Seattle's Child

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All photos by Jamie Monkkonen

How to go backpacking with kids

Sharing tips and places to go for first time backpackers

Backpacking with kids is an excellent opportunity to disconnect from the digital world, reconnect with nature, and create lasting memories. Regardless of age and stage, young kids can get so much out of a family backpacking trip! From family memories to practicing persistence and grit, staying overnight in the wilderness at a young age is guaranteed to strengthen key resilience skills while gaining an appreciation for the outdoors.

The science of the outdoors

Think your young child “won’t remember this anyway”? Think again! Science shows that implicit memories are built beginning at nine months of age. These memories give a feeling rather than an explicit picture of the experience. Implicit memory lessons learned by spending time outside include “we go outside in (almost) any weather,” the outdoors is a family space, sleeping in the wilderness is safe with proper precautions, and a sense of wonder for the natural world. Enjoying nature at a young age is guaranteed to foster a lifelong love for spending time in the wilderness. {source}

Camping vs. Backpacking

Backpacking involves packing lightweight camping gear into a pack on your back and staying overnight in the wilderness, typically in areas inaccessible to cars and boats. Even if the trail is only half a mile from the parking lot, it still counts as backpacking! Camping, on the other hand (also called “car camping” or “boat camping”), involves setting up a campsite just outside your vehicle.

Choosing the right trip

When choosing the right backpacking trip with kids, consider everyone’s previous experience with hiking and backpacking, age and stage, and the adult-to-kid ratio. 

  • Experience: If you or your kids are very new to hiking and backpacking, choose destinations that are shorter and closer to civilization allowing flexibility and peace of mind for parents and children. Remember that you are your kid’s first responder in the outdoors, so choosing a destination you feel comfortable with and knowing first aid skills are essential.
  • Age and stage: Some younger kids may hike longer than older ones, and older kids will likely appreciate a destination more than younger ones who are focused on the trail! I use the “journey is the destination” guideline for younger kids and opt for shorter trips.
  • Adult-to-kid ratio: If you’re taking your kids out alone or with many kids and a few adults, I find it helpful to consider the above factors and the trails’ features. With young children, you may want to avoid campsites by the water if they aren’t solid swimmers or trails with significant drop-offs. You can get a good idea of trail features using trip reports and hiking guides on wta.org.

Preparing to backpack with kids

These tips will help engage children in the trip before it even starts. Proper planning is crucial to any successful backpacking trip.

  • Test your gear ahead of time. Set your tent up inside or in the yard, take it on a camping trip, and practice hiking with your gear before committing to an overnight. Especially for young kids, setting gear up beforehand allows them to explore the different textures and sounds before committing to the wilderness.
  • Involve them in the planning. Motivating children on the trail is much easier when they’re excited! Choose your trip based on your kid’s preferences for the beach, a lake, or wildlife. It can set you up for success before stepping on the trail.
  • Discuss the trip in depth. Bring a map and show your child the journey and the topographic features. Explain what each day will look like and discuss the weather forecast. With older children, it can be helpful to define roles (navigator, chef, after-dinner entertainment) for the first day, allowing the roles to shift after day 1. Check in with everyone to discuss hopes and fears and address any questions or concerns.

Backpacking with kids: Choosing your gear

So you’re ready to take your young kids backpacking this summer, but what do you pack? Spring is an ideal time to start collecting your gear for a smooth transition once the snow melts.

In general, everything you need as an adult is adequate for a kid, too, in their sizes, of course. For very small children, a few outdoor companies have surfaced in the past few years that offer options for even the tiniest adventurers.

Here are some specialty gear options to consider when backpacking with kids:

  • Morrison sleeping bag: This company makes down and synthetic sleeping bags for small children. They are available online and at REI, but they sell out once the season starts, so the sooner you pick one up, the better! They allow for free arms, which I find very useful when young kids wake up in the middle of the night and may need a moment to remember where they are.
  • Iksplor Merino Wool Layers: Taking an infant outside? Iksplor has merino wool baselayers for even the tiniest of adventurers! Wool or other synthetic fibers that keep your body warm when wet are necessary for backpacking adventures.
  • Trail Magik Backpacking carrier: Wondering how you’ll carry your toddler or preschooler AND a fully packed backpacking backpack? The Trail Magik carrier is the only one out there that attaches to your regular backpacking backpack so you don’t need to bring an extra carrier! It’s ultra-lightweight and offers an opportunity for rest when backpacking with kids who want to be up and down all along the trail.

Facebook Marketplace is a great place to shop for used kids’ backpacking gear at an affordable price. 

Destinations for all ages

Ozette loop

Ozette Loop on the Olympic Peninsula is my number one pick for a first backpacking trip with young children. It offers a 9.4 mile loop that can be broken down into three miles of hiking each day for two nights of backpacking or an out-and-back one-night trip. The trail offers a boardwalk through a lush rainforest full of toddler wonders and a beach that’s perfect for sand play, fort building, surf exploration, campfires, and family games.

Baker Lake

Baker Lake is another very flexible backpacking trail that is 8 miles roundtrip with several campsites and lots to do. If you’re camping with older children and can access two cars, try a one-way car shuttle for a 2-3 night backpacking trip without retracing your steps. You can also choose an out-and-back trip. With exciting trail features like rocks, trail stairs, and plenty of roots and greenery that follow the south end of Baker Lake in the Mount Baker Wilderness, the journey is the destination.

Marmot Pass

Ideal for older kids or ambitious families looking to make heavy use of kid hiking carriers, Marmot Pass is on the Olympic Peninsula and offers a challenge for adults and a good introduction to peak-bagging and sweeping viewpoints. The hike is 11.5 miles roundtrip and offers river and ridge campsites in the Olympic Peninsula’s northeast section. Take your time and go for several nights, or do it as a one-nighter. 

Lily and Lizard Lakes

This lesser-known backpacking destination in the Chuckanuts near Bellingham offers an extensive 7.5 mile trail network, so you can choose your own adventure! Looking for a steep trail with roots and rocks? Or how about something flatter and easier, where you can walk side by side with family members? Either way, there’s a route for that. Choose one lake or both, and enjoy the flexibility! These trails are usually not too busy, and it’s likely you’ll get the feeling of solitude without going very far.

Along with your gear, the knowledge from this article, and the ten essentials, all else you will need is a sense of wonder to get started on your first adventure backpacking with kids.

Read more about getting into the outdoors with kids:

Tent camping for the first time? Here’s what you need and where to go

Ten essentials for a hiking trip

Check out these hikes in the North Cascades

Guide to the RV life

About the Author

Jamie Monkkonnen

Jamie Monkkonnen is a recipe developer and food writer for the blog Vibrantlygfree.com. She is also a professional food photographer for restaurants, online magazines and food products.