By Michael Lanza
Whether you’re a family of novices planning your first backpacking trip or an experienced backpacker ready to take your kids on their first multi-day hike, heed this friendly advice: You’re in for some surprises. And I speak from experience. I’d been backpacking for years—in fact, I was already working as a professional backpacker—when my wife (also a longtime backpacker) and I first dove into the grand new adventure of taking our young kids into the wilderness.
We learned a lot. But the biggest lesson was this: Our backcountry adventures brought us closer together as a family and helped mold our children into eager and skilled backpackers and confident young adults with a passion and appreciation for the outdoors.
This article shares lessons I learned while taking our kids on countless backpacking trips since they were quite little and over the course of the 10 years I spent as Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog.
Follow the tips below to make your family backpacking trips a success and ensure that your kids want to go again and again.
Please share your thoughts, questions, or your own tips in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments. Click on any photo to read about that trip.
1. Car-Camp and Dayhike First
My wife and I were avid and experienced backpackers before our two kids came along and we took our first child backpacking when he was a baby and toddler. But once our daughter joined the pack—and we had two in diapers, with all the stuff you have to carry with children that young—we shifted to dayhiking and car-camping as a family.
Both proved a great means of preparing kids for backpacking. Our family hiking trails together became normal and familiar to them before their oldest memories and we got a sense of our kids’ hiking abilities—making the transition to backpacking easier for all of us. Similarly, car-camping helped us dial in our systems and gear for backpacking and probably made backpacking seem ordinary to our kids.
Once our youngest was five years old and could hike more than a few miles, we resumed family backpacking trips. I also established a tradition of annual father-son and father-daughter trips, creating very special one-on-one time together.
Backpacking Parent Tip Kids up to about age four roll around a lot in their sleep—often sliding out of a sleeping bag. We learned to just bring a child’s favorite blanket or two camping (on relatively mild summer nights). It’s much easier to throw a blanket over a kid in the middle of the night then to keep stuffing her back inside a bag.
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2. Don’t Get Overambitious
If you backpacked pre-kids, this won’t be like that. And even if your kids are good dayhikers, backpacking changes the entire dynamic. Your kids may be carrying more (see more on that in tip no. 7, below), but at the least, you are carrying much more weight and getting somewhere grows more complicated.
Myriad obstacles slow you down—most often that kids up to tweeners simply don’t hike fast, get distracted, and need frequent rest breaks and snacks. Set modest goals for distance and especially elevation gain and loss. Take your first trips on good trails that aren’t too difficult and have frequent, reliable water sources.
Backpacking Parent Tip Have a bailout plan. Be ready to accept that it may not go well the first time and a safe retreat is preferable to a loss. The only “failure” is if the kids don’t like it and don’t want to go again. Remember that your goal is their enjoyment, not yours—your reward will be seeing their joy and, when they’re older, their eagerness to do this more with you.
Planning a backpacking trip? See “How to Plan a Backpacking Trip—12 Expert Tips”
and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.”
3. Outfit Them With the Right Gear
We heard the young girl crying through the howling wind and July snowstorm on Besseggen Ridge in Norway’s mountainous Jotunheimen National Park. We caught up with the family and saw that she was eight or nine years old, crying inconsolably and repeating one word over and over: “Cold! Cold!”
We stopped to ask if they were all right. The parents and two teenage boys were dressed for the weather in good boots, enough insulation, and shells. The young girl, inexplicably, wore open-top rubber boots, tights, and the kind of winter jacket you’d buy in Wal-Mart. She walked very slowly. She clearly was hypothermic and only getting colder. The next hut was several miles ahead of us.
We convinced them to turn around and walk downhill to the Gjendesheim hut, just a few miles back. There, they could take a ferry across a lake to the next hut. (In fact, my wife and kids had taken that ferry instead of hiking through the storm.) We saw them that evening in the hut, warm and happy.
Children need functional gear—most critically a backpack and boots that fit properly and are appropriate for what they’re doing—and a versatile layering system just as much as adults do. Yes, that can get a little expensive, but cutting corners risks creating an uncomfortable, negative experience for your child and, at worst, placing him in danger of hypothermia or worse.
Plus, good-quality kids’ outdoor clothing and gear can often be obtained inexpensively. See my “10 Tips for Spending Less on Hiking and Backpacking Gear.”
