Editorial assistance provided by Roger Caffin
Let’s Get Some Fresh Air
It all started long before our first child arrived, with the simple idea to walk the Pyrenees from coast to coast, a distance of about 900 kilometers (560 miles). Previous experiences in the same mountains were pleasant, and after 3,000 km (1,860 mi) in the Indian and Nepalese Himalaya, walking was almost equal to being. The only real challenge seemed to be making the existential experience of walking in nature as pleasant and healthy for our daughter Flora as it already is for me and my wife, Fany.
By the time we set off on the Atlantic coast, reaching the other coast seemed a dream from the past, just a little too ambitious, but this big dream gave us the motivation needed to carefully prepare ourselves. Besides, at least we got started on some trek. We both get the shivers at the thought of succumbing to social pressures to finally act like we’re “supposed” to: buy a car and go for all-inclusive Club Med holidays. So we decided to at least give it a try and see where we would get. As soon as we could no longer guarantee our daughter’s safety, which happened 250 km (155 mi) later, we called it quits. Before that point, all three of us enjoyed a trekking and camping experience that I would recommend to any newly expanded family who feels the need to get some fresh air after the first hectic months with a newborn. I would also recommend it to any baby who wants to get to know the parents and the world he or she just entered.
Hendaye, France, on the Spanish border. What a place to start: A magnificent bay where lush green mountains meet the Atlantic Ocean, and two countries embrace each other.
The beach front at Hendaye, our starting point.
For a large chunk of our gear, the journey started earlier. Three packages with diapers, gas cartridges, and weight-saving items such as toothpaste samples and exact amounts of instant coffee and muesli bars had left the French West Coast to spots on the map that sparked our imagination. Every five or six days, we picked up a package that saved us from carrying a few extra kilos of oversized food-packs and from panicked searches for diapers, in case the only grocery shop in the village just ran out of stock. We could always start this logistic operation over for the next stretch, if we wanted to move on.
Walking meant preparations like buying ultralight equipment and leaving impromptu discussions with pediatricians behind. The doctor we have, here in Belgium, advised us to walk below 3,000 meters (~9,800 feet), sleep below 2,000 meters (~6,500 feet), and go up slowly, which is no problem in that area. When we presented our coast to coast idea to her, she was more encouraging than worried, adding that carrying our daughter that much would be great for her development. With adrenaline pumping though our veins, every single of these first steps felt like a victory, every new view a discovery. Being on the move is what brought Fany and I together in the first place, and after a month on the move with Flora, I can surely conclude it has brought us, as a family, together as well. This strong flow of inner energy more than compensated for the deep fatigue my wife still felt, only three months after a complicated marathon delivery.
It was not always easy for Fany to even think of starting such a long trek. In the first six weeks, Flora cried doggedly, sucked all the energy out of my wife, and did not give us any respite in the nights. These were the strange times when even my wife, who earlier had hated to end a rather exhausting 500 km (310 mi) honeymoon trek in West Nepal, entertained some doubts about the whole idea. That’s also when we discovered that internet forums can be a rough environment with lots of harshly expressed opinions, especially when you head off with a false start, but with some balance, they can also be a useful tool to solve your problems and get motivated again.
With the help of experienced hikers and all the other information available on Backpacking Light, we managed, among other things, to cut our pack weight just enough to bring our new passenger in without carrying more kilos than before. Carrying an Osprey Exos 46, with 14 kilos (31 pounds) that included a full water and food load, went rather well. However, in combination with the sling to carry our daughter in front, the load did get really heavy, not because I was reaching a third of my own body weight, but because the shoulder straps were not close enough to my shoulders due to the sling. With some help from the chest strap, the setup worked for the few times that I carried Flora for the last two or three hours of the day.
A fully-laden Nick with pack and Flora.
For the most part, my wife was fine with her old and heavy Marmot pack that came to around 5 kg (11 lb) when filled, plus a total weight of around 7 kg (15 lb) in front: Flora and her sling. Being sandwiched between a baby and a backpack does not give your body much room to cool down, but the small Marmot pack is carried on the hips, and the tiny shoulder strip is just for balance, not for carrying. She bought the 1-kg, 10-liter pack four years ago (much lighter options exist today) when a hernia in the neck threatened to keep her from backpacking at all.
