Family Fun: Backpacking Ideas from Toddlers to Teens and Beyond

Family Fun: Backpacking Ideas from Toddlers to Teens and Beyond

Many young adult adventurers like to say they’ll never have kids because they want to be able to continue to live free and not get tied down. Choosing a childless life is totally valid for many reasons. While it is possible that having children may slow you down or switch up the way you adventure, adventures definitely don’t have to stop if you do decide or have decided to have kids! 

Two kids and another adult take a rest on a hiking trail that winds into the distance, surrounded by green grass, light blue skies and a distant cliff. hiking, kids, backpacking, camping, outdoors, family

Before I had kids, I rode my bike across five  different countries. I thru-hiked the John Muir Trail (aka Nüümü Poyo), a 211-mile trail that never crosses a road! I spent a summer as a roadie for a small punk band and performed in the circus. Getting pregnant with my first kid didn’t stop the adventures: I backpacked during both of my pregnancies, right up until the last trimesters. Since having kids, I have continued to backpack, mostly switched my bike touring to bikepacking (took the bike from roads to trails), and added summiting mountains, river rafting, kayaking, SUPing, and mountain biking. Some of this I do with my kids, some of it is my “me” time.   

Sharing your love of outdoor adventures with your kids is excellent for their physical and mental development. Nature Deficit Disorder, a term coined by author Richard Louv, speaks to how a lack of nature can negatively affect us individually and us as a society. Louv emphasizes that it is important for humans to interact with nature for our health and that of our planet. When people are connected to the natural world, they have more motivation to protect it. I want to be sure my kids are healthy and have a deep respect for the more than human world, and the best way that I have found to instill this respect is by taking them outside in the wilderness and immersing ourselves into those ecosystems. 

Now that my kids are teenagers, I feel like I have built up a store of experience that can be used as inspiration for fellow parents and would-be family adventurers. The following advice assumes you have some backpacking experience, but maybe you’re new parents, or haven’t been adventuring since your first kid(s) and therefore the small human(s) add a new level of complexity to your outdoor adventure. 

Principle 1 in Leave No Trace is Plan Ahead and Prepare.

Be sure to take this step seriously and share your itinerary with a trusted friend or family member who knows what to do if you don’t contact them as scheduled. You should have basic navigation skills, wilderness first aid skills (I recommend getting certified in WFA and CPR), and you should carry an emergency communication device. Make sure to update your first aid kit to include medicine and gear appropriate for all ages. 

Having Fun in the Backcountry with Babies and Toddlers

This may go without saying: Keep your mileage low! When backpacking with a baby and/or toddler, plan a short mileage trip to a fun basecamp destination from which you can plan little day hike adventures and return to the trailhead a day or two later the same way you came in. You can carry the baby in the front and wear a small backpack or carry the baby in a framed baby backpack with gear strapped into the frame. I opted for a framed backpack because while front packs were great for city walking, they weren’t great for trails with more trip hazards. 

Toddlers are capable of hiking the miles themselves. They may be slow, but they’ll usually proudly carry their own sleeping bag, headlamp, snacks, and water. When they are little, it’s all about the snacks and time to connect with their parents unplugged! While teaching proper trail etiquette and Leave No Trace Principles is key, don’t get hung up on the rules you’ve created for yourself around pack weight and only bringing essentials. If your kid always sleeps with their stuffy, bring it! 

This easy hike into a basecamp is a great way to introduce the kids to backpacking, while allowing parents to take turns getting some adventure time on their own. My partner and I would plan a short hike from camp in the morning and then get back to camp for lunch and afternoon naps for the kiddos, and then while one parent would stick around and read a book or prepare for dinner, the other would head off for a trail run, to summit a nearby peak, or find an alpine lake to dip into. 

If you’re wondering if you can still go Ultralight Backpacking with a baby and toddler, I’m not the one to ask! We both carried as much weight as was needed to be sure our whole family was safe and comfortable. My husband (who generally hikes like he’s an Olympic racewalker) would cruise ahead while I went at our toddler’s pace. He’d get to camp, drop his pack, then come back to meet us and take a little off my load or throw the toddler on his shoulders if needed. Once we were all in camp, we let the kids do what they wanted, which generally involved dirt, mud, rocks, and sticks. Don’t worry about trying to keep them tidy in the wild, just let them have fun! We’ve got the Clean Hands Kit for cleaning up before meals and tent time. 