Most importantly, check that they’ve brought everything they need before you leave home—my son, at age 11, once forgot to pack his rain shell, fleece jacket, and warm hat for a five-day backpacking trip in Oregon’s Eagle Cap Wilderness. (He survived just fine. I felt a little chilly in camp with him wearing my down jacket.) And make sure they’re adjusting layers as needed in the backcountry and learn how and when to do that.
I’ve helped many readers plan unforgettable backpacking and hiking trips.
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4. Go at Their Pace But Meet Them Halfway
Young kids are not in any hurry on the trail. They want to stop and play in a creek, stream, or lake. They want to throw small rocks and climb on big rocks. They certainly want to watch animals. This is all good and you should encourage it: Children want to interact with their environment—which makes this fun for them. (That’s why tip no. 2 is important.)
But you also have a campsite to reach every day. Give them the time to stop and play and explore along the way—it also lets you set that heavy pack down for a bit—and join them exploring because they long for your attention (see tip no. 5).
But remind them that you have to move along at some point. Tell them they’re going to love the campsite (and make sure you deliver on that—see tip no. 6).
Backpacking Parent Tip When our kids were little, we established a tradition: Every day on the trail, they got a chocolate bar when we were halfway to that day’s destination. (We got one, too.) It was a good motivator that we also used on dayhikes.
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5. Keep Feeding Them
I’ve been reminded of this truth countless times: A kid who’s griping about being tired is usually just hungry. Give her a big chocolate bar or energy bar or stop for lunch. Children need to eat more frequently than adults—sometimes every hour, especially when they’re small.
Look for warning signs: a slowing pace, growing quiet or grumpy, or a faraway look. Feed them before they scream, “I’m starving!” Ditto with water. Most kids sip rather than gulp, so remind them every 15 or 20 minutes, “Everyone take a big drink.” Giving each kid a hydration bladder helps. Don’t let them get dehydrated—that takes longer to fix than eating does.
As for meals, my wife and I have always kept it simple, preparing what we knew our kids would eat and that wouldn’t require much prep or cleanup.
Backpacking Parent Tip Don’t let a kid hit the wall. When he’s obviously in need of fuel, resist the urge to insist, “Let’s just hike a little farther” unless you intend to stop very soon. Take a few minutes and give him something to eat. You will spare yourself much unnecessary grief.
Plan your next great backpacking trip on the Teton Crest Trail, Wonderland Trail, in Yosemite or other parks using my expert e-guides.
6. Talk and Play Games
When our kids were young, my family played word and number games while hiking for hours—it helped the time pass for our kids and was genuinely fun: We’d laugh for hours.
One favorite was “The Story Game:” One of us would begin making up a story with a few sentences and each of us would add some piece of narrative in turn, over and over, until it reached some conclusion. Our kids often introduced bizarre plot twists that reduced them to paroxysms of cackling.
That regular practice, I believe, set the stage for the long, engaging conversations we had while hiking with our kids once they became teenagers—because they had come to recognize this as an opportunity for us to spend extended periods of time talking to each other.
In camp, we’d also play games together, typically those that were easy to carry, like a deck of cards or, in the case of my daughter and me, working on Sudoku puzzles together on a tablet.
Backpacking Parent Tip To a young kid, a parent’s attention is everything. Even teenagers covet your approval, even if they don’t show it. Nothing you can do will make them want to do this again more than your full attention. Besides, few times provide so much undistracted time together as being in the backcountry—away from our phones and devices. That, I came to learn, delivers the greatest value of family backpacking trips.
Like this story? You may also like my “10 Tips For Raising Outdoors-Loving Kids”
and “The 10 Best Family Outdoor Adventure Trips.”
7. Seek Out Water
Children, like adults, like to take breaks while hiking and camp by water—with kids, the difference is that they almost always want to play or swim in it. Our kids might reach a campsite looking weary and suddenly come to life and play for hours in the water, whether attempting to dam every creek in the West, constructing battleships of driftwood, sticks, and wet sand in tidepools, or swimming and soaking until they needed to warm up.
Particularly with younger kids, choose trails and camps by water, whether a lake for swimming (and throwing rocks in) or a stream or creek safe enough for them to get in. Bring sandals they can wear to protect their feet while keeping their hiking boots dry.
Start out right. See “5 Perfect National Park Backpacking Trips for Beginners”
and “The 5 Southwest Backpacking Trips You Should Do First.”
