Home Learn Fun Family Backpacking – Part 1

Fun Family Backpacking – Part 1

by Karen Ung
What you need to know for fun family backpacking trips!My husband and I love backcountry camping and were over the moon when we could do it as a family. While there is no perfect age to start your kids backpacking, we chose to wait until our kids could hike in on their own. (There was no way we were going to pack two kids under 2 years old!) With the kids independently mobile, we were able to bring all the essentials plus a few fun extras, so we didn’t feel like we were roughing it at all. We can’t wait to go backpacking again!

In this installment of Fun Family Backpacking, I will cover the following topics:
  • How to start
  • How much kids can carry & what they should carry
  • Where to Go!! 5 trips under 5 km (see #4 below)!
  • How to reduce pack weight
  • Water treatment options
  • How far to hike each day and how often to take breaks
  • Snacks, hydration, and how to poop in the woods
  • Tips for fun hiking 
1. Ease into it: Walk-­in camping (100 – 500 metres) is a great way to ease into backpacking. Don’t take your kids on the West Coast Trail right off the bat! Can you manage carrying your gear and your child’s gear (and your child if she’s too young to walk)? For how long? Test all your backpacking gear and make sure it meets your needs. 
Lake O’Hara, Yoho National Park

2. Don’t overload the kids: If you want your children to go the distance, you can’t expect them to carry too much. In fact, young children should not carry more than 10-15% of their body weight1! In other words, your 40 pound kindergartner should not carry more than 4-6 pounds. What should children have in their packs? Each child should carry basic wilderness survival gear including water, a nonperishable snack, and a jacket. A whistle is a must for everyone in your group so they can signal for help in the event they are separated from you! Older children may be able to carry their own clothes and/or sleeping bags and sleeping pads. 

The JetScream Whistle is a super loud, high quality, pealess whistle

3. Pack as light as possible: Since YOU will be carrying most of the gear, invest in the

lightest gear you can afford. Your tent, backpack, and sleeping bags are the heaviest items

you will carry, so upgrade them before you think of cutting the handles off your

toothbrushes or packing less food. You can also save weight by carrying less water if you will be in an area with

many streams and lakes. Treat or filter your water on the go (and carry a good topo map so you can find water bodies)!

  • How to Choose a Tent: Look for a reinforced bathtub floor, dual doors, full fly, strong tent poles, and large vestibule(s) for storing gear. For family backpacking, I recommend a dome tent; check dimensions to ensure it will fit on a backcountry tent pad*. Alternately, you could bring 2 tents; this works well for larger families or families with older kids so the parents can sleep in one and kids in another. (*The tent pads at Lake O’Hara backcountry campground are 2.7 m x 2.7 m.) Choose a tent on the lighter side, but don’t compromise on quality (some ultralight setups are flimsy).
  • How to Choose Camp Bedding for the Whole Family: We prefer down sleeping bags and Thermarest self-inflating mattresses for warmth, comfort, size and weight, but there are several less expensive options.
  • Water Treatment Options (and Water Purifier Review): This review looks at the pros and cons of the PA Pure water purifier vs Steripen and water filter. The pocket-sized PA Pure can treat up to 20L at once, has a small solar panel to recharge its battery, and kills all bacteria, protozoa and viruses (allow 4 hours for cysts). The downside is that it puts chemicals in your water and you must remember to carry salt to make the purifying solution. The Steripen uses UV light to treat the water, is light and compact, but is not 100% effective with cloudy water, especially against larger microbes like giardia, and requires batteries. Filters require no batteries and leave no taste, but are expensive, can’t remove viruses and can become clogged in silty water (My $200 ceramic filter was rendered useless within 2 yrs; a replacement cartridge was $100). For these reason, we carry more than one device to make water safe to drink (usually PA Pure and water filter). Other options include chlorine drops, iodine, or water purification tablets.
We really like our MEC Wanderer Tent!
Potable Aqua PURE Hydrolytic Water Purifier

4. Keep It Short: I’ve heard parents say “There were tears.” when talking about their first family backpacking experiences. While not all meltdowns are avoidable, most meltdowns usually happen when kids are hungry, tired, or

at their limits. If your children typically conk out at the 5 kilometre mark, try not to exceed 5

kilometres per day. Bonus for you? The sooner you get to camp, the sooner you can get

that heavy pack off!

Elbow Lake, Peter Lougheed Provincial Park
Laughing Falls, Yoho National Park
The Point Campground, Peter Lougheed Provincial Park is on the mid-right.

