Backpacking With Kids

Fall is here! For me, that means it’s our last chance to go camping until next summer! Camping in the fall can be great. The crowds are gone. The bugs are gone. Fall colors are in full swing and the weather is still good. Good enough, anyway.

There are two options for camping with kids: car camping or backpacking. Each has pros and cons, and each has different tips for making it fun with kids. This week we’ll focus on backpacking and we’ll cover car camping soon.

I know, some of you are saying, “Backpacking with kids? Are you insane?” But I’m here to tell you, it is possible. And it can actually be fun. But it’s not for the faint of heart. I loved backpacking before we had kids. I backpacked through the Canadian Rockies when I was four months pregnant and my husband and I vowed we wouldn’t change our ways once the kids were here. For the most part, we’ve kept that promise. We started taking our kids backpacking before they could walk, and by the time they were three, they could hike several miles carrying their own tiny packs. Now they’re teenagers who love backpacking with their friends. Without us! It hasn’t always been easy and it’s definitely never been perfect, but you can inspire a life-long love of backpacking in your kids, starting at any age.

Why Do It?

My father taught me and my sister to backpack and always told us, “If you hike 10 minutes away from the parking lot, you leave 99% of people behind.” He’s right. Backpacking brings you to places that are private and quiet, where you can be alone in nature with your kids. The scenery is better away from roads and parking lots, and you’ll see more wildlife away from noisy humans.

But backpacking takes planning. You can’t just wing it because you have to carry in everything you’re going to need. If you forget something, too bad. You make due. My husband once forgot the coffee and had to hike out and drive to the nearest store–a 5-hour round-trip–so we wouldn’t kill him! Weather is also a bigger concern. You can still have fun backpacking in the rain, but you have to get creative. That is also the best part of backpacking with your kids–it teaches them to be adaptable and builds grit.

How to Make Backpacking Fun for Kids

  • Pick a kid-friendly spot. Maybe you want to hike to the top of a mountain for the epic views. But will that be fun for your kids? Probably not. If you want your kids to be excited about backpacking, choose destinations they will have fun at. Lakes or streams are great kid destinations because they provide hours of shoreline entertainment. Short, easy hikes you can do from camp are also fun. Remember, whenever you’re near water, put life jackets on kids, stay close, and always keep them in view.
  • Choose your hike distance carefully. How far can your youngest child happily hike? When our kids were little, we packed in just a few miles so we could make multiple trips to the car: one trip carrying the kids, then another trip carrying the gear. Whether you hike in 5 miles or 0.5 miles, you’ll still be out in nature. So start small and increase your miles as your kids get older.
  • Hike slowly and incentivize them (aka bribes). We got our 3-year-old to hike 3 miles by leaving an M&M every 20 feet on the trail ahead of her. On one particularly long, hard hike, we asked our kids what would make it more fun and they asked, “Can we cuss?” Sure thing! We spent the next 2 hours cussing away. No more complaining. 
  • Check the weather before you go and prepare it to be bad. It’s worth getting a precise and accurate weather report before you go. Even if it says clear skies, bring a lightweight tarp and rope to hang it, plus waterproof rain gear for all. We loved these rain suits when our kids were little. With good rain gear, your good times don’t have to stop no matter what the weather does. 
  • Pack the fun. There are plenty of lightweight things you can bring that will provide hours of entertainment for the kids. Here are my family’s faves:
    • Cards your kids can play alone or with you. Best bang for the buck: a deck of cards (here are 10 kid-friendly card games), Uno, and Quiddler.
    • Critter collecting net, container, magnifying glass
    • A ball of twine or string. String is a miracle toy. Kids can make anything with it. My kids once spent two full days making bows out of sticks and string and shooting sticks and pinecones at targets around the campsite.  
    • Inner tubes. When I know we’re going to a safe lake or waterway, I shove a few deflated tubes under an outside backpack strap. These are super light and fun for exploring a lake (with lifejackets on, of course).
  • Bring a blanket. It can be a lightweight sheet, but it gives kids a clean outdoor surface on which to eat, play, color, read, etc.
  • Let kids pack and carry their own backpacks. Start light, then add more each year until they can carry all their own gear. My kids were so proud each time their packs got heavier. And always check their packs before you go. Make it part of the routine. 
  • Let them bring a few small toys. Our rule was to “bring 3 things.” A ziplock full of Legos is small and light. So is a pad of paper and colored pencils. Small action figures are amazing options for creative play. On one May trip, our campsite still had snow in it, so the kids built a snowy Hoth base and spent the day playing with Star Wars figures. 
  • Make camp treats. Nothing gets kids excited about camping like having a special dessert. Since you usually can’t have a campfire in the wilderness, plan a treat that doesn’t have to be cooked. I packed “desserts” I would never let my kids eat at home: Twinkies, Hostess Cupcakes, and Fruit Pies!  
  • Don’t forget bug juice. Getting eaten alive by mosquitos can make kids miserable pretty fast. Deet products do the job, but if you’re worried about putting it on yourself or your kids, try Sawyer’s Picaridin Deet-free repellent instead. If you do get bit (and you will), Tiger Balm weighs nothing and is our family’s miracle cure for itching.
  • Make an emergency plan. Worrying about what would happen in an emergency is stressful. Lower your anxiety by being prepared. Learn basic first aid, bring a good first aid kit, wilderness first aid book, and make a plan. We once camped at a mountain lake several miles from our car. Before dawn my husband noticed the valley filling with smoke. We had no idea where the fire was, but we woke the kids up, left all our gear behind, and raced to the car. It took a few hours to get to the nearest gas station where they told us the fire was a hundred miles away! We drove back, hiked in, and finished our trip. It was quite an adventure and I was surprised at how great it felt to know we could get out quickly if we needed to.
  • Chill out. Once you’ve done all your planning and packing and have hiked into your beautiful spot, enjoy yourself! Don’t worry too much about what the kids are doing. Relax and have some wine (when park or campground rules allow). Read a book. Ignore them until they get bored enough to go dig in the dirt. One of my favorite camping memories was when my 6-year-old daughter watched chipmunks for hours, then built a trap using a dishwashing tub, stick, and twine. She trapped and released three chipmunks that day as we laughed our butts off.  

