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Lightweight Backpacking with Young Children


by Stephanie and Ryan Jordan | 2003-10-15 03:00:00-06


Introducing your child to the wonders of nature is one thing­–helping them enjoy themselves while preserving your own sanity on a backpacking trip is quite another.

Backpacking with kids offers an opportunity for bonding, teaching, and escape from a world littered with too much social stimuli.
Most parents view backpacking with a child as an arduous, masochistic experience by which Mom carries her screaming infant or drags her whining toddler (or both of them!) up a dusty trail, while Dad shoulders a hundred-pound pack containing gear for the entire family. While this style of family hiking may not lead directly to divorce, it’s certainly going to be unpleasant.

So, let’s do it a different way: we’d like to offer some ideas and insights for parents that have not yet made the plunge into backpacking with their kids and are still blessed with naiveté. At the same time, maybe we can help those that have already experienced the pain and rage of doing it the hard way. And hopefully, even you moms and dads capable of planning and executing flawless adventures with your kids can extract some tidbits to help you on your next hike. (Note: if you fall into this last category, don’t tell anybody – they won’t believe you).

Click here to download a copy of a gear list (Adobe PDF format) from an overnight backpacking trip in cold, snowy conditions, taken by Ryan and Chase in October, 2003

Hiking Considerations

Hiking Pace

Infants can’t walk, and letting them crawl to your destination is neither timely nor hygenic. So that means that Mom’s going to carry the baby in a backpack and Dad’s going to shoulder the rest of the gear. Dad may be shocked at the realization that he’s not going to get to carry the same sub-twenty pound pack that he gets to carry on a summer trip with his buddies, but rules are rules! The bottom line: you’re both going to be shouldering some weight, so slow down, take it easy, and lower your mileage expectations.

Toddlers, on the other hand, can walk. There are two major problems when hiking with toddlers. First, they hike more slowly than adults, and can tire quickly. Second, they have ideas of their own about the route you carefully planned at the kitchen table–distractions like bugs, moss, and maybe even decaying animal carcasses can all cause deviations from your path.

Our experience is that as a result of these issues, you can only count on hiking about two to four miles per day, a little more for older school-age children or if you are carrying your infant on your back, and perhaps, a little less for preschoolers.

More important than the number of miles you hike is the amount of time you spend on the trail.

If your family can walk five or eight miles a day, great! Realistically, however, you probably should try to limit your time on the trail. You don’t want to rush to flee camp in the mornings, and you don’t want to be setting up camp and cooking dinner in the dark. Give your kids the time to enjoy camping and playing in the wilderness, not just hiking in it. A good rule of thumb for summer: spend about four to five hours on the trail, with plenty of trail time built in for breaks and play.

Lighten your kids' loads and adhere to lightweight backpacking principles for your own, and your entire family will appreciate it.
Packs for Parents and Kids

Face the facts, Dad. You aren’t going to fit your family’s load into the latest 30 liter fastpacking rucksack, nor should you be shouldering all that weight with a frameless pack. But all is not lost. There are plenty of large-enough capacity backpacks that weigh less than four pounds and easily carry a 40-50 pound load. Try a Granite Gear Nimbus Ozone (60 liters and 48 ounces), the GoLite Infinity (50 liters and 37 ounces), or a custom-fitted and made-to-order pack from the McHale Pack Company (50-80 liters at 40-60 ounces).

When hiking with an infant, Mom will usually carry the baby in a backpack. The most popular models are made by Madden and Kelty and are absurdly heavy at seven to nine pounds. Unfortunately, this remains one of the last uncharted markets for lightweight gear, so your choices are limited to something in the six to eight pound range. Get a baby pack with enough additional capacity for a few extras like diapers, baby wipes, and a water bottle for Mom. Plush models have room for a sleeping bag stowed into a lower compartment, which frees up a lot of space from Dad’s pack for denser (and heavier!) items.

Toddlers aren’t going to be too enthusiastic about carrying a “fair share” of gear for the family, and you’re not going to be enthused if they poop out a quarter mile from the car and refuse to carry their pack or walk one more step! So, give the little ones a break and set them up with tiny packs like the CamelBak Skeeter, a hydration pack with a 35 ounce capacity ideally suited for preschoolers and kindergartners. For younger school age children, step up to something with some cargo capacity like the CamelBak Scout (35 ounces and 10L cargo). Older kids can graduate to a 20L rucksack and carry their own sleeping gear and clothing with a liter of water and some snacks, usually not to exceed ten pounds.

