I’m not a parent, but thanks to some good friends with children, I’ve spent quite a bit of time backpacking with kids. I wanted to write a post about how to start backpacking as a family, but I realized that I knew someone much more qualified for the job: Elliott, a 12-year-old backpacker.
I’ve been friends with Elliott’s parents for years and have been on lots of backpacking trips with them, including his first-ever backpacking trip when Elliott was 4 and his sister was 7. At 12, Elliott has almost a decade of backpacking experience so I was really happy when he agreed to write this post. (His mom, Laura, also chimed in with some tips from the parent’s perspective.)
In this guide to backpacking with kids you’ll find:
- Real-world advice from a kid and his mom who have been backpacking for years
- Reasons kids will love backpacking
- Tips for making your family backpacking trip a success
- How to overcome challenges when you go backpacking with kids
- Kid-recommended picks for the best backpacking food
- What to pack when backpacking with kids
- How to find kid-friendly backpacking destinations
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Why Kids Will Love Backpacking
Besides spending time in nature and enjoying incredible views, here are a few reasons to take your child backpacking.
Spending time with family
Elliott: I backpack because my family backpacks, but I love it too. It isn’t just my parent’s thing anymore. What I love the most is the free time that you get to spend with your family. With no devices at all, my parent’s attention is directed on just me and my sister.
Elliott: Another great thing about backpacking is you get to go to special places, sometimes with amazing swimming spots. My favourite swimming spot so far has been Tsusiat Falls on the West Coast Trail. I don’t mind swimming in cold water and I always like to swim.
Elliott: I like backpacking food. Backpacking food is really good, and it often doesn’t include a lot of vegetables! We also get to have dessert every night.
Learning new skills
Elliott: Backpacking is a fun experience where you get to develop special skills that you might not have learned otherwise. I have learned how to make a fire, put up a tent, filter water, navigate, and lots of general life safety skills.
When I was little, I helped to put up the tent and filter the water. My sister started making campfires on her own by 10, and she won’t let me help her now. Now that we are both older (12 and 14), we are responsible for setting up the tents on our own. We also help with cooking and setting up the tarp.
How to Make Backpacking with Kids a Success
Pick the right trail
Elliott: Picking the right trail for our family is important. When we pick a trail, we try to consider the elevation we all can walk up, the difficulty of the terrain, and we always backpack to a rewarding destination.
I always want to hike to some type of water that I can swim in. I like ocean beaches or alpine lakes. Don’t forget that a good campsite needs a good drinking source and a proper pit toilet is preferred. There are not usually campfires backpacking, so don’t be disappointed if there isn’t one. We go car camping for campfires.
Laura: Generally, the parents pick the trail but we consider the kids’ preferences. Our kids have a maximum distance we know that they can travel in a day and we know they prefer rugged trails, over smoother flatter trails. Before we head out on a trip, we often print out a trail map for them to look at and show them photos to get them excited. They like to know what is expected of them before we head out.
Pack the right food
Elliott: Packing the right food is important. I have more advice about that below. Food is a really important part of a good trip for me.
Keep backpack weight in mind
Elliott: Keeping backpack weight in mind and how far we can travel with it on is also important. When I was 4, I carried my blankie and my own water. That was it. On the West Coast Trail when I was 9, I carried around 18 pounds. It was 22 pounds to start with, but it was way too heavy. I can carry that now that I am 12.
Different children can carry different amounts. It depends on how much experience you have with carrying a backpack. If my pack is too heavy, it slows me down and I can’t go that far.
Laura: Each trip we plan backpacks differently. We pack and weigh the backpacks at home. We try the fully loaded bags on to make sure the weight is ok before we leave. Even then, we need to be flexible out on the trail. We try and keep a little extra space in our adult packs, just in case. The kids take a lot of pride in carrying their age-appropriate amount of the family’s supplies.
Know if your child is ready to go backpacking
Laura: How do you know if your child is ready to go backpacking? There is a good chance that they are – it is us adults that need to be prepared to take them.
We did a lot of car camping when the kids were little. It gave us all the opportunity to develop more confidence and provided the kids with time to develop independence and familiarity with camping skills. Along with car camping, day hikes are a great way to get kids ready for backpacking.
