Backpacking With Kids

With some careful planning and insider tips, any family can enjoy backpacking with kids in the great outdoors.

By Corey Hunt
Explore Ambassador

It’s important for kids to spend time outdoors. Nature provides more than enough space for them to unwind and fulfill that sense of adventure. As they grow older, it takes more space with higher risks to sufficiently fill this need. It was for this reason we began to take our kids on backpacking trips.

I do get some questioning looks when I suggest taking young kids any distance out of cell or Wi-Fi range. Others ask how we get all of our gear to camp with two young kids and two dogs. But backpacking doesn’t have to be hard, and it is possible with kids even too young to walk. With some careful planning and insider tips, any family can enjoy backpacking with kids in the great outdoors.


Mileage, Not Age, Is The Gauge

The question most often asked about backpacking with kids is when are they old enough? As previously mentioned, even kids too young to walk can be carried in an appropriate backpack many miles. However, for kids who are toting their own loads, use mileage, not age, as your gauge. Prior to our son’s first backpacking trip, we knew that he could out-hike most adults based on our day hikes. If you are unsure how far your kids can go, start them in a day pack with snacks and hit the trail for a light day hike.


The Pack

If you are the one toting your kids, make sure your pack is comfortable for you as well as your little one. It should have a hip belt to distribute weight off your shoulders, which most of them do. We started out with an Osprey baby carrier and put many miles under that belt. For our son’s first backpack, we used an Osprey Kids’ Ace. We liked this backpack because the suspension system will adjust up and down to grow with your child.


The Weight

The total weight of your child’s pack should be no more than 20 to 25% of their body weight. For a 50-pound child, this is no more than 10 to 12 pounds, which is not a lot when it comes to cramming in gear needed for camping. We usually let our son carry his clothes, sleeping bag and some of the food, and that hits about 10 pounds.


Pace Of The Hike

When backpacking with adults, it’s appropriate to set a goal and reserve a backcountry site many miles in. With kids, you never know what the holdup will be. Kids like to stop and look at things along the trail, require more rest and like to take their time in the woods. For this reason, we let our kids set the pace of the hike, and we use backcountry sites that are no more than 3 to 5 miles into the woods, just in case we have to stop and throw rocks in the stream for an hour. With kids, it’s about the journey and the experience, not necessarily the destination.



Even though we aren’t going long distances, we still keep meals simple when backpacking. Freeze-dried meals have come a long way in recent years and are very tasty. The kids usually share a spaghetti dinner, and the adults like chicken pad thai or jambalaya for dinner. For breakfast, we usually snack on toaster pastries or another premade breakfast item.



I recently read an article about a 5-year-old kid who hiked the Appalachian Trail with his parents. They said the greatest challenge was keeping him entertained for weeks on end. While hiking, they would play pretend and make up stories. We usually throw some playing cards or charade cards in our packs for fun at camp. Also, a pocketknife or fire starters can go a long way in keeping older kids entertained and also can teach them camping skills.


Leave No Trace

It’s important to teach kids from a young age the importance of leaving no trace in the woods. Not only is litter around camp an eyesore, but it’s also detrimental to the local wildlife. Most euthanized bears in the Smoky Mountains were drawn to campsites because of poor campsite etiquette. Clean dishes away from the tent and pack out any trash to help preserve the local wildlife.

Backpacking with kids doesn’t have to be complicated. Start by keeping the distances short and selecting a pack that will grow with your child, and remember to have fun.

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