The authors' son, five-year-old Chase, traces the day's route on his own map.
Trip Planning and Navigation

It’s important to involve your children in trip planning. Bring out the maps, show them some photos, and let them select some options (that you have previously screened, of course) that give them some ownership in the itinerary. For toddlers and older kids, destinations are very important– they give the child a sense of accomplishment. Destinations involving water (streams, lakes, or swamps) can save a parent’s sanity by giving the child endless opportunities for exploration of aquatic life, rock throwing targets, and sailboat races (see below). Always remember, of course, that parents must pay special attention to the safety of their children around any water body.

On the trail, involve your children in navigation decisions. If they know the difference between right and left, then show them trail junctions on the map as you reach them on the trail, and help them figure out the right way to go based on the route (it is helpful to trace your route with a highlighter on the map prior to the trip). As your child reaches the age of five or six, you can begin introducing the use of a compass. Orient the map for them, and help them choose between obvious directions like east and west. Best of all, whether your children know how to use a compass or not, arm them with small compasses on their wrists or around their necks, and they will feel like hikers.

Inclement Conditions

When we talk to other parents about backpacking with children, their greatest fear, by a large margin, is always: “What do we do if it rains?!” Prior to backpacking trips, many moms are often glued to the Weather Channel, secretly hoping for a hurricane-class forecast so they can justify cancellation of the trip, rather than face the challenges that come with cold and wet conditions.

These fears are not irrational. It can be difficult enough staying warm and dry in inclement conditions without having to worry about your kids. Parents’ protective instincts instill a sense of responsibility to make sure your kids remain warm and dry, which can be very challenging. In this section, we offer some advice to deal with wet and cold conditions, as well as the midday heat of summer.

My Favorite Things About Backpacking

An Interview with Chase Jordan

RJ: Chase, I need to ask you some questions about an article we’re writing for

Chase: Oh.

RJ: I want to chat with you about lightweight backpacking.

Chase: OK. Are you going to take my picture and show the Internet?

RJ: Sure, buddy. Whatever you want.

Chase: OK. I want it to be a BIG picture.

Chase Jordan, at the age of three, enjoying wilderness in the Gallatin National Forest on a backpacking trip that brought freezing temperatures, constant rain, and a little snow!

RJ: How old are you, Chase?

Chase: I’m five.

RJ: Do you like backpacking?

Chase: Oh yes!

RJ: What is your favorite place to go in the wilderness?

Chase: Yellowstone National Park. I love to see buffalo by my tent.

RJ: What is your favorite thing to do when you go backpacking?

Chase: Roast marshmallows!

RJ: What do you like to do when it’s raining?

Chase: Get in the tent. I like to read stories and play with my trucks in the tent with my Dad.

RJ: Do you have a rain jacket?

Chase: I have a poncho, but I don’t really like it. It’s black. My dad made it. Black was all he had. I like my winter snow coat the best. It’s red.

RJ: Do you like it when it snows on backpacking trips?

Chase: Yeah. I like making snowmen and igloos!

RJ: What’s your favorite food that you like to eat while hiking?

Chase: Let’s see here…peanuts and raisins, I think.

RJ: What’s your favorite dinner food when you are in camp?

Chase: Macaroni and cheese, with no hot sauce.

RJ: Do you carry a backpack?

Chase: Yeah – a water backpack.

RJ: What kind of stuff is in your backpack?

Chase: Water and stuff. But I like to carry one of my dad’s trekking poles – they’re really, super light – and my whistle around my neck – that’s my favorite thing to put around my neck because the scarf my mom and dad make me wear is way too itchy.

RJ: Wow, all that stuff sounds heavy. Is it heavy?

Chase: Yeah but my dad carries all the really heavy stuff like the tent, and food and, ummm…oh yeah, my trucks.

RJ: I suppose you think you need some new lightweight backpacking gear, right?

Chase: Oh yes! I would like a new water pack – a big one. I’m going to put water in it, and also, my snacks, my notepad (I bring just a little one), and maybe a can of pop. Does a new pack cost a lot of money?