Animated GIF of a hand demonstrating the CNOC CleanHands Kit to wash up. hiking, camping, clean up, cleanhands, hygiene, backpacking, outdoors, family, kids

 

How to Keep  Elementary Age Kids Interested in Backpacking

As they get older, it's likely your kids will already have fond memories of time outside. Now is the time they can start collecting, carrying, and caring for their own gear. They will enjoy taking on some tasks like water collection and tent set up. 

Two kids, one in a yellow shirt and redheaded, wearing sunglasses, stand triumphantly in front of their set up tent, with evergreen trees, blue skies and a snowy mountain in the background. hiking, kids, backpacking, camping, outdoors, family


If you are stumped on how to keep kids entertained without electronic devices, I recommend nature-based science activities, like 
Citizen Science Projects. This is an incredible way to spend time in the backcountry learning about the ecosystems and how all the creatures and plants are connected, all while helping scientists! When my kids were young, they carried journals and pens so we could all participate in various science projects. Those journals doubled as sketch pads for outdoor art projects, drawing, and cataloging the plants and animals we saw. Sometimes we would create nature sculptures with leaves, rocks, and sticks. We would leave these nature sculptures up while we were at camp and then spread out the materials used as part of the camp clean up process, recognizing that animals may need to use those supplies and so we should put them back where we found them. We talked about this being a step of the process as we built the sculptures, so they were never upset to tear them down. 

When they’re old enough to understand both the joys and dangers of berries and mushrooms, it’s fun to learn about wild edibles. A good book or local class can teach you where they are, when they’re in season, and how to collect and graze on these wild foods, while being respectful of the animals who may rely on that food. It is also necessary to learn when and where foraging isn’t allowed. My boys would disappear into a huckleberry patch, coming back with mouths and fingers dyed blue. 

Last but definitely not least, if there was one piece of gear that my kids had endless fun with in this age range, it was their backpackers’ hammock. It can be a swing, a chair, a cozy nap or overnight sleep spot, or a place to lay and read.  

 

Two hikers with trekking poles and packs hike on snowy and icy terrain in front of a frozen waterfall landscape. hiking, kids, backpacking, camping, outdoors, teens, family

Middle and High-Schoolers Love Backpacking, Too

Many parents today struggle with tearing their teens away from screens. I get asked by so many of my peers, “How do you get your teens to go on those long hikes, mountain bike rides, and backpacking trips with you?” For my kids, no coercion is necessary; they’re not wishing they were somewhere else, except maybe hanging out with friends, so bring them! This age group is becoming more independent and making deep connections with friends, so be prepared to bring along a friend or two and introduce them to the wonderful world of backpacking. 

If you are here reading this now, maybe your teen has a friend who talks about backpacking or hiking, and that’s why your teen wants to try a backpacking adventure. See if their family will plan a trip with yours, or maybe they’ll take your child along on one of their adventures. We hang onto old gear in our family, in case a friend is able to come along. Gear is expensive - don’t feel bad about borrowing, renting or getting it used! Our site has a clearance section where we sometimes offer refurbished or blemished items for sale. 

An elementary-aged child wearing a pink ball cap and a backpacking pack stands at the edge of a rocky mountain creek, with tall peaks and snow behind them. hiking, kids, backpacking, camping, outdoors, family

To make sure this is a fun trip for the whole family, teens and all, now is the time to get them fully involved, from pre-trip planning to clean up. Ask them what they want out of the adventure. Are they young athletes who love to push themselves? Plan a trip that has long mile days and lots of elevation gain. Do they love swimming? Find a good swimming hole or a deep lake. Are they budding artists or photographers? Have them bring their sketchpad or camera and put them in charge of documenting the trip.

Plan with everyone’s likes and dislikes in mind to keep this an enjoyable and well-rounded family experience. My kids enjoy being in charge of specific jobs before, during, and after the trip. They bring their own tent or sleep in their own hammocks, but they also set up the adult tent for us. Everyone is assigned tasks around meal time and clean up. Set aside time while you’re out there to teach them about map and compass navigation, then have a challenge in mind to test them on what they learned! The goal at this age is to ensure that when they head off on their own in the upcoming years, they will be well-prepared to safely and respectfully have their own backpacking adventures. Give them as much responsibility as they can handle. 

Lastly, if your teen is interested and you really aren’t, you can also look into organizations like Outward Bound for teenage group backpacking (and other outdoor adventure) trips. It is not cheap, but there are scholarship opportunities and aside from personal clothing, much of the gear is usually included.

Have fun and leave us comments or questions about your family backpacking trips! 

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