Going for a hike with kids is a great way to get the family outdoors and among nature. But have you ever wondered if it was possible to take it a step further and head out on a multi-day adventure?
The thought of an overnight hike may seem a little daunting at first, especially if your kids are a bit picky about comfort and sleeping. However, having done it many times, I’ve learned from my own hiking mistakes and can assure you it’s not only possible, but very rewarding.
I’ve been taking my two kids into the outdoors since they were 12 months old and recently spent four days hiking with my nine-year-old son on K’gari (formerly known as Fraser Island) on the east coast of Australia. It was an amazing experience, but it was made easier by using the right gear and following the tips for backpacking with kids I’ve learned over the years.
Here’s a useful guide to backpacking with kids, including what gear you’ll need, how to plan, and some tried-and-true ideas to keep everyone happy.
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Research your trip
Researching your backpacking trip is essential to its success. Taking into consideration your children’s ages and abilities and find a route that isn’t too technical, long, or dangerous — you want them to enjoy themselves, not feel like they’re being pushed to their limits. To ensure kids don’t lose interest and motivation on the trail, look for interesting features such as creek crossings, opportunities for a swim, or trails with geocaches.
More importantly, don’t forget to research potential dangers and trail features that may make the hike harder. Make sure your children know how to act around wild animals, avoid choosing any trails with steep drop-offs, and avoid trails with no guaranteed water source. On our recent hike to K’gari, I discovered it was dingo breeding season and thought the wild dogs might be a nuisance. So we booked hiker’s camps with Dingo-proof fences and kept our food secured. In most places in the US, there are very specific rules about how you have to handle your food in the backcountry, and many national parks only allow you to camp in designated areas with a reservation (as opposed to wild or pure backcountry camping).
Plan to start small
Plan to start small for your first time backpacking with kids. I keep daily distances under about six miles, or even shorter if the terrain is rough or uphill. Teenagers should be able to hike longer distances; however, whether they want to is another important point to consider.
On a hiking trip on the Noosa Trail Network in Queensland, Australia, I wasn’t sure how it would go carrying my younger child up the steeper hills with a small hiking pack. So we started small with a shorter three-mile hike uphill to camp for just one night. I quickly learned from this small hike how far my toddler could walk before needing to be carried, and that I would need to drop some weight from my hiking gear before attempting the real deal. It was a good trial for doing a longer trip backpacking with kids.
Starting small ensures the success of the trip, which builds confidence for future adventures. It’s also a great way to learn what equipment you can and can’t live without before committing to a longer hike.
Gear for backpacking with kids
The most important thing to remember is that your gear needs to be super lightweight as you’ll be carrying your home on your back. Here is a list of must-haves:
Lightweight hiking tent
A lightweight hiking tent is essential for backpacking with kids, so buying or borrowing a tent that weighs around four pounds or under is ideal. When it comes to purchasing a tent, check out Nature Hike for that sweet spot between low cost and quality. Younger children will usually have no problems squishing in with an adult into a one-man tent. Both my nine-year-old son and I shared this one-man cloud-up tent on our recent hike, but two-man and three-man options are available.
Backpacking with kids means lugging extra food, clothes, sleeping gear, and possibly an extra tent. This also means that both you and the kids will need proper hiking packs to share the load. Although teenagers should be able to manage an adult’s pack, younger kids will need one sized for them. There are some great ones available from REI. Kids too small for a full backpacking pack can carry a daypack with lighter items, such as their clothes and snacks.
Adult overnight hiking packs generally range in size between 40 to 75 liters and children’s between 10 to 50 liters. I use this 40-liter Osprey women’s pack. For kids, I like this affordable Quechua MH500 18L one from Decathlon. We used this on our last hiking trip and I love that it has a height adjustment on the back, so it will last a few seasons before it’s outgrown.
Baby carriers and strollers
Babies and toddlers will need to be carried, which is where it gets a little tricky. Child carriers are amazing, but even the best ones don’t have enough storage for all of your hiking gear as well as your child. In those instances, you may need to rope in a few extra pairs of hands to help carry the hiking essentials while you lug the kiddo.
I like and used the Karinjo Child Carrier from Kathmandu when my kids were younger, but many hiking parents swear by the Deuter Kid Comfort hiking pack. Alternatively, if your child is young enough for a front carrier, consider using the 360 Ergobaby Carrier, which will then free up your back for a small pack.
If you love a good DIY project, consider making a hiking trolley. This means you can carry a younger child on your back while you push the hiking gear in front wheelbarrow style. Depending on the design, your kid may even be able to ride on the trolley. Hiking trolleys can be hard to find at camping stores, so many families make their own to suit. In the US, products like this are nearly unheard of, and your option will probably just be a hiking stroller, also called a trail stroller or all-terrain stroller. Note that some parks regulate which trails will allow strollers, so be sure to check local regulations if you’re planning to use it in a highly regulated trail system (like at a US national park).