Pro Tips

  • Store your camping gear in bins, ready to go. We have 2 bins for car camping–1) tent, sleeping pads & bags, 2) stove, pans, dishes. When we go backpacking, all we have to do is pull out what we need and put it in our packs instead of hunting around the garage for each and every item. This makes packing fast and easy, which will make you more likely to do it. If you really want to get Martha Stewart about it, you can tape onto the bin a laminated of everything that’s inside. Here’s what our bin #2 looks like:
  • Make computer packing & meal lists. Then all you have to do is print your list and check things off. Again, it’s all about making the process faster and easier, so you will do it more. Adjust your list when you realize you missed something or no longer need an item.
  • We usually bring a few food items that need to stay cold, so we created a backpacking “fridge.” We put those few items in a small dry bag which we sink in a lake or stream. The stuff inside stays cool for days. 
  • I like eggs for breakfast, so I crack a bunch into an old Nalgene bottle reserved for that purpose. I keep them cool in our dry bag “fridge” and they are fine for a 2-3 day trip. 
  • Don’t leave your wine at home because it’s too heavy for backpacking. Bota minis (at most grocery stores) hold 3 glasses and fit perfectly into your backpack’s side pouch. Again, check park rules first. 
  • Compression sacks make it possible to pack a sleeping bag inside your backpack. Even kids can carry their own. Sleeping pads get strapped onto the outside of the pack.  
  • Here are items that weigh little, but will make a BIG difference for your comfort:
    • Long johns–they’re light but can be layered to keep you warm. Also good PJs.
    • Hat–I can’t tell you how many times I wished I had a hat. They take up no room and weigh nothing, and they will keep you toasty on cold nights.
    • Gloves–ditto!
    • Extra pairs of dry socks–for when the first pair gets socked. Which they will.
    • Puffy coat–packs down better than fleece.
    • Pillowcase–stuff your clothes in and voila, you have a comfy pillow!
    • Lifejacket–if you’re hiking to water with kids, bring them. Clip them onto the outside of your pack. They weigh nothing and are worth the peace of mind.

Lightweight, 1-pot Dinners Your Kids Will Like (and taste better than freeze-dried!)

  • Rice & beans w/ summer sausage. Boxed rice & beans are light & easy, and the sausage doesn’t need to be refrigerated. Bring a few tortillas and turn this into burritos! 
  • Pesto pasta w/ chicken. We use rotini, dried pesto, pre-cooked chicken strips, and shredded parmesan. Toasted walnuts are a yummy add-on if your kids like them.
  • Smoked salmon with couscous. Smoked salmon stays good for days in the dry bag fridge.
  • You can add veggies to any of these. A handful per meal will work. Sturdy veggies, like carrots, green beans, or cauliflower will survive backpacking best.
  • Pack a tiny plastic bottle of olive oil to use with each of these meals.

Believe it or not, camping isn’t just for summer. There’s still time to squeeze in one more outdoor family adventure, even with kids back in school. With a little prepping, you can get your whole family out backpacking and make some memories.