5. Take Lots of Breaks: In addition to limiting hike length, break up hiking time. Take a

break every 1­-2 kilometres or less if the terrain is really challenging. Breaks don’t have to

be long, but they are necessary to let little legs recharge and keep everyone in good spirits. If it’s hot, find shade or water to cool off in. If it’s cold, keep breaks as short as possible.

  • SnacksQuick & Healthy Snacks for On-the-Go Families
  • Treats: M&Ms (more melt-resistant than chocolate bars), fruit gummies, bubble gum, cookies
  • Hydration: Take frequent sips of water to avoid dehydration. Dehydration can make you feel crummy and is dangerous too! Check your kids’ water bottles / hydration packs regularly to ensure they’re drinking. If the weather is cool, try a warm drink as kids often won’t want to drink something cold on a cold day.
  • Potty time: My most dreaded 5 words on the trail are “I have to go poo.” Even more than bears – we make too much noise to see any – #2 on the trail is a nightmare if you’re unprepared. Keep the toilet kit handy! Pack a shovel, toilet paper, wipes, and copious amounts of Ziploc bags so you can double  bag the mess if the terrain is not diggable (ever try digging a cathole in frozen ground or above treeline)? Once you get to camp, dispose of #2 and toilet paper in the outhouse, but pack out the bags. 
Homemade trail mix is the best!

6. Take a rest day: Most children are not used to hiking long distances day after day and may not want to go backpacking again if they’re never given downtime. Take a rest after a hard day so everyone can get recharged for the return trip. We did exactly that after hiking in the rain all day through mud and slippery roots and after a day of rest, the girls practically ran back to the trailhead. 

7. Keep It Fun: While on the trail, we like geocaching, singing, and playing Follow the Leader, I Spy, or impromptuscavenger hunts (How many kinds of flowers can you find?). Geocaching is great for enticing the girls to hike another few hundred metres to the next cache. Singing is amazing for morale and safety as it announces your presence to wildlife. Not a singer? Play a never ending story game, 20 questions, or word game. That works too!
Happy Hikers Playing Horsie

8. Bring fun stuff to play with at camp! While most kids will make their own fun, a few extras can make for a really memorable trip. We like to bring fishing gear, glow sticks, a favorite small doll for each girl, and e­-reader for bedtime stories.

Sunset fishing makes for a perfect evening!

Stay tuned for more tips for fun family backpacking! Part 2 will go into more detail regarding what to gear to bring, and Part 3 will cover backpacking food. 

What else would you like to know about family backpacking?


You may also like


Playoutsidegal July 1, 2017 - 3:51 AM

If you have enough fuel, boiling certainly does the trick! 🙂

lwallis June 6, 2017 - 5:29 AM

Don't forget that one of the best (and easiest since you are carrying a stove anyways) methods to purify water is boiling. We always boil bottles before bed and stick them in a (clean) sock to hide in the bottom of our sleeping bags 🙂

Playoutsidegal September 20, 2016 - 8:17 PM

Hi Nicky, thanks for your message! I hope to have a 2nd installment on backpacking food soon. 🙂 That seems to be the other thing most people ask about. Let me know if you have any questions! If you pack well and don't overdo it (distance wise), backpacking with kids can be really fun!! 🙂 I hope your family loves it!

Nicky Omohundro September 20, 2016 - 8:12 PM

These are all great tips. Our family has only done car camping up until this point. I'd like to take the kids backpacking and this helps answer many of my questions. Thanks!

Suzi Smart Photography April 30, 2016 - 12:39 AM

Boy the weight adds up quick! 8 lbs is nothing – water of course is the biggie. Hmmm. Everything essential fits in the Genie with room to spare. I think there have been days that he carried more to school… Whoops?!? Guess we get to reallocate the backpack funds. ? Thanks for doing the post or I'd never have gotten the scale out at this point.

Playoutsidegal April 29, 2016 - 3:34 PM

Hi Suzi, I'll try and see if I can find some lighter options locally that don't cost an arm & a leg! Little POG (5) will probably use her Deuter Jr Daypack this year.. we're on the fence about having Big POG (almost 7) carry the Deuter Fox.. it is big!

Suzi Smart Photography April 28, 2016 - 4:58 PM

Thank you for your tips. After looking at the Deuter Fox and the MEC Escapade, I think we're sticking with M's MEC Genie Daypack so that he can carry stuff in it ?. Though great bags, he needs to grow a bit before it becomes a viable option. ? I don't want more than a 1/3 of his pack weight to be pack.

Comments are closed.

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Accept Read More