5 Tips for Backpacking with Kids

A couple weekends ago we went for a backpacking trip in Yosemite with Henry. Every time we go backpacking I get a bunch of emails from people asking for tips on backpacking or camping with kids. We’ve backpacked with Henry quite a few times from the time he was a little baby, so I thought it might be fun to share a few tips we’ve learned along the way, and a few of our pictures from our Yosemite trip. We tend to be pretty adventurous, and you can follow along with us on our trips on instagram (@liz_stan).

1. Get out of the campgrounds. Trust me. Isn’t the point to get away from people when you camp? They’re very difficult to get a reservation if you’re in a popular area. Like, impossible. Drive just outside any national park and you’re probably in a national forest, wilderness area, multi-use area. You can do what they call ‘dispersed camping’ anywhere around there. Plus, if there’s no one around you won’t be embarrassed if your baby cries at night or if your toddler has a tantrum about the hot dog that fell on the ground! The image above was a spot we camped at on a Friday night just south of Yosemite in the Sierra National Forest during peak season. We didn’t see anyone for miles. We just drove on a couple unmarked dirt roads until we found a good spot. A spot in Yosemite valley in the summer is impossible to get and is more crowded than San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf. Ugg.

2. Lower your expectations. This applies more to younger kids since the older your kids get, the more rational they seem to get. For example, on this backpacking trip we ended up hiking about 2 miles in until we found a good spot to set up camp. But, we also knew that we could camp right on the lake where the boat dropped us off if needs be. And we were totally okay with that. In fact, just about 5 minutes into the hike, 4 1/2 yr old Henry started whining and I immediately started scanning the area for flat spots to camp. Luckily, his mood improved (thanks to Jared working his dad magic), but my expectations were kind of low from the start. I remember especially when he was younger thinking, “Well, I’ll be lucky if he doesn’t puke on me and then scream all night”. Keep your expectations low and you’ll probably be pleasantly surprised. When he was younger we leaned hard into the iPhone to get him to fall asleep in the tent at night. Now he just needs someone to snuggle with him and help him count the stars.

More tips and photos…

3. Butter ’em up. Being easy going is not Henry’s strong suit, so hiking to the camp spot (which is the definition of backpacking), can sometimes be tricky depending on his mood. He’s too heavy to carry now so we really do need him to walk on his own. We talk about it on the drive there, buttering him up about his good hiking skills and how 4 yr olds generally aren’t allowed to hike by themselves but they might (with no indication of who ‘they’ might be – the family of coyotes patrolling the area?) make an exception since he’s exceptionally good at it and acts like he’s 5. Of course be prepared with lots of fun songs (ants go marching, down by the bay, i.e. whatever will make them laugh), snacks he wouldn’t get to eat at home (i.e. loads of sugar) and lots of things to point out along the way (flowers, bugs, rocks that look like poo).

4. Setting up camp is. so. fun. It’s the funnest part of camping for kids. Let them help with the tent, the sleeping bags, their belongings, getting the stove set up (Jetboil all the way. Boils water in literally 2o seconds). They’ll get so excited to see their sleeping bag, favorite stuffed animal and flashlight all laid out next to yours. And building a fire! If you’re allowed in the area you’re camping, for sure make one! Just don’t make any promises you can’t live up to (have you made a fire since middle school? it’s not always easy if you don’t have the right sticks). Kids love to watch the process, help collect sticks, and roast marshmallows or hot dogs when it’s good and ready.

5. Let them run wild. After the camp is set up, hot dogs have been consumed, sleeping bags lined up  it’s often still a ridiculously early time for bed if you’re under the age of 80. We love to pick a spot close to water since Henry could skip rocks for hours. You can do some really fun sunset exploring, treasure collecting, adventure seeking, treasure hunt finding, wilderness man hunting. Just give it an awesome name and an imaginative plot, “The bears are out of their cave! Let’s find a place to hide and a weapon to protect us!” (Yeees, fake weapons are totally allowed in the great outdoors). Plus you’re gonna feel like you’re doing your parental duty of ‘letting them run wild in nature’. Let them get dirty, pick up bugs, throw huge rocks in the water, scream ‘echo’ up the canyon 10 bazillion times. Remember that just yesterday you wouldn’t let them throw a soft pillow in the living room too close to your face so this is their chance to be a real kid!