RJ: It depends, buddy. You see, there are Spectra fabrics that tend to be rather expensive due to the cost of fiber construction, difficulty in cutting and sewing, etc. And then, you have ultralight silnylon, which is very slippery, and that can drive up the cost. Or, you can go to a new high tech X-Pac from Dimension-Polyant that offers unparalleled rip resistance and very good abrasion resistance at a paltry four ounces a yard. But I think you need a custom McHale, which can run upwards of $600 by the time you add shovel pockets, ski slots, fanny-compatible top pockets, multiple frames for different loads, and several hip belts to suit a particular trip style – and – you may want to consider a sewn-in hydration pocket rather than a removable one since—

Chase: Do they have red ones?

RJ: Oh, yes!

Dealing with Rain

Hiking in the rain can be a wonderful experience for a child. Rain brings out wildlife of all sorts, from big game to slimy worms. But being wet, and especially, being wet and cold, can be a miserable experience for a child. A little preparation and an understanding of a child’s low tolerance for discomfort can improve everyone’s disposition dramatically.

A rain poncho made from silnylon is an easy homemade sewing project, costs less than $10, and works great for kids.
First, dress to get wet. Combined with a fleece balaclava and some waterproof mittens, a hooded poncho (nylon is far more durable than plastic) worn over a fleece jacket and long underwear, can keep a child warm and dry for hours. On the bottoms, synthetic long underwear and waterproof or water-resistant pants are usually sufficient. For the feet, a pair of thick wool socks for warmth and some water-resistant (not mesh) shoes are a far better alternative than rubber boots, especially while hiking.

Try to encourage your children to minimize their natural “sprint-and-stop” technique for hiking. Hiking slowly and continuously will minimize sweating and the subsequent chilling that results when taking a break. If you are taking longer breaks in inclement conditions– a lunch break or simply to wait out a storm–consider setting up a tent or tarp, and even the child’s sleeping bag, to give them a warm and safe refuge that minimizes their discomfort.

When camping, nothing provides better refuge from the elements, including cold, and rain, than a tent. Most children (and parents) feel safer and more secure when surrounded by fabric, and during an intense storm with high winds, a tent will keep your little campers happy campers.

Above all, remember that, unlike adults, small children shouldn’t be expected to just “deal with it” when the weather turns bad and they become uncomfortable. You bear 100% of the responsibility to keep them warm, dry, and comfortable.

Dealing with Cold

Dealing with cold requires that your child have proper clothing and a warm sleeping bag. Consistent with lightweight backpacking principles, there is no reason not to combine the two while sleeping to take advantage of available insulation at the lightest weight. We’ve come up with a recommended list of clothing and sleep gear that will keep most children warm in conditions down to freezing during the summer.

  • Clothing worn while hiking: Supplex nylon shirt (long sleeve) and long pants, to protect them from sun, brush, and wind; wool socks with comfortable shoes; wide-brimmed hat for sun protection; sunglasses.
  • Base layer: lightweight synthetic long underwear, top and bottoms (consider doubling up on these two items if your kids have bed-wetting challenges or you are expecting very cold or wet conditions).
  • Mid layers: 200 or 300 weight fleece jacket; consider 100-200 weight fleece pants for cold conditions.
  • Additional mid layer: this is an extra layer that gives you the flexibility to adjust warmth according to expected temperatures and can range from a 100-weight fleece vest to a high-loft synthetic insulating jacket.
  • Outer layer: nylon rain jacket or poncho with water-resistant (paired with a poncho) or waterproof (paired with a jacket) pants.
  • Sleeping bag: synthetic bag (e.g., Polarguard, PrimaLoft) with at least two inches of loft for conditions down to freezing. Our choice: the Integral Designs Assiniboine.

If temperatures drop dramatically, parents can further increase the comfort of their kids by using their sleeping bags as quilts and sharing body heat.

Dealing with Heat

One experience that may have a higher misery factor than dealing with a child that is cold and wet is dealing with one that is hot, tired, thirsty, and cranky!

