Do you love backpacking yourself and want to get your kids interested in it as well? Or maybe they've been begging to go with you and you're finally ready to give it a chance? Regardless of your reasons, this article will outline all of the basics to consider when planning a family backpacking trip, including a packing list, route planning, and tips to make it an enjoyable experience for everyone!
For the purpose of this list, we are going to assume that you already have a good idea of what you need to take for a backpacking trip by yourself. If you are new to backpacking, we recommend going on a trip by yourself or with a friend or family member once or twice before committing to taking your kids. You can find a printable checklist of the most common items you will need on our Ultimate Backpacker's Packing List.
The items listed below include both kid essentials and extras that might make the trip easier or more enjoyable for them.
- 2-3 changes of clothes, underwear, and socks. When choosing the clothing to bring, the same “rules” apply for their clothing as yours; avoid cotton, use base layers, etc.)
- Pajamas, if not included in your “extra clothes” above. It's also worth noting this may make reluctant campers more at ease having the same comfort as home.
- A small comfort item from home for younger children, such as their favorite stuffed animal.
- The food your kids will actually eat! We all know how picky a lot of kids are. If they're not going to be into your instant biscuits and gravy trail meal, pack some instant oatmeal, a granola bar, bag of Cheerios, etc. I'm sure we've all been hungry on the trail at some point or another and it's no fun for us as adults. If you have to pack a lot of snacks to keep your kid full, it's better than having a hungry kid.
- Extra toilet paper and wipes. It's also a good idea to have your children practice using the restroom outside at home, if possible, especially girls. This can be a much larger issue than you may think.
- Camp shoes (sandals, old slippers, Crocs)
- Headlamps, flashlights, and/or lanterns. Small hanging lanterns are great to hang up in the tent at night while getting ready for bed/sleep.
- Appropriately sized sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and possibly a small pillow if you have room. It's important to have a smaller sized sleeping bag for kids so there is not a lot of excess room in the foot box where body heat can be lost.
- Microfiber towel or face wipes. Kids are messy and it's always nice to be able to clean yourself in some way at the end of the day when you're feeling grimy.
- Depending on the age of your child and his/her attention span, consider bringing a card game, book, or something else small to have handy in case they get bored at camp.
- Rain gear if the weather calls for it.
- Don't forget your water bottles or water bladder and water filter!
For younger kids, you might consider taking a 2 or 3 person tent so they can sleep with you if they're a little apprehensive about being by themselves in the dark. Older kids are capable of carrying their own 1-person tent and sleep by themselves if they like.
There are tons of great backpacks made nowadays specifically for kids (Deuter, Osprey, etc). Be sure to get one that will fit your child well and has the capacity they need for what they will be able to carry. Older kids (around 10+) can handle a 30L or 40L pack and should be able to carry all of their own gear.
Preferably, just like adult packs, look for one with a padded hip belt for extra comfort and adjustable shoulder straps. One with an adjustable torso height is an added bonus for ensuring the perfect fit and allowing the pack to grow with your child.
As a final note on packs, keep in mind that you may be carrying some extra items your children need, especially if they are younger and aren't able to carry all of their gear. Make sure your pack has enough room as well!
Make sure you plan your trip for a length all members of your party will be able to complete without being totally exhausted, not enjoying themselves, complaining, or all of the above by the end of the day. In this case, it's better to underestimate how far you think your youngest member will be able to go rather than over-estimating. It's no fun for anyone having a whiny kid, including the said kid.
As long as you are not backpacking in an area that requires campsite reservations, you can always go a little further and set up elsewhere than you had planned. If you're on an out-and-back overnight trip, you may want to remind your kids of the fact that they will have the same amount of walking the next day. Chances are if you are taking your children backpacking, it's something you enjoy and want them to love as well. Don't burn them out on the first, second, or even the third trip by getting overzealous with your mileage.
Plan on hiking an area that you have previously hiked yourself. That way you know where all of the reliable water sources are, what the terrain is like, campsite locations, water crossings, and potential other obstacles may be.
This should go without saying, but be prepared to take lots of snack and bathroom breaks.
- Have your kids practice hiking with their packs on day-hikes to know what adjustments you need to make on their packs, how much they are able to carry for how long, etc.
- Be sure to include children-appropriate first aid items, such as medications, poison ivy treatments, and more.
- Offer your kids a simple nature scavenger hunt during the hike or if they get bored before bed and it's still light out. It's easy enough to make one up as you go or play “I Spy”. You can also print out a sheet at home before you head out with general items, such as a mosquito, mushroom, creek, etc or with a specific group of items, such as different types of trees, for older kids.
- Invite them to help set tents up and build your campfire as well. Kids love feeling involved and helping and are usually a lot more capable than we give them credit for.
- Consider taking earplugs for the night. Your kids may have a hard time falling asleep the first time and may make a lot noise during the night.