10 Things We Learned While Backpacking With Young Children (and You Won't Believe #3!)

We have always loved backpacking, that is hiking into a wilderness destination with gear for the night. And we didn’t want to give it up once we became parents. Although backpacking with babies or toddlers presented some real logistical challenges, we loved the remote mountain experiences enough to try to make it work.

And so, over the last few years, we have backpacked with our two kids (at various ages 4 months - 4 years) about 12 times.  But let's start right here with our first free piece of advice: if you haven't been backpacking before, we don’t advise trying it for the first time with young children.That said, it's never too late to learn!

Interested in giving backpacking with kids a shot? Here are some things we’ve learned.

10. Finding the right destination is paramount. We look for destinations, often in the Sierras, that are relatively low elevation (less than 6,000 feet), involve a mile or two hike to a water body, and offer some shade. We do short trips -- one or two nights.

9. Camplife is fun for kids. Your children will be fascinated by camp activities like setting up a tent, cooking over a camp stove, collecting water, and hanging up a bearbag. Encourage your children to participate in camp activities in safe, age-appropriate ways.  

8. Keep everyone warm or you won’t sleep, because they won’t. For the first year of their life, bundle ‘em up with layers and in a sleep sack and warm hat. Once they outgrow a sleep sack, though, it’s time to bring them a sleeping bag. We procrastinated taking this step, and have some painful memories of sleepless nights with one baby.  

7. Lakes or rivers mean children have fun AND you survive! You’ll need water to drink (purify first, please!) and cook with, but water also means kids can splash and swim.

6. The real secret to success is NO EXPECTATIONS! Forget about schedules and naps, forget about bedtimes and routines, this is the Great Outdoors! Once you release those expectations, you’ll breathe in that piney air much easier and learn to go with the flow.

5. Well, there are some things you can expect and should prepare for. Expect owies, meltdowns, and filthy, excited kids. Pack carefully and make sure you have the right gear. We’re happy to consult on backpacks, kid carrying packs, first aid kits, food, shoes, tents, etc etc etc.

4. Channel your inner sherpa, or get a friend to help out. Ben generally carries about 80% of the family’s gear in a massive pack while Katy carries the youngest child and whatever we can stuff in that bag. Katy carried one child up until they turned 3 in a framed child carrying backpack. However, it is definitely easier if there other hearty adults to join you and carry some gear.  

3. You may even get a moment of adult time (and sleep better than you do at home). It’s true: we've had some great experiences where the kids run around in the tent for 10 minutes, pass out and sleep until the sun is fully blasting in the morning. On those nights we get to sit out, sip some whiskey, and watch the stars. But, yeah. We've also had more than a few nights where they take forever to settle down, only to wake up every 20 minutes. Back to those expectations...

2. Your kid can probably hike more than you think. Our kids started hiking short distances around age 2. We have found that telling stories, setting short term goals (Rock throwing at the next lake! Snack at the top of the hill!) is key to keeping our 4 year old moving along. A backpack with water bottle inside--Camelback or Platypus, for example--empower your child by giving them control. Promises of campfire s’mores certainly don’t hurt, either.  

1. It is absolutely worth it!! It’s a joy to see children interacting with their natural environment in such a different way, to see them run free in the woods, scramble up a rock, and touch snow in the summer. If you value being in the wilderness, you'll enjoy getting out there with your kids, too.

Trust us. It’s worth it.  

-Katy Love and Ben Gerhardstein 

Nia House

A Montessori Toddler & Preschool Program serving Berkeley since 1974