Tips for Backpacking and Backcountry Camping with Kids: A to Z

Banff National Park’s Healy Pass has become a significant place for me in my parenting journey. I wrote about my hike there when I was four months pregnant, facing the giant – Mount Assiniboine – in the distance and wondering if I’d ever tackle a climb like that ever again. I wrote about it again when I took my first kid-free trip in the backcountry, from Redearth Creek through Whistling Pass and Egypt Lakes area and out through Healy Pass, two years after my first daughter was born. And just this past week, I returned to Healy Pass with my husband, eldest daughter (now 5), and 3-month-old Lea on our first-ever backpacking trip as a family.

I didn’t plan it that way. This beautiful corner of the park has become one of those milestone markers rather serendipitously.

En route to Healy Pass. Photo by Meghan J. Ward.

Backpacking as a family was always the dream. When I had my first child, I read up as much as I could about how other families pulled it off. But the dream never became a reality for a number of reasons, namely my own rather lengthy post-partum recovery and a baby whose temperament didn’t match the rough conditions of life on the trail (see Myth #1 in this post). Fast-forward five years and daughter #2 joins our family (I know, I still owe you guys a post just about that!). It turns out, she’s a decent sleeper (yay!) and did really well on a trial camping trip close-by. The 5-year-old got into the camping groove last summer and is a stellar hiker. Most importantly, we’re a thousand times more relaxed as parents. So, this year, without too much overthinking, I planned a backpacking trip when I knew the 3-month-old baby would still be lightweight enough to carry on my front.

Find more tips for outdoor adventures with kids at adventurousparents.com. Photo by Paul Zizka Photography.
Find more tips for outdoor adventures with kids at adventurousparents.com. Photo by Paul Zizka Photography.

It worked. (I can stop knocking on wood now.) And we all had an amazing time. It was not without its challenges – multiple face plants and falls, an extra 2km of hiking on an already long day, life-size mosquitoes and nearly losing the contents of our dehydrated dinners, among other things – but what backpacking adventure has ever been free of challenge?

So, here’s my best effort to summarize how and what we did, so that some of you can fulfill your own dreams.

Our Itinerary

Day 1 – Take Gondola and Standish Chair to Sunshine Meadows (we have a family season pass); hike down to Healy Creek Campground via Simpson Pass. Approx. 8-10 km (map and trail signs didn’t agree….)

Day 2 – Day hike to Healy Pass and back to Healy Creek Campground. 7.4 km round trip

Day 3 – Hike out to Sunshine Village Parking Lot. 5.5 km

Total – Approx. 21-23 km

Tips for Backpacking + Backcountry Camping with Kids

A few general things: 

  • There are so many factors to consider: age of children, weight of children, front or back carrier, who will carry what, what the trail is like, etc. Consider the tips in this articles as suggestions only.

  • Test-drive and become proficient at the camping and hiking separately at first.
  • Be comfortable and efficient with your baby carrier, and be able to get your baby in there without any assistance.
  • Involve your older children in the process. Maya was absolutely fascinated by everything – from how the dehydrated dinners rehydrated to filtering water and looking for wildflowers in the forest.
Be prepared to carry A LOT. 80L pack on the back and a 13-pound baby on the front. Here we are on a break along the trail. Photo Meghan J. Ward.

Topics in Alphabetical Order

Baby Carrier

I have used a number of carriers over the years, including the Boba Air and Onya Outback, but for this trip I brought the Boba 3G and wore the baby facing inward, on my front. This gives the baby adequate support while she is sleeping. The softer straps allowed me to wear the carrier straps under my packs straps. Not comfortable, but not horrible, either. I would often cup the back of the baby’s head while I hiked to add additional support when she fell asleep (the 3G comes with a hood but I couldn’t find it before the trip), and to protect her in case of a surprise slip or fall on my part.

Much like in pregnancy, you can’t see your feet when you’re hiking with a baby on the front. So, it’s imperative that you have lots of practice hiking in difficult terrain, and that you are comfortable doing so with a baby.

