Backpacking with Kids: My Top 3 Lessons

June 12, 2017
Matt HeidYoung hikers descend Mount Chocorua and look west down the length of Sandwich Range Wilderness.

I went backpacking in New Hampshire’s Sandwich Range Wilderness over Memorial Day weekend. Together with my two young boys (ages 5 and 7), we camped for two nights in the backcountry, climbed 3,500-foot Mount Chocorua, and reveled in the lush woods of summer.

The trip marked the third of our two-night backpacking trips to date, following 2016 adventures to Mount Greylock and Mount Washington State Forest in Massachusetts. Here are the most useful things about backpacking with kids that I’ve learned from these trips.

You Are the Sherpa

Young backpackers should carry no more than 10 to 20 percent of their body weight. When the kids only weigh about 50 pounds, that translates to a scant 5 to 10 pounds of total pack weight. That’s roughly sufficient for their clothes, a full water bottle, a headlamp, some snacks, and a few other small items.

For the sake of the kids’ enjoyment, I recommend loading their packs on the lighter end of the spectrum. Which means that daddy Sherpa carries everything else—the tent, three sleeping bags, three sleeping pads, all the cooking equipment, all the meals, plus a few other crucial items (a good first aid kit).

And that in turn means a few more things. First, you are going to need a sizable backpack to carry it all, including ample outside straps to lash multiple items. Second, you are probably not going to want to hike particularly far with that kind of load. (Nor would I personally recommend pushing young hikers much more than 5 miles per day anyways.) And third, it’s really nice on a multi-day trip to only set up and break down camp once, and then do a good day-hike from there. (I’m a big fan of the base camp approach here.)

You Need Space

The biggest mistake I’ve made is once trying to cram the three of us (plus a medium-sized dog) into a relatively small, ultralight three-person tent, which I packed to save weight. While the tent would likely have been sufficient for three cooperative, non-squirming individuals, it made for a very long night as sleepers regularly shifted and the tight quarters got ever tighter (and more aggravating for each aggrieved party).

What’s more, it’s difficult to prevent clothing and other stuff from exploding all over the tent, which also leads to some cramped sorting and finding exercises in a smaller shelter. So more space is nice. Real nice.

Since then I’ve slept with them in a classic three-sided trail shelter (Greylock), which is a wonderful options if 1) there are no bugs and 2) there are few or no other people to interfere with young backpackers’ early bedtime. I’ve also used a large, floorless pyramid tent, which is my favorite shelter option so far, though it too requires there to be no bugs; and I’ve successfully camped with the team in a much roomier (heavier) three-person tent over a rather buggy Memorial Day weekend.

Everything Is Normal

To  young children, everything is normal if you treat it as such. So it’s key to maintain your enthusiasm, positive energy, and calm no matter what’s happening. (It’s raining! It’s cold! The tent is leaking! It’s super buggy! You get to poop in the woods!)

If you complain, or appear downtrodden, about the conditions and experience, you are increasing the risk that they too will adopt this attitude—and not just about that particular trip, but about backpacking in general given the importance of these first formative backpacking experiences.

That being said, few things have made me happier recently than my two boys begging me to go backpacking with them again this summer. We’ll see you on the trails!

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Matt Heid

Equipped blogger Matt Heid is AMC's gear guru: He loves gear and he loves using it in the field. While researching several guidebooks, including AMC's Best Backpacking in New England, he has hiked thousands of miles across New England, California, and Alaska, among other wilderness destinations. He also cycles, climbs, and surfs.