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Enjoying a beautiful sunset view of Mount Baker. Photo by Brian Koning.

Family Backpacking 101

Learn the basics to plan your next backpacking adventure with kids.

For kids, spending the night outside is a totally different experience than being outdoors during the day. The star filled skies, listening to the call of an owl in the night and eating breakfast near an alpine lake are all special moments you can share with your child when you venture out on an overnight backpacking trip. Though the preparation and motivation can be a little daunting, the rewards will last a lifetime. Here is some helpful information to help you and your family get out there this summer.

5-year-old Helena is determined to make it up to the top of Maple Loop Pass. Photo by Dawn Stief.

Before you go backpacking

Although you may be a backpacking maven, kids may need a little bit of warm up before hitting the trail for multiple days. Try to plan some mini-excursions with your family before you take the plunge.



Before you set out on a backpacking adventure, get your children used to hiking. Day hikes are a great way to assess your child's stamina and interest. Build your confidence and comfort level as well as your child's by practicing with weighted packs as you prepare for your longer trip. Give kids a kid-size pack and let them carry a few lightweight items like snacks, water and a warm layer; parent can carry the rest.

Read more tips for hiking with kids

The star filled skies, listening to the call of an owl in the night and eating breakfast near an alpine lake are all special moments you can share with your child when you venture out on an overnight backpacking trip.


Sleeping in a tent is a fun adventure at any age. Before you head into the backcountry, you may want to start in your backyard or go car camping. Make sure your tent is big enough for the family and you are familiar with setting up the tent. Children love to help; engaging them in setting up camp is a great way to keep them busy while teaching them how to care for camp equipment.

Read more tips for car camping with kids

A one year old inside the Mount Pilchuck Lookout. Photo by Holly Walter.


There is a popular, but unfounded, view that if you have kids, you can kiss your hiking days goodbye. Admittedly, you probably shouldn’t be trekking the entire Wonderland Trail with your 5-year-old. But there are plenty of other trail experiences out there for parents and their families. It takes a little bit of extra work, some creativity, and a lot of flexibility in your plans. But it can be done, and you don’t have to be an Iron Man tri-athlete to do it.

Have child, will travel: if you start out on small trips, hiking with a baby can be fun and rewarding - Andrew Engelson
  • Diapers: Always pack out dirty diapers. Do not burn or bury diapers, as this is very harmful to the environment. When packing for your trip be sure to pack more diapers than you think you will need and realize that they will be heavier (and bigger) when you pack them out than when you pack them. Dirty diapers wrapped tightly in plastic bags helps to keep the smell down. Cloth diapers can be laid out in the sun to dry before being wrapped.
  • Child Carriers: Make sure the child carrier fits well before you head into the backcountry. Periodically check your child's hands and feet to make sure they are warm. Sun and rain protection is also important for little ones. Have a hat or some sort of cover easily accessible. Because your small person will undoubtedly wiggle about as you travel along the trail, consider bringing trekking poles for stability.

Read more in Andrew Engleson's Baby on Board article.

"One thing about becoming a father that I've always looked forward to is being able to share my passion of the outdoors with my kiddos. I've been slowly introducing my 5 year old daughter to the mountains and to hiking, and this picture perfectly sums up her feelings for hiking with me!" Photo by Josh Steele.

Entertainment On Trail and at Camp

Keeping kids engaged and having fun is essential on a multi-day trip. Make your next family backpack experience an adventure by involving your kids. Find out what your kids would like to experience, involve them in the trip planning by helping to plan the menu and pick a camp destination. Kids love to learn so why not make the experience adventurous and educational too?

Teachable Moments

  • Identify flora and fauna (bring a field guide)
  • Learn to use a map and compass of GPS
  • Bird watching (binoculars)
  • Keep a journal
  • Learn about constellations or make up your own


  • Food is very important to keep hikers happy at any age. Special snacks are especially great for young hikers who may need a little more motivation to keep moving along the trail.
  • Be sure to have some treats readily accessible in your pack or your child's pack.

More ideas to keep kids entertained on trail

Special Considerations

Young'uns can only carry so much. Refer to this chart to see how much they can carry, and what to expect on your hike. These numbers can very greatly depending on your child's stamina and comfort level.

Weight and Distance Limits

Age Pack Weight Distance What to Expect

3 - 4


1 mile or so

Pack a lot of patience and make it a memorable adventure

5 - 6

5 lbs.

2 - 4 miles

Plan for many rest stops and bring along some trail games and songs

7 - 11

10 - 20% of body weight

5 - 7 miles

Keep snacks handy and ready to use as motivation

12 & older

20 -25% of body weight

7 miles & up

Physically, they can hike more miles, but make sure the experience is fun

Lost Child

Teach your children these simple rules to follow in case they ever get lost:

  • Always tell an adult where you are going.
  • If you get lost with a pet or a friend, stay together.
  • Keep warm - keep all of your clothes on and cover your head.
  • Carry a whistle and only use it in an emergency (blow three times).
  • Know that people are looking for you so stay put.
  • Stay near a tree once you know you are lost - do not wander.
  • If a noise scares you, yell. If it's an animal it will go away; if it's a searcher you'll be found.
  • Help searchers find you by blowing your whistle three times and by answering their calls.
  • Do not eat anything you are not sure of.

No better way to cool off after a summer hike than a dip in a natural lake. Photo by Thania Labra.