Taking a little one backpacking for the first time can seem like a intimidating or daunting task, but it doesn’t have to be. Use this page as a resource to get you and your little adventurer off and backpacking. I have broken down this article into three sections: “planning”, “during the trip” and “after the trip”. If you are looking for information about backpacking with an infant click here.
Getting Started PDF:
- Gear Selection
- Clothing Selection
- Route Research
- Ten Essentials
- Kid’s Pack
- Your Pack
- Backup Plans
- Emergency Preparedness
- Testing Your Gear
- Prepare to have fun
- Invite Friends
During the Trip
After the Trip
Gear Selection: Outfitting an adult for backpacking can get expensive. Outfitting a kid can start to add up as well, especially since the little one is still growing. I recommend prioritizing your purchases in this order:
- Backpack – get your little one fitted for a backpack at a gear store if possible. Deuter, Kelty, Osprey make great kid packs for little backpackers.
- Sleeping Bag and Compression Bag- most kid bags have an adequate temperature rating, your challenge is to find compressible sleeping bags. Northface, Deuter, and Kelty
- Rain Coat/Pants
- Sleeping Pad
- Other essentials: headlamp, pack cover, camp pillow, camp chair or sit pad
Clothing Selection: Very similar to purchasing gear. Mimic the layering system that you bring for the region you live in. In the Pacific Northwest, we experience a lot of moisture with varying levels of rain and snow. We have to be ready to put on and take off may layers. My kids always backpack with a minimum of waterproof rain coat, water proof rain pants, fleece and long underwear. This allows them to not get too cold in the evenings or early mornings. Additionally, they always carry fleece gloves and a warm hat.
Route Research: Choose an easier route. I usually advise picking a route that is half the distance of what your child is comfortable hiking. For example, if your little one can dayhike to the top of Mt. Si (8 miles, 3200′), choose a destination that is no more than 4 miles and 1600′ gain. This will allow you set a good benchmark for future trips.
Ten Essentials: You probably already know what the ten essentials are if you have gone backpacking or hiking. If not check out WTA’s page on the ten essentials. Look over your ten essentials and evaluate their usage on the trail with a little one. What do you need extras of? For me, my first aid kit was lacking some kid-needed items like Spiderman bandaids, Afterbite, and a burn gel. Trust me, Spiderman can make the difference between a happy hike and a complete meltdown. For an in depth look in a first aid kit with kids in mind, click here.
Kid’s Pack: In general, it is advised that a kid’s backpack, with all its contents, weigh less than 20% of the child’s weight. This is a small number unless you are an super ultra light PCT thru-hiker! If your seven year old weighs 60 pounds, the recommended pack weight is 12 pounds or less. Depending on the gear you have, your child may only be carrying a sleeping bag, sleeping pad, change of clothes, snacks and water. The picture below is what my 8 year old carried when she weighed 58 lbs. This backpack weighed 13lbs.
Your pack: Everything needed – kid’s pack = Your Pack. The reality is in order for your little one to have a fun, enjoyable backpacking trip, you will need to carry everything else. I promise the the sore muscles will be worth it when you see how much fun your little one experiences. It’s up there with child birth. Pro tip – leave some extra room in case you need to absorb some of your little one’s items if their backpack becomes too much. Another option is to have a plan of attaching a child’s pack to your pack.
Weather: Monitor the weather forecast and make sure child is comfortable on a less than desirable destination. A rainy forecast can really dampen the mood. I have learned rain, very cold temps and very warm temps seem to make a child’s backpack weigh so much that they have to slow down or stop completely.
Food: Your little one will probably not want to eat protein bars all weekend long. When it comes to meal planning, have our little one give some input. There is a fine balance between bringing food that is prepared, nutritional, lightweight and kid approved. Test recipes or prepackaged meals in advance. I once mistakenly brought Mountain House Chicken Fajita Mix on a trip and I never saw such sadness while eating. Fortunately, I was able to convince them of its protein value was worth their displeasure and promised to never buy it again.