(1, 3, 5 photos by Katrina. Rest by myself)


You are spot-on about camping in the middle of nowhere. After our last Yosemite trip for my birthday, which was still really fun, but the noise level of all the campers and the road construction was spoiling it.

How do you find where you are allowed to camp on an off-site?

@michelle(this is jared) –

yeah the Valley is so awesome and beautiful, but once you’ve seen it a few times the crowds can taint the experience.

pretty much any national forest land(w some exceptions) is fair game for dispersed camping(no formal camp site).

the best way to find spots is to:
1. get a map like this one: map
2. poke around on the map until you find a spot you want to explore. look around on google maps for place names, photos, etc to get an idea what the place is all about.
3. visit the place. this is trial and error. sometimes you find a rad spot, sometimes you find a lame spot. that’s part of the fun! ADVENTURE!

(Fire restrictions can be in place etc as well so it doesn’t hurt to check w/ the district who manages the area (find the name of the forest on the map, type in [forest name] national forest management in google and call that number.)

Car Camping is not lame IMO. Car camping = air mattresses, propane grills, a bail-out spot in case it rains, etc. MOST of which are essential in keeping little kids managed/happy.

Backpacking is different, not as easy to bail etc – H was NOT stoked on his food options for dinner, and only after he realized there weren’t a lot of options did he eat anything.
Solitude in a spectacular place is the reward.

Also I know who you are so let’s all plan a trip!

Wow! This is great!! I kinda always thought it was impossible to do this… but you’ve changed my mind!! Thank you!!

you are so funny! i appreciate this honest outline. this makes me think that maybe, just maybe, we could camp with our kids someday. thanks for your inspiration! and beautiful photos. i’ve been following you on instagram for awhile and i ALWAYS love your photos.

we recently went on a hike with kids who were fine on the way there but terrible on the way back (had a 5 and 3 year old who demanded to be carried 🙂 I was able to pull off my large scarf and ‘pull them along’ back to the car and we made it fly in the wind like a kite… nothing like a scarf to save the day!

Brilliant! Yeah, sometimes it gets rough if you’re already out and need to get back. We had my sister Katrina with us and our intention was using her as a piggy back ride if need be since she wasn’t carrying much on her back

Love this post, Liz. You guys are such great parents!

Love this post, it’s just the inspiration I needed! I thought for sure we wouldn’t be backpacking again till the kids were teens!

Lower expectations is key, we apply it to road trips and restaurants as well. We slowly got into camping, by doing cabin camping first, then yurt camping and this year for the first time tent camping. We are going less than 2 hours away, so if things turn really sour we can drive back home without it being a big deal.
Our favorite thing is the camp fire, looking for bugs,frogs,minnows, etc.and hot dogs!

I love this! And like with any traveling, the best advice you have is lowering expectations. It isn’t ever going to be as relaxing as hiking with adults but it is SUCH a pleasure. I call it being “free range”. Especially urban kids- so wonderful to be free to run around and get dirty and swim and play and all that.

Great post! I was totally going to send an email when I saw your instagram pics! I have been hiking ever week with my 3yr old son. My husband and I really want to take him backpacking soon. He does great on hikes so hopefully backpacking is next! Thanks for the inspiration!!!

Naaaay. There aren’t any grizzlies in Yosemite, plus we checked with the back country permit office to see if there were any bear sitings in that area. They’re weren’t 🙂

Thank you so so much for these tips! I love backpacking and hate car camping. Now I feel like I can actually brave it with my toddler!

HA! We took our 9 month old daughter camping on Corsica for the first time last month. She PUKED on me and then she SCREAMED half the night!!! We were in a hotel after two nights. 🙁 We’ll try again in a year or two!

I’m not sure that I will be backpacking anytime soon (with or without my 5 yr old daughter haha) BUT these are seriously great tips. Thanks for sharing in case I ever get brave enough for such things!

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