Fany and Flora, ready to go walking.
It took a mental switch to be so intensely gear-oriented for this trip, but the end justified the means. With a baby, there’s not much of a choice if you want to go trekking and camping: it’s going to be a lightweight trip or no trip at all.
Learning from Experience
One of the advantages of the GR10 is how you start. On day one, you really walk away from the hectic city and the coastal boulevard into the tranquility of the first forested hills dotted with little lakes. Leaving the beautifully painted and charming village of Sare at 4:00 p.m. on the second day, we soon bumped into a Belgian couple we had seen earlier. She stood silent at some distance from him, her face showing signs of a recent cry, which Flora repeated just a little later. No wonder. Although we had taken a four-hour siesta under a shadow-giving tree in the hottest hours of the day, the sun was still frying backpackers like a broiler. Before you freak out with “Oh, my goodness, they fried their baby!” please know that Flora never felt a glimmer of a sunbeam on her skin. She had a big sunhat and just to be sure, we always walked with a black storm-proof and lightweight mini-umbrella.
Nick with Flora in front and a big umbrella for shade.
Even then, day two showed us that our walking strategy wouldn’t work. The 100% cotton Maya Wrap sling was the best one available for walking in warm weather, but we soon learned up to which temperature Flora agreed, and 30 C (86 F) in the shade was way above her comfort level. The limited amount of baby-safe bottled water came in handy on that day as an extra dose of fluids above and beyond the breast milk, but we decided to stop walking at noon from the next day onwards. Plenty of gites, refuges, small hotels, and camping opportunities allowed us to choose the length of our daily walks, as we had figured out before we got started.
Getting walking no later than 6:00 a.m. has disadvantages, but experiencing the awakening of nature before the majority of mankind gets up compensates for the early morning bleariness. The bakery was not yet open at that early hour, but when we left Ainhoa on day three and asked a lonely old guy sitting in front of his home when it did open, he spontaneously went inside and came back with some bread. The hospitality of the Basques or the advantage of walking with a baby? It did not take us long to discover that trekking with a baby on board often made things easier, from making contact with the locals to being given the best room or camping spot.
Flora in the tent.
Better Than Going To A Movie
Before you think we just used our baby to get extra benefits, a few words on why carrying a baby around for a couple of hours every single day is actually a healthy, enjoyable, and good thing for the baby as well (as long as it’s not too hot or wet). I guess you can easily fill a library with books and leaflets on how to take care of babies. Every author seems to claim a radically different approach, many times contradicting each other. Ask any scientist or pediatrician and there’s a little less confusion on the benefits of carrying your baby for a few hours a day. Extensive research showed that increased carrying reduces infant crying by 43% on average1. We didn’t use a stopwatch for every second she cried, but our own experience lies along that plane: she cried much less on the trail than she did at home. Many other studies show that carrying your baby gives him or her a good balance between safety and freedom, resulting in confidence towards the surrounding environment and ultimately leading to a better self-confidence and self-image2. I don’t seriously think Flora realizes she’s laughing at herself, but as a matter of fact, she does love to be before a mirror ever since our trek.
But back to the science. According to our pediatrician, babies who are carried have much less chance to develop back pains at a later age and contrary to popular belief, science has even shown that carrying a baby can improve the backs of the parents who carry them. Even for Flora’s reflux problem (throwing up too frequently and painfully), studies have shown that being carried helps better then lying down the whole day.
Descending a steep hillside with Flora.
I will not go into detail on the many important health benefits of being able to swap our polluted city air – where ozone frequently passes alarm levels in summer among many other air pollution problems – with fresh mountain air for almost a month. I prefer to elaborate on a few simple observations we made, complementary to what science and doctors told us. The day Flora was born, the midwife told us that she’s a very curious person. Many friends with babies also observed and remarked on this. We got a better understanding what that meant on her first camping trip at the age of six weeks.