One item you can arm your child with is a hydration bladder, complete with a hose and bite valve (for safety reasons, be sure to follow manufacturer recommendations about age appropriateness). Kids love to drink out of their own container, and if they carry it themselves, you can be assured that they will get plenty to drink. Add some flavor to that drink, such as pre-sweetened Kool-Aid, Crystal Light, or Flavors-2-Go drops, and they’ll thank you for it. Not a fan of sweetened drinks at home? Make an exception while backpacking. The additional calories and flavors motivating your child to remain hydrated might far outweigh the disadvantages of the sugar they provide.

Above, we recommended long sleeve shirts and long pants for clothing. We are big advocates of keeping your kids’ skin exposure to the harmful rays of UV light at a bare minimum, especially in the thin air of the mountains. If temperatures are too hot and your child is uncomfortable wearing this type of clothing, then maybe you should consider shadier trails, cloudier weather, or some hardcore sunscreen, frequently applied. Regardless of your hiking clothing choices, make sure your child has a wide-brimmed sun hat and a pair of sunglasses.

Some other tips for hiking in the heat:

  • Let them cool off in a creek or lakeside at midday.
  • Arm family members with spray bottles or squirt guns and have occasional “water fights” along the trail – getting your clothing and skin wet will aid evaporative cooling.

Cooking, Food, Water, and Hygiene

Meal Planning and Cooking

One of the great challenges of backpacking with kids is ensuring that they consume plenty of nutritional calories. For anything shorter than week-long excursions, place more emphasis on calories than nutrition. Like adults, children need to maintain steady caloric intake to offset their daily activity and fuel their metabolic engines.

Only experience will tell you about quantities of food to pack, types of foods your child will eat on the trail (a safe bet is to bring them the things they like at home as well), and timing of meals. Emphasize frequent snacks rather than three squares served rigidly at 8 am, noon, and 6 pm.

For parents new to hiking with children, a good rule of thumb for quantity is to bring 12-16 oz food per day (dry weight) for toddlers 3-6, 20 oz/day for young children age 7-10, and 24 oz/day (sometimes more if your child is a prodigious eater) for children in rapid growth spurts that commonly occur between the ages of 11 and 13. All bets are off for teenagers, who can seemingly fast for days and then eat three pounds of food at the drop of a hat.

As far as types of food to pack, err on the side of maximum variety rather than gamble on the improbability that your child will be able to extract his entire caloric needs from a huge bag of gorp. Likewise, as much as you want your children to consume organic foods, whole grains, and hormone-free dry milk, cut them some slack and toss in some red licorice or Jolly Ranchers – they will thank you for it with their wide eyes and you will thank yourself for their good morale.

And as far as timing is concerned, go with small meals for breakfast and dinner, with plenty of variety snacks that the child can freely access throughout the day. Children burn calories in spurts. Likewise, they tend to eat in spurts.

Parents with infants have to deal with other issues. Breastfeeding moms have it best (although some may argue) – ready to eat food that doesn’t have to be packed! For infants eating soft foods, parents are limited to baby foods sold in very heavy jars. For short trips, these foods can be repackaged into small plastic containers, which are far lighter. For maximum weight savings, repackage the foods in zip-closure bags (such as O.P. Saks), but keep in mind that repackaging baby foods compromises their sterility and shouldn’t be practiced for trips longer than a weekend in warm temperatures.

For bottle-fed babies, parents have two options: washable bottles or bottles with disposable liners. Bottle “cages” with enough disposable liners for a weekend trip are lighter than bottles by 50%. Better yet, disposable liners can be pre-filled with formula or dry milk at home, so mealtime – and cleanup – is about as simple as can be.

Water Purification and Hydration

We tend to be more cautious about the quality of water that our children drink than the quality of water we drink. Children have immune systems that tend to be more susceptible to foreign organisms, simply because of their lack of previous exposure to them. Parents should not allow their children to drink untreated water in the wilderness.

The safest and most effective form of water treatment technology for immuno-compromised patients continues to be ceramic element filtration. Only two companies make water filters that offer uncompromised performance: MSR (cf. the WaterWorks II filter) and Katadyn (cf. Pocket Filter). Combined with low doses of chlorine dioxide (cf. Aqua Mira) on post-filtered water, one ends up with water quality that often exceeds that coming out of your tap at home. We recommend this form of treatment for infants.

