With fourteener terrain being known for wild weather, cliff drops, and rock slides, many might think the answer to the question 'should you bring babies on fourteeners?' is obvious. That being said, a lot of people really enjoy hiking with their young children and they'll keep climbing mountains with babies despite the risks. Because of that, it's important to know how risks can be reduced and what signs of danger to watch out for.
For starters, this is not medical advice. If you're considering hiking with your child in higher elevation terrain, consult your child's physician. They'll be able to tell you if it's safe in your specific case. This article is simply general information about how elevation can impact some young children and how the risks of elevation can be reduced in some cases.
1. Altitude sickness
One big concern with taking a young child to the top of a fourteener is how the high elevation atmosphere may effect the child. With altitude sickness being a common concern for peak-bagging adults, it makes sense that this would also be a concern for a baby.
According to BabyCenter.com and ChildSafetyExperts.com, a child is developed enough to experience higher elevations at three months of age, provided they weren't born premature and don't have any health problems. Granted, that doesn't mean that a three-month-old baby is altitude-proof, it just means that they'll be more likely to see similar impacts that an adult would in a high-elevation atmosphere. Prior to that, a baby's underdeveloped lungs can't handle the additional stress.
One big concern here is that babies have difficulty communicating any symptoms of altitude sickness they might be feeling with an adult. A few symptoms to watch for include vomiting, irritability, and poor feeding, though with most babies, these signs can be difficult to spot. After all, many babies are irritable and difficult to feed at normal elevations, too.
If any symptoms of altitude sickness are spotted by someone taking their child into higher elevation terrain, returning to a lower elevation immediately is essential for the child's safety.
In order to reduce some of the risk in taking a small child to higher elevation area, it's a good idea to increase their exposure to elevation in baby steps, first. If living in a lower elevation area, like Denver or Colorado Springs, plan a few weekend trips to mountain towns, like Breckenridge or Frisco, prior to embarking on a hike that travels to 14,000 feet. Carefully monitor how the increased elevation in a mountain town impacts the child and make decisions based on experience and with consultation from a doctor. Remember, people tend to be susceptible to the effects of altitude sickness at just 8,000 feet of elevation.
Another concern with taking a child on a high elevation hike is temperature regulation. Not only can it get really hot on mountains, it can also get really cold, and really windy, and sometimes, really wet. On any hike, fourteener or not, it's important for baby-touting hikers to make sure they've got adequate layers to keep their child warm, dry, but also not too hot.
Know what signs to watch for when it comes to keeping a child's temperature in the safe range. Consult a physician for more information on this.
3. Sun damage
Sun exposure is also a key risk faced at higher elevations and with very young children being even more susceptible to the harmful effects of the sun, it's crucial to take this risk seriously. Don't stop at sunblock – keep the baby's skin covered as much as possible while also making sure to regulate the baby's temperature properly. Utilize large sun hats to protect the baby's face and don't forget eye protection.
Remember, a fourteener trail isn't a hike in the woods. It's above tree-line, with no cover, fully exposed to the elements.
Hydration is also crucial in high elevation terrain. This will likely mean that a baby will need more frequent feedings to stay fully hydrated. It's also important to have a plan to regulate temperature of formula if needed. Remember, even on a sunny day, fourteeners can get extremely cold.
Know the signs of infant dehydration, a few of which include dry mouth, excessive tiredness, and sunken eyes.
5. Carrying risks
Safely carrying a baby is also a concern when it comes to hiking long distances. Doing so incorrectly can hurt the baby and it can hurt the person carrying the baby, too. Don't risk injury in potentially dangerous terrain due to skimping on a proper carrying device. It's recommended that those hiking with their child should use a carrier that's made for the trail.
6. Protect yourself
Those hiking in potentially dangerous terrain with a child should remember that their own health is also very important. If something happens to them, it could put the baby in danger. A hike with a child is not the time to take risks. Wear proper shoes, don't rush, stay hydrated and nourished, and always have a first aid kit. Plan ahead for any weather that might be encountered and make sure to pack enough food and water. Don't hesitate to turn around if it's the safest thing to do, even if it means not hitting a summit.
7. Always have a backup plan
One of the most important things that a hiking parent can do is make sure they know their primary plan and the backup plan prior to hitting the trailhead. Be familiar with the route, know where to turn for medical assistance, and have a plan for staying connected via some sort of satellite communication device, like a Garmin inReach.
Taking a small child into high elevation terrain is not something to take lightly. It's dangerous and it could cause major health issues that could be deadly. Consult a physician prior to planning any high elevation hike with a young child.
Editor's Note: Information related to age and trips to higher elevation coming from BabyCenter.com is part of a piece that was written with assistance from a Denver-area pediatric pulmonary specialist, Dr. Jerry Eichner. Read that full piece here.