Backpacking is a fun, relaxing, and inexpensive pastime. It's also a great way to spend time with friends and family. In nature, you get the chance to reconnect with minimal electronic interruptions. Annual backpacking trips are a wonderful way to unwind and check in with those you care about too.
It's a magical feeling when you get to share your love of the outdoors and your favorite natural places with your significant other (SO) or children. Maybe you'd like to take them on more than just a day hike. (Or they've shown an interest.) Even if they seem excited about the idea, the thought of sleeping in the woods can, understandably, be intimidating.
Do your kids or SO need a confidence boost before making the plunge into backpacking? We've got some suggestions on preparation, planning your trip, and things to keep in mind so everyone has the best experience possible. We want you and your loved ones to be physically and mentally prepared so you can all enjoy backpacking for years to come!
Featured photo by Arthur Poulin
In our opinion, training for backpacking is arguably more important than the trip itself. It can make or break the experience, especially for beginners. Below are some ways to get your family prepared ahead of time.
- Get them hiking! If your family isn't used to hiking much or at all, start. You wouldn't run a marathon unless you'd done some training first, right? The same goes for backpacking. Just like you probably did at first, start them with short hikes and work your way up over time.
- Start hiking with a backpack. If they're already used to hiking, the next step is to have them practice wearing a pack. You don't have to bog them down right away. Start simple with a daypack of essentials like snacks and water. (If you don't already.) Add more items/weight each time you go out. The final “step” is to do several hikes with a fully loaded backpack. If you can mix up the terrain each time, that's even better. Your kids or SO might do fine on fairly level terrain. It's good to throw in some hills to see if they have issues. (Assuming you're planning on backpacking in hilly/mountainous areas.)
Go regular camping. If they've never slept outdoors at all, it's an excellent idea to go car camping a time or two. They might discover they sleep better with earplugs. Plus, you can show them how to use their gear and practice setting up. A simple overnight trip is a good starting point. You can add more days on subsequent outings. You can also get more primitive with your camping locations the more experience they get too.
How to Choose a Trip
Choosing the right trail to tackle for the first time is another important step that can make or break a trip. You want to make sure their experience is enjoyable, so you're going to have to scale back from what you're used to.
- Choose something close to home. Try to find a trail that's within reasonable driving distance of where you live. That way you're not far from home if things don't go well.
- Keep the miles low at first. It's best not to push it the first time, especially if you are taking kids. Making them feel like they're on a march through the woods is a quick way to kill their interest in backpacking. On the other hand, they might surprise you and ask to go a little further once you're out there.
- Pick a trail that meets THEIR capabilities. It's easy to get excited and want to show your loved ones YOUR favorite trails right away. But, if those are more challenging than they're ready for, hold off until they have some more experience under their belts.
- Start with an overnight. Even if you stayed a few nights on some car camping practice trips, it's wise to start with one night for their first backpacking trip. That way you can see how things go. Plus, if you have the supplies, you can always stay an extra night!
- Go someplace you're familiar with. This might seem like a no-brainer. But, the desire to try new trails and see new things can get the better of some of us. When taking beginners, though, it's best to go to someplace where you know all of the potential hazards, where the water sources are, where the best campsites are, etc. Not to mention there's less chance of wandering off trail since you've already hiked it!
Consider a trail with designated campsites. By now, you probably know that some trails offer pre-existing campsites. In the U.S., these spots are already cleared out, fairly level, and might have a firepit. (In Canada, you might find a picnic table and pit toilet!) This might be a good transition from car camping to backpacking for a beginner. You'll have a little less work to do while still enjoying the main aspects of backpacking.
More Useful Tips
Now that we've covered the basics, here are some other things to keep in mind to ensure everyone has a great first backpacking experience.
- Check the weather! A little rain never hurt anyone, but a lot is enough to ruin anyone's trip. Speaking of weather...
- Be prepared with the right gear and clothing. You'll likely want a 2 or 3-person backpacking tent, if you don't already have one. A quality sleeping pad and sleeping bag make all the difference in nighttime warmth. Some trekking poles are a good idea if you have water crossings and/or steep terrain. Make sure they have appropriate layers, socks, and hiking shoes too. And if there's a chance of rain, pack a poncho or rain jacket.
- Be prepared to carry extra gear. This is mostly if you are taking a child with you. In general, the younger they are, the more of their stuff you're going to need to carry. More than likely these will be bulkier items, like sleeping bags. Wondering how much is too much for them to carry? A child's pack should weigh no more than 10-20% of their body weight. For example, an 80 lb child's pack should weigh no more than 16 pounds.
- Make sure their pack is comfortable. Make sure it fits properly, is adjusted to their comfort, and is packed evenly distributed for maximum comfort.
- Let them bring a “comfort item”. You probably think we mean something like a toy or stuffed animal for kids. But, we're talking about adults too. Bring your partner's normal coffee and a means to make it instead of instant coffee. It won't be exactly the same as home, but it sure beats some of the instant coffee mixes out there.
- You'll need to pack for them. Or, at least help them. No matter what age they are, that doesn't mean they can't watch and learn how to do it themselves.
- Bring lots of snacks, especially for kids! The more filling and high-protein, the better. Kids burn energy a lot quicker than us adults. Kids can be picky eaters too, so make sure you have some meals you know they will eat.
- Bring light entertainment. Some kids (or adults!) might get bored sitting around the campfire. Download an audiobook (and don't forget your portable charger, of course), bring some playing cards, or make up a scavenger hunt. If your partner or kids are really into hanging out in the woods, bring a small bag of bushcraft items for them to use. Practice starting fires, tying knots, etc.
- Practice using the bathroom in the woods ahead of time, if possible. Doing your business out in the woods has a major learning curve. Give them grace if they are having trouble.
- Don't forget the first aid kit! Accidents happen. Keep in mind kids are especially prone to getting scrapes.
- Be prepared to take more breaks than usual. Those who have less hiking experience and/or shorter legs will likely need to take breaks more often.
- Check in occasionally to see if they're still doing ok. Let them know it's ok if they're struggling, ready to stop, or turn back.
- Help them make gear adjustments as needed. Even seasoned backpackers have to make adjustments. Be sure to ask them during check-ins if their pack, shoes, etc feel ok or needs adjustments. Some specifics you might ask are if their feet hurt too much, are rubbing a lot in one spot, or if their shoulder straps are digging into/rubbing their armpit area excessively.
Going backpacking for the first time can be exciting and a little scary. But, with the proper gear, training, and expectations, you're sure to have a good time.
Did you have someone help you learn about backpacking or did you dive in on your own? What suggestions would you give first-timers or those taking their family or friends for the first time?
If you're looking for family-friendly hike ideas, read our “Top 8 Family-Friendly Backpacking Trips in the U.S.” round-up post. Also, the following articles cover more information on how to get kids and adults alike started in backpacking.
For even more amazing backpacking trips, visit The Trailhead, our interactive hike map. It contains a curated list of dozens of hikes, each with a detailed write-up.
Finally, check out our comprehensive list of backpacking articles that cover just about everything there is to know about backpacking. If you're just starting out, our Backpacking 101 section covers all the basics. If you already have a few trips under your belt, you can find more advanced topics covered in our Expert Articles.