Family backpacking made fun.
Family backpacking is a great way to share your love for the backcountry with the people you love most. While strapping on a heavy pack and plodding through the woods to sleep amongst bears and bugs may not immediately appeal to everyone, with some pre-planning and practice, the whole family can love backpacking together.
When to Go
Pick a time when the weather is expected to be pleasant and the skeeters and horseflies aren’t ravenous. In other words, make your family’s backpacking experience as optimal as possible so they will want to go again. My first backpacking trip with my then-four-year-old was a bust. The bugs were so bad that we spent the entire trip sitting in the tent with a 100-pound malamute. Don’t be like me. Now we choose our outings based on the weather and insect forecast, and we’re all happier.
Where to Go
Think more play, less carrying. Choose a spot with a short approach so you can spend most of your time playing by a lake or singing around a campfire. A beautiful or exciting destination also encourages reluctant trekkers. For my son Finn’s first backpacking trip, we chose Rat Lake in the Gallatin Range. With a mere half-mile hike to a beautiful lake, we got to really enjoy our trip. Waterfall, lake, or riverside campsites are more enticing to kids (and adults) than a tiny spot in the woods wedged between two trees.
Who to Go With
Bring friends. The kids will entertain each other and the adults have your back when things go south for a little one. Another family adds to the festivity of the outing and can assist in pitching tents, cooking meals, and supervising backcountry swimming.
What to Bring
You’ll likely be carrying a bigger percentage of the gear while packing with a family. Kids should only carry 10-15% of their bodyweight. For their first few trips, it’s better to have them carry less so they don’t get bogged down. On my son Anders’s first trip, he only carried a snack and some water—I carried everything else. My pack was a little heavier than usual, but as every parent knows, a happy kid is way less work than a cranky one. You want these first family trips to be fun so that you have buy-in on future trips. Eventually, they’ll be teenagers and can carry your stuff.
Bring all the usual gear, but add a few fun things for the kids. Marshmallows for roasting, glow sticks to play with a night, and a ball or disc for campsite games adds to the fun. A hammock doubles as a swing and nap spot.
Don’t forget a first-aid kit with Band-Aids, antiseptic, tweezers, and Benadryl.
Enjoy the Journey
If you have chosen a short hike in to the campsite, you can enjoy the journey getting there. With kids, it’s important to stop and smell the wild roses, taste the thimbleberries, and play in the sand along a river. Stop more frequently for snacks and water breaks than you would if you were alone. Kids want to play and explore, not trod down the path gathering miles under their boots. In the end, you will have sweeter memories, too.
Melynda Harrison is a writer, naturalist, wife, mom, cross-country ski enthusiast, hiker, reader, knitter, jungle gym, napkin, Malamute lover, kid dragger, and is head over heels about being outside with her family.