I don’t recommend skimping on the quality when it comes to hiking boots, especially when you’ve got kids in tow.
Shoes with a high cuff that tighten around your ankles add ankle support and protect you from scratches and knocks on the trail. However, if you’re doing shorter distances you may be just fine wearing a pair of trail runners; many hikers swear by their lighter weights, breathability, and ease of movement. I prefer a mix of the two, usually opting for a good quality, mid-cut boot that offers the best of both worlds: the ruggedness of a higher ankle, and the flexibility of a lower-cut boot.
Check out Salomon for quality hiking boots. My Salomon mid-cut boots have lasted 11 years and are still going. You may be tempted to skimp on the kid’s shoes because they probably won’t fit 12 months from now. However, REI has some great affordable options in both lower-cut hiking shoes and boot styles.
Basically, you’re going to want to choose the lightest and/or most packable sleeping bag that’s warm enough for where you plan to sleep. Mummy bags are warmer and lighter, so they’re usually best for kids as they take up less space in their bags and will keep them cozier at night. You’ll want to buy one in a kid size as an adult version will likely be too cold for smaller bodies.
If you plan on sharing your sleeping bag with your child, a rectangle bag that zips out into a blanket will be a better choice.
You’ll need a hiking stove and fuel, pan, cutlery, bowls, plates, and backcountry soap. This cooking equipment can really weigh down your hiking pack, but thankfully, there are lots of ultra-lightweight options out there designed specifically for backpacking.
The Jet Boil is a popular choice for its ability to quickly reach a boiling point and compatibility with the brand’s accessories such as a cooking pot, frying pan, and coffee press. However, those looking for something a little more affordable might prefer the Optimus Crux Lite Stove that comes with a pot and frypan in the kit.
Bowls, plates, and cutlery can be purchased in lightweight sets that nest together to use minimal space in your backpacking pack. I like this two-person set from Sea to Summit that comes in at a light 14.4oz (400g).
Unfortunately, unless you’re going for just a quick overnight, you’ll need to wash everything, just like at home. Grab a travel-sized bottle of eco-friendly detergent and something to scrub with, like a sponge or washcloth. I use this complete clean-up kit also from Sea to Summit.
Opening your pack to find your dirty underwear has been mingling with your cooking gear is the ultimate in cringe when you’re backpacking. Packing cubes allow you to separate your hiking gear within your backpack, thus making it much easier to keep things find what you need. On our recent hiking trip to K’gari, a mini packet of Nutella leaked inside my hiking pack, but fortunately, it was contained in a small packing cube and only made a mess of our snacks for the day.
A pack of three like this set from REI is handy. Store your clothes or food in the large one, cooking gear in the mid-size, and toiletries and medicines in the smaller one.
First aid kit
First aid kits are a non-negotiable when backpacking with kids, but thankfully, there are now some lightweight options on the market such as this watertight medical kit. It has enough supplies for up to four people for four days.
Water storage and purification
The age-old adage is to carry one liter of water for every two hours of hiking. You can carry water in either a reusable bottle or water bladder and both have their pros and cons.
Bottles are easier to clean, lightweight, and usually fit in the side pocket of your hiking pack. Water bladders are harder to clean but have a drinking tube that clips to the front of your pack for on-the-go hydration. The flexible shape allows it to fit more places within your bag, though it also means it can slouch and be a bit bulky. I like these collapsable water containers as an excellent compromise between the two.
You’ll need to treat the water you drink in the backcountry, either with water purification tablets or by using a water filter before you fill your bottle. When you research your backpacking destination, be sure to check which method is recommended, as some water sources are much cleaner than others. Never drink from a water source downstream of any livestock, regardless of your purification method. Although technically you can boil water to treat it, this uses up your stove fuel fairly rapidly.
Do a test run
A test run can be a good way to build confidence and fine-tune what you can and can’t live without on the trail. Pack your bag just like you would on when backpacking with kids, but head out for a day hike closer to home. After your hike, set up in your backyard or local park. Alternatively, consider going to a national park or state park, where you can hike during the day and set up camp at a site with water and restrooms afterward.
Tips to make it easier
- Allow extra time — kids are notoriously slow hikers.
- Know when to call it quits. Nobody enjoys hiking in terrible weather or if they’re sore or tired.
- Let the kids loose with a kid-proof camera like a GoPro. It gives them something to do when the trail gets a little dull.
- Carry a hiking pole or a large stick. Not only will it take the pressure off your knees, but you can also use it to test water depth, mount your camera, or even as a large tent pole in an emergency. Many kids find them a novelty. After all, how often are they allowed loose with a big telescopic stick?
- Don’t forget to pack a little treat. Nothing fixes a bad mood like a hot chocolate.
If you do enough preparation by researching the hike, ensuring you have the right equipment, and doing a practice run, backpacking with kids doesn’t have to be difficult. In fact, it’s pretty darn fun.