Mom Goes Camping

Complete Guide to Wilderness Backpacking with Kids

wilderness backpacking with kids

It’s an understatement to say that lots of planning goes into backpacking with kids.  There’s the basics like where you will go and how far you can realistically hike with kids.  Then there’s the details like how to entertain your kids if it starts raining or how to explain snake safety without freaking them out.

But all that planning is definitely worth it.

I actually enjoy nature more when I’m with my daughter.  She gets fascinated by the little things — like cool bugs or the mini ecosystems in a puddle – and that makes me appreciate nature even more.

And considering how much screen time today’s kids get, it’s nice that screens aren’t even an option!  I feel like a much better parent when I’m backpacking or camping with my daughter.

My older daughter is now 8 years old.  Her first trip was when she was 3.   I’ve since had a baby and even she’s gone backpacking. 🙂 So, this advice is based on 5+ years of experience backpacking with kids.  Hopefully it will help you plan your own trip.

Jump to:

 

 

Planning the Trip

Hiking during our first backpacking trip together in Albania. Isabel was 3.

 

Where to Go

My first backpacking trip with my daughter (when she was 3) was to the Albanian Alps.  It’s a fairly hardcore trip that required hitchhiking, minibuses, and a boat to get to the trailhead.

However, there was hardly any walking involved to get to camp.  I was shocked at how well my daughter did on the trip.  And there were enough options for day hikes that we could go for as long or short as we wanted.

If I had a car (and more options), I’d recommend these tips for choosing a backpacking location for your kids’ first time:

  • Go somewhere you’ve already been. That way you will know what the terrain is like and are less likely to get lost. 😉
  • Avoid dangerous animals: If possible, don’t take your kids backpacking places where there are lots of venomous snakes or a huge bear threat. You can also adjust when you go to reduce the risk of seeing a mama bear with cubs.
  • Water for splashing! Kids love splashing and playing in water. Find a campsite near a lake, pond or stream and your kids will be entertained for hours.
  • Watch out for elevation. The moment the trail gets steep, your kids will probably start complaining.  Elevation is hard to avoid, but don’t do a super-steep trail your first time out.
  • Consider your exit plan: Should something go wrong, you need to be able to leave quickly and easily.
  • Is there an outhouse? Kids don’t give you much warning before they need to poop. You’ll have to scramble to dig a cathole.   So, it’s a lot easier if there is an outhouse near camp that you can use.  Though small kids will have trouble sitting on it, so you’ll probably be digging a hole anyway.

 

Be Realistic about How Far (and Fast) They Can Hike

Ideally, you will have gone hiking with your kids a few times before you take them backpacking.  Then you will have an idea of how far and fast you can go.   See how to calculate how long to complete a hike here.

This was not the case when I took my 3-year old backpacking the first time!  I had no idea how far she’d be able to hike.  So, I planned a trip which involved almost no walking to get to base camp. Then we went on small day hikes from there.

Even if you think you know how long the hike to camp will take, remember that kids are finicky.  One day they might go really fast.  Other times they lack motivation and will want to take a break every 5 minutes.

The elevation and terrain also make a huge difference. Once, it took 5 HOURS to hike 3.5km up a difficult trail to camp!  Luckily we started early so I didn’t have to scream at my daughter to “hurry up before night falls!”

Some tips:

  • Outdoor Project recommends that each leg of the trip be no more than 5 miles – especially if there is any real elevation gain.
  • Let your kids look at the map. Seeing how far you’ve gone can be a great motivator.
  • Plan breaks. My daughter would take a break every 5 minutes if I’d let her. Instead, we choose a point on the map (or just a tree in the distance) and agree to take a break there.
planning backpacking trip with kids

It took 5 HOURS to go 3.5 km up on this tough trail!  The next year we were able to do it in just 2 hours.

 

What to Pack for Backpacking with Kids

My Packing List

My checklist for backpacking with kids sin’t much different than if I was without my daughter.  The only real difference is that I bring a deck of cards and extra batteries (kids really love to use headlamps and we blow through batteries).

Sign up the email list (at the bottom or sidebar of the page) to get a printable version of the backpacking gear checklist.

backpacking checklist for kids

This is my backpack, packed and ready for a 7-day trip

 

Backpacking Clothes for Your Kids

The key to making sure your kids stay warm without overpacking is to USE THE LAYERING SYSTEM. One of the best guides to laying I’ve read is by My Open Country.  You can read it here.

Here’s also a graphic which shows how to layer/dress for backpacking in moderate weather.

backpacking clothes checklist

 

Food for Backpacking with Kids

My daughter is a very picky eater.  And that doesn’t change much when we are outdoors.  With time, I found a few kid-friendly backpacking meals.   For example, Isabel loves:

  • Veggy jerky (I’m vegan)
  • Couscous
  • Ramen
  • Instant mashed potatoes
  • Oatmeal

You can see an example of what our backpacking food for a 7 day trip looks like here.

