(The Gear Loop) - It's the middle of the night, probably 1 or, maybe, 2am. We collapsed into our sleeping bags only a few hours ago having endured what was, undoubtedly, the most stressful day of hiking we've ever had. A missed bus; an unplanned three-hour slow train to the start (via Carlisle); the blistering, unprotected heat of a coast path; a lack of water; a nuclear-grade argument while setting up camp at 9pm; an unexpected swarm of midges; spilling couscous inside our new sleeping bags. I could go on…
Now, after just a few hours sleep, we've been shaken awake by the 50mph gale blowing in over the summit of Dent. At least we're not camping at the top, as originally planned. Through the gloom, Freya and I look at each other and burst into silent-yet-hysterical laughter.
We're just 10 miles and one day into a 200-mile, 18-day "holiday" along Alfred Wainwright's iconic coast-to-coast trail. Our longest thru-hike to date was three days and two nights in Dartmoor in the late summer of 2020. Quite a lot has changed since then though. Can we really do this? At least Ira is fast asleep. "Who's Ira?" you ask. She's our 7-month-old daughter. Didn't I mention that we were bringing her along for the ride?
What were we thinking?
Full disclosure: we didn't initially intend for this trip to involve lugging an infant - and all the kit required to be fully self-sufficient parents in the wild - from St Bees, on the Cumbrian Coast, to Robin Hood's Bay on the opposite shoreline. Even for experienced hikers, this is one serious trek. You'll ascend the height of Everest while traversing three national parks: the Lake District, Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors.
Most (sane) walkers choose to take around two weeks to complete this thru-hiking rite of passage and, until the early spring of last year, this was our original plan too. Sure, we were going to carry all our kit and camp every night (rather than stay in B&Bs and utilise SherpaVan or Packhorse's baggage transfer services) but, this seemed like a manageable challenge for the two of us. That was until a (literally) life-changing 48 hours beginning on 15 March 2020.
Having already logged over 100 miles of training in the first few months of 2020, we discovered that Freya was pregnant! Could her body really handle the stress of carrying 12kg of kit, hiking 14 miles a day and growing our first child? We never got to find out. A few days later, the UK government finally began taking the looming coronavirus pandemic seriously and soon we would find ourselves forced to stay at home. No training walks, no camping practice. We couldn't return to the South West Coast Path until the start of June (when we were meant to begin our trip proper). We did at least manage to get three weekends of Dartmoor thru-hiking in later that summer before an increasingly complicated pregnancy required Freya to rest up properly.
Not only was coast-to-coast 2020 well and truly kiboshed, I was adamant that it would be impossible to do the trip the following year with a newborn in tow. In fact, the looming upheaval of our active lives played havoc with my mind. In the months before Ira's birth, I fell into a pretty heavy depression. I wasn't ready to be a dad; in my head, it meant sacrificing all the adventures we had mapped out in our heads. Freya had other plans though.
"If we don’t do it next year , when she can't walk, we'll have to wait years until we can attempt it again," Freya pointed out to me time and time again. She was right. Taking a recalcitrant toddler would be lunacy. Would a screaming infant be any easier?
An unexpected tonic: mountain views and cheese toasties
The most beautiful stretch of the entire trip, the Lake District is undoubtedly the hardest too (you can blame the numerous steep climbs for that). Given the weight on our backs (and Freya's front), our rejigged itinerary wasn't exactly "leisurely" but, it was giving us a fighting chance. By limiting our mileage during the opening week, we still had the capacity to adjust and overcome the various baby thru-hiking challenges we hadn't foreseen.
As well as protecting ourselves physically and emotionally, we were getting plenty of time to savour the incredible sights. As we scaled Hay Stacks - our first big ascent of the journey - we were treated to a picture postcard view of Buttermere and the surrounding valley. While we were hardly Himalayan explorers searching out never-seen-before vistas, it was more than enough to take our breath away.
Three consecutive nights of wild camping at Helm Crag, Grisedale Tarn and Angle Tarn (the latter two real bucket list ticks) was a real turning point. After the disaster on Dent, we were settling into a rhythm and beginning to truly relish the adventure. Ira was even a predominantly stress-free partner! Perversely, these isolated fells were proving to be the ideal outdoor bedroom too. There was no one around to disturb us or, more importantly, be disturbed by a screaming 7-month-old.
In fact, we were realising that we didn't need a dearth of facilities or fancy equipment to have fun. The night we spent up at Grisedale Tarn, watching the sun set over the Patterdale valley and cooking makeshift cheese toasties on our MSR Pocket Rocket stove will live long in the memory.
Integral to maintaining this positive relationship, Freya and I were constantly sharing our thoughts and problems (as well as a solid supply of sweets). Like parenting in general, communication and teamwork were vital. As we descended the rocky chute jutting off Kidsty Pike, I was spotting Freya (who couldn't see her feet thanks to Ira) through the harder sections. It was a process we had found earlier in the week. A dereliction of duties now might end with Ira clonking her head on a jagged edge which, I'm reliably informed, would be sub-optimal parenting…
On the road: the revelation of our baby thru-hike
Even after the leaving the near-constant drama of the Lake District, the trip continued to astound, aided by the constantly changing views on the horizon. The Yorkshire Dales offered up an unexpectedly welcome tonic, especially the gorgeous buttercup meadows in full bloom along the route from Keld to Reeth.
