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This is a fairly comprehensive guide to backpacking with children. It contains practical and helpful advice derived from many miles on the trail with kids. There are extra articles listed along with many printable lists and planners that can be downloaded.
Nearly 25 years since I started this adventurous activity, I love backpacking more than ever. This is mainly because it provides the best opportunity to spend excellent time with my kids. There are many aspects of this outdoor activity that make it ideal for doing with children.
The concentrated time without any distractions such as computer or television allow for truly deep interactions.
The tough and demanding physical aspects create interminable bonds through overcoming difficulties together.
The fantastic scenery and majestic views make lifelong memories.
The little events that occur along the way will create stories that will be told to future generations in mythological tones.
There are always so many fun and interesting things to see, study and learn about.
If you are nervous about trying this out with your kids by yourself for the first time, then find someone with experience that you can go with. You can do this by joining a local Scouting organization, asking your local gear store, joining a local hiking club, or asking your friends if they have been backpacking.
The planning step can be viewed as a tedious exercise, especially by younger children. You should find ways to keep the children involved at each step in the planning process. Allow them to work through the calendar with you and discuss the factors such as weather and seasons. Let them look at the trail maps to understand distance and elevation. By including them in the planning steps, it will build a high level of anticipation while keeping everyone involved in the activity. This is also an excellent opportunity to teach new skills such as reading maps and calendar planning.
Planning Step 1- Select the location
There are several factors to consider when choosing the trail on which you are going to backpack. It is critical to select the trail very carefully, especially when backpacking with children. There are a few good web sites to help you find trails that match your criteria. You can also obtain trail guide books from your local gear stores, bookstores or hiking clubs. I have listed several of the factors I use in my criteria when selecting a trail. a)driving distance b)trail length c)trail elevation changes d)water sources e)campsites f)wildlife and vegetation.
Start with the driving distance from your home looking for trails that are within a 2 hours driving distance. Most of your trips will be over a weekend or a few days so spending too much time in the car getting to the trail head can be a drag on the little ones.
Look at the length of the trails. Many will argue with me on this point but I only try to do 4 to 10 miles per day with young children. Considering the other terrain factors along with a late start on first day due to the drive, I will calculate the number of miles each day. For beginners I would recommend doing the lower end of mileage. I always try to get a loop trail, which means a trail (or set of trails) that creates a circle like route that puts you back at your starting place without hiking the same path again. This is often not possible so you may plan to hike to a halfway point then turn around and hike back to the trail head. Another option to these is to have someone drive up with you and drop your car at the end point then shuttle your crew to the trail head so you simply hike towards your car in one direction the whole time. On your first few trips, keep the campsite to which you are backpacking within a few miles of your car which can be accomplished by creating a figure eight loop.
Look at the terrain of the trails: elevation. This is where you really need to see a good map of trail, which will contain topographic (elevation) lines, campsite areas, water sources, and environments such as stream crossings and swamps. Large elevation changes over short distances can put a real strain on little ones. You should not shy away from elevation changes as these often provide majestic views. Simply be realistic and plan for less mileage on days with major elevation changes.
Look at the terrain of the trails: water sources. You will need to check to see if the trail provides any water sources from pumps or natural springs. If not you may need to carry extra water or obtain a good filtration system (see gear below). Even with a water filtration system, you should always check with a very recent trail guide or someone who recently completed the trail, since water sources often dry up over time or in later seasons. Carrying extra water is a major weight consideration (see packing below ) since it is one of your heaviest items.
Look at the terrain of the trails: permitted camping areas. You will need to make sure you have a place to set up your tent each night. Many trails will let you camp anywhere along the trail a long as you are more than 50 feet from the trail and no more than 100 feet from the trail. Even with this flexibility in campsites, you may still have difficulty finding appropriate ground space to set up your tent especially while hiking along rocky terrain like a ridge. You always need to check with the local authority long before the trip to see what the regulations are. I have been on several trails where you can only stay in designated shelters or on tent platforms. You must plan for this and make sure you can handle the mileage between these areas. As a general rule most backpacking trails do not allow campfires anymore so be sure to bring a stove (see gear below).
Read up on local wildlife and vegetation. You may not want to take children into dangerous areas such as ones with high concentrations of grizzly bears. At the minimum you should well prepare your children to be alert for certain plants like poison ivy and animals like poisonous snakes. I believe everyone experiences some anxiety over this topic; but you should not be discouraged and simply write off this activity because there are some dangerous wildlife. Education is the key to enjoying this activity safely amongst the wildlife. Be sure also to read up on the condition of the trail and only select well-marked trails when hiking with children. This will allow you to focus on spending time with your kids and not worrying about losing your way in the bushes.
