Yes, kids can backpack! And yes, it’s a bit more work than traditional tent or RV camping with kids, but twice as rewarding. We’ve backpacked annually with our kids since Nate (now age 13) was 13 months old, and while older kids make for the best backpackers, even backpacking with babies and toddlers is possible. To ensure a successful backpacking trip with kids, most of the work will take place ahead of time. What you need to do to prepare for safe backpacking with kids:
Start with no more than 2-3 days out.
Backpacking for only one night out is kind of pointless (the effort put into packing and organizing all the stuff you’ll need hardly justifies it), but if you’re backpacking with kids who cannot carry the weight of adults, you will be limited to no more than 3 days in the wilderness unless you can arrange for more food supplies to be delivered to you. Remember that you need to pack in (and out) everything.
Plan your route with your kids’ ages and abilities in mind.
While older kids or veteran backpackers will enjoy the challenge of packing from point A to point B, younger kids and novices benefit from a base camp. Consider packing a few miles into your wilderness destination and camping more than one night at a desirable landmark, such as a lake or river. Those who want to do more hiking can opt for a day hike, and younger kids can stay by the water to play. (This eliminates the need to break down a camp every day, which can be draining.)
Make camp food fun.
While backpacking, every ounce of weight matters, and most of the ‘fun’ camping food will need to be left behind in favor of freeze-dried meals. But you can still make backpacking food fun for kids by allowing them to create their own trail mixes from bulk food offerings pre-trip. (Just avoid chocolate items that will melt.) We allow each kid to take three individualized trail mix baggies per three-day trip. Other ‘fun’ foods that backpack well: Babybel cheese, beef jerky, hot cocoa packets, and hard candies that won’t melt. Kids also love having their own plate, cup, and utensils. We make our kids carry (and clean) their own.
Carry the right equipment.
Having quality equipment for kids is vastly important while backpacking. The wrong-sized pack or an inadequate sleeping bag can make a great trip miserable. Kids age 6 and up should have packs that fit them properly (head to your local outdoors store to try on models). We love Kelty Junior Tioga External Frame packs for younger kids, and Mountainsmith Youth Pursuit packs for older kids. Sleeping bags should be kid-sized (no point in them carrying something too large for them), and pads should be small enough. Our kids each carry their own sleeping bag, pad, clothing, and food utensils in their pack (among other things for the older kids). It’s also useful for kids to each have their own flashlight or headlamp, and be responsible for making sure it’s loaded with batteries. Tip: Kids should take care of all their own equipment. All of mine know how to stuff their own bags and clean their own mess kits.
Leave the toys at home.
Kids will invent games and create new toys on the trail out of sticks, rocks, and all sorts of new treasures they find. Leave the rest at home! The only exception: a book for everyone (Kindles are lighter than paperbacks now) and a deck of playing cards.
Find out what safety measures need to be taken where you’ll be going. Use bear canisters where required, and store food away from camp where not required. We carry bear spray for emergencies, and carry one cell phone to be activated if we’re lost. (Five years as a Search and Rescue volunteer taught me that cell signal pings do often assist searches.) Kids should carry whistles to use in case separated, and bright clothing is useful as well. Always check in with the local ranger’s station or let family at home know where you’re going and for how long.
If you’re destination requires it, remember to bring bear canisters to store all food items (even toiletry and first aid items with an scent, like toothpaste or ointment). Where canisters are not required, store all food in a sack to hang in a tree at night to deter foraging, and wash dishes and brush teeth away from sleeping areas.
Plan when to go.
‘Summer’ means different things in different places. Make sure the dates you choose to backpack don’t coincide with heavy mosquito season, or aren’t pre-snow melt. If you’re planning to backpack on a summer weekend in a popular wilderness area, start out early to ensure a site, and no matter where you’re headed, check to find out whether you’ll need your own water source (at very least, you’ll need a filtration system).
Read other backpackers’ accounts of the area you plan to hike, and always carry a topographic map of your hiking route. Tip: some areas require a backpacking permit. Start planning your trip early to figure out what you’ll need, when you’ll need it.