8. Let Your Child Ask to Carry More
When we began backpacking with our kids, I quickly concluded that making this activity successful boiled down to ensuring that my kids enjoyed it—not how hard it felt for me.
Carrying a backpack makes a hike significantly more strenuous for anyone, but especially for a person who barely wears anything himself. Rather than insisting a child haul a backpack, I waited until my kids said they wanted to carry their own pack. I figured that if they perceived it as a chore imposed upon them, they might resist or resent it. But if they perceived it as something experienced, strong hikers—like their parents—do, they will want to emulate you.
This means you, the parent, carry more weight until they’re ready. And my kids proved my theory at least valid for some kids: By age nine or 10, they both volunteered to take on a portion of their gear and food weight.
Once a child starts carrying a pack, follow the guideline (also useful for adults) of keeping pack weight to no more than 20 to 25 percent of body weight. For a kid who weighs 50 pounds, a 10-pound pack can feel heavy. Give her a half- or one-liter bladder of water, a few snacks, some of her own clothing, and a small toy or favorite stuffed animal. As your child gets bigger, he’ll be able to add all his clothes, sleeping bag and pad, and eventually all personal gear.
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9. Let Them Bring a Friend
Especially for teenagers, bringing one or more friends along on a multi-day hike or other outdoor adventure helps make it a more positive experience. Having your kid’s friend along confers an advantage for parents, too: It usually eliminates most complaining because that isn’t a cool thing to do in front of your friends.
Plus, you could have an opportunity to introduce another kid to the outdoors. Both my son and daughter have brought good friends along on our family backpacking trips and I’ve seen firsthand how much those kids usually love it—and how my kids assume a leadership role showing their friends how to pitch their tent, cook on the stove, and other skills.
Finding other families that share these interests—where the parents and kids all become close friends—is like finding gold.
Planning your next big adventure? See “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips”
and “Tent Flap With a View: 25 Favorite Backcountry Campsites.”
10. Keep Gear as Light as Possible
Parents inevitably shoulder the lion’s share of the gear, food, and often water weight on family backpacking trips until kids are nearly adult size—typically until they’re at least young teenagers. Planning food and water needs smartly helps minimize pack weight. But keeping your gear as light as possible presents the greatest potential for easing your burden on the trail.
The weight of your backpack also reinforces the point made in tip no. 2: Being able to backpack as many miles as you did before kids—i.e., with lighter packs—doesn’t mean you’ll want to hike that far with substantially heavier backpacks.
See “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking” and “5 Smart Steps to Lighten Your Backpacking Gear,” all of my reviews of backpacking gear, ultralight backpacking gear, and hiking gear, and The Big Outside’s Gear Reviews page for categorized menus of gear reviews and expert buying tips.
Backpacking Parent Tip Little kids wriggle, roll, and flop around too much to stay in a sleeping bag. On mild summer nights, leave the bag at home and bring a blanket or two for them—it’s much easier to lay a blanket over a kid who’s thrown it off than stuff her back inside a bag she’s squirmed out of.
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Bonus Tip: Don’t Over-Worry
On one of our first backpacking trips with our infant son, my wife and I put him in a onesie for sleeping in out tent—when we were both in shorts and T-shirts. He cried nonstop until we realized: He’s just too hot. We pulled the onesie off, left him in a diaper, and he instantly went to sleep.
We had created a problem by simply worrying too much.
Yes, you should plan carefully, choose appropriate destinations, make sure your kids are going to enjoy it, and consider the various safety issues, contingencies, etc. But don’t overthink it to the point where it becomes detrimental to everyone’s enjoyment.
If your family is new to hiking or any outdoors endeavors, it’s okay. There’s no rush to become an expert. Take baby steps, learn as you go, and follow your gut instincts in choosing what’s right for your family. Seek a balance between encouraging everyone to try something new and not pushing so hard that anyone gets discouraged.
You’re taking the most important step: the first one forward, getting your family into the backcountry. This doesn’t have to meet some arbitrary goals—except that everyone enjoys it enough to want to try again.
See my stories “How to Plan a Backpacking Trip—12 Expert Tips,” “10 Tips for Keeping Kids Happy and Safe Outdoors,” “The 5 Best Tips For Hiking With Young Kids,” and my story “5 Questions to Ask Before Trying a New Outdoors Adventure.”
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