As we trekked further on, Ira took great delight at the bizarrely-beaked curlews diving in and out the long grass as we reached the border of Richmondshire. Her ever-growing fascination with the world around us was enough to wash away any remnants of the anxiety I'd built up in the months both before her birth and before our coast-to-coast attempt.
By the time we reached the bleak expanses of the North York Moors, it was abundantly clear to Freya and myself that we needn't choose between being parents and being adventurous. They were not mutually exclusive ideas after all. Our thinking was only reinforced by a near-constant stream of praise and admiration (or was it just bemused astonishment?) from passers-by and other C2Cers we met along the way.
I'm not going to sit here and preach about how easy a three-week thru-hike with a baby is. There is no silver bullet that will make your planned adventure effortless. For the entire second half of the walk, the constant carrying of 20-plus kilos had left both Freya and I with no sensation in either of our big toes. Each evening, our shoulders ached with a vigour that suggested we'd spent the day sparring with Tyson Fury. Physically, it was an endeavour that required all our reserves of grit and determination. But, it was also the best summer holiday we've ever had. Although immensely proud upon reaching Robin Hood's Bay, there is, even now, a sense of sadness at not still being out on the trail. Since returning home to "normality", life feels a little bit emptier or, at the very least, a little bit too tame.
That is no bad thing though. Hiking coast-to-coast with our baby has genuinely changed our lives. It's helped me overcome a mental health crisis, proved to both of us how tough we really can be and, most importantly, confirmed exactly the sort of parents we want to be and the sort of life we want to provide for Ira. Would we return to the coast-to-coast trail? No. But, that's not because we wouldn't do it again. It's because there's still so much of the world left to explore with our family of three.
Essential baby thru-hiking gear
Vango Scafell 300+ tent
Having a tent that just one of us could easily erect was a godsend; when Ira didn't want to play with the grass, there was always someone to entertain our tiny human companion. At 3.6kg, it's a little heavy, and it's as big a wild camp tent as you could likely get away with. But, there’s plenty of space for kit in the porch and it gives you somewhere to cook when the weather is rubbish.
Therma-a-Rest Vesper 0C quilt
Because we were co-sleeping with a baby, a sleeping bag was out of the question for Freya so, this three-season 900-fill Down quilt was the perfect solution for a solid night's sleep. Providing a safe night's sleep for all, it also aided mid-night breastfeeding sessions. Weighing in at under 0.5kg, it's also featherlight.
Salomon Speedcross 5
Traditional boots might be the most popular thru-hiking footwear however, don't rule out a pair of trail runners. Freya found the Salomon Speedcross 5 to provide superior grip on all surfaces thanks to the large "lugs" on the sole. A narrow profile allowed her to place her feet with greater confidence too (ideal on some of the trickier scrambles, such as the summit of Hay Stacks). Anything that helps prevent falls when baby wearing is a win in our book.
Ergobaby 360 Cool Air Mesh
We ended up using an Oscha Sea Salt Cosmic baby wrap to carry Ira, but this could be a great option if you need something more structured. The breathable mesh panels make it cooler for both parent and baby and, depending on the age of your little one, it supports up to four different carry positions. A wide hip band and padded shoulder straps make it super comfortable over long distances too.
Exped Fold UL dry bag set
These lightweight dry bags kept everything inside our packs organised, which made setting up camp that little bit more seamless. We found that having a routine and designated jobs every evening both sped up the setup process and preventing the stress pot from boiling over.
Planning for a babying packing thru-hike adventure
A cross-country thru-hike with a newborn is no place for weight weenies. Ira required us to carry an extra dry bag of clothes for her and an extensive first aid kit (complete with infant essentials like teething granules and Calpol). Then there’s the obligatory pile of nappies, nappy cream, dummies and dry wipes.
On day one, my pack (filled with a few days’ food and three litres of water) hit the scales at 21kg, a kilo above Osprey’s suggested upper load limit. Freya’s pack, which included our three-man tent, topped out at 14kg. However, she was also the sole carrier of Ira (who, throughout our training walks, had grown accustomed to the comfort of mum's chest). Little one added another 7.5kg, bringing Freya's total carry to 21.5kg. Oof.
All the extra weight required us to scrap our initial plan to complete the crossing in 14 days (probably the most popular crossing time for C2Cers sans baby). Instead, with the help of Trailblazer’s ‘Coast to Coast Path’ guidebook, we plumped for an 18-day trip, which included six days in the Lakes to help grow our trail legs gradually without the risk of burnout. Paul Willcocks' informative series of videos were also brilliant at familiarising ourselves with the route and its landmarks.
Must have: Ordnance Survey OS Maps app
£23 per year, from Ordnance Survey
While paper maps and a real compass are still thru-hiking essentials, we navigated the whole route using the OS app. We pre-plotted our routes before leaving home and downloaded them for offline use (essential in the signal blackspots of the Lake District). While a few bugs in the Android version sometimes had us having to restart the app, we barely put a boot out of line across the whole trail. An excellent budget option compared to pricey GPS units.