As children get older, their immune response strengthens. Thus, chemical treatment alone may be sufficient in mountain areas with good (low organic and silt content) wilderness water quality. Our recommendation is Aqua Mira (chlorine dioxide) over iodine-based solutions. It has greater efficacy against bacteria and lower incidence of harmful byproduct creation. Both chlorine bleach and iodine can form these byproducts (some of them carcinogenic) through oxidation of organic matter.

Many parents are lured into buying so-called water purification products that are promoted by the health food industry. These are sold under the description of “stabilized oxygen” and marketed under the premise that they are “chemical-free treatment alternatives for safe drinking water.” After extensive research, we have been unable to find any reasonable scientific evidence from a credible research institution supporting a claim that they are appropriate for wilderness water quality treatment, and cannot recommend them as a viable water treatment alternative, especially for immuno-compromised patients, infants, or children.

Toilet and Personal Hygiene

Diapers. Parents of infants are often stricken with backcountry diaper terror when faced with the prospect of family backpacking. In reality, however, dealing with diapers can be a rather simple affair.

The choice between cloth and disposable diapers is the primary issue. Cloth diapers require washing, rinsing, and drying – an often problematic and time consuming task when faced with your own underwear – not to mention a pair that’s been covered in fecal matter! It doesn’t take long to realize that the time required to properly deal with washing a dirty cloth diaper while minimizing the environmental impact of disposing of the wash water is worth it only for those parents that ascribe to a stringent philosophy that for one reason or another prevents them from purchasing and throwing away disposables.

For us, the choice was a matter of convenience and hygiene. Fecal matter is simply cat-holed like your own, and then the disposable diapers are set out for a few hours each day to allow moisture to evaporate, thus reducing their weight. Transport is accomplished by placing the diapers in an odor-proof plastic bag with a secure zip-closure (we recommend 12x15 O.P. Saks from Watchful Eye Designs). The process of using disposables in the backcountry is a no-mess, no-fuss, low-impact, and healthy process for both baby and parents.

Trepidations of Wilderness Toilets. As children get older, they get to pee and poop like us big kids. For our son (and we are told, for most boys), there is little trepidation involved in letting it rip in the backcountry. Dad and son can make it competitive with distance contests. And, the prospect of pooping in a hole that you dug with your foot, toy backhoe, or sand shovel, is high on the list of very cool things to do as a young boy.

We are told by other parents, however, that some boys and many girls experience a bit of performance anxiety when it comes to wilderness toileting. For these kids, some parents have even resorted to bringing potty chairs with a real toilet seat and plastic bag for the catch basin. At up to four pounds apiece, such chairs aren’t high on the list of things lightweight backpacking parents like to bring into the backcountry. The alternative: some psychological skill in dealing with children, and a whole lot of patience. Barring rewards of chewable candy by the pound and promises of extra toys at Christmas, we’ve heard parents having good success by doing the side by side thing with Mom or Dad, which may give rise to a new axiom: “the family that poops together, stays together.”

The Magic of Purell. There is an increasing body of evidence that suggests that more incidents of gastrointestinal illness in the backcountry can be attributed to poor hygiene than to inadequate water treatment. We would logically infer, then, that children are more susceptible to illnesses resulting from poor hygiene than adults, simply because hygiene is not ingrained in a child’s daily habit! Consequently, we recommend that parents frequently ensure that their child’s face and hands are clean, especially after using the toilet and before meals. While soap and water is most effective at removing dirt, alcohol hand gels (cf. “Purell” brand) provide more effective disinfection of microorganisms, can be used anywhere (even in the absence of water), and air dry effectively. Most parents will find some combination of washing with soap and using alcohol hand gels useful. We use alcohol during the day, and then have a hands-and-face (and sometimes, whole body) wash while having access to water in camp in the evening.

Baby Wipes, Washcloths, and other Towels. Baby wipes are a godsend to parents with infants. For diaper changing, wiping up food messes, dealing with spit-up, and cleaning up other liquefied masses well-known to baby-parents, moist baby wipes are an ideal solution to cleanup. Because they are water-saturated, however, they tend to be heavy –lighten the load by repackaging them in a zip-closure plastic bag. The upside is that they can be dried or burned while on the trail, and thus, can be considered a consumable. The biggest advantage of baby wipes are that they can be treated as a disposable, and thus, are consistent with good hygiene practices.

