What’s the secret to fun family backpacking? Planning ahead and bringing all the right gear – that includes your sense of adventure.
When to Go on a Family Backpacking Trip
The best time to start backpacking with your kids is when your family is ready. My parents took me on my first family backpacking trip at just six weeks old. While my husband and I had planned to do the same, our little one had other plans that didn’t involve sleeping in the backcountry, or sleeping at all for that matter! Within a year, another baby was on the way, so we decided to wait until the kids were big enough to transport themselves rather than carry gear for four while wrangling two kids under two.
Waiting until the girls were old enough to hike to camp unassisted meant we could go a little further and stay a little longer. Now that they’re five and seven, they can even carry some of their own gear. If you want to do a family backpacking trip sooner and don’t mind carrying your kids, go for it. Just be sure that your babies can sleep through the night in a tent. Your fellow campers will appreciate it.
Pro Tip: If kids wear their own backpack, make sure it does not exceed 10-15% of their body weight.
What to Bring on a Family Backpacking Trip
For your hiking comfort, get the lightest backpacks, tent, and sleeping bags you can afford, to aid in reducing your pack weight. You’ll need a large backpack that fits you well when loaded, and a light, but sturdy 3-4 person tent with full rainfly and footprint. Keep in mind that most backcountry tent pads are 2.7m (8.8’) x 2.7m (8.8’). Down sleeping bags give you the most warmth for their weight and size, but if you are camping in mild climates, a synthetic bag will do. A backcountry campstove and nesting pots will also cut down on pack weight and bulk.
Once you have the essentials squared away, be sure to bring a few fun things for the kids. A favorite stuffed animal, binoculars, glow sticks, and deck of cards are great for after dark when kids need to stay close. We’ve played a lot of Go Fish on rainy days too!
Pro Tip: If there will be more than one adult, share carry weights more evenly by bringing two 2-person tent set ups.
Family Backpacking Pack List
Shelter and Bedding
- Tent, fly, footprint
- Sleeping bag in waterproof stuff sack (1 per person)
- Sleeping pad (1 per person)
- Camp pillow
- Lightweight tarp and paracord (for gear storage/to extend the vestibule of your tent)
When hiking the backcountry, not much is as important as staying hydrated. Plan family backpacking trips where a fresh water source is available to replenish your group’s drinking water, and make sure you decide how you will purify that water ahead of time.
Even the cleanest looking water can carry harmful organisms, bacteria, and viruses that will make outdoor adventure less-than fun if you or your child fall ill from them. Bring along several methods for treating water, and then bring a backup.
Pro Tip: Making clean water is a chore kids will love, so feel free to delegate.
- Water bottle (at least 1 per person)
- Water filtration system
- Water purification tablets
- Personal Emergency Water Filter
No meal tastes better than when it’s cooked out in the wide open, over a fire started with your own two hands. Just because you’re on a family backpacking trip, out in the middle of nowhere, doesn’t mean you have to eat pork and beans for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Unless of course you have a slight obsession with pork and beans, then by all means, don’t let us stop you. Pack these essentials and you’ll be eating like royalty after a long day on the trail.
- Compact backcountry campstove (wood-burning stoves fuel lessen your fuel load)
- Lightweight, nesting cooking pots
- Bowls, plates, cups (1 per person)
- Spork (1 per person)
- Folding knife
- Silicon spatula
- Dishwashing kit: Collapsible bucket, biodegradable soap, and dish scrub sponge
- Reusable lunch bags
- Garbage bags
- If fires permitted: aluminum foil and telescoping marshmallow roasting sticks
Pro Tip: Store these items in a waterproof stuff sack or dry bag. Bring paracord and a large carabiner to hang cookware and food in a tree (at least 100 m from your tent) if bear lockers are unavailable.
Family Backpacking Meal Ideas
To save money, make your own dehydrated meals using instant rice, instant noodles, couscous, or instant mashed potatoes as a base. Miso ramen is easy to make with BBQ pork and/or sliced boiled egg, dehydrated veggies, instant miso soup, and instant noodles.
If you’re lucky enough to be at a backcountry campground with a fire pit, roast smokies or cook food in foil pouches (but bring a stove just in case there’s no firewood or the wood is soaked).
Most importantly, bring lots of snacks! Snacks provide motivation in addition to nourishment, especially when you’re 5. Let your kids help pack trail treats to ensure you get everyone’s favorites, then take half that amount because they will overdo it! We love dried apple slices, Philippines dried mangoes, trail mix with coconut chips and m&m’s, gummy worms, beef jerky, homemade oatmeal raisin cookies, granola bars, and dark chocolate almonds.
We usually do instant oatmeal or bars for breakfast with dried fruit and hard boiled eggs (pre-boiled at home), sandwiches and carrot sticks/dried apple slices for lunch, and dehydrated meals for dinner. Cook-in-the-bag dehydrated meals keep fuel consumption and dishes to a minimum. Simply pour boiling water in the bag and wait! We like AlpineAir Forever Young Mac and Cheese, Mountain House Lasagna with meat sauce, and AlpineAir Black Bart Chili with Beef.
