Steep mountain landscape in brilliant sunshine with three kids in backpacks. Two of the kids are using their fingers to force the third’s mouth into a smile shape. About a mile distant are three hanging valleys leading to a lightly glaciated row of peaks; a waterfall drains the topmost glaciers into an ice-covered lake in the lowest valley

Backpacking with kids 🏕

Published 2021-07-18

I have many regrets but one of my biggest is that we didn’t start backpacking with our kids sooner.

We started backpacking as a family when the youngest was old enough to do 5–10 miles a day with a daypack, and the older two could carry their own clothes & sleeping bags. Previous to that I think I had taken two of the kids car camping once. And at various points all three kids had gone on camping trips with their maternal grandma. Camping was just not a thing we did.

Strawberry Lake

Our first family trips had a profile like “3 miles to a base camp, then day hikes for two or three days.” As soon as the youngest could carry her own weight, we moved to full loops, 10+ miles/day, in mildly challenging terrain.

Crossing a glacier on Diamond Peak

On most of our trips we see very few kids our age. Almost from the start we encountered a lot of incredulity.

“I can’t believe a [4/6/8/etc]-year-old could [cross that glacier/bag that peak/ford that river/do some other moderate physical feat]!”

Kids can do a lot of things, you’d be surprised

“Don’t they complain?”

Oh jeez yes

“How do you keep them moving?”


The candy trick is starting to lose its magic, though. The kids are old enough now to grok the manipulation; also they have allowances now and sufficient freedom to buy their own damn candy at the convenience store whenever they want. But hopefully they are gaining an appreciation for Type 2 Fun

Pockets full of candy

I had an Outdoorsy Job in my 20s, I often lived out of a tent for weeks or months. So I thought I was kind of over camping & backpacking. But a few years ago Jenny took a sudden interest in it, and roped me back in.

I’m glad she did.

Short list of advice for backpacking with kids:

  • Plan trips for about 75% of your own ability
  • Have at least one day that ends early at a lake or river where they can play
  • You can outlast their complaining. It will all be moot when you are two days from the trailhead, and eventually they will realize that.
  • Never act scared, even when you’re lost
  • Don’t waste money on kid-size gear, except maybe backpacks
  • Corollary: ask around for used or hand-me-down gear. Even active families only get a few years of use out of kid-size gear