After walking for three hours in which she mostly slept comfortably in her sling, Flora woke up upon our arrival at the camping site. This was the usual time to cry as loudly as her small body could manage in order to get her evening meal as quickly as possible, but when she left the sling surrounded by greenery, flower smells, and singing birds she was just stupefied. For at least a full ten minutes, a very long time in the world of hungry babies at evening hours, she just quietly looked, mouth fully open. Despite some rain in the night, the first camping weekend surely begged for more.
Traveling safely through rough country.
While trekking through the Pyrenees, it soon became clear that Flora just loved it. I can imagine that if she was able to talk, babies in the daycare center she now spends time in would envy her. Imagine sitting in a sling and being carried around. You can choose from two constantly playing movies showing you all kind of different colorful images, one on the left and one on the right. Natural smells and sounds change frequently. The air is fresh. If you don’t like the left movie you can switch to the right one and back, at any time you like. You can also go to sleep as soon as movie-watching gets boring or as the comfort of feeling the body warmth, hearing the heartbeat, and recognizing the smell of your now familiar parent just brings you in a perfect mood for some cozy napping. Most of the time, Flora opted for sleep after some ten to fifteen minutes of curious movie-watching, making her total sleep time higher then when she was at home. The only problem for us parents: once she was in the sling, she wanted to see a movie and even once she was asleep, she also wanted you to keep moving. We like walking, so it wasn’t a major problem, but the toilet stops were real pit stops: every single second counted!
Flora warm in mummy’s fleece.
On the Trail
An early start in perfect, crisp morning temperatures, an old basque cemetery, walking on an easy trail along a ridge and arriving at noon in a farm (Ferme Esteben) – a gite with rooms and good local food… what more can you wish for? To top it all off we met Richard again. Richard is an Australian guy who first survived cancer and was now walking the whole coast to coast on his own, at the age of sixty-one. From day one, our paths crossed once in a while, but now, with the gite just for the four of us and some personal stories exchanged, it felt like an intense mutual understanding of something we can’t share with most of the people we know and love. Finding meaning in life by the steady movement of our bodies in fresh air, by contemplating on the border and horizons in view and in life, by the healthy fatigue and hunger after a good day of walking. The life with just ourselves, then some total strangers who can so suddenly become friends. At that point, whether you are sixty-one, a nursing mother, a father, or a three-month-old doesn’t matter. We’re all humans searching for a pure bond with nature, ourselves, and other human beings.
At Breaking Point
On day four we took our first shortcut, avoiding a stretch described as a technical descent on loose rocks. It turned out that the easy track that briefly went into Spain still became a little more adventurous then we anticipated. We only just got started when strange noises rapidly came closer. We stopped. Grab some rocks! While Fany reached for the ground, a deer jumped over the track, some ten meters behind her. The wild boar that had been chasing it didn’t follow, and while we couldn’t see the boar, I know only one animal which makes the sound we heard. Fortunately, those guys are actually vegetarian, and the small deer must have just bothered him. The insect that got hold of Flora’s neck shortly thereafter was clearly non-vegetarian, and with her screams filling the valley for a few minutes, day four did become a headache.
When arriving in Bidarray later than expected and more tired than we had hoped, our luck turned back. We knew the camp site had some rooms available, but we could never have dreamt of arriving at this cosy little chalet and having it totally to ourselves, surrounded by flowers and with a lovely and remarkable larger-than-life host. Errekaldia was like a lost paradise, tucked away in a deep corner of the Pyrenees, and as we were not in any hurry, we just stayed and socialized with the locals for a full four days, taking it a day at a time, not even knowing if we would continue our trek. Having a one-way ticket, plenty of time, and no real time table, we just chilled. We lingered long enough to empty our heads, play with Flora, cook and eat together with the locals, get to know the Basque culture, recharge our mental batteries, and only then think of the best possible way to get going again.
Strolling along in the hills with baby.
