How To Get Kids Into Backpacking (Dad’s Advice)

The memories created while backpacking are well worth the blood, sweat and tears that go along with the trips. The best memories are created when we’re out with the ones we love. This leaves many parents wondering how to get their kids into backpacking, so the family can make memories together.

To get kids into backpacking, you first need to prepare for the trip. Start with smaller hikes, and get your kids used to carrying equipment and exerting themselves physically. Learn their limits when it comes to backpack weight and distances, and understand that comfort is key to an enjoyable trip.

It’s important to understand the best ways to get your kids into backpacking, but also the right ways to do it. There are also safety considerations to take into account, and below we’ll go through everything you need to know to get your kids into backpacking in a safe way.

Backpacking Preparation Is Key

Where Are You Going?

Learning about the area where you plan to hike is imperative. If we don’t know where we are going or have basic survival skills, we can get ourselves into serious trouble. Most importantly, we do not want anything bad to happen to our children when we’re out on a backpacking trip. Preparing our children is the most important thing on our backpacking trip.

Physical Preparation

As with getting your kids into any new physical activity, start small. For kids over 3, have them practice carrying a backpack around the house or at a local park. This will pay off in the long run, as they get used to the physical side of backpacking.

Choosing The Right Footwear

When it comes to preparing your kids with the right gear, footwear is a great place to start. Your children certainly can’t carry a pack far without comfortable, well-fitted hiking shoes. We all have struggled on the trail without the correct footwear. Enjoyment starts at the feet when it comes to hiking or backpacking.

Here are some examples to consider.

Other Backpacking Essentials For Kids

Remember, a sleeping bag, tent, stove, water filter, and first-aid kit are essentials. A good light, map, and compass or GPS unit can be helpful too. A multi-tool, knife, and some parachute cord are useful as well. Besides these things, I always like to include something for good morale in my backpack (like reading material, pictures, or a journal).

While the party may change, the goals differ, and the distance varies, we all require similar items for a comfortable and fun trip into the backcountry. These days, there are many lightweight options for sleeping bags, tents, stoves, etc. You’ll learn what the right things are for your child with experience.

Giving Kids Confidence

Beginning anything new can seem daunting, but we all have to start somewhere. A lack of confidence can be the biggest barrier to overcoming a new challenge. So, understand that your child may be scared to go backpacking for the first time. If you can, ease their fears with short trips first, and don’t try to break them in with a 3 day trek across the hills.

What Is The Most Weight A Kid Should Carry While Backpacking?

When you are wondering how much weight your child should carry, there are some general guidelines to consider. However, it is critical to know your child’s limits, and only pack the essentials. When I plan a trip, I lay everything out first. Then I look at the pile, organize it, and remove any unneeded items. I do this with my son’s pack as well.

We need to keep our body and our kid’s bodies strong. Carrying less weight will keep everybody comfortable and allow for longer treks – especially for the little ones.

Ages 0-3

For ages up to three years old, I suggest a front chest pack. Usually, a framed backpack can have internal supports or external metal built on the outside. There are so many front chest pack options out there, and you’ll find cheap choices online or at gear swaps.

In the early years, kids are going to spend time on their shoulders. They will continue this until they are ready to do the distance on their own. So, understand that for ages 0-3, your kids are probably going to be unable to carry much weight.

A general rule states that the child should carry between 0 and 5 percent of their weight. But remember, not every kid is made equal. They all have different requirements and limitations, and you’ll learn very quickly what your child is and is not capable of carrying.

Ages 4-7

For ages 4-7, 5-10% is a general rule but will vary for some. Most school-age kids should be able to carry about 10 to 15% of their body weight. Again, this is an estimate. You’ll learn what is the right weight for your child through experience.

You need to consider things like how active your child is, and if they’ve ever hiked with a backpack on before. We don’t want to set anyone up for failure, injury, discomfort, or a dislike of backpacking. The truth is, until the child is mature enough physically, we as adults will be carrying most of the weight.

It’s never a bad idea to consult your kid’s pediatrician before you head out. Let them know your plans. Ask if they have any concerns before you go. For example, discuss allergies, physical impairments, or any other medical needs.

