Successful Family Backpacking With Young Kids

I don’t really know why it took us until this point to do a real family backpacking trip. We’ve dabbled with the idea for a couple years now, but always had a hard time getting our gear in line, working around my husband’s busy wildland fire schedule and basically just getting out the door. The thought of backpacking is so daunting, at least to most families. Our kids are 18 months, 4 and 6, so they’re young and not able to really pack much of their own gear yet. Plus young kids = a general state of (sometimes) organized chaos.


Four Ways Backpacking Is Easier Than Camping

I was trying to put my finger on what actually makes it so tough to get past the mind block that backpacking is harder than camping in a campground. I think it’s all about the planning….and knowing you don’t have that easy escape route you have with car camping. However, there is so much about backpacking that is actually EASIER with kids.

  1. It’s simpler. You take what you take and you don’t worry about the kitchen sink. You pack light, eat what you have and rely on the nature around you for entertainment. You don’t worry about bringing all those extras because it’s just not possible.
  2. No one can hear your kids! I know I’m not the only one who has kids that love to yell. Being outside is a free ticket to be as loud as they want ... but it isn’t always welcome at a campground. When you’re backpacking, you’re the only one there, and we actually encourage the noise-making to keep the bears away.
  3. They’re learning problem solving skills that would never be learned at a campground (as long as you let them participate): how to get water, how to cook food on a camp stove, how to keep a camp clean and bear safe, the importance of staying dry, etc.
  4. You’re seeing parts of the country that many people never get to see. And you’re doing it together, as a family. Even hiking a mile away from everyone else makes a HUGE difference.


Six Tips for Family Backpacking

  1. Planning is the toughest part, so take the most time doing that. Set out all your gear in one place and go through a check list. Make sure everyone has a place to sleep, clothing to wear even in changing weather conditions, food to eat, shelter and some sort of light for the dark. There are tons of checklists online you can gather together and then make your own.
  2. Start small. Depending on the abilities of your kids, plan on a mile or under hike in and just do one night the first time. It’s a bit of a gear shake-out. Then take notes on what you forgot, what you didn’t need and what you want to do differently next time.
  3. Be educated about the area you will be backpacking into. Is there a water source? Are bears to be taken into consideration? Is there shade?
  4. Let the kids carry what they can. Our 6-year old was able to pack his backcountry quilt, sleeping pad, and clothing on his back. Our 4-year old just packed his clothing and backcountry quilt. The 18-month old got a ride most of the time, but also insisted on walking a bit too. Know your kids and what they can handle. Let them take ownership for their gear, but also set them up for success (not too heavy of packs).
  5. Invest in good packs. In our family, Dad is hauling most of it, I have my gear and Baby on front, and the kids have what they can carry in their packs. It’s what we love about our Deuter packs - they make hauling a big load easy and comfortable.
  6. Go easy and have fun. Pack special snacks for trail bribing, sing lots of songs, encourage involvement from the kids at camp. The more you can wear them out during the day, the better they will sleep at night!


Most importantly, remember the idea in family backpacking is to experience nature and the challenges that come with that, as a family. You have more control of the company around you (at least the people kind) and many more opportunities for family “team-building” and working together.


And yes, it IS worth every bit of planning and starting when the kids are young -- make it your family’s normal!

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