In real life, backpacking with kids isn’t Troop Beverly Hills, but it isn’t quite White Water Summer, either. For some, a successful trip includes a secret stash of toys and for others it’s about turning hills into roller coasters to keep little motors running. Whatever your strategy, here are a few pointers to get you sleeping under the stars. Bonus: these tips might even get the kids carrying their own pack!

hikingwithkids_brittneyfort_backpackingwithkids_outdoorfun_national_redtricyclePhoto: Brittney Fort

What Age?

The earlier the better. Get em’ used to being outside and familiar with nature. In fact, you can plan a backpacking trip as soon as you are ready to hike and wear the baby! Lots of parents backpack with tiny tots. Since they aren’t mobile they make the perfect trail companion. Toddler years bring different perspectives and curiosity (read: slower hiking paces) about every single leaf, rock and butterfly. As they get older, the hikes can get longer and more challenging for the whole family.

Trail Tip: If you’re nursing, you don’t even have to pack food for the wee one!

the_crew_by_Darya_MeadPhoto: Laure Latham

Where?

You can be one with nature as close as a mile from a trailhead or five miles up a mountain. The goal of backpacking is to finding a spot where nature is all yours, so go as far as little legs can strut. Depending on the area, you can find your lake, creek, forest clearing, boulder to climb, beach or even your own personal waterfall!

Trail Tip: Be sure to check the map for distance before heading out. You don’t want to be carrying your pack and your kid down the mountain.

kids on trailPhoto: Darya Mead

How?

Set the Pace
There’s always the option of backpacking like a maniac, setting an Olympic-daily pace with 100-pound packs or, there’s a more relaxed backpacking with a mid-weight pack and a mellow pace. May we suggest finding a camp that’s only a mile or two away on your first trip? You’ll be able to  double-back to the car if needed.

joggingstroller_gabbycullen_backpacking_outdoorfun_national_redtricyclePhoto: Gabby Cullen

Do it with a Stroller
Consider pushing a jogging stroller if it’s an option; lugging part of the weight on the stroller gives your back a break. Once your budding trail guides can walk with ease (age 2 or 3), get them backpack of their own! They’ll be able to carry their “share of the load” with a water bottle and a snack—maybe even a kid camera to grab album-worthy shots along the way.

Trail Tip: If you like company in the great outdoors, throw together a trip with friends or join group trips organized by your local Sierra Club, REI Family Adventures, Children & Nature Network or other outdoors club.

kids hikingPhoto: Laure Latham

What to Pack?

Think Lightweight
You’ll be toting most of the gear for yourself and your littles in the early years: extra sleeping bags and mats, a slightly roomier tent, kid-friendly campfire food. It all add ups in the end!

Get Good Gear
Plan ahead and watch the end-of-season sales at REI, Campmor, Sports Basement. You’ll be able to save up to 60% to 70% on great equipment that’ll last you a decade. For an example of a light-weight backpacking checklist, see here.

Trail Tip: If you’re going to tackle steep terrain, buy hiking poles! They really help shift weight off your joints and your body will thank you at the end of the day.

Don’t Forget Diapers
Until children are potty-trained, remember that you’ll need to pack and carry back all dirty diapers (how could you forget?).  Wipes should be scent-free so unwanted wildlife doesn’t roam around your camp at night: resealable plastic bags will help keep odors contained! For hybrid diaper systems such as gDiapers or FlipDiapers, there’s no consensus on whether or not you can bury the inserts in nature. If you can’t burn them, pack them out.

freezedriedfood_backpackingwithkids_outdoorfun_national_redtricyclePhoto: J Brew via flickr

What to Eat?

Manage your Menu
All that fresh air will make your little cubs hungry! For the ultimate backcountry experience, freeze-dried food packs a punch without taking up much space. A godsend…unless you have a picky eater. For an easier and cheaper alternative, grab a stash of instant foods from your local TJ’s or Target. Think: Asian noodles, pouches of Indian food or TexMex beans served with quick-cook rice or couscous. In the morning, oatmeal is the breakfast of the champions in the outdoors and you can make it “deluxe” with a few spoonfuls of your child’s favorite nuts or dried fruits.

To keep your kids energized during your walks pack easy grab-and-go snacks. Make your own trail mix before your trip or opt for a organic whole grain bar that’ll keep them fueled all day long. We’re digging CLIF Kid’s Protein zBar that packs in the fiber and protein without any preservatives or corn syrup.

Trail Tip: Check out our picks for tasty kid-friendly campfire meals here.

Stay Well Watered
Staying well hydrated will keep everybody happy! Overnight backpacking means quick ways to purify water you find along the way. Whether you choose an old-fashioned water pump (kids love to pump) or a gravity system that you hang from a tree, make sure you know how to operate your system before the trip. Thirsty kids don’t wait!

Trail Tip: If you thought you’d have to wait until the next saloon for a collapsible cup of Merlot, relax. Carry your favorite vino in air-tight wine pouches called PlatyPreserve. Merlot on the trail—what more could you ask under the Milky Way?

family hikingPhoto: Laure Latham

Other Ideas?

This handy checklist will help make your trip successful!

  • Sunblock of course, even in the colder/shadier areas.
  • Two small favorite toys, a deck of cards or a book to read – useful when you set up camp.
  • Bug repellant and wipes.
  • Two extra pairs of kid socks for each day of the trip – creeks happen.
  • On a NPS or state park designated trail, geocaching keeps children going. Leading the way from one cache to the next and ultimately to the next campsite make the hike more exciting.
  • Waterproof shoes to splash around.
  • Collapsible buckets or sinks to fetch water in the lake or in the river.
  • Headlamps for everyone—two hands are better than one.
  • For little ones who like to crawl around, a mini-tent that you can set up when you arrive at the camp.

Have you tried backpacking with kids? Share with us in the Comments below!

—Laure Latham & Gabby Cullen