If your child is comfortable doing both those things, chances are they are ready for backpacking too! We didn’t start backpacking until the kids were both old enough to independently walk the distance we wanted to travel (ages 4 and 7), but I know that lots of families are ready to go sooner than that!
How to Overcome Challenges When Backpacking With Kids
Hiking in the rain
Elliott: I have a hard time feeling motivated backpacking when there is non-stop rain. I don’t like non-stop rain because you can’t see anything and you can’t get dry. If it is raining, I just keep walking to get to camp as soon as possible, so we can sit under the tarp and have a warm drink.
Laura: When possible, we plan trips with flexible dates, and we are not shy about cancelling or delaying trips in the case of bad weather. It isn’t just kids that don’t like a weekend in the rain. No matter the weather, we always carry good rain jackets for everyone, a large lightweight tarp (also good for creating shade), extra socks, and camp shoes to change into.
READ NEXT: The Best Weather Apps for Hiking
Issues with food
Elliott: I love backpacking but my least favourite thing is when my parents forget to pack a meal. True story, when we were hiking the West Coast Trail, my parents forgot to pack one dinner and one lunch. There were some minor meltdowns when we realized it. Luckily, some people we were hiking with had plenty of extra food that they didn’t want to pack out and they shared it with us.
Elliott: When I am hiking, I really like it when my parents talk to me while we walk. It helps distract me and keeps me thinking about something other than being tired.
My parents sometimes buy gummy candies and hide them along the trail for us. It keeps us excited at the end of a long trip or during a boring stretch.
Sometimes my Mom starts singing when she thinks there might be bears, but I like it, and it is fun to sing with your family.
We like hiking with friends like Taryn because it is someone else we can talk to.
Laura: Both of our children love backpacking, and they both enjoy it for different reasons. You know your kids best, and what keeps them positive and motivated. Kids are likely to complain at some point along the way, be that getting out of the house, along the trail, or at camp. Be prepared for that.
We have one child that needs extra-front loading before we head out the door and one that might need a little extra encouragement or distractions along the trail. Kids are all different and we have to keep their challenges and strengths in mind when we are planning for and carrying out a backpacking trip. There is rarely an outing where that little extra effort to get over a difficult spot, wasn’t worth it.
Worrying about safety
Elliott: I’m scared of the dark sometimes at home, but not when I’m backpacking because we all sleep together. We all have our own headlamps, so I can turn mine on whenever I need to.
We sometimes bring a small string of battery-powered fairy lights to put up at the campsite, but usually, we don’t stay up late enough to enjoy them.
I’m not scared of bears, but my sister says that she plugs her ears at night when she thinks she hears something. She says it calms her down.
Laura: We have some pretty clear expectations for the kids when we are out in the woods backpacking, biking, or hiking. The number one rule for us is that we stick together. I want to be able to see the kids on the trail. If we can see them, most safety concerns (animals, water, injury) can be better predicted and hopefully prevented.
The kids might get more freedom once we get to camp, but even then, their boundaries are outlined when we arrive. I do pack an extra-large first aid kit, equipped with extra bandages and an antihistamine like Benadryl, just in case.
Laura: Our kids have learned to go to the bathroom in the woods, but we usually prefer to camp at a location with proper pit toilets. We find the kids can be more independent going to the bathroom when there are four walls around them.
When Elliott was small, he worried about falling in, but we held his hand when he went and that concern went away quickly. We do tend to pack a little extra toilet paper.
Challenges build resilience
Laura: You are likely to encounter some tough moments on backpacking trips, with or without kids. I like to think of them as learning experiences, that teach our kids and us adults to be a little bit more resilient. Yes, the kids have had a few nights where they didn’t like the food we brought (or we forgot to bring), but we all learned from these experiences. We try and anticipate and plan for these challenges, but that is not always possible.
Best Backpacking Food for Kids
General backpacking food tips
Laura: We eat differently on the trail than we do at home. Don’t worry: our kids eat lots of fruits and veggies on a regular day, but a day backpacking isn’t a regular day. Just like we often eat differently on other types of vacations, backpacking is a vacation for us, and we treat the food we eat the same way.
