No internet. No running water. No electricity. Just lots and lots of fresh air; just ourselves and our surroundings for entertainment. Pure adventure. Are you ready to bring your kids backcountry camping for some intimate wilderness and family time? Does this idea terrify you or you are considering this type of adventure? Read on for some practical advice for backbacking with kids and camping in the woods.
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We first went backcountry camping with kids when our children were two and five. Knowing when your kids are ready for this adventure will depend on a lot of variables: their disposition, your own experience, trail conditions, weather, equipment, and so forth. However, I believe that if you’ve prepared yourself and your family, then no one is too young! Okay, no, I haven’t brought my babies camping… I just didn’t want to nurse all night in a tent! But, we have brought our toddlers camping and I know of families who have had successful trips with even younger babies.
A successful trip, one where everyone is relatively happy, always safe, and well equipped, will directly depend on how you plan and prepare. First I will share with you the many preliminary considerations which you need to make, second I’ll outline packing tips, third I will give you some extra advice I’ve learnt along the way, and then I will finish with some accounts of our past backpacking with kids trips.
Preparing to bring kids into the backcountry:
The most important advice I can offer is: make sure you and your little one have had some practice before the big trip! What do I mean by this? Everyone should already have some camping and hiking experience. I promise you that everyone’s trip will be more pleasant if your older kids are accustomed to long walks on the trail, or your littler ones have already spent a few hours riding in their backpack carrier or all terrain stroller, like the chariot.
Believe me, the more shorter hikes you and your family can do before the overnight hiking trip, the more kinks you’ll be able to iron out. Use your shorter hikes to answer these following questions and considerations:
Shoes: How do everyone’s shoes feel? Are shoes good for slippery mud, large and small rocks, water on the trail or rain? Do the shoes dry quickly? Should you bring extra footwear? Sandals, rainboots – in case shoes do get wet. Are there any red spots or blisters on anyone’s feet?
Packs: How are backpacks fitting? Try them out with weight added. Are they comfortable or do adjustments need to be made? Can you hold enough gear in all the backpacks?
Child Carriers: Is the baby comfortable and happy? Is the carrier fitting the wearer properly? Is there cover for sun or rain and do any adjustments or modifications need to be made when baby falls asleep in the carrier?
Attitudes: Do you think your family can handle a longer walk? Generally, what are the main complaints and can any adjustments be made to assist or prevent any foreseeable complications? How will you keep your hikers motivated?
Trail food: Is everyone willing to eat trail mix, granola bars, dehydrated meals, or whatever it is you’ve planned for the trip? And how will this food be eaten? Does the toddler or baby need any special foods or sippy cups?
Taking care of business: Is everyone comfortable peeing in the woods? Really, if you have little ones, it may take some coaching to get them comfortable going outdoors. Do you need to bring along a potty seat?
Safety: Does everyone know how to be bear (animal) safe on the trail? Are you comfortable that your children will stay close and do you all have an agreed upon action plan if someone gets lost or separated from the group? And, if you have to hang your gear on a pole or tree, do you know how to do this properly?
As for the camping portion of your trip, the same considerations apply: The more experience people have, the smoother the trip will go. So for example:
Sleeping in tents: Trust me, kids think sleeping in a tent is awesome! It is very exciting. So exciting, in fact, that they may just want to stay awake all night to enjoy it. We like to set the tent up in the backyard before camping so the kids get some of that excitement out before the trip. It is also helpful to make sure everyone still fits in your tent…. as kids grow bigger those backpacking tents can quickly grow smaller.
During a trial run, ensure everyone will be comfortable, warm, and safely contained (if camping with babies or toddlers). Setting the tent up before hitting the trail is also a good habit. You would much rather realize you were missing a piece to the tent in your backyard than in the backcountry!
Bedtime routines: Do your kids have special blankets or stuffies? Will these be able to join you on the trip? Our kids usually get read to before bedtime. Consider the weight of the books and ‘extras’ you plan to bring. We like to bring these puzzle story books or children’s magazines as they are enjoyable for the whole family, lightweight, and can occupy much more time than one standard kid’s book. I also like that my early riser will spend time quietly looking at these independently when he wakes in the morning.
Okay, now you’ve gotten some experience under your belt and you’re ready to hit the trail.
How to pack for backpacking with kids?
We have done three backcountry trips with our kids (with children between the ages of 2-5) Two of those trips were on trails suitable for pushing a chariot. This allowed us to easily transport our toddler, and keep her warm and comfortable while our backs were loaded with gear and food. For us, to carry a child on one’s back would mean one less back available to carry all our stuff.
In a cooler climate that gets cold at night, you need lots of warm clothes, sleeping bags, jackets, toques, and such. In a much warmer climate your gear would be much less. Perhaps this is how families manage while carrying one child? I also assume they are using carriers which have storage compartments.
Our children have been both willing and eager to wear a backpack by age 4. We didn’t go out and buy any special gear for them… they just used whatever bag we already had. However, there are many child-sized backbacking bags available. Here you can see our little guy with his Thomas pack. He was so proud to be helping out the family by carrying the snacks for the hike as well as a flower guide book. That’s all. We carried the rest.
And what was all the rest? (I will assume you have a standard understanding of camping and hiking gear, so this will not be comprehensive, but generally, this is what we pack when the whole family goes out).
We bring along:
- enough food for all our planned days, plus enough food for two extra meals, lots of snacks
- warm jackets (waterproof), fleeces, toques, mittens, warm socks, sunglasses, and sunhats
- hiking shoes and lightweight sandals if worried about rain or mud
- small lightweight entertaining book for kids (1-2 of these)
- toilet paper in zip lock bag
- few extra zip lock bags for dirty diapers or garbage
- whatever diapers and wipes and toileting stuff we might need
- camping gear (tent, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, rope to hang packs)
- cooking gear (stove and fuel, pot, minimal dishes and spoons)
- water bottles for every person plus water purification system if needed
- safety and emergency stuff (bear spray, small first aid and emergency kit, children’s acetaminophen and antihistamines) Here’s an article with a full hiking first aid kit breakdown.