Important side note: This is just my opinion and you can disagree, if you want. If you are going to backpack with kids, you should not plan extremely high mileage or extreme elevation days. It may be your personal style to conquer huge mountains and put in 15-20 mile days to make it to designated campsites, but this will most likely create stress and unpleasant experiences for children.
Planning Step 2 • Select the dates
Once you have selected the trail, the factors in picking a date are fairly logical. Different seasons have different weather which determines your gear and water availability. Dates that are on holidays and weekends are typically more crowded, which impacts the experience. I avoid crowds when backpacking for obvious reasons. In my experience, Memorial Day and Labor Day are the most crowded in the US for backpacking.
My favorite trip with children is a 3 day, 2 night excursion on a loop trail. I typically will go during the week but have occasionally done weekends with a Friday or Monday included. A simple 2 day trip over a weekend is also excellent but you should plan to get up extra early on Saturday to get to the trail head early and get a full day's mileage in. As an option you can try to drive up on Friday evening and camp (if permitted) at the trail head to get the early start and an extra night under the stars.
Some trails require that you register with a local ranger or township office prior to starting. These offices can often be closed on holidays or weekends, so plan accordingly by obtaining permits ahead of time. Be safe and always contact the local authority for the regulations.
Planning Steps 3 & 4 • Prepare gear and set food menu
Prepare your gear and set your menu topics are covered in detail below.
Planning Step 5 • Prepare physically
I believe this is mostly overlooked but it is just as important as the other steps. Backpacking is a physically demanding activity. You will be walking all day long with up to 20% extra weight on your back. At the minimum you need to go on several local day hikes (see hiking activity) prior to your backpacking trip. One or more of these day hikes should be done with a fully packed backpack on during the entire hike. It is always good to maintain decent cardiovascular fitness and this will help; however, it is not necessary to be able to run marathons in order to backpack. With proper planning to set reasonable daily distances, you will be able to take breaks at regular intervals while hiking. If you have selected a trail with large elevation changes, consider walking several flights of stairs with extra weights a few times every week to prepare your back and leg muscles. Always consult a doctor before beginning any exercise program and before taking on backpacking as an activity, especially if you have any health issues.
This is where many people may decide that backpacking is not something for them or their family. The initial investment in gear can be quite high and, since you will be buying for multiple people, it can be double and triple the cost. I have three boys that I currently backpack with so I can truly relate to these issues. Please do not be discouraged by this point. There are many options to obtain gear including renting, thrift stores, online auctions, borrowing from friends, or joining a Boy Scout Troop.
If finances are not an issue, you can simply print out the gear list and head down to your local outfitter store where they can help you individually. If you want to take it slow in obtaining gear or finances are a concern do not worry. My first several years of backpacking consisted of makeshift gear that was gradually replaced over the years with lightweight backpacking equipment. As an example, I used sterno with an old coffee can for a cooking stove and slept in a bulky Coleman sleeping bag that weighed a ton. I also rented my backpack from the military base at which my dad was stationed until one was given to me by one of my mom's co-workers when I was 16. It wasn't until this past year that I first purchased a new backpack for myself. I have created another page listing low cost gear alternatives that you can use. I would love to hear about anything you have learned in this area that could help others, please contact me with your thoughts.
Do not make your children use equipment that is ill-fitted to them such as a backpack that is too large or boots that are too small. Doing so could result in injury and will most likely make them resent the activity. Also, consider how the gear will impact the experience for your children. It is not advisable that comfort or security be substituted when you are trying to build an enjoyable experience for your children.
Basic Gear with description:
Obviously, this is the item that encompasses the rest and care should be given to selecting an appropriate one. There are 2 main classes: internal frame and external frame. They both have their merits. Having used both, I could use either and be happy. Just be sure to get a good quality one that has a proper hip belt and shoulder straps, even for the younger kids. No matter how much weight one might carry, when carrying a pack all day, even the littlest discomfort can become a big deal (think tiny pebble in your shoe). Packs are typically measured in inches for the torso which is simply the distance from the base of your neck to the point in the center of your back where the top of your hips cross. There are packs made specifically for younger kids, but I have had luck purchasing used ones on auction sites that were women's small size for my younger boys. When buying for younger kids, try to get ones that torso can adjust larger so you will get more than one season's use.