Dry wash towels that can be moistened and used for more rigorous cleanup chores can also be useful. Fortunately, those made of viscose are very light and dry quickly. Check out the Pack-Towl line from Cascade Designs, or our favorites, the 0.5-ounce ultralight towels available from Light Load Towels.

Shelter Considerations

A tent can go a long way to improving family morale in inclement conditions.
Tent, Tarp, or Both?

Most parents,even those who normally practice what we consider lightweight backpacking techniques, would never consider taking their kids into the backcountry without a tent. Let’s take a closer look at the rationale for this decision and assess whether or not tarp camping is something that can be appropriate for parents with young children.

Parents possess a natural protective instinct that engages whenever cold, wet, windy, or snowy weather comes within miles of the warmth of a car heater. Consequently, the walls of a tent provide a sense of security and home for a backpacking family that gives them a tiny environment in which they can be safe, warm, dry, and content. Having backpacked with our son in both tents and tarps, I can recommend without reservation that a lightweight tent should be the first choice for beginning parents or parents of infants and/or small children traveling in backcountry areas with the potential for foul weather.

Tarp Camping with Kids

Unless you have an exceptional level of skill and experience tarp camping yourself, please do not consider subjecting infants and young children to the rigors of exposure to wind, blowing rain, and drifting snow while camping in a tarp. If you – and your kids – are tarp camping aficionados (and we certainly are) do so in the midst of a fair weather forecast, with the opportunity to bail out readily available. There is no worse misery while camping with kids than having them be cold, wet, and cranky because wind and rain are blowing into the protective space that should provide complete comfort and shelter.

A small tarp set up as a tent porch keeps the tent more livable as well as provide some space to play, cook, store gear, or stretch, while it's raining.
A Small Tarp for Refuge

During prolonged periods of inclement weather, both parents and kids can go a little “shacky-wacky” in the confines of a tent. A light tarp, brought as a supplement to the primary shelter, can provide some fresh air during rainy periods, as well as some refuge for cooking or playing. We have often brought a 5x7 silnylon tarp in addition to our lightweight tent when we knew there would be a good chance for foul weather. Set up as a vestibule across the front of our tent, it served as an ideal “porch” for refuge from the rain.

Sleeping Pads

Some naïve parents believe that a sleeping pad no thinner than a toddler bed is required for backcountry camping. Common sense, however, dictates that children lose heat to the ground similarly to their bigger counterparts, and that no additional insulation from conductive heat loss to the ground surface is necessarily needed. In fact, there is some scientific evidence that supports a higher level of cold tolerance in children than in adults – attributed to something akin to a survival mechanism. For the lightweight backpacking family, this is all good news. Further, smaller pads are needed for smaller people, so there is weight savings to be made in this department as well!

The choice between inflatable sleeping pads (cf. ThermaRest brand pads) and closed cell foam pads is more a matter of parent’s desire for children’s comfort than a matter of safety or warmth. We tend to compromise between the two, using a thicker (1/2”) closed cell foam pad for our son, after learning that nighttime migratory behavior inherent in children means that they easily slip off the slick nylon surfaces of inflatable mattresses. You can alleviate some slippage by adding “stripes” or “dots” of McNett SilNet or SeamGrip, but such measures are not likely going to arrest the migration of your child throughout the night unless she sleeps between you.

Camping Activities

Stockpiling an arsenal of “lightweight” activities to keep children busy in camp is not as hard as it sounds. Parents often think that they have to “bring their home to the wilderness” by packing a multitude of toys, favorite stories, and handheld games for the purpose of ensuring constant entertainment for their children. For most backpacking families, however, children are often entranced by what nature has to offer and are creative enough on their own (perhaps with some parent facilitation) to make the outdoors an ideal playground sans props.

Collecting leaves, bugs, and rocks has probably entertained more children visiting the backcountry than any other activity. As children grow older, you have an opportunity to teach them about the natural world that can help them appreciate their collecting habit even more.

Looking for animal tracks is one of our favorite activities, and a plaster of Paris cast kit weighs only a few ounces and provides a memento from the trip. After the plaster has dried, it can even be painted in the backcountry–or you can wait until you get home.

