Backpacking with kids?????


Oct 21, 2014
Many of you may think I am absolutely crazy when you read this post. Before having children I loved to go backpacking. My oldest son is 6 years old and over the last 6 years I have not seen nearly enough of the back country. Don’t get me wrong, we have had a lot of fun as a family often do day hikes to many of the lakes in the Uinta’s, but I am itching to get out and do some backpacking again and I want to take my family. With Christmas coming up I thought this may be a good chance to pick up some gear for the family to begin taking them out on some adventures. Here are some of my challenges that I am looking for some help with. My boys are 6, 4, and 2. My 6 year old could handle a little gear but not much. I will be very happy if the 4 year old will carry himself and I am thinking that the 2 year old will be good for about 1 mile before he is sitting on my shoulders.
I am wondering if there any other crazy people out there that have tried backpacking with small children. Where did you go? I am looking for a trail to a lake with good fishing that is 2 – 4 miles one way. Any advice or suggestions that you learned the “hard way”, which might save me some headache.
I have 2 daughters. I didn't start taking them backpacking until they were in Junior High. I actually waited till that age on purpose. Having backpacked with other people and their kids, I had observed that Junior High, especially for girls, is a magic age. All of a sudden they have much greater capability. In my experience, greater capability and enjoyment seem to be linked. So, I think the most important thing is to make sure that its enjoyable for them which partly means that you should take care not to load them up too much or walk them into the ground or over expose them to bad weather. Every year that they get older you'll be able to ratchet up the difficulty. Both of my girls have told me that some of their most cherished childhood memories are from backpacking trips. They remain my most favorite hiking companions although I haven't been able to work a trip together with either of them for a few years now that they're grown up. Its probably not going to seem helpful to say that you're about 6 years away from your 6 year old being able to handle overnight or even multi-day trips (as long as you keep them easy). But day trips can still be a lot of fun and that will whet their appetite for longer trips as they get older. By the way, I highly recommend taking backpacking trips with your kids individually. In my case it never seemed to make the kid that was left at home resentful and I think that I actually enjoyed those trips more than the ones where I took them both. I think that was their experience too.
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Somewhere in here is a post from a stay-at-home dad about backpacking with kids. It was awesome, written within the last year, and unfortunately I can't find it. I hope he sees this and can repost…….
I have two young girls, both under 4, and have been wanting to take them out. I think for the moment we are going to stick to car camping, and see how that goes. I think 8 is the age I will trying to get them into backpacking. I remember starting to go with my dad when I was somewhere between 8-10.
I started my kids out at four. Both trips were in Yellowstone. The first with my son was a hike of 1.5 miles to a campsite on Ice Lake. He carried a small day pack with his snacks and a water bottle. He enjoyed throwing rocks into the lake, playing in the water, gathering wood for the campfire, and watching the bull elk that were close to our tent site. We also incorporated a day hike to Little Gibbon Falls on our off-day.

With my daughter, the trip was to Ribbon Lake which is just a touch over 3 miles. I did pretty much the same thing for her; she carried a fanny pack with some of her food and water. We did take numerous breaks along the way to the lake on this trip. But again, at the campsite the kids could find plenty to do to entertain themselves.

They seemed to like it enough that they have continued to go out with me every year since.

Katie, next to our tent at the campsite at Ribbon Lake
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Interesting. While a teenager may have more physical ability, we hiked many miles with our kids when they were 6-12 or so. And the younger one always surprised me, in that she could hike fast for hours and hours.

But's that also because she wanted to.

Speaking of teenagers....if they really wish they were at home with their friends at the dance, your backpacking trip will be miserable. grin.
I applaud all you parents that share the joy of hiking with your children. That said I've seen some miserable kids on the trail. Listen to the wisdom of the experienced here but remember your kid is like no other. Some kids love it at earlier ages as we've seen here but some time ago I read 8 was the right age for a kid to begin carrying some of their own stuff, perhaps 8-12 pounds. Of course younger or older might be appropriate for your child. I can understand the anxiousness of having to wait but if you go to early the impression you make might be a negative one they carry to their grave.
My kids first backpacked at 6 & 4. They carried small loads a few miles in local state parks. After a few trips I took them to the mountains and they did more challenging hikes. It was a challenge for me to keep things fun for them, and to let them push their own limits when they wanted, without me pushing them. We had a lot of fun.

They each informed me when they were 15 that they were done going backpacking with me. It lacked social rewards and I didn't go out of my way to bring their friends along. That was also the age they started driving me crazy and I was happy to go without them. Maybe I could have made things work out differently, but neither was particularly self-motivated or goal oriented like me.

As adults, they both love to sleep outdoors, and I'm happy about that.
the impression you make might be a negative one they carry to their grave.