This is your home on the trail. It will need floor space to fit both you and your children. Weight is a critical factor and I believe most decent backpacking tents should weigh around 2 pounds or less per person it holds. You will also need to get one that sets up fairly easily and holds up against the weather in which you plan to hike. Because I backpack with 3 of my sons, I have a 4-person tent we fit into that weighs about 8 pounds. The main difficulty we have is finding a space on the ground large enough for the tent's footprint, which is 7 feet by 8 feet. You should also get a ground sheet that matches the footprint. We made ours out of Tyvek™.
There are huge variations in sleeping bags. Depending on when you plan to go backpacking, you will need to get a bag that is temperature rated accordingly. Once you have determined your ideal temp rating, look for the lightest bag you can afford. Be sure to get a stuff sack that works with your bag. A stuff sack is exactly what it sounds like: a small nylon bag that you literally stuff your sleeping bag into to pack it easier and keep it dry.
This is absolutely necessary for each backpacker. This is the pad that goes between your sleeping bag and the floor of the tent. It helps to keep you warm and dry while absorbing some of the bumps in the ground. You can buy a closed-cell foam pad from Wal-Mart (blue roll up type) for around $10. If you want a little more comfort or wish to shave some ounces, you can look to your gear store to sell you something a lot more expensive.
It is not wise to backpack in anything but proper boots. Blisters and ankle injuries have ruined many trips, so your primary concern is proper fit with ankle support. You will be wearing wool socks while hiking so try on boots with those on your feet and make sure your foot does not move inside your boot or have any extra tight spots. If you are able, get waterproof boots as wet feet can cause all sorts of issues. Your feet are your life on the trail so take proper care. Since children outgrow their shoes regularly, I have never had any problems getting Payless or Wal-Mart boots for them; but, once their feet have stopped growing, I invest in the best I can afford.
Always think in layers when backpacking as your body will experience extreme ranges of temperatures. The temperature and season will determine what clothes you pack. On a typical spring/fall trip, my kids will have on a thermal long-sleeve shirt, t-shirt, pull-over fleece, zip-up fleece and a water-proof windbreaker (in that order.) They will then methodically shed layers as their core temperature or the weather temperature rises. For their legs, they wear 1 or 2 layers of thermals along with wind pants that we bought for 7 dollars. Wool socks are non-negotiable and for short/medium length trips I bring 1 pair per day.
There are many options for these. Plan for up to 2 quarts of water per day per person. In the packing section, you will note that water is typically one of your heaviest items to carry. To plan how much you will need to carry, please see the planning section step1.d. You can buy water bottles from any department, sports or gear store. For a good solid BPA-free bottle, you will spend about $10. You can simply buy a couple 1 liter bottles of spring water from the grocery store and re-use the container a few times after you drink the water or a 1 liter soda bottle. I just started using a 3 liter Camelback water bladder that fits into the back wall of my pack with a hose that comes out to a spot on my shoulder strap next to my chin. I simply suck on it like a straw whenever I am thirsty. I highly recommend this and believe it is a tremendous advance in backpacking technology.
Unless you pack only granola bars and jerky, you will need to cook a meal or two. When taking your kids out for the first few times, please do not skimp on the meals. If the food is lousy or something they do not like, they may resent backpacking forever. I find that cooking an awesome meal at camp gives everyone something to look forward while hiking during the day. Like most equipment there are many types of backpacking stoves and you will need to find one that suits your needs and preferences. Some of the best award-winning ones are basically only good for boiling water so be careful if you plan to cook more elaborate meals.
I recommend you avoid the temptation to purchase a cheap and simple mess kit. I have never liked these and, when cooking for multiple people, they are not really adequate. You will mainly need a pot you can boil one to two quarts of water in and you will only need a skillet if you plan to fry anything like pancakes, eggs or grilled cheese. In the past I used an old medium-sized pot that was the lightest weight I could buy from a local department store. A year ago I purchased a set of lightweight backpacking specific nested pots with skillet lids that were Teflon™ coated. These have seen more than 5 trips and 20+ meals and have barely worn. I like them because they clean easier on the trail and cook better. A plate and cup can typically be improvised from lightweight items around the house. Just use regular household silverware or, if you want to spend a couple dollars, I recommend the Light My Fire spoon-fork-knife combination.
First Aid Kit
When you are 10 to 20 miles away from the nearest civilization, it is absolutely critical that you are prepared for most medical emergencies your children or you may experience. Which items you bring should be common sense and driven by your family's medical needs. It is very important that you and your kids know some basic first aid and that your kids know where the first aid kit is.
