, mei tais, ring slings and the rest) and best of all you can hire a variety of slings for hire at £10 per month with £30 deposit, so you really can ensure that you get the best carry for you and your little one. Unfortunately there ARE baby carriers that you can buy even from popular baby shops such as Mothercare which aren't great for long-term baby-wearing, mainly because they don't allow baby to sit in the optimal, ergonomic "M" position, i.e. bottom lower than knees. A slight digression but whilst we are alphabetting, I should add here that M position is not the only letter of the alphabet to consider when buying a sling or wrap...there is also the T.I.C.K.S rule, which is explained below...
If all this sounds a bit bewildering, please DO get yourself along to the Sling Library, as they will give you the best advice out there AND you can hire a sling for yourself, which, when all's said and done, is the only way you can really find out what works best for your own body shape.
OK back to the Tula. I guess what I'm really comparing it against is one of the rucksack-style carriers such as the Bushbaby or the LittleLife. On paper these seem like excellent hiking carriers for so many reasons, the main one being that many of them have a compartment for carrying stuff in - nappies, wipes, extra clothes, food and drinks. And basically IF you are venturing on a hike or up a Munro alone with your pre-walking wee person you'd probably have no other option than to go with one of these, as how else would you carry baby-plus-kit? But like I say, I don't really advise doing a Munro alone with a non-walking kid unless you have a lot of hillwalking hours under your belt. Once they are walking, it's a fantastic bonding experience to hike alone with your child; one of my acquaintances holds the honour of being the youngest-ever Munro bagger, having done all of them with his dad before the age of nine. But, as I've "bored" on about on various other parts of this blog, conditions in the hills can change dramatically all-year around and adults die in all four seasons, so to add a non-walking baby onto a solo hillwalk is nuts unless you are a really experienced hillwalker. So with that caveat, I'm basically looking at a carrier from the point of view of someone walking with a co-parent, or with a friend who is willing to help you with your kit.
Even from that point of view, I desperately wanted to like the Bushbaby Elite. It had a fantastic roomy little compartment at the bottom, which was basically like the Tardis in terms of how much stuff you could cram in, and in addition to that it had a detachable rucksack for extra storage. But it is just so damn heavy! And that is even before you put the baby or any gear in it. This weight simply comes from the structured nature of this type of carrier - the metal frame and padding making up the structure made the weight just nonsensical once I had contrasted a soft-structured carrier like the Tula. I did actually use my Bushbaby with my daughter back in 2008, before I broke my back, but even before you pop the baby in, it felt like I was lugging invisible rocks in ostensibly empty carrier. A friend kindly lent me a Little Life for Xani's dad to try, but it was more or less the same weight wise as the Bushbaby. I have done very limited research by asking other parents, including dads, and everyone I spoke to seems to agree that these carrier are too heavy. However they are sold in Outdoor shops and you do see them on the hills, so some folk must like them.
So back to the Tula: Xan's dad started out with the standard Tula, which fits a child either from 15lbs to 45lbs or from 7lbs when worn with an infant insert. We went for the lower weight plus the insert, which is a kind of crescent-shaped seat which you place inside the sling to enable you to carry a much younger baby who isn't able to support their own head, neck or back in a sitting position. From the very start he got on brilliantly with it. You can only do a front carry with the insert, but once they are able to sit up comfortably and support their own spine, neck and head, you can switch to a back carry. With a front carry, Little'un felt securely bound and almost moulded to Graeme's body. With the back carry, we could really feel his enjoyment at being able to sit up and take in his surroundings. There is a hood which was invaluable to stop head-loll once he was sleeping, and - in a really nice touch for Graeme-the-phone-camera-junkie - a pocket on the waistband to fit most types of mobile phone (albeit only really "to hand" on a front carry).
My only quibble with the Tula: my toddler (who is a smaller-than-average baby) seemed to grow out of the standard carrier length-wise more quickly than weight-wise. It seemed from around 18 months old that, unless he has the hood attached on one side, he was really sitting quite "high" in terms of how much of his top half was unsupported. For this reason, we switched to the Tula toddler carrier just after his second birthday, but in retrospect could have comfortably done this at 18 months. I have a feeling, from speaking to friends, that the Ergo possibly gives a deeper seat for longer (a longer baby and a longer time!), but this is just anecdotal rather than a 'tried-and-tested' statement.
Ultimately the point of this review is not so much to recommend the Tula, because, whilst I think it is brilliant, the Ergo and other similar carriers are built on the same principle and only a visit to a sling library will help you decide between them. It is more to encourage you to really consider whether you want a soft-structured, buckle-style carrier or one of the heavier framed rucksack-style carriers. The outdoor shops are full of the latter (they're pricey too!), and they are often what instantly springs to mind especially when people think of hiking and infants. If you are of a certain build, or if you are walking alone as Graeme does on hills with Xan, they may be best for you to enable you to carry your kit when out walking. But for general he reckons the extra weight from the frame just makes it uncomfortable.