We eat high carbs and protein backpacking, but also include a little more sugar and treats into the day. The kids get a lot of say in the food we pack, so Elliott’s favourites below are packed on most trips.
Elliott: Snacks are a very important part of backpacking for me. Snacks motivate me and make me work harder. My favourite backpacking snacks are stroopwafel cookies, Hobnob cookies, chocolate, trail mix, and gummy candies. Also, my dad and I sometimes bring a bag of crushed Doritos on trips we do alone. That way the big bag of chips fits into a small Ziploc bag.
Elliott: I don’t usually love backpacking breakfast, but oatmeal is my favorite. We often have dehydrated eggs and pre-cooked bacon, but I don’t love it. Another way to make breakfast better is to bring hot apple cider. Sometimes we bring Poptarts, just because.
READ NEXT: Beyond Oatmeal: 6 Hot Backpacking Breakfasts
Elliott: We usually eat lunch sitting on the side of the trail. Lunch is usually quick and easy. We often have wraps with peanut butter and jam. We often add a pepperoni stick and one of the snacks above, and lunch is done. On the trail, we don’t do fancy lunches and often eat the same lunch every day.
Elliott: Dinner is my favourite meal of the day when backpacking. Since there are four of us, and we try to keep the food weight down, we usually bring dehydrated or freeze-dried meals.
My favourite two dinners are Kraft Mac and Cheese with pre-cooked bacon strips and Flirp (we named it ourselves). Flirp is instant mashed potatoes that you make in large amounts in a big Ziploc freezer bag. It’s called Flirp because it makes that sound when you pour it out of the bag when it is cooked. We always have Flirp with freeze-dried chicken.
We also bring pre-packaged backpacking meals on longer trips. My sister and my favourite packaged backpacking food is AlpineAire Forever Young Mac and Cheese.
Don’t forget to check the expiration date on backpacking food. They don’t taste good after they expire!
Elliott: Dessert is delicious. Another main motivator in my day. We have dessert every night because the meals are smaller, the packaged food sometimes isn’t filling enough, and dessert is simply delicious.
I like AlpineAire Cinnamon Apple Crisp. The dessert we bring the most is pistachio Jell-O pudding (my sister likes chocolate) and we dip cookies like stroopwafels in the pudding. I also like astronaut ice cream but that isn’t filling.
Elliott: Sometimes filtered creek water doesn’t take like what I am used to. We bring water flavouring drops to help with the taste and to keep us drinking. I like Country Time Lemonade.
READ NEXT: How to Choose the Best Backpacking Meals
What to Pack When Backpacking With Kids
Start with this general backpacking gear checklist, then customize it for your family. Elliott and Laura have some kids’ backpacking gear advice.
Gear to make bedtime comfortable and familiar
Elliott: I always bring my special stuffed animal or blanket with me when we backpack. It’s important to me to bring it because it gives me comfort when I’m away from home and it helps me fall asleep. We got inflatable pillows recently and it is also way more comfortable for sleeping.
Laura: We buy our kids light, compact, and warm sleeping bags. It is worth the cost for us to keep the weight down and the nighttime comfort level high.
As the kids spend more time in the tent lounging than we typically do, they can be a bit rougher on their sleeping pads. We have decided not to upgrade them to lightweight inflatable pads like we have. Both kids are using our older self-inflating pads, as we feel that they are more durable and it saves us some money.
Things to keep kids entertained in camp
Elliott: My sister always brings her e-reader because she loves to read in the tent. I keep busy at camp by playing nearby. On shorter trips, we sometimes pack a small game, like Exploding Kittens or Coup.
Laura: We don’t find it challenging to keep the kids busy at camp. They both have jobs that they are responsible for, such as setting up the tent, mattresses, and sleeping bags. Generally, they are pretty tired from the day and remain content. If we have extra weight to carry a hammock or two, we bring those along for relaxing.
Kids backpacking clothing and footwear
Laura: Kids grow out of their clothes quickly, and we find that it isn’t necessary to spend extra money on hiking-specific clothing for kids.
Most clothing items that we bring for the kids are just their regular clothes that we get on sale from kids’ clothing stores and thrift stores. We try and stay away from bringing too much of their cotton clothing, particularly on longer trips.