In recent years we have added decent rain jackets and rain pants to our gear supply. However, for a long time we each simply used to $2 rain poncho from the local store. A poncho will work but the rain jacket and rain pants are much better. Unfortunately, good rain gear is also very costly. You must cover your pack when it rains to keep its weight down and your gear dry. I still use an upside-down lawn garbage bag as a pack cover. Simply cut a slit 3/4 of the way up on one of the flat sides and it will fit right over your pack. Be sure to secure your pack rain cover to the bottom of your pack to prevent water sneaking in or a stray branch grabbing it off.
Children must have a high-volume whistle on their person at all times in case they run into danger or stray off. Here is the list of smaller items that are also must-haves for at least one person in the group:
- mobile phone
- detailed map of trail and area
- emergency whistle
- fold-up knife
- water-proof matches or lighter
- headlamp or flashlight with extra battery
- 1 foot of duct tape rolled around an item
- extra energy bar - 1 per person
- water treatment tablets
- basic first aid booklet
- 50 feet of nylon rope
- sun block and lip balm
- 1/2 roll of toilet paper
- place all these items into an extra strong gallon size zip-top bag, which can also be used as an emergency water container
Important Note about Gear
There is no such thing as a single gear item that is "perfect" for everyone. Selecting the appropriate gear is a personal choice that you will need to make based on your backpacking style and preferences. Before you purchase any gear, you should take the time to learn your preferences and hiking style. Read the description of backpacking styles to see where you may fit. To find out more about products' features and capabilities, Backpacker Magazine and Outside Magazine both put out an annual gear review that are usually pretty good. I also have found this gear review website extremely valuable. The most valuable gear advice that I find are the buyer ratings placed on items in online stores like REI and Sierra Trading Post.
Inadequate food planning along with bad gear selection are where many backpacking trips fall apart … long before you ever step on the trail. Not only do you have to prepare for multiple people, but, with young children, you also need to think about food preferences. I must admit that I am not a minimalist or ultra-lightweight backpacker. I want my children to enjoy our meals so I go to great lengths to plan great meals.
The key factors to consider when putting together a menu are:
Get calorie rich foods since it is fuel and calories are needed especially on cold and multi-day trips. Read the labels on foods and look for complex carbohydrates.
Keep preparation simple as you have limited cooking equipment and fuel. Prepare and simplify as many items as possible before the trip. Look for items that require very little ingredients or just water. Try to keep cooking times below 20 minutes per meal to conserve fuel. I avoid pastas that require straining water, as water is precious and cannot be wasted.
Select the lightest items you can afford. Freeze-dried and dehydrated foods are very lightweight and easy to prepare but are also very costly. I do not use these as my budget doesn't permit it. I typically use low-cost alternatives such as Lipton™ noodle and rice packets that feed more for less.
Do not pack perishable items unless properly packaged and the weather is considered. Food poisoning on the trail from spoiled foods is one of the worst case scenarios you should avoid risking.
Look for simple packaging as you need to pack out all your trash. Avoid cans if possible as they weigh much more and you will need to pack them out. I will repack almost every food item into zip-top bags and write the cooking instructions on the outside in permanent marker.
Give menu items fun and unique names such as prospector pizza and slag stew. We even named our trail kitchen DHOP (daddy's house of pancakes).
For more help in planning your food, check out the printable menu planner. Here are a couple trail recipes like homemade GORP, trail pizza, and others.
You cannot simply throw all items into your pack then hit the trail. A backpack that has been loaded without thought or care will cause physical issues and difficulties along the way.
Follow these packing tips to avoid issues.
Everyone should strive to keep their total backpack weight (all items including water) to 20% or less of their body weight.
I believe children should carry their own backpack. This will help them feel more like one of the group. They only need to carry minimum items. Obviously, the adult will carry the rest of their items. At around 9 years old, my sons were carrying their own sleeping bag and water supply at less than 15 pounds total weight. I have gradually added weight as they grew making sure to never give them more than they could handle. My 15 year old son can carry a full pack pretty much the same as me.
Put all clothes into water-proof bags such as plastic grocery store bags or extra large zip-top closet storage bags. The sleeping bag should be kept in a waterproof stuff sack. If the stuff sack is not waterproof, line it with a garbage or plastic grocery bag.