Since having a baby, I’ve gotten serious about backpacking food.  I now dehydrate gourmet as heck meals on the dehydrator.  This gives me a lot more flexibility on nutrition and packing meals that Isabel will actually eat.

As mentioned before, I also use a spreadsheet to plan all of our meals.  I mark the calories of each meal and snacks for the day so I don’t end up bringing too much or too little food.

A book with these dehydrator backpacking recipes is in the works.  Below are some pictures of Isabel’s favorite backpacking meals.  Sign up the emailing list (at the bottom of the page or sidebar) to get updated when the book is available.

Buttery white bean sauce over pasta

Mashed potatoes with dehydrator gravy

Pinto bean sauce over spaghetti

 

Pack a Thorough First Aid Kit

If I were backpacking alone, I could probably get by on just electrolytes and duct tape.  But, when backpacking with a child, I am not skimping on the first aid kit!

The items in our first aid kit which get used the most are:

  • Tweezers and safety pins – for removing splinters and thorns
  • Bandaids, for obvious reasons
  • Medical tape – it’s better than bandaids on small wounds. Also works great for things like patching a hole in a tent, making “toys” out of nature items, and once I even used it to make a bong for my camp neighbors who had forgotten rolling papers 😉

You can see my backpacking first aid checklist here.  It’s complete but still lightweight.  If you are car camping or traveling abroad, see this checklist instead.

first aid kit for backpacking

Isabel loves playing with the Ace bandage in our first aid kit

 

Your Backpack Will Be Heavy!

You can forget about going ultralight when you are backpacking with kids.  You’ll probably be carrying most (if not all) of their gear.  As a general rule, kids should never carry more than 10-20% of their body weight.  For my 8y.o. that means only about 5lbs!!!

 

When planning what goes in her pack, I usually put things that are either:

  • bulky but lightweight or
  • we will need right away (having them in her pack makes them easier to access)

 

For example, here are some things which may go in my daughter’s pack:

  • Snacks we will be eating that day
  • Toilet paper plus trowel
  • A notebook and pen
  • Headlamp
  • Map and compass (it makes her feel important)
  • Half liter of water
  • A stuffed animal
  • Her sleeping bag (once she got older she started carrying this)

Oh, and it is almost inevitable that you will be carrying your kid’s pack.  Even if you pack it light, they will inevitably complain and you’ll end up lugging their pack.

Isabel “wearing” my pack during a break

 

Reducing Weight from Your Packs

1. Plan Your Trip Around a Water Source

Water is one of the heaviest things you will be carrying.  If you plan the entire trip around a water source (such as a trail which follows a stream), then you won’t have to carry much water.

I use my Sawyer Mini water filter which weighs just 2oz.  You screw it onto a plastic bottle and filter water through it.  The filter is very cheap and you can buy it here.

Filtering water on the trail with my Sawyer Mini

 

2. Choose Lightweight Gear that Grows with Your Kids

Lightweight backpacking gear is expensive! I’m not going to spend $50 on a Goretex shirt that my kid will outgrow in one season.  However, I will spend money on kids’ gear that lasts multiple seasons.  That means a good kids’ sleeping bag, half-size sleeping pad, and comfy backpack.

My daughter also has her own headlamp.  But, until she learned to take care of gear, I only let her have a cheap one.  The headlamps inevitably get dropped and bumped when a kid is using them!

 

3. Use Your Kid’s Backpack as a Day Pack

You’ll need a backpack for day hikes.  I always use my daughter’s backpack.  That way I don’t need a separate day pack.

So, when choosing a backpack for my daughter, I also try it on and make sure it is adjustable enough to fit me.  I’m a very small woman though.  This might be harder if you are a bulky man. 😉

 

4. Calculate food EXACTLY

Depending on how old and active your kids are, they will probably need 1200-2000 calories per day.  My 8yo daughter, for example, eats 1500 calories per day on backpacking trips.  She’s pretty small though.

I used to carry wayyyy too much food with me.  But then I got serious about it.  I make a spreadsheet which lists each day, what we will be eating, and how many calories the food has.   I do bring one extra meal “just in case” but there is less weight now that I’m so precise.

 

5. Other Tips – Read this post for more advice on how to reduce weight from your pack.

carrying kid while hiking

Sometimes you end up carrying your kid and not just their pack on hikes!

 

Safety Concerns

Think Worst Case Scenarios!

Even though I’ve gone backpacking/camping with them dozens of times now (even the baby has gone on several trips), I admit that each trip still gives me nervous flutters.

Worst-case scenarios go through my head.

“What if the batteries go dead?”
“What if someone gets hurt?”
“What’s if someone gets bit by a snake???”

Instead of ignoring these fears, I embrace them.  I ask myself why I’m scared.  Then I ask what can be done to address the fears.

I also remind myself that I’m a strong, experienced woman who is prepared for pretty much any situation.   I’ve got spare batteries, a first aid kit, know what to do if I see a bear or get bit by a snake…

And I’ve also got an exit plan.  Which brings us to…

 

Make an Exit Plan

I have yet to go anywhere “deep” into the wilderness with my daughters.  There is always a ranger station, village, or road within 3-5 miles.  That’s how far I know I can carry my daughter if SHTF.    REI recommends choosing a campsite no more than 2 miles from the trailhead so you can bail out easy.