Check out these other awesome make-ahead camping meal ideas from Mommy Hiker.
Fire Making Kit
Starting a campfire in the backcountry varies on location, so make sure you check with local rangers to learn about the campfire regulations and prohibitions of the wilderness area you’ll be visiting. Preparing a fire-making kit ahead of time means you’ll be relaxing in front of a warm fire in no time. Here are the essentials.
Pro Tip: Vaseline-soaked cotton balls also work great as a fire starter.
Clothing to Pack for a Family Backpacking TripThe clothes you pack will vary depending on when and where you’re going backpacking. It is important to keep in mind that nighttime temperatures can dip drastically, so be sure to pack a warm jacket, beanie, gloves and thick socks.
Even an optimist should always be prepared for inclement weather on a backcountry trip, so bring your rain gear, and pack technical layers, like socks and underwear, that will dry quickly. You will also need a hat and sunglasses for the day. Lightweight hut booties or camp shoes are worth their weight in gold, as there is nothing better than taking off those hiking boots after a long day of exploring, and slipping on clean, cozy slippers.
Pro tip: Do not sleep in the clothes you wore during the day for bear safety. Best practice is to keep dirty clothes (i.e. the outfit Junior spilled food all over) in a plastic bag in the bear locker at night. Clean clothes can stay in your tent in a waterproof stuff sack. Not only will this protect them from dew, but you’ll have a pillow!
Additional Family Backpacking Essentials
- Headlamp (1 per person)
- Whistle (1 per person)
- Compass with signalling mirror or waterproof GPS
- Topographic map of area
- 10 m of Paracord
- Mosquito head net (1 per person)
- Bear spray (1 per adult)
- First Aid Kit (Add fine tip tweezers if not included)
- Toiletries kit: Sunscreen, Insect repellent, toothbrush, toothpaste, feminine hygiene products, Medications (prescription meds if applicable; Children’s Tylenol, Advil, electrolyte solution, and anti-diarrhea tablets)
- Backcountry Toilet kit: toilet paper, hand sanitizer, shovel, baby wipes, ziploc bags
- Camera and memory cards
- Tent pole repair kit
- Tent patch kit
- General repair kit: zip ties, duct tape, extra backpack hip belt buckle
- Spare batteries for headlamps, GPS, and camera
- Optional: battery charger for cell phone
Family Backpacking Extras
We know, this family backpacking list may seem overwhelming. There may be items you won’t think are essential to your family and that’s absolutely okay. Let’s not loose sight of the number one goal of any family adventure; have fun. So with that in mind, here are a few fun, and utterly non-essential, extras you can include just for kicks.
- Night sky star finder
- Magnifying glass
- Favorite (small) stuffed animal
- Inflatable beach ball
- Travel frisbee
- Glow sticks
- Journal and pen
- Backpacker’s fishing pole
Practice Makes Perfect
Test your gear before you head into the backcountry. A little preparation goes a long way! Practice setting up your tent in the backyard so it won’t leak in a storm (hint: you have to peg the fly out properly!). Ensure you have the right fuel for your stove and that your stove works. Finally, check the batteries on your headlamp, GPS unit, and water purifier, and replace as needed (and pack spares!).
Where to Go Family Backpacking
Your initial outing should be short and close to home. Start with walk-in camping, then do a short 1-2 night family backpacking trip. If your child can easily hike 3 km, plan to camp somewhere no more than 3 km from the car.
Family Backpacking Training
Backcountry users should take a wilderness first aid class so they can better care for someone in the event of an emergency. I also recommend educating yourself on the principles of Leave No Trace so you can minimize your effects on the environment. If you adventure in the mountains in the winter months, take an avalanche training course so you know how to identify and avoid avalanche terrain.
Embracing the Family Backpacking Journey
The best thing about family backpacking is that you can slow down and enjoy the journey. On our trip to The Point Backcountry Campground in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, Alberta, the hike was only 3.4 km, so we stopped at two beaches along the way for snacks, splashing, and sandy fun. Before kids, I hiked right past the same beaches without stopping to get to a different campground further down the trail. Take the time to play! You won’t regret it.
It’s no secret that kids have more fun with other kids, and it’s kind of cool to have other adults around to share stories and camp chores with (one watches the kids, one starts a fire, one filters water, one opens the wine). On our recent winter family backpacking trip, we went with two other families and the kids entertained each other for hours!
Backpacking is a rewarding experience I love sharing with my family. It allows us to be closer to nature longer, away from the hustle and bustle of city life. I love fishing at sunset, then watching the stars come out, and waking up to the call of loons on the lake. There’s something satisfying too, about being self sufficient and carrying everything on your back. Once you try it, you won’t want to camp any other way!
Karen Ung is married to her backpacking sweetheart and is a mother and lover of maps, mountains, and mochas. With her Geography degree and experience leading hikes and backpacking trips in the Rockies, she is full of ideas on where to go and what to do. The mission of her blog, Play Outside Guide, is to provide “everything families need to know to get outside and have fun.”