There was a last train station two days from here, and we thought it would be good to end our holiday with at least two more easy days of walking, then see what to do. However, once we did get on our feet again, it was with such joy and new energy that on this fifth day of walking we trekked 23 km (14 mi) in less than six hours time, shortcutting two long GR10 stages in one day to arrive in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port before noon. It turned out that the decision to stay put for a full four days without even thinking of the walk before us relieved any remaining stress and gave us wings. Having been so close to giving up, persisting and then seeing that actually it was possible to enjoy it, for all three of us, the whole day long, was as great as a bonding experience on the trail can get. It was still dark when we left the medieval little town early the next morning, and from that day we walked 18 km (11 mi) on average, often arriving at 10:00 or 11:00 a.m., with sufficient energy left to enjoy the afternoons as well. We deviated a lot from the GR10 and walked more on asphalt than anticipated, but the main point was that we walked, and we all enjoyed it very much.
The Tricky Parts
Before you, as someone who probably came in touch with the walking virus and as a trek-loving new parent or as aspiring parents start planning, packing, or making babies, there are, unfortunately, just a few things we do want to mention… and some excuses that we have to make.
Nick making camp, while Flora stretches.
To those few campers sleeping in tents located within a range of, say, 50 meters (~165 ft) around our tent at the camp site of Saint-Engrace, the night of 23 July: we’re really terribly sorry. You might think we tortured our child between 12:33 and 12:55 a.m. To me it seemed like two hours, but my wife did check the time. Our best guess is that Flora really didn’t like her nightmare and constantly kept on repeating that observation as loudly as she could for some horrible twenty-two minutes. It took her another hour to get back to sleep, but that was just our problem, not everyone else’s. For once, getting up early and leaving before the rest awoke had another advantage as well, but in case you were there: again, we’re really sorry.
Although we had had successful calm nights in dormitories or rooms with no sound protection for neighbors before that, and even knowing that night was a big exception, we decided that we would keep more distance between us and other trekkers in the nights. I had to run three times with soup, spaghetti, and dessert up and down from the cozy refuge in Arette-la-Pierre-Saint-Martin to our tent located downhill, outside hearing distance, to feed the mum who stayed there with Flora, but this seemed less inconvenient then sleeping next to other people again. Speaking of food: we only ate dry packed food once and managed to find good meals, fruits, and vegetables all along the way so Fany and Flora got their daily vitamin intake properly, together with the vitamin drops that we also give at home.
So yes, we had to make some compromises. We switched from cheaper refuges and dormitories to small and better isolated hotels and rooms, or camped, with one exception later on. Another hard part was the afternoon, when us parents decided not to show Flora any movie because of the heat. A few small toys came in handy for the time awake, and we found plenty of volunteers to keep her busy for a few minutes, but going to sleep was harder with both movement and darkness missing. We managed, but today we sometimes find ourselves wiggling from one foot to the other while standing in a bookshop, even without Flora or a sling in front.
A shady campsite, Fany cooking.
We also managed to avoid the worst weather problems by getting to our destinations really early and checking both the forecast and cloud developments during the day. It helped that I am in the habit of trying to read weather developments, and I did some reading up on predicting mountain weather. Despite a few short but intense thunderstorms passing by in afternoons, we never had a single drop worth a mention while walking. There was an unexpectedly furious wind storm in Iraty at the surprisingly early hour of 6:00 a.m., without a cloud in sight, but we managed to tuck the baby away sufficiently and walk slowly but safely. Although Flora started the trek with a minor cough, for which we visited a doctor two times in the first four days, she got over it while walking and never had any health problem whatsoever for the rest of the trip, apart from that single insect bite.
The only really threatening weather situation we encountered with a baby in the mountains turned out to be neither storm nor heat. While crossing the tree line above Saint-Engrace and entering a vast pasture with nothing standing out but a few cows and their drinking tubs, we suddenly stepped into a soup of clouds embracing us like a blanket. It felt like meeting the wrong guy at the wrong place and time. At this very spot, the guidebook warns about a lack of trail and way-marking for only a very short stretch, and indeed, at some point there was just a grass-covered hill disappearing into the fog, ten meters from anywhere. By staying calm, using whistles, and sending out one person to go and search on compass course from a fixed point and back, we managed to cross the section after two frightening hours and many false leads. I don’t know how precise GPS devices are these days, and perhaps they could have shortened our search a bit. However, retracing our steps towards the village, which we had left three hours earlier, would not have been too difficult along the forest trail.