One reader asked: Do you think this will be possible when the baby gets heavier and more active, like 10+ months? My answer is yes, with some adjustments. By this point, the baby could be in a backpack carrier (we use the LittleLife Freedom, which has a large storage pocket). Some gear could be strapped to the exterior, but this would still leave us without a lot of carrying power. We would potentially pick a campsite where we could have someone ferry in a load, or recruit friends to join in and carry some extra gear. I know of some people who have carried large loads in the backcountry using a cart on wheels. An alternative is heading into the backcountry, but not camping. We stayed at Shadow Lake Lodge when Maya could fit in the backpack carrier, which only required us to hike in one large pack.

Our furthest point on the trip, Healy Pass. Photo Meghan J. Ward collection.

Clothing

We brought a typical kit for those who were hiking:

  • moisture-wicking materials against the skin
  • a thermal upper body layer
  • hiking pants
  • waterproof jackets
  • waterproof pants for the kid
  • down jackets
  • hiking socks
  • sunhats
  • toques
  • mitts

Additionally, we brought a pair of comfy “camp clothes” and many extra pairs of kid’s underwear and shorts for the trail. One thing I’d like to invest in is a set of merino long underwear (top and bottom) for all kids.

Tip: Put a panty liner in your little girl’s underwear to catch those little leaks after trailside pees.

For the baby, I brought:

  • 2 x organic cotton onesies
  • 4 x sleepers
  • 1 x fleece bunting suit
  • sunhat
  • socks
  • mitts
  • toque
  • a few extra clothing items (pair of pants and t-shirt)

While I was hiking I dressed her in an organic cotton onesie underneath (merino would be great for this too), and then added layers as needed. Often, in warm temperatures, all she needed was the onesie.

Tip: I brought along the Make My Belly Fit panel so that I could zip my rain jacket or warm jacket around the baby carrier.

Comfort

We let Maya bring whatever “lovey” she wanted. If there’s ever a time to have a comfort item, it’s when your kid is staying in the backcountry! She chose her blankie, which generally goes everywhere, even if it’s only in her bag. But when she needed an extra boost of confidence, like when we discovered we had two extra kilometres to hike, she pulled it out and held it while she walked. I have no problem with that!

 

Co-Parent

Teamwork with my husband was a major factor in the success of this backpacking trip. He and I have spent 13 years adventuring in the mountains together, and have a solid rhythm and set of expectations for each other. If a kid needed something, one of us would respond while the other got to work. Whoever was out of the tent first in the morning retrieved the food and got breakfast going. If I was nursing the baby, he would take care of Maya. When one of us was feeling a bit worn out (it’s hard work backpacking with kids!), the other would pitch in a little extra.

Someone asked me: Could you have done this without your husband? The short answer is “no.” I could have done it on my own with just one child in tow, but not two. Maybe when Maya can carry more on her back I can go out on my own with the kids. But, if you don’t have a partner who can do the trip with you, I highly recommend you recruit a friend to come along– someone who would be keen on spending time with kids, walking at a slower pace and who could carry some gear.

See also my tip about leapfrogging along the trail under “Hiking”.

Playtime and otherwise time out of the baby carrier at Healy Meadows. Photo Meghan J. Ward.
Playtime and otherwise time out of the baby carrier at Healy Meadows. Photo Meghan J. Ward.

Diapers

We planned on 5-6 diapers per day and made an effort not to change the diaper until it was quite full or if there was a poop. Dry diapers don’t weigh anything, so it’s more of a space issue – just make sure to place them in a waterproof bag! Choose unscented diapers and wipes.

We also brought pull-ups for the older child, just in case. Kids are more accident-prone when they are away from home and out of their comfort zone. I’d rather hike out a dirty pull-up than deal with a sleeping bag drenched with pee.

For dirty diapers, we simply used a garbage bag. We stored dirty diapers with our food garbage in the food storage (see “Food”). Because we stayed at the same campground each night, we only had to hike the food garbage and diapers out the 5.5km back to the parking lot.

I don’t have an expert opinion on cloth diapers, but I know of people who have used them on longer trips.

Tip: I put an additional diaper horizontally inside her sleeper to catch any “explosions” from leaking onto her clothes.

Emergency Planning

A few people have asked if we had a contingency plan. We had a few. One, we carried the Garmin inReach Explorer+, which provides us with access to two-way communication and rescue services. Also, once we were at our campsite, we were only 5.5km away from the trailhead. At a quick clip, we could have been back at the parking lot in just over an hour. In an emergency, we could have simply left our gear behind and hiked quickly back to the car.