Backup Plans: Have a backup plan. We all have off days and your little one is no exception. He may not hike as fast or as far as usual and you may have to improvise. As you map your route, take note of backup camp sites, those that require less miles or effort along your planned trail. On a recent 13 mile trip with my kids, we had the option of camping at mile markers 3, 4.5 and 6.
Emergency Preparedness: Have a means of communicating if something doesn’t go according to plan. This could be leaving your itinerary with someone or carrying a locator beacon like a Spot or DeLorme InReach. For more thoughts on managing an emergency with children, click here.
Test Your Gear: Is that tent still waterproof? Does my sleeping pad stay inflated? Does my little one’s rain jacket still fit? Can this meal be prepared on my camp stove and does it even taste good? Spend some time setting up gear and trying out the equipment that you will have on your trip. A dry run on camp setup will eliminate concerns and anxiety of the upcoming trip. It’s nice to discover beforehand what need to purchase, find, or fix before your feet hit the trail. On a side note, junior gear test assistants are always more excited for the “big trip”.
Prepare to have fun: This is an exciting time. Bring a camera. Seeing your little one exposed to nature, camping under the stars, and surviving the wild wilderness together are memories that you will both share forever.
Invite friends: Invite a family along with you and your little one. Having other adults along allows for adult conversation and allows for an extra eyes on the kids. Kids enjoy hiking with their friends. When they do, they tend to spend more time talking to each other and less time thinking about tire legs or how heavy their backpack is.
- Pack extra toilet paper and wet wipes…..trust me!
- Pack extra socks, if the trip is for one night, pack two sets of socks in the pack.
- Bring some form of entertainment (as if you are not carrying enough). Pack a Kindle, deck of cards or a book for each of you.
During the Trip
Pace: Monitor the pace. Are you going too fast or is your child going to slow? Find the sweet spot between going fast enough but not so fast that your little one is not enjoying the trip or having to stop and rest more often. I recommend scheduling break time. With older kids, we will typically hike for fifty minutes and then take a five or ten minute break. With younger kids, we will typically hike for thirty minutes with a five minute break.
Hydration/Nutrition: Remember to encourage your little one to drink fluids and eat snacks along the way. Here are a couple tips:
- Have water readily available. This could be a bladder hose or water bottle carried in hand or attached to hip belt of backpack
- Have a snack available. I like to have each kid pick out a snack and place into pants pocket.
- Use regular hiking breaks to ensure kids are eating and drinking.
- Dehydration is the most common reason a kid becomes sluggish or tired on a trail.
Camp Set Up: Kids love to set up camp.Teach them the basics: selecting a good camp site, setting up the tent, setting up the kitchen, and how to use the stove or filter water. The more a little one feels empowered the more she will enjoy the experience.
Emergency Preparedness: Develop a “Someone is hurt” plan, especially if you are the only adult. What should your kid do if you get hurt? What if you are unconscious or you have broken your leg? It is highly unlikely that anyone is going to get hurt, but it is nice to have talked about procedures so that you little one knows how to respond. My guidance on short overnight trips goes something like this: “If I get hurt, and I can’t respond, pull out the locator beacon and push SOS button then stay together and walk through the other campsites looking for an adult to inform. If you cannot find an adult, stay together and head back toward the trailhead. You will either pass hikers that can help or will find help at the trailhead.” This is just what I do, but each family should establish their plan based on the capabilities and comfort of the kids.
After the Trip
Unpack: You are tired and it has been a long weekend. Don’t forget to unpack your pack and your little one’s pack. Decompress those sleeping bags. Empty that bear canister. Check all the pockets on all your and your kid’s coats, pants, and backpack to make sure there are no half eaten protein bar or gummy bears. Dry out anything that may have gotten wet.
Evaluate your trip: What worked out great? What wasn’t the best choice? How much fun was that trip? Doing this may make the next trip that much easier. My first backpacking trip with kids: They were 2 and 4 year old and the route was 10 miles/2500′ gain in September and it snowed on us that night. Afterward, I had A LOT to evaluate…next trip was 7 miles/400′ gain in July.
Hopefully, reading this eases any concerns and helps solidify your plans for the big adventure with your little adventurer(s). If you have additional comments, questions or tips you want to share, email me. I’d love to hear from other backpacking parents.