Feeding time for Flora, above the murky valley weather.
We never lost each other and there were trekkers before and after us. Once we crossed the section and got back to clear way-marking and a path, we met a group of three older, panicking, stranded walkers with no decent jackets, maps, route descriptions, or ideas on what to do since the thick fog blocked them, over two hours before. Needless to say that if you can’t even prepare the basic gear for yourself, follow a clear path even in the fog, and stay calm in any situation in the mountains, don’t even think of bringing a baby on board.
An early start for Col d’Iseye, before it gets hot.
Three days later, we crossed the Col d’Iseye (one of the several 2,000+ m passes we navigated) while the fog was playing hide and seek with us. When it came up, the blanket was complete; when it retreated, we enjoyed great views of peaks cleaving through a sea of clouds. We were in and out of the soup in seconds, but with clear way-marking, a good map, and experience in trail-finding we never got into trouble. Despite the fog’s best efforts fog at disorientation, we confidently walked the last meters straight into the sun, which just came up from the other side. While Flora was watching a predator bird pass just beside us, we stood there in silence, looking at the peaks popping up from the fog on both sides. Although not on the GR10, the crossing of the Col d’Iseye turned out to be one of the most stunning moments of the whole trip.
There’s a Time for Everything
The main reason why we called it quits after the Col de Torres was surprisingly more a technical problem than fatigue, health, or weather problems. Taking big high steps on a steep and, for the first time, wet hill with rounded stones and a baby in the front, while sometimes needing one hand to hold on to a rock, quickly becomes tricky. As we have experienced before, the highest central Pyrenees have plenty of such steep sections, and safety was our number one concern.
The wild one!
The problem was that any detours are harder to find there. If we really wanted, we could have continued by using major roads or a very long detour, but that would have been a real shame. We had already walked more asphalt than ever before, avoiding the most difficult sections of the GR10, but several days along a road was not worth the compromise. When we added all things up and looked back on what we had already done, we decided that we were satisfied for now.
We may try that stretch next year. By then, Flora will be old enough to ride in a papoose on the back, not hindering us on the big uphill steps. If we can leave early in July, before the worst thunderstorms, in good dry weather and somehow manage the logistics and, where necessary, some detours, expect to meet us somewhere along the trail between Arrens-Marsous and Bagnères-de-Luchon in 2010.
The freedom of the hills.
||Pack||Flora’s Bits||& Pieces|
|Gear and Clothing||grams||ounces||grams||ounces||grams||ounces|
|Sleeping Bags (703 grams each)||1406||49.6|
|Foam Mats + Garbage Bag||223||7.9|
|Fleece Jackets (2)||628||22.2|
|Gore-Tex Shells (2)||790||27.9|
|Misc Toiletries: Toilet Paper, Soap, Tweezers, Nail Clippers||72||2.5||60||2.1|
|Compass, Map & Case, Guide, Pen||189||6.7|
|Softsided Water Bottles (2)||70||2.5|
|Garbage Bag Liner||75||2.6|
|First Aid Kit||27||1.0|
|Average Gas Weight||255||9.0|
|Torch, Batteries (2)||162||5.7|
|Lumix Panasonic Camera, Case||177||6.2|
|GSM, Extra SIM Card||82||2.9|
|Ear Plugs, Eye Cover||22||0.8|
|Tickets, Passports, Cards||82||2.9||82||2.9|
|Diapers (4/day, Post Package/5 days, 2 Spares)||440||15.5|
|Ear Cleaner, Nose Cleaner||23||0.8|
|Average Food and Water Weights|
|Average Distributed Weights||12828||452.5||4158||146.7||7751||273.4|
|Nick’s Load (Pack)||12.8||28.3|
|Fany’s Load (Pack + Flora + Bits & Pieces)||11.9||26.3|
1 Hunziker, U.A., Barr, R.G. (1986). Increased carrying reduces infant crying: a randomized controlled trial.
2 Kirkilionis, E. (1995). Wahrnehmen, Erfaren und Üben beim Körperkontakt. Praxis der Psychomotoriek.