It’s magic when the older kid starts helping out with prep! Photo Meghan J. Ward.

Food

Breakfast was oatmeal and coffee or hot chocolate. For lunch, we made bagels with cream cheese in advance (these keep really well on a short trip) and otherwise ate high-powered snacks such as nuts and jerky. We went with dehydrated dinners from Backpacker’s Pantry and made two different ones and let Maya decide which one she liked better (win!). Dehydrated dinners, that don’t require a lot of rehydration time, are key when you’ve got a baby during a needy time of day, mosquitoes eating every ounce of exposed skin, and everyone is tired. And of course, we had a good collection of trail gummies – the ultimate motivator for our kid.

It depends on the age, but a baby eating solid foods could have squeezy packs that don’t require refrigeration (fruit/veggie/oats/meat), MumMums, Cheerios, rice cereal, and small pieces of bread. You could also dehydrate some baby food that only requires you to add boiled water.

Be sure to follow all of the guidelines regarding food storage. Our campsite provided food and garbage storage lockers about 300 metres away from the tents. Some campsites provide a pulley system for hanging your food. Everything scented needs to get stored away at night, including lip balm and toothpaste. We brought a handy waterproof zip bag to store away all toiletries and keep them separate from food.

Gear

Apart from your usual backpacking, camping, cooking gear and clothing, we found the following items to be helpful:

  • A low camp-chair that breaks down to be quite small and offers a “hammock-like” seat for the baby (and adults – a bonus for the nursing mama!). See below.
  • A solar-powered lantern – this Crush Light from GoalZero compresses to nearly nothing and has four light settings.
  • Wildflowers of the Canadian Rockies book – this was great for identifying plants along the way and turning the trip into an educational experience.
Low hammock-style chair for the baby. Lightweight enough to carry and worth bringing! You need to be able to put the baby down from time to time. Photo Paul Zizka.

Hiking

Plan a hiking itinerary you know your littlest/slowest hiker can manage. We planned for 8km on Day 1, an optional day trip on Day 2 and a 5km exit on Day 3. We ended up doing more like 10km on the first day, another 7km round-trip on the second and then the exit as planned on the third – a whopping 24 km for the five-year-old, who hiked like a champ. We took very, very few breaks, mostly due to the mosquitoes, but it’s also our family style. When we could see that she was getting tired, we’d stop for a little pick-me-up.

This might sound like a lot for a five-year-old, and it surprised us too that she managed it so well. But two factors were at play here: 1. We have done a lot of hiking with her – up to 11km in a day prior to this trip, so we knew what her “max” was. 2. We were only going to go as far as we thought she could manage on Day 2. Turns out, she went all the way to Healy Pass and back to the campsite.

Keep expectations and pressure low and they may surprise you!

Baby: People have asked me about how we managed the baby’s needs while hiking (see also “Baby Carrier” and “Nursing”). The hiking portions of the day landed into a bit of a rhythm: big feed, hike through naps/as long as she’d allow me to, play time on my jacket on the ground until the mosquitoes found us, feed (while swatting mosquitoes), and back into hiking again. Again, I’m very familiar with hiking with a baby, so have a good sense of how to dress the baby and when she may have been getting too hot. I think many parents are concerned about this aspect, so all I can say is to just get out there and do it, and get to know your baby.

Tip: Generally, plan on underdressing the baby and add layers as needed to the exterior. It’s very hard to take layers off a baby once they are in the carrier.

Tip: We discovered that one of our best ways to keep moving along the trail was to leapfrog. (And, no, I don’t mean actually hopping over each other’s back.) This depends on the ages of your kids, but for us, when the baby would need to feed, I’d stop and let Paul and Maya keep hiking. That way, the slower party could get a head start on the next stretch. When I was done feeding, I’d pack up again and catch up. Eventually, I’d pass them and hike ahead a little so that when I stopped to nurse they could catch up to me again. In the end, I finished off the last 5km or so on my own so that I could get to the campsite and start setting up, but the leapfrogging worked like a charm on each day of the trip. The downside is, I missed hiking with Maya and Paul, but it kept us efficient on the trail. We both carried bear spray.

We brought a wildflower book to identify flowers along the way! Maya loved it. Photo by Paul Zizka.

