By Barbara Zennaro (January-February 2019 and December 2019-January 2020)

“When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”

As a girl who grew up in Rome, “tramping” in New Zealand is a totally different experience to hiking in the European Alps, where I usually go walking.  Since we’ve had our baby, it’s been important for us to be outdoors, as we want to share our love of nature with our son. So far, I’ve favored hikes with nights in “rifugios”, catered huts with blankets, meals, beer on tap and lots of other comforts.

New Zealand brought a whole new dimension — having to carry our own food and cooking gear, hiking in remote areas, and often not meeting anybody else for days. And while hiking preferences are normally a personal choice, when hiking with a baby the question of how others will be impacted comes up.  Will our baby be welcome in the huts? Will he cry and disturb others? How will the other hikers react to seeing such a young tramper in the bush? There was only one way to find out:  pack our gear and venture outdoors! 

We’ve hiked in New Zealand on two different visits, once when Raffaello was 8 months old, and more recently when he was 18 months. On both occasions we received a warm welcome from everyone we met on the trail or in huts. One hunter gave us tips on where to avoid sleeping because of mosquitoes (we should have listened to him…), another pair waited for us on a river crossing, other trampers played with Raffa in the hut during meal time and everyone lowered their voices early in the night. In several instances people even offered to move out of a room so that we had our own space. We were never sure whether this was for us or them, but either way they were always very gracious and pleasant about it.

Many people were surprised to see such a young kid on a track, yet they always congratulated us for taking the baby out so young and often shared with us their own stories on when they first took their kids out. 

What really struck me about New Zealand was how many families we actually met: parents with young children and parents with fully grown children (our age I mean), mums´ groups with young daughters, fathers with their teenagers . . . hiking really appears to be the common passion that brings different generations together. 

In many cultures, there is still a strong perception that babies (and new mums) belong in the safety of their home. Today, thanks to new gear and technology, hiking with babies is very different from even just a generation ago:  comfortable backpacks, ultralight and efficient equipment, accurate weather predictions, GPS, rescue services (use a personal locator beacon!). When used wisely, all these resources add up to make nature a safe environment to explore with your baby. 

On the track people often asked us if it was hard to hike with a baby. And the answer is yes, it was. We used different ways to move so that Raffa had a lot of variation.  A baby backpack, a kangaroo pouch, letting him walk, and our personal favorite, a waist platform that he can sit on. The extra gear and weight combined with short baby legs made us extremely slow and we had to tailor the distances we travelled accordingly. 

New Zealand’s nature embraced me with its sometimes electrifying, sometimes cozy surroundings that I personally need to recharge and to relax. It also provided Raffa with countless opportunities of play and discovery:  new colors, new smells, new sounds, stick to throw, rocks to bang… 

On our first nights in a New Zealand hut, we were really relieved to be in a hut alone. I was always a little worried that Raffa would disturb somebody during the night; but in reality, he was always so tired and relaxed that he had the best night’s sleep of his life (and so did I!). After all, snoring (or the occasional farting) are somehow part of the community experience of sleeping in a hut and a random baby crying could only add a new sweet note to the symphony ☺

When we shared the hut with others, no one ever complained in the morning and we were often congratulated on different occasions on how quiet Raffa was through the night. With each night that we spent with other people, our confidence grew that even our little Raffa was welcome in New Zealand’s tracks and huts. 

We felt very welcome hiking in New Zealand. I also realized that we provided the other hikers with the opportunity to experience sharing a hut with a baby. They played, sang and interacted with him, and he enjoyed seeing new faces and finding his favorite go-to people. So it was a special and positive experience for everyone. 

Many hikers did actually spend time with Raffa — played “peek-a-boo” and sang songs. I felt safe: no electric plugs, no bookshelves, uncluttered huts … and most of all, seeing Raffa interact with people that share our same values (love for nature and the outdoors) was just priceless. 

Thank you New Zealand for the great experience!  We look forward to being back!  

This resource is part of FMC’s Outdoor Community campaign, celebrating and encouraging Family Tramping. Check out the other articles on Family Tramping here on Wilderlife. If you’ve got stories, tips or encouragement that you’re willing to share, please get in touch.