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Keep it Simple and Short: Backpacking with Young Children

Youth educator and mom Hilary L. Benson shared a few tips with us in how she and her family plan and take fun backpacking trips for a variety of hiking abilities.

Youth educator and mom Hilary L. Benson shared a few tips with us in how she and her family plan and take fun backpacking trips for a variety of hiking abilities.

When you and your family have mastered car camping, a short backpacking trip can be a great way to experience deeper wilderness as a family.

As a family with young children, our backpacking trips need to be relatively short. We often use a portion of a longer trail for our trip and aim to camp 2-3 miles from the trailhead. Most hiking books don’t include details for camping sites in the early stretch of trail, but there are tons of options with a closer examination of a topo map. Green Trails maps show sites and shelters, and you’d be surprised how many there are to choose from.

benson family_hilary l benson
Photo by Hilary L. Benson.

WTA's trip reports help us keep tabs on current trail conditions so we know what to expect and if the trip will work for our family. We’ve had great trips in both the Olympics and Cascades. Depending on who you ask in our family, Slab Camp, Lower Big Quilcene, and Boulder River will all get votes as a favorite destination.

Despite short distances, it can often takes some time to hike into a site when you’re walking with little legs. Make sure you’re not feeling rushed when you set off. We’ve also found it helps to have stories and songs at the ready. Our younger son often finds a second wind when a parent starts telling him one of his favorite stories. The promise of a GORP break around the next bend doesn’t hurt either.

Dad and son on trail hilary l benson
Photo by Hilary L. Benson.

Now that our youngest is three, we don’t carry him anymore. He carries a tiny pack that just has his blanket, a stuffed animal, and a change of clothes. Our seven year old usually carries his sleeping bag and pad, his clothes, and the cooking pot. The two grownups share the responsibility for the rest. This usually includes a four-person backpacking tent, stove and gas, water filter, bear canister with food, the remaining sleeping bags and pads, first aid kit, clothes, and rain gear.

As with car camping, we don’t pack much in the way of toys. We try to get them involved in all the work of setting up camp. Helping out with water filtering is especially popular. However, most of their time is spent exploring the woods and riverbanks near the site.

setting up the tent hilary l benson
Having kids help set up camp also helps burn off extra energy from the car ride. Photo by Hilary L. Benson.

We’ve taken to short, Friday night trips. If we can finish work early, we’ll hit the trail Friday afternoon, make it to a campsite by dinner time, and then enjoy the evening together (you can even pack premade sandwiches to cut down on food prep time once you reach the site). Because of the early daylight in summer, we are often up and out of the site by 8 or 9 am and back to the trailhead before lunch.

Among other things, short trips keep the weight of the food to a minimum which is necessary when not everyone can carry  an equal share.

We are firm believers in quality and not quantity when it comes to backpacking with our young family. We know that exposure to the outdoors in the early years will lead to a love of hiking and nature experiences later on. If we keep it simple, short, and fun when our kids are young, the hikes will keep getting longer and more challenging.