If you are near running water, a great way to spend creative time is to make sailboats from natural materials. We sometimes bring along some extra string or wire and a few 6-piece sections from an egg carton to serve as the hull. This activity can occupy our son for hours, as he builds a boat and sends it down the “rushing” waters of a tiny brook.

For school age children, photography can be a great way for a child to record their own trip. Combined with their own paper journal and pencil, encouraging them to write about, draw, and photograph their memories helps them appreciate their backpacking adventure more fully. Disposable cameras and cheap, hand-me-down digital cameras are our lightweight favorites for kids.

Fishing a lake or creek in camp that is filled with mountain brook or cutthroat trout, of course, can require little more gear than a stick, a six-foot section of line, and a bushy fly. The simplicity of such a fishing kit means that young children can operate it by themselves, and you won’t be burdened carrying large amounts of heavy fishing gear if your child loses interest.

We still love to read to our son when away from home. We often let him bring his choice of one book, and we supplement that with a small field guide to local flora and fauna. During the day, we can use the field book to identify flowers, insects, or birds, and then before bedtime, review what we saw by looking at pictures in the book (and often, redrawing them in his own “notebook”).

Campfires, of course, provide great security for children. Where permitted, and when conditions warrant, a campfire before bedtime helps the family unwind from a long day, relaxing, sharing their favorite things about the trip, stargazing, and perhaps roasting a few marshmallows.

Safety Considerations

Safety need not be compromised while taking your children into the backcountry, and thus, lightweight equipment is just as applicable for backpacking with kids as it is for backpacking with adults. However, safety must always be considered first. Don’t use the same standards for safety with kids that you would use for yourself.

Preparation for inclement weather is perhaps the most important consideration when backpacking with kids, because you, as parents, are solely responsible for your child’s safety and appropriate use of their clothing. Parents having no experience dealing with inclement weather on their own should not gain those first experiences with their children without a suitable “bailout” option (e.g., backyard or car camping).

The Whistle

Arm your child with a loud whistle, worn at all times on a lanyard around her neck, and instruct her on how to use it. We have ingrained in our son what it means to be lost (when you can’t find Mom or Dad), and what to do: stop, blow your whistle three times, and listen for a response from our whistle – then repeat.

Bears aren't the only animals to worry about. Bug-proofing your children is important to their enjoyment as well. You also have to keep an eye out for ticks, poison plants, and human-habituated rodents.
Bear Country

Hiking in grizzly country with young children who cannot defend themselves – or are unable to defend you – is not recommended. Grizzlies are simply too unpredictable. When is a child old enough to hike in grizzly country? This question is impossible to answer, as there are plenty of ignorant adults out there that are unprepared for hiking in grizzly country! Our rule for hiking with others that want to bring their kids into grizzly country: both parents and children have to be well-practiced in the use of bear spray, and the parents have to be able to trust their child’s skills enough to defend THEM in case of an attack. In our experience, the age at which this occurs is usually between 12 and 15.

Backyard and Car Camping Practice

The best way for families to learn how to backpack is to get out and do it. When reducing your pack weight and evaluating lighter gear, you may want to practice using it, especially in inclement conditions, while car camping or in your backyard. Most children who enjoy backcountry camping get a kick out of backyard and car camping as well, and they offer the family an additional outlet for outdoor enjoyment without the commitment and logistics associated with entering the backcountry.


This article cannot hope to deal with all of the issues involved in backpacking with young children. We hope that we’ve offered you a framework that encourages you to introduce your kids to the backcountry using lightweight gear and techniques that do not sacrifice your family’s safety. Further, we are confident that with experience, you will develop your own style and make smart decisions about your gear.

Our final rule of thumb for hiking with kids: know when to bail. Whether you are camping in your backyard, out of the trunk of your car, or are at 10,000 feet in the Sierra wilderness, you’re bound to encounter conditions, situations, weather, and environment that contribute to the demise of morale. If nobody’s having a good time, go home, regroup, and try again. Family backpacking should be fun. Lighter weight gear can make it even more fun – especially the hiking part. But the key is to enjoy the wilderness together, not just endure it.


"Lightweight Backpacking with Young Children," by Stephanie and Ryan Jordan. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2003-10-15 03:00:00-06.