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Backpacking with Kids 101: Tips for Successful Adventures

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Imagine waking up to sunlight filtering gently through the mesh of your tent window, the sound of bird song in the high Sierra or Rockies, and the promise of sipping hot coffee with an isolated lake view. Now substitute the sunlight for a child’s grubby hand on your face, the bird song with calls of, “Mom, I can’t unzip my sleeping bag.” Oh yeah—you're also on coffee and pancake duty. If you’re thinking, ‘No thanks,’ stick with me: multi-day backpacking with kids can be rewarding, and dare I say, fun. Stop laughing. I’m serious.

John Muir Trail
Amy's kids help carry the load on a family backpacking trip on the John Muir Trail. Because they've been camping since they were babes, her kids enjoy backpacking and hiking and know how to do it. All photos: Amy Whitley

My family has been backpacking with kids since our oldest was not quite one, and while those baby and toddler years can be hard on the parental units, the strong, sturdy, happy hikers that result make every tiring moment worth the effort. Now our school-aged kids are leading us down the trail and our teens are (finally) carrying their weight. Here’s how we got here.

Start with a two-night trip.
Not a three-night trip, and not a one-night trip. Trust me on this: packing for one night is just as tiring as packing for two, and three nights can be just one too many for newbie backpacking kids.

Plan a route with a base camp. You may be on a Zen-like journey to find yourself on this backpacking trip, but your kids just want to find the best swimming spot. While I personally enjoy long Point A to Point B hiking trips, it wasn’t until this year, fourteen years after our first backpacking trip with our toddler, that we challenged ourselves with a truly long stretch of mileage. Instead, we plan routes that take us 3-5 miles into the backcountry to a destination such as a lake, special meadow with great climbing tree, or creek.

When you create a base camp and stay put for two nights, you only have to set up (and take down) gear once. Plus you have a "camp day" with options for the kids: maybe one parent is embarking on a long day hike up a peak, and one plans to lounge in our portable hammock (good luck with that!). Kids who crave more hiking can find it, and those who want to make fairy houses or swim away their day can do that as well.

Make food fun. Good food makes everything better, always. Your kids don't care if you survived multi-night backpacking trips in college on one cup of ramen noodles and a Hershey bar. They want good food and you want well-fed mini-mes. Pancake mix and fresh veggies weigh you down, but they are also delicious. Bring them. When we backpack, we serve ‘appetizers’ to the kids every night before dinner (instant soup mixed with hot water) and buy fun finger foods for lunch picnics trailside, like ‘make your own trail mix’ and Babybel cheese and fancy crackers. Are we going to set any ultra-light records? No. But that’s not what this trip is about.

Remember the 1:1 ratio. For every kid who is too young to carry significant weight, you’ll want one adult who can carry extra. This is simply mathematics…you can’t carry food for four. If your kids outnumber you and your partner, you’ll have to recruit an unsuspecting additional adult. Tell your buddy at work he’ll have an epic weekend in the wilderness, Bear Grylls meets Lord of the Flies style. Bribe your best friend with the extra cushy sleeping pad. Promise to bring the gourmet instant coffee. Do what you’ve got to do, but get another adult on-board.

Don’t overpack. Repeat after me: kids don’t need toys in the woods. They really don’t. It took me multiple backpacking trips during which I voluntarily carried pounds of Thomas the Tank Engine trains and Matchbox cars before this simple truth sunk in. Give kids the outdoors, and they will find joy in rocks, sticks, dirt, trees, bark, springs, creeks, pebbles…you get it. And then, they’ll want you to haul it all home in your pack.

Tobias Illinois River trail
Small kid, big pack. Amy's son Tobias on the Illinois River Trail.

Have the right equipment. No, your toddler doesn’t need the top name brands from head to toe. But he or she does need proper gear from head to toe. Having quality outdoor wear stops the whining from happening. Our kids always have the following: quality hiking shoes, wool hiking socks, under layers, sleeping bags rated 30 degrees or below (for summer camping), and sleeping pads, headlamps, and packs that fit them. Optional items they’ll beg for as they get older include pocketknives and fancy compasses. We always get our kids sized at outdoor stores for properly fitting packs, and now that the oldest kids are teens, they do their shoe shopping at Oboz right along with Mom and Dad. (Here’s my son’s favorite hiking shoe.)

Set expectations. You don’t want to overload your kids with a super heavy backpack—they should feel unencumbered enough to fully enjoy the experience—but you do want to teach them they’re part of a team and must help. School-aged kids can carry their own sleeping bag and pad, plus their clothing and personal items (toothbrush, bandana, headlamp, plate, cup, and spork). Older kids can help carry some food and kitchen gear as well. If you hit the jackpot and end up with super strong teens, put them to work carrying tents and fuel, too. Make sure to emphasize what an honor it is to carry the most weight. Encourage competition: “I bet you can’t also carry Mom’s comfy camping chair…”

Embrace "experiential education," (a.k.a. remember to teach stewardship). Just being in the outdoors regularly instills a love and care for nature in kids. It’s a beautiful thing. Be sure to be teaching the specifics of Leave No Trace as well. Bring a trash bag and use it, and instruct kids in proper trail use and water use. Get Leave No Trace tips here.

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