Mosquitoes

Many people have asked me how we kept the mosquitoes off the baby. We were lucky that it was cool weather, so at camp, we could put layers on her. While I was hiking, it wasn’t an issue because I was moving. While I was nursing, I kept her body covered with a jacket. At camp, we mostly let her kick around in a zipped-up tent when the mosquitoes were out. And if we brought her out of the tent, we put her in long sleeves and carried her so that we could keep the mosquitoes at bay. Occasionally I had to put her down in the chair to do something and I’d keep an eye on her face for mozzies.

At camp, get your kids to cover their skin as much as possible, including their heads. A toque or sunhat will do. We otherwise use a natural bug spray. We made the mistake of letting Maya walk around without a hat the first night and she got 40 mosquito bites on her forehead!

We did have mosquito coils with us, and they helped. I’ve heard about some non-toxic devices that repel mosquitoes that I’d like to look into. Feel free to leave a comment if you have ideas!

Motivation

How do you keep your kid motivated on the trail? My best advice is to have a good amount of hikes under your belt before heading off on a backpacking trip. That way, their “baseline” is already quite high and they are able to tolerate more if days get long or difficult conditions arise (like our two extra kilometres on this one). We also dealt with cold, wet and mosquitoes throughout our trip, and you’d hardly know it, I think because Maya has spent a lot of time outside.

Otherwise, find a system that works for your kid. Ours is motivated by food and trail gummies. Set goals or do trivia along the way, and reward them. They are working hard! When we hike without big backpacks, and can afford to go more slowly, we like to hide small animal stuffies along the trail and let her find them. On this trip, the wildflower book came in handy for keeping her interested in what she was seeing along the trail.

→ Check out these 7 Tips for Hiking with a Toddler for more ideas.

Nursing

Again, I can’t speak to bottle or formula feeding, but in my experience, nursing is a remarkable convenience when you’re backcountry hiking and camping. It can be tough on the body when you can’t always get comfortable, so when you can, do so (bring an inflatable pillow and/or collapsible camp chair for camp). Wear a top that gives you “easy access” while you’re hiking and bring a nursing tank for sleeping in.

Prior to a backpacking trip, it’s worth practicing nursing “on the go” and in lots of scenarios (in particular, sitting on the ground cross-legged) if it’s something you’re not as familiar with.

You an also nurse your baby while he or she is in the carrier if you’re not also wearing a large backpack. It takes some practice, but I have done it on a number of occasions, which let’s me keep moving when I need to (cue mosquitoes, tired older child, etc.).

Two 80L packs for the adults and a 20L for the older kid. Photo by Meghan J. Ward.

Packing

Paul and I each carried 80L backpacks. I actually really enjoyed packing for this trip because, compared to front-country camping, it’s a relatively simple job. You can only bring what you can carry. We managed to fit everything in or on the packs. They were heavy, and I found it felt awkward having it layered over my baby carrier, but we managed. I couldn’t do up my hip belt and sternum straps properly, so it was definitely on the uncomfortable side.

The five-year-old carried a 20L backpack containing 1-litre of drinking water, her waterproof jacket/pants, a sweater, her blankie, a few snacks and our Wildflowers of the Canadian Rockies book. We ended up carrying her pack roughly half the time, but she did carry it all the way out on our last day (5.5km).

Patience

Hiking with kids can and will test your patience. Keep your frustration in check so that things don’t spiral out of control when something really strikes your nerve. Little kids fumble a lot, so except those “kid things” to happen. We saw our whole water filtration system end up in the drink. Little feet kick over dehydrated dinner bags easily, apparently. Accidents happen, especially when kids are drinking a lot on the trail. Lean on your partner when you feel overwhelmed.

Wildflowers were in full bloom! Photo Meghan J. Ward.
Wildflowers were in full bloom! Photo Meghan J. Ward.

Post-Partum

If you’re hiking with a little baby it means you had a baby recently. Don’t overlook the strain that has had on your body and how you may not have had the chance to condition yourself to hike with a backpack at great distances. After my first baby, I never would have attempted such a trip (it took until she was six months old, and even then I didn’t carry a backpack). This time, my body recovered more quickly and I’ve been able to be active. It was a stretch to carry a 13-pound baby on my front and 80-litre pack on my back. It was definitely uncomfortable, but manageable for me and I knew it was the only way to make the trip possible. Know your own limits, and honour them.