Ages 7+

For children older than 7, the weight they carry will be easier to determine based on what they tell you. By this age, they’ll know what is too heavy for them, and will probably communicate to you very quickly when it’s too much! Again, ensure they are comfortable, and think about factors like terrain, elevation, weather and distance when packing their backpack.

How Far Should Kids Go Backpacking?

Start With Light Day Hikes

If you and your kids are truly new to backpacking, I recommend a series of light starter hikes. Kids get accustomed to the rigors of hiking with shorter and easier trails. You can adjust pack weight as they grow stronger. As the trips lengthen your kids will be more prepared for the increased strain on their bodies.

But remember that every child has a certain limit. Pay attention to this, don’t put them into harmful positions, and they will grow to love this sport. A general rule some parents follow is to add a mile on to your hikes each year. As your child gets older, they’ll be able to hike farther, and a mile a year is a good place to start.

Toddlers can usually manage 1 mile, one way. School-age kids can usually do about 2-4 miles one way, depending on how active they are. Kids 8 years and older might manage 8-10 miles, but these will all vary depending on a variety of factors, important ones being the elevation, terrain and weather of each hike.

Other Things To Be Aware Of When Backpacking With Kids

General Preparedness

I highly recommend preparing for all kinds of elements. Essentials include bug spray, sunscreen, light, fire starters, and bear spray. Also, a map helps keep you safe when your GPS goes down. And don’t forget the uber-essentials like food, water, and proper clothing, including thermals, shells, and layers.

Think About The Weather

In the heat, water is crucial. In general, adults require about half a liter of water every hour when hiking. Children usually require less. Each person’s water requirements depend on needs, physical ability, and conditioning. But remember that the weather, terrain and elevation of the hike can all increase this general guideline.

When beginning backpacking, know the water requirements of the people with you. In some cases, you may have to carry more water than anything else. In the colder climates, drinking less water may be possible. You can always invest in a water filtration system too, to limit how much water you need to carry with you.

Hiking In Wet Weather With Kids

Always cover your pack with a backpack cover if there’s a chance of rain. DIY style tarps and garbage bags work as well. Line the inside with garbage bags or your liner of choice. Keeping your feet dry is crucial, but bringing extra socks is worthless if they are wet. Always keep your backpacks and clothing dry.

Hiking In The Snow With Kids

In the snow, the right clothing is essential. Consider fleece and polyester blends, but light wool blends these days are great too. Nobody wants to hike in an uncomfortably cold state, but you also need to eliminate the risks of frostbite and hypothermia by wearing the appropriate clothing.

Starter Backpacking Trip Ideas For Families

Start Small

Always start small. Start conditioning or light walking weeks to months before your trip. This will increase your child’s stamina, confidence, and well-being, making it much easier for them to enjoy the real hike when the time comes.

Begin with a day hike. This allows you and your children to learn what works for everyone, when it comes to distance, backpack weight, and overall enjoyment factors. Then, maybe move on to an overnight camp.

Get Used To The Equipment

All backpacks need some adjusting after you buy them. No matter how good it felt in the store, I encourage people to wear them at home before going on the first hike. This way you can get used to them and make adjustments in the comfort of your home. Learn how to adjust the pack, or have a professional at a retail store help you. Often, friends and family members can help.

The same applies when buying new hiking boots or shoes. Breaking your shoes in beforehand ensures you don’t need to deal with any nasty blisters on the trail. Equally important is setting up the tent with your kids before you head out. Not only does this help the kids learn before they go, but it also ensures the tent is big enough for everyone on the trip.

Do Your Research

Finally, get to know the area, and learn about the State and Forest Service access points near your chosen camp spot. Learn about public lands and the animals in your area. Most importantly, educate yourself on the flora and fauna you might encounter on your trip, so you can pack the necessary sprays and repellents.

Final Thoughts

Getting your kids into backpacking is all about preparing them physically beforehand, building confidence, and understanding their limits. By preparing for the trip well in advance, you can ensure everyone knows what to expect, and is able to enjoy the trip as much as possible.