Since there are venomous viper snakes where I typically go backpacking, my exit plan also means being within 4 driving hours of a clinic so I could get anti-venom within a reasonable timeframe.

If I were to go further into the wilderness, I’d invest in a GPS communication device.  My dad (who is a serious backpacker) uses the SPOT system.

 

Teaching Your Kids Backpacking Safety (without Freaking them Out)

You’ve thought through all the worst-case-scenarios, prepared, and even made an exit plan.

Now you just have to get your kids in on the plans!

Be aware that you might scare your kids when talking about all the precautions they need to take.  My daughter was not happy when I talked to her about what to do if you get lost in the woods.  She looked at me as though I was planning on abandoning her Hansel-and-Gretel style!

But then we talked through what would happen if we got separated, and why I needed her to stay put.  After talking through all the details (and explaining what happens during a search and rescue), she felt better.

Oddly, she didn’t get scared when I told her about wild animal safety.  I phrased it as “Don’t lift up any rocks because snakes might be napping there.  How would you feel if someone lifted up your home during a nap?  You might bite them!   It doesn’t mean that the snake is bad or wants to hurt you, it is just how they protect themselves.”

Ideally, you sneak these safety lessons in while talking about how awesome the trip is.  Just make sure you repeat them often enough that they sink in.  At some point before leaving, you’ll need to “test” your kids on these topics too.

Read:

 

Entertaining Your Kids

Your Kids WILL Whine

You know those stellar Instagram pics of 4-year olds carrying backpacks up steep peaks?  What they don’t show you is the moments before and after when the kid was complaining about being tired.

Don’t let the whining discourage you.  Chances are your kids whine at home too.  Would you rather they be whining in nature or at home?  The whining WILL end and they will have a blast in nature.

Isabel whining on the hike up to base camp

 

You Don’t Need Toys to Entertain Your Kids Outdoors

I always let Isabel bring one “cuddly friend” (aka stuffed animal) when backpacking.  She also gets a notebook and drawing supplies.  A deck of cards comes along for the train ride (we don’t have a car).

There is absolutely no reason to bring more toys than this.  When left to their own devices, children are incredibly creative.

Isabel had so much fun “reading” the map on our day hikes

 

Plan for Rain

I usually plan backpacking trips for summer or early fall.  The weather is usually good and any rain clears up quickly.  However, rainy days can destroy your trip if you aren’t prepared for them.  My advice would be to…

Isabel collecting berries in the rain. Yes, we got a campfire going in the rain! Read how here.

 

Tips for Dealing with Rainy Days:

  • Bring Some Entertainment: The one time that toys might come in handy is rainy days.  When it rains, we usually just hang out in the tent until it passes.  We will draw, tell stories, or play cards.  Once we had a blast watching slugs crawl on the tent wall (we were inside, the slugs outside).   Don’t underestimate your ability to stay entertained while trapped in a tent!
  • Get a Rain Suit: If you are going backpacking in rainy season, I would strongly recommend getting rain gear for your kids.  Not just a rain jacket (that’s mandatory!).  I’m talking about those complete rain suits.   That way you’ll be able to let your kid play outside even in the rain.
  • Have No-Cook Meals: I personally don’t want to go outside to cook during a heavy downpour.  Instead, I will make one of the no-cook meals I packed.  These meals only require you to add water, such as my dehydrated hummus with crackers.

 

Learning While in Nature

Even if you don’t plan some formal educational activities, your kids will learn while backpacking.  They will learn:

  • Life lessons, like that that hard work pays off and how to power-through
  • How to be creative, since there aren’t screens with a gadzillion entertainment options ready to melt their brains.
  • That animals are amazing! Like how spiders can make such intricate webs, or lizards can camouflage so well
  • Plants deserve respect. Because your kids will see how integral they are for everything once out of the concrete city jungles or planned suburbia and in the wilderness.
  • Map reading – which is something that most adults don’t even know now in the age of Google Maps.
  • Wilderness survival, like when you make a fire or build a survival shelter for fun

There are also plenty of opportunities for more formal education.  For example, backpacking taught my daughter concepts like camouflage, metamorphosis, pollination, erosion, and evolution long before school did.

If you feel like adding even more education into your trip, you can plan some activities – like a scavenger hunt.   I personally prefer more informal education though.  Once something interests my daughter (which it will), I will use it as an opportunity to talk about bigger concepts.  Like when she was catching creatures that were in a lake and it turned into a discussion about ecosystems.

Have you gone backpacking with your kids? What advice would you add? Let us know in the comments!

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About the author /


Diane Vukovic is an avid traveler, outdoor enthusiast, beetle lover, sometimes sculptress, couchsurfer, and loves finding ways to explain complex topics to her 6-year old daughter. Follow MomGoesCamping on Facebook and Twitter @MomGoesCamping to stay in touch!

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