Toys/Entertainment

We brought one baby toy – a soft book (and I kind of wish I’d brought her Sophie giraffe).

Nature is a great entertainer! For the older child, we brought one of our wildflower books so that we could identify wildflowers and plants along the trail. We loved that! Kids also enjoy exploring the woods, playing by water, collecting sticks and pinecones. Let them wander (with the kind of supervision where they don’t notice you watching…) and see how they interact with their environment.

We also brought the iPad (gasp!). Yes, I’m all about limited screen time, but for early mornings, baby naps, lengthy bouts of rain, “squirrelly” time (I think parents will know what I’m talking about), or when you just need to get stuff done around camp, the iPad is magic. I had educational games ready and a few episodes of her favourite shows downloaded in advance. We also bring her headphones so that we can still keep things quiet for everyone else. Violà – a much-needed break.

Sleeping

For sleeping, we brought two tents – a 3-man and a 1-man (we needed to fit on the same tent pad). This allowed us to “divide and conquer” and help the kids settle better at bedtime. It also allowed us to prevent one kid from waking up when the other would stir at night, or when someone needed to get out of the tent. I highly recommend this approach if you have more than one child. Our 1-man was just enough space for me to sleep next to the baby without any concerns for her safety. On a previous frontcountry trip, I shared a 2-man with her but the 1-man was much smaller and lightweight for me to carry.

The adults and 5-year-old each used a sleeping pad, sleeping bag and inflatable pillow. The baby was on a firm inflatable mattress, with zero chance of rolling off (this will largely depend on which stage your baby is at). If I had any concerns about rolling, I’d have used a much thinner option for her. Being confident in your sleeping arrangement is essential if you want to get any sleep and don’t want to be watching the baby all night.

For a sleeping “bag” I simply zipped up my down jacket around the baby when it got too cold! Otherwise, she was dressed in a sleeper and bunting suit with a hood (hats don’t stay on) and swaddled. I ensured her nose and mouth would not be obstructed. The jacket trick won’t work too much longer as she grows, but it was a great solution for the time being. I had a second lightweight down jacket for me in the middle of the night when I was nursing. I think my next step is to invest in a super-compressible down blanket.

Tip: The Sierra Designs Backcountry Bed was the perfect sleeping bag for sharing the tent with a baby. For one, if I was close enough to her, I could pull the “duvet” portion over her for added warmth. Two, when I was nursing I could wrap it up and around her because I’d have her out of her sleeping bag. Genius!

Water

We brought our MSR MiniWorks Water Filter so that we could purify water at the campsite or along the way if need be. Otherwise, we filled up our water bladders (our fav is the Platypus Big Zip) before we left, and didn’t source more water until we were at the campsite. Maya carried a litre of water in her own Platypus, making it easy to keep her hydrated without stopping all the time.

All campsites around here have access to a water source – in this case, Healy Creek. If we were boiling water for drinks or dehydrated meals, we didn’t filter it in advance. If it was for drinking water while hiking, we filtered it.

Extra steps would need to be taken for formula-fed babies. Feel free to comment with your experience as I’ve only ever exclusively breastfed both my babies.

Baby on the front inside a carrier and five-year-old beside. En route to Simpson Pass. Photo Meghan J. Ward collection.
Baby on the front inside a carrier and five-year-old beside. En route to Simpson Pass. Photo Meghan J. Ward collection.

My Biggest Piece of Advice

Figure out what you need for this moment in time. Your system might not be perfect, but I would hesitate to invest in specific gear you won’t use again. So much changes with kids as they grow. They become too heavy to carry at one point. And, eventually, they get big enough and can handle a lot! I’m currently seeing both ends of the spectrum with my two girls, and I know I’ll need to change tactics on the next trip.

More Tips:

7 Tips for Hiking with a Toddler

10 Tips for Camping with a Baby

5 Myths of Outdoor Parenting

Did I miss answering any questions? Feel free to leave on in the Comments below! 

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Author: Meghan J. Ward

Meghan J. Ward is an outdoor, travel and adventure writer based in Banff, Alberta, and the co-founder/editor at Crowfoot Media. Her work has been published by a variety of magazines throughout North America, including IMPACT Magazine, Where.ca, Kootenay Mountain Culture and Alpinist.com. She specializes in creating marketing materials and web content for the tourism industry and beyond.

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