An old 32-liter Black Diamond Sphinx became the author’s toddler carrier of choice.
An old 32-liter Black Diamond Sphinx became the author’s toddler carrier of choice.

Repurpose Your Outdoor Gear for Parenting

DIY tricks for outdoorsy moms and dads

An old 32-liter Black Diamond Sphinx became the author’s toddler carrier of choice.

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I pulled into my kids’ preschool at 3:29 P.M., jumped out of the minivan, and ran inside. I’d squeezed in a two-hour rope-soloing session at the local crag after finishing work early that afternoon, and I was just in time for afternoon pickup.

“Mom! Quinn and Adaline invited us to go to the fairy houses!” my five-year-old daughter, Eloise, said. “Can we go?”

I looked at the girls’ mothers, who nodded. We were, indeed, invited to the Fluttery Thicket, a fanciful temporary art installation along one of Bozeman, Montana’s in-town trails.

“Sure,” I said as we walked out of school. “But I have to figure out how to carry Gus.” Eloise’s little brother weighed around 25 pounds at the time and wasn’t walking yet, and while careful climbing didn’t bother my chronic neck pain, I could hardly get him from the school to the van in my arms, much less the half-mile to the fairy houses. I didn’t have the baby backpack or stroller in the car, but I did have my climbing gear.

Maybe my climbing pack would work, I thought.

I unclipped my pack lid, opened the drawstring, and dumped the whole thing upside down, pouring my harness, gear, and rope into a heap in the back of the van. Then I put Gus in the pack feetfirst, cinched the drawstring under his arms, and snugged the side straps. He looked happy and comfortable, and he wouldn’t fall out. Not bad, I thought, especially since he usually screams in protest when I clip him into our baby backpack.

That old 32-liter Black Diamond Sphinx became my toddler carrier for the next few months, but practicality wasn’t the only reason. I’ve had that pack since a 2007 expedition to climb mossy granite domes in the boglands of Wood-Tikchik State Park, Alaska. It was also a choice to remind myself who I am: a writer, business owner, fairy-house mom, and climber.

It wasn’t the first time I’d 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 Tote

I thought I’d carry, well, 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 tote instead became the kids’ school bag. In winter it fits warm clothes and lunch boxes, and in spring its thick nylon and waterproof bottom panel make it perfect for the wet, muddy gear we drag back and forth daily.

(Emily Stifler Wolfe)

2. A Puffy Jacket as a Carrier

Gus had intense colic for the first three and a half months of his life. Desperate to get outdoors after the constant 12-plus hours a day of screaming, I eventually strapped him to my chest over a pair of fishing waders, zipped him inside a one-size-too-big Orvis Women’s Pro Insulated hoody, layered an Orvis Pro Wading jacket on top of it, and spent a snowy October day on a guided fly-fishing trip with Big Hole Lodge. I kept the zippers cracked for airflow, and, magically, Gus slept most of the float. The jackets were tight enough to spread his weight more evenly across my back than the baby carrier alone would have, easing the strain. And those moments of peace—plus the four trout I caught on a fly—helped keep me sane.

In a pinch, a jacket with a backpack can also work as a carrier: pull the child to your chest, wrap their legs around your waist, zip it up with them in it, and buckle your backpack’s waist belt and sternum strap around their body so they don’t fall out.

3. A Ski Pack as a Diaper and Adventure-Mom Bag

While it’s not as stylish as some fancy diaper bags, your ski pack has seriously specialized compartments that make it at least as functional as one designed for hauling children’s gear, if not more. The diaper kit slots into the hydration pouch, extra clothes go in the main compartment, and snacks can be dropped in the shovel/probe pouch.

I use my in-bounds pack, a Chugach 16 from the North Face, to ski with my daughter, bringing along extra mittens and jackets, hand warmers, treats, and water or a thermos of hot chocolate. Meanwhile, my old ski-patrol pack, a much larger (35-liter) Black Diamond Revelation, has become her ski duffel. It fits all her gear, and before she was strong enough to carry her own skis, I strapped them onto the A-frame carry to schlep to the warming hut where we used to boot up pre-pandemic.

(Emily Stifler Wolfe)

4. Climbing Gear as a Baby Bouncer

Don’t chuck that ratty daisy chain you used on your first big wall. During the short-lived but thrilling period (for the baby and the parents) when a child can’t yet walk but can jump aggressively in a bouncer hung from the ceiling, your old rigging systems and skills will come in handy. The three hand-me-down bouncers we used were all hard to adjust height-wise. With a daisy chain, though, adjusting to baby’s fast-growing legs was as easy as clipping the next loop higher. To rig it, tie a figure eight on a bight in the bouncer’s factory webbing, then clip the bight to a daisy chain with a carabiner. The whole setup hangs from an eyebolt in a ceiling beam. Bomber.

(Emily Stifler Wolfe)

5. A Hunting Frame Pack as a Carrier

Out at the fairy houses that afternoon, I ran into a former climbing partner who is now a mother of four. When I showed her my baby-in-the-climbing-pack system, she nodded. “That’s a good one,” she said. “When he grows out of it, try an external-frame hunting pack.”

So I dug out the one my husband found in his parents’ garage some 20 years ago and strapped Gus in. At first he would squirm out of it, but now he stands on the platform and plays. If he wants to look backwards, he turns around 180 degrees and leans against my back. With three straps holding him in, I’m not worried he’ll fall out, and it carries well—it is, after all, designed for hauling meat.