Repack all food into zip-top bags, double bagging anything that could possibly leak. All items are in the same pack and having some jelly break open onto your pullover fleece could be disastrous. These bags will also help to store garbage until you get back home. I like to keep all the food bags inside a single large stuff sack inside my pack which then becomes the bear bag.
On a typical trip, pack enough water in containers for about 2 quarts per person per day plus cooking water. This can easily be adjusted down if you know for certain of water sources along the trail and you have water treatment such as a filtration system.
Keep heaviest items closest to your back and higher in the pack. This helps maintain balance and reduces body stress.
Keep essential items and rain gear in exterior pockets or in easy to grab places. Label the pocket that has the first aid kit with a red cross so anyone can find it quickly.
Keep similar items grouped together. I package my clothes together in the same plastic grocery bag.
Strap items to the outside of you backpack as necessary such as sleeping pad, tent poles, etc.
Double check that lids are tight on all liquids such as water containers and fuel bottles.
Pad sharp corners on items when packing to prevent piercing or tearing other items.
Keep the pack cinched up tight and tie off any loose straps to avoid minor annoyances.
Pack some snacks and drinks separate from the backpacks to be consumed along the drive.
On The Trail
You are finally out there after all the preparation and driving. You have registered with the local authority, secured your vehicle at the designated parking lot near the trail head, mounted your packs on your back, tightened your straps, and stepped onto the trail. Yeah! Now there are several things to remember while you are out there.
One of the most important things to teach children is to be a responsible outdoor citizen. I use the basic principle that everywhere we go should be left in better condition than when we found it … for example if you see a piece of trash along the trail, you should pick it up. Where ever you go try to impact nature as little as possible. We try to abide by most of the Leave No Trace principles.
Various aspects of life on the trail.
The constant walking is typically the hardest part for children and it is important to keep them motivated and happy. Keep it fun while walking by singing, telling stories, and playing games like 20 questions. Remember that everyone is carrying extra weight and adjust your pace accordingly. Be alert always! In areas with bears or even hunters, make a lot of noise by singing loudly or blowing whistles frequently. Never put your foot down on a spot where you cannot see what may be laying there. For more information on walking on a trail with children see the Hiking activity page.
Breaks are when you stop to catch your breath, drink water or eat some GORP. There are two types of breaks we take: standing breaks with packs on that last only a minute or two and full breaks where we drop packs for several minutes to rest backs, hips and shoulders. Breaks are necessary to give the body needed rest throughout the hike, especially for children. They are also a tool to help kids stay motivated by looking ahead. When children start to complain that they want to stop just a few minutes after one break, set a goal and tell them that you will take your next break at some designated spot or time interval. Do not hesitate to stop to study nature and enjoy views. Continuously pay attention to your mileage throughout the day relative to your target campsite. If you have planned your mileage properly, these breaks should not hinder you.
Lunch will be prepared along the trail, while breakfast and dinner will be prepared at camp. Lunch is best kept to simply prepared items. Breakfast should be warm but simple to help you get on the trail early. Dinner is the best time to have larger productions and elaborate meals. Always cook far away from your campsite so animals attracted to your smells will not stumble onto your tent. I like to find a fallen tree or large rock to sit on and set up my kitchen around. Clean up every speck after each meal.
This is the big goal for the day. Be sure to give yourself plenty of daylight time to select and set up your site. On many trails, campsite locations are highly regulated and you should obey these laws and the Leave No Trace principles. The main factors I look for in a site are flat ground, clear of water pathways/ravines/valleys, clear of obvious animal paths, and non-weather sides of mountains. After selecting a campsite, I get right down to the business of setting things up as quickly as possible in the following order:
- Set up tent
- Place sleeping gear in the tent with miscellaneous items
- Place all food and smellables in bear bag
- Select tree to hang bear bag at least 100 feet away from camp
- Sling rope over high tree branch that is far away from trunk and leave rope ready for bear bag to pull up after dinner (Here is a video on how to hang a bear bag)
- Set up kitchen far away from tent
- Once all of this is accomplished, if daylight permits, you can take some time to explore and play some games with the kids
Don't forget to take frequent pictures along the way. Get good at using the camera's timer and aiming it from rocks and old stumps for group shots. Take pictures of the campsite before and after to show how you practice leave no trace principles.
MOST IMPORTANT!!! Keep it fun for everyone. What's the use in doing an activity if you and your kids do not enjoy it. I have to constantly remind myself of this during the trip because I tend to get into a task-oriented zone or protective mode.
Legal disclaimer: Backpacking has inherent dangers and this activity is done at your own risk.