We don’t compromise on footwear though. They always have sturdy and comfortable hiking shoes and they each have two pairs of soft wool hiking socks, to help keep their feet dry.
We use Taryn’s backpacking packing list when we head out on a trip. The kids re-wear their hiking clothes too so we don’t tend to pack many changes.
One thing that is different from the standard backpacking packing list is that we do bring the kids a set of camp clothes and a separate set of pajamas and sleep socks. The jammies never leave the tent, as we want to keep them dry and free of food spills.
Laura: One tent or two? For us, the situation is evolving as the kids age and often depends on the trip we are on. When the kids were little, we mostly used two small backpacking tents. We have one child who is a night owl and one who likes to wake early. We found it was worth us all getting a good night’s sleep, and we brought two backpacking tents on most trips.
As we started taking longer trips with the kids, where weight was needed for food, we began taking one larger backpacking tent. This works well for us now, and putting up one tent, is faster than putting up two. This is an advantage on trips, where getting moving in the morning can be important.
Backpacks for kids
Laura: On trips when the kids were little and carried just a few of their own personal items, they used school backpacks or our small day packs. Now that they are carrying a good share of the weight, they are using older backpacking bags that we (or our friends) passed along. We decided that we would upgrade the parents’ backpacks first, because we aren’t growing anymore!
How to Find Kid-Friendly Backpacking Destinations
If you’re looking to start backpacking with your kids, look for lists of beginner-friendly backpacking trips in your area. Short trails with not too much elevation gain are the best bet. Elliott and Laura also recommend picking a campsite with a toilet and a lake, creek, or ocean to swim or play in.
After they get some backpacking experience, kids can tackle any backpacking destination.
Backpacking trips for kids in British Columbia
In British Columbia, check out these easy, beginner-friendly backpacking destinations. You can find details on most of these trips in my book, Backpacking in Southwestern British Columbia.
- Cheakamus Lake in Garibaldi Provincial Park (Trip 6)
- Gold Creek Canyon in Golden Ears Provincial Park (Trip 23)
- Lindeman Lake in Chilliwack Lake Provincial Park (Trip 25)
- Lower Stein Valley in Stein Nlaka’pamux Heritage Provincial Park (Trip 29)
- Falls Lake in the Coquihalla Recreation Area (Trip 32)
- Skagit River Trail in Skagit Provincial Park (Trip 34)
- Buckhorn Camp on the Heather Trail in Manning Provincial Park (Trip 35)
- Lightning Lakes in Manning Provincial Park (Trip 37)
- Lake Helen Mackenzie in Strathcona Provincial Park (included in my next book, Backpacking on Vancouver Island, out in 2024)
All of the trips above (plus lots more) are in my guide to the Best Easy Backpacking Trips in BC.
Get My Book…
Backpacking in Southwestern British Columbia
A one-stop resource for backpackers in beautiful British Columbia.
- 40 backpacking trips within a few hours of Vancouver
- Info about permits, reservations, and campsite facilities
- Detailed maps and photos
- Advice for extending your trip
- Points of cultural and natural history
More experienced kids can hike any trail that adults can do. Here’s what Elliott recommends after your kids graduate from easy trips:
Elliott’s favourite overnight backpacking trip in BC: Garibaldi Lake, in Garibaldi Provincial Park. I have done it twice now. (It’s trip 9 in Backpacking in Southwestern British Columbia.)
Elliott’s favourite multi-day backpacking trip in BC: The West Coast Trail, in Pacific Rim National Park because it has lots of ladders and cable cars.
Thanks so much to Elliott (and Laura) for their advice on how to go backpacking with kids. Family backpacking requires a bit more preparation, but it can be lots of fun. Do you have questions about backpacking with children? Ask in the comments!
- Backpacking for Beginners: Tips for Getting Started
- Backpacking Checklist: Gear You Need To Go Backpacking
- 24 Easy Backpacking Trips In BC For Beginners
- 300+ Hiking Terms explained: A Hiking Glossary
- How to Choose the Best Backpacking Meals
- Beyond Oatmeal: 6 Hot Backpacking Breakfasts
- Bear Safety for Hikers, Campers and Backpackers
- The Best Weather Apps for Hiking
- Backpacking with Kids: Tips from a Tween and His Mom - March 30, 2022