Ask Me: Advice on a First Backpacking Trip With a Toddler

Hi Michael,

I came across your website, The Big Outside, couple of days ago and it is bookmarked already! I love it.

We moved from Puerto Rico to South Dakota in 2011, and a year later to Northern California. I used to go on outdoor adventures in Puerto Rico with my mother and stepfather (something that I miss a lot) and I want my son to have the same experience I had. We are so ready to explore California, but since we are basically new here, we don’t know where to start or how. My husband and I love to take our two-year-old, Mike, hiking (short hikes near our town), because we want him to grow up loving the outdoors and also appreciating and respecting nature. Now, we want to start backpacking and here are my questions:

1. What would be the best place to go for our first backpacking trip with our kid? (Answer only if you know any place in Northern California, of course)

2. I was planning to go camping first (to a nice campground, next to a stream) to see how our son reacts/behaves in that environment/conditions. Do you think that is a good idea or should I go straight to a short backpacking trip?

2. How do permits work, and how do I know where/when I need one?

I have billions of questions but I think I can find the answer of the others reading the Ask Me section of your website.

Thank you in advance.

Sharill, Miguel & Michael
Sacramento, CA

Hola Sharill, Miguel, and Mike,

Have you found this Ask Me post at my site yet?

There’s also this short one:

You might also like my stories “10 Tips For Raising Outdoors-Loving Kids” (which has been very popular) and “10 Tips For Keeping Kids Safe and Happy Outdoors,” and all of my stories about family adventures at The Big Outside.


Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside, which has made several top outdoors blog lists. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Subscribe now to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip. Please follow my adventures on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Youtube.


Yes, you should try car-camping first, before backpacking. Camping is a good first shakedown for backpacking with a young child. With little kids, I found that some camping trips go well, some less well, but the kids generally will have a positive association with it, especially when you start them young. The first time backpacking, don’t try to go very far, maybe just a couple miles to a nice campsite on the seashore or a lake or safe creek. It’s amazingly time-consuming to backpack with a young kid, just like it’s time-consuming to do anything with a young kid!

As for destinations in Northern California, I would consider someplace on the ocean that’s accessible and a short hike. I’ve backpacked the Lost Coast, which is a bit of a drive for you, but parts of it are quickly accessible on foot for an overnight or a two-night trip with a toddler. Also, Marin County has lots of great hiking and is closer to you. Point Reyes National Seashore is beautiful, you’ll see big sea creatures, and the hiking is easy. Or look for a backcountry lake not far from you in the High Sierra that’s a fairly short hike in.


Fontanillis Lake, Desolation Wilderness, California.
Fontanillis Lake, Desolation Wilderness, California.

In fact, not long ago I dayhiked into the Desolation Wilderness on the west side of Lake Tahoe. We hiked the Bayview Trail (above Emerald Bay) past Granite Lake (about a mile in, a good destination for a short overnight trip) to a series of mountain lakes: Middle and Upper Velma Lakes, Fontanillis Lake, and Dicks Lake. The entire hike was 11.3 miles, out and back. You could set up camp at a lake and then hike around with daypacks instead of packing up and moving camp again. Get the Lake Tahoe Basin Hiking and Biking Trail Map ($10), from

Visit any park’s website and follow the links to activities like backpacking, and you’ll eventually find information about a backcountry permit. It’s usually very self-explanatory; with some parks, it’s easy to get a permit, with others that are more popular, it can be harder. Some places don’t require a permit.

I hope that’s helpful. Good on you for wanting to get your son out in the backcountry. He’ll love it and you’ll be glad you started him young.



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Thank you so much for your response. We got home today from our first camping trip with our son. My husband had to go to Eureka for work and we decided to stay overnight camping on our way back to Sacramento. We started Friday and got here today, and stayed in two different campgrounds.

Little Mike did amazing! We couldn’t believe it. He slept in his own sleeping bag, no fight to sleep, had fun during the day exploring, and never gave signs of being tired or asked to be carried. The only problem we had with him was the potty, I think we will have to bring his potty because he didn’t wanted to do #2 in the 2nd campground restroom (the first one was really nice but not the second campground).

Overall we had fun and enjoyed it a lot. I read some of the Ask Me posts from your blog before planning the trip, so I have to say thank you for giving such an amazing advice to people you don’t even know. I am so happy to have found The Big Outside!



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—Michael Lanza



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4 thoughts on “Ask Me: Advice on a First Backpacking Trip With a Toddler”

  1. Hello there! I’m doing research on this same question (backpacking with a toddler in Northern California) and came across your blog. Just wanted to add that I found what appears to be a promising first backpacking trip at Big Basin — check out Twin Redwoods camp. It’s limited to 1 night, which is a bummer, but otherwise looks like a good bet.