- flashlights or headlamps – enough for the kids too
- toiletries (toothbrushes, bug spray, sun screen, chap stick – that’s it)
- 1 phone or camera for photos
- a map or guidebook
- extras: cards or a small game, books for the adults to read, special candy or treats, any necessary snugglies or blankies.
So, as you can see, once we gather all this stuff up, it will fill at least 2 adult packs. Remember, the more kids, the more food and clothes and bigger the tent. When we did a trip with two of our children, we had a third adult come along who helped in carrying some of the gear and food. We also stuffed both tents into the chariot with our toddler which freed up a lot of pack space and weight.
A few words of advice:
- Everyone has a larger than usual appetite when out hiking and camping.
- Make sure everyone drinks lots and lots of water. Drinking the water early in the hike or larger amounts at water sources means less weight to be carried while hiking.
- Bring pajamas which can be worn during the day either on their own or under clothes for extra warmth or if in need of something dry.
- Quick dry clothes are best (merino wool, fleece, light weight pants – jeans do not dry fast).
- For a few days, we can all likely survive without soaps, lotions, deodorant, and toothpaste.
- Very young kids may be scared or intimidated by the backcountry toileting facilities. You may want to inquire as to what the particular campsite has (pits, outhouses, unsheltered toilets) and talk about this with the kids first so they are prepared.
- Go with dehydrated foods. They cost more, but they weigh less.
- For pillows I have made us some small pillowcases which we stuff with our clothes for the night.
- Keep your bear spray with you at all times (if you are hiking in bear country)
- Hang everything you don’t need to sleep with up the bear pole, or tucked in the bear proof bin (if provided).
- Do not eat in the tent, bring foods into the tent or store food or toiletries in the tent.
- Kids will make their own fun; they don’t need toys while out backcountry camping
- Take lots of breaks while hiking and keep the kids included by letting them use the map, guidebooks, flashlights, compass, camera, etc.
- Some kids will enjoy having their own special gear – a specially purchased backpack, new hat, or walking sticks
- Make sure everyone knows the ‘rules of the trail’ and how to stay safe while out hiking in whatever region you are in.
Lastly, I wanted to make a quick mention of candy and treats as motivators on the trail. We don’t do this. We find that if kids get a jellybean every so often, the hike can quickly devolve into stopping every 10 minutes or endless coaching and negotiating. However, I have seen this strategy work when the reward is controlled by distance. Such as a treat rewarded when you reach certain markers on the trail or so many steps taken.
This all being said, we do use healthy snack stops to refresh and reset mindsets when needed along the trail. My husband and I feel that by not using the candy incentive on the trail, the kids will find something else to help motivate them… like flower spotting, singing, telling stories, or rock hopping.
Also, before a large overnight hike with our kids we like to let them choose a special treat from the store for them to enjoy at the campsite. Sometimes a few reminders of what’s waiting is enough.
A little bit about our backcountry camping with kids trips:
Our first family backcountry camping trip was with our 2 year old. We spent the night at Kinney Lake in Mount Robson Provincial Park, BC. This is a super place to bring little kids. The trail steadily climbs up a wide well-used path to a beautiful glacier-fed lake. There are outhouses, a covered cook shelter, and the large rocky beach provides hours of entertainment. It was about a 7 km hike (one way). While our daughter rode in our well-loved chariot most of the way, she did do some walking and was in relatively good spirits for most of the trip.
Our second trip was with our 5 year old. We hiked into Big Bend Campground in Jasper National Park. It was about a 6km hike (one-way). Our little guy walked carrying our snacks for the hike and a flower identification brochure which provided us with lots of motivation for the walk – that and endless discussions about Lego.
Our last backcountry camping trip was with both children (age 2 and 5 at the time). We spent the night at Celestine Lake in Jasper National Park. Our littlest walked for surprisingly long segments on the way in and slept in the chariot for almost the entire hike out. This hike was close to 6 km (one-way). Our 5 year old again carried the snack backpack for the group and was quite proud of his contribution.
Staying positive on the trail:
Lastly, I think it’s important to address that not all kids will be excited about walking for 5 hours to spend the night outside away from computers and running water. Hey, even many adults aren’t excited about this. However, I would suggest that if you are the type of parent who gets excited by this, chances are you’ll be able to spread that sense of enjoyment to your kids.
Remember to take joy in the hiking time. Here you are with your family and there’s nothing to distract you from talking and enjoying each other. Have fun with it! Sing songs, tell jokes, play word games, and ask endless open-ended questions to your kids.
Backcountry camping with kids can be a challenge. But it can also be a lot of fun when done safely, realistically, and with a thought-out plan. Hopefully some of the tips and advice above can be of assistance in making the most of your next family trip into the wilderness.
P.S. If you’re a family who enjoys heading into the woods for some camping, you might also be a car-camping type family… and if that’s the case, here’s my take on how to stop making camping harder than it needs to be. I like to call it my lazy-mom camping style! I also have some super cute camping packing lists I think you’ll love.
Also, if getting kids outside into nature is your thing… or something you’d like to do more of, you’ll get lots of tips, goodies, news, and ideas by joining the Take Them Outside Newsletter. We’re also on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest too. Happy Hiking!
What to do next:
- Read more on hiking with kids and keeping them motivated on the trail
- Check out how we pack for stress-free family car camping trips
- Find out what we pack for snacks with hiking with kids
- Join private Facebook Group to get tips, share stories, and be part of an outdoor family community.