I personally have made one really major mistake in this respect. It wasn't with a kid but an adult - it was my son-in-law. When my daughter was dating him, she asked me to take the two of them backpacking cause he had never done anything like that before and it was something fun she wanted to share with him. I said ok and asked her what she thought she'd like to do. She said, "Let's climb something". So, I planned a trip up to high lake with a day trip from there to one of the easier 14'ers in Colorado (not that there is such a thing as an easy one). In retrospect, that was a really stupid thing to do, but in my defense, my daughter had been training for a half marathon and her boyfriend had been running with her so I thought that they would be in way better shape than I was. In her case that was true, but not in his case. In addition, a few things went wrong on that trip. It rained on us almost the whole way up to the lake which was right at tree line. Of course, it was relentlessly uphill all the way. We arrived just before sunset and set up camp in the rain. It was obvious that he was miserable and he didn't eat anything for supper. The three of us shared a tent. In the middle of the night my daughter woke me up to tell me that her boy friend was feeling ill. He looked like death warmed over. I figured that he had a bad case of altitude sickness, but his symptoms were much worse than the usual nausea and headache. So, I immediately packed the three of us up. I left a quarter of his stuff in his pack. Gave a quarter to my daughter and took the remaining half and we started walking back down. He was barely able to carry a nearly empty pack. We walked all night arriving back at the car about daybreak. I could tell that he was starting to feel better as the elevation decreased. He was clearly getting stronger but he was also getting angrier. When we got to the car he wouldn't even speak to me. I'm not sure he's ever forgiven me. It has affected our relationship. And my daughter has told me that he's told her several times that he'll never go backpacking again.

I guess the main thing for anyone you're introducing to a back country experience is to take care to make sure that its enjoyable for them.
The one thing that made all of our backpacking trips with our son possible (age 6-12) was we encouraged him to bring friends. It wasn't going to happen unless we did. As many as we felt we could handle. We obviously made sure that every child had some experience in the back country, and they had to carry at least their own sleeping bag. We started with 2 mile trips up to Crater Lake above Maroon Lake near Aspen. Then we started going to Cedar Mesa with other families. Mule Canyon is the perfect canyon. Great car camping, an easy backpack if desired (4 miles one way) to spectacular camp sites and ruins. We have backpacked in upper John's Canyon (incredible pools for swimming), and car camped at Cigarette Springs, with as many as 8 kids and adults. The campground at Arches was always a go to spot too.
We have had some close calls, kids can get themselves in real interesting situations very quickly, so we always had pretty strict rules about what was acceptable and not. For us it did not matter if later in life our son chose not to backpack. The important part to us was his exposure to these places at that age, carrying his own stuff and being a responsible member of a group. The hierarchy's tend to break down a bit when you backpack, and kids can feel more a part of things. Helping gather wood for a fire, or filter water (we always made sure each child did some of that), and my son did not argue about washing dishes if it was by a stream with friends. My personal opinion is that normal conflicts tended to be neutralized by the spiritual effect each person can feel in such places. And with kids present it all gets magnified.
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All of this reminds me of when my older daughter announced that she hated camping. She was about 14-15, and furious that she had to spend time with her parents instead of staying home with her friends. That made for a long week in the woods.

Then one year she came home from college one summer and asked if she could borrow the car and our camping gear, as she wanted to take a group of her friends camping.

That's when it was clear that she hadn't hated camping, she had hated beingwith us! grin.

Not impressed with your son-in-law. If someone got angry with me after I carried most of their stuff out I'd probably never initiate contact with them ever again until they had the decency to apologize. You did all you could given an unforeseen situation. There are husbands and wives all over the world that would love an in-law like you that sacrificed for them so with all due respect to your daughter !@#$ him.

In my experience going camping with women with a professed hatred for it beforehand had the same thing in common every time, some mensa reject made their first experiences kwappy. Kudos to all of you doing your best and if its not good enough for someone let 'em go. Life's too short. Good for all of you doing great things far to many parents would never dream of "enduring."

Not impressed with your son-in-law.

Please don't think badly of him. He's really a good guy. I'm pleased that my daughter married him and he's been a good husband to her - which is something I want far more than him to like backpacking or even to like me. I'm just glad that things didn't go worse than they did - I think he was on the verge of a medical emergency and I really hate to think how that could have gone. But thankfully he's no worse for the wear today. I feel certain that, in the same situation, I wouldn't have behaved any better. If I could have some do-overs in life this would be on the list. I made some assumptions I shouldn't have made.
Thank you for everyone’s input on the subject of backpacking with children. I have been doing a little homework and think I have found the perfect spot to take the little guys for our maiden voyage. I found a basin in the Uinta Mountains of Northern Utah that has 4 lakes all within a half a mile of each other. One has a waterfall; another has a “sandy beach” and they have been stocked with brook trout, tiger trout, grayling and golden trout. The best part is that it is only a 1.5 mile hike. I have already pitched the idea to my boys and they seem very excited. In fact, my 4 year old has asked almost every day if we can go to the “beach” yet. I had to tell him that we would go as soon as there is no more snow on the Wasatch front, and he has been checking daily. My oldest is also very excited to catch a new variety of fish. We have caught lots of tigers and bookies but the grayling and golden trout will be new for him.
As far as them hauling gear I am planning on keeping it very light for them but in reading different posts I have had a great idea. My kids (especially my middle son) love treats and candy, so I think I will put him in charge of carrying the smores goodies. That should give him a little incentive to carry something. My oldest son loves the fishing so I am thinking that he might be in charge of the fishing gear. My thinking is that if I can put them in charge of the things that they love they won’t mind carrying a little something.
Any other advice or ideas on the subject is welcome