How to Go Backpacking with a Toddler
Last September, over Memorial Day weekend, my husband, K (learn more about him here), shared with me one of his all-time favorite activities: backpacking. I was hesitant to go on a backpacking trip for a number of reasons, but the biggest reason is we would be backpacking with a toddler. Yikes! Traveling with a toddler is hard enough when you’ve got restaurants with baby changing tables and hotels with cribs and running water, so I couldn’t imagine how crazy it would be out in the middle of the wilderness with our only resources being what we packed in our backpacks.
Another reason for my reticence was the fact that K was an Eagle Scout in high school and has been on several backpacking trips in the Cascade Mountains. His longest backpacking trip was 70 miles long! I, on the other hand, had limited experience with camping. I remember my mom and I camping for some unknown reason (maybe it was for Girl Scouts?) at our town’s local campground. After spending the night there, we ran home in the morning to brush our teeth and shower. Outdoorsy we were not.
Nevertheless, it was me who pushed for us to not bail on going backpacking with our toddler. After being with K for eleven years, I’ve done my fair share of hiking with him. I knew he’d be patient with me, I knew that I could put in the miles, and I knew it would most likely be fun. The only big question mark was how our toddler, Fi, would handle two days of backpacking.
I came to the conclusion that if backpacking with a toddler turned out to be completely horrible, it would only be horrible for two days. I can do anything for two days. So I pushed for us to make the trip happen. On September 2nd we stood at the Thunder Creek trailhead in the North Cascades National Park ready to begin our journey and on September 3rd we stood in the same spot at the end of our journey. We are backpacking with a toddler survivors and are here to tell you life on the trail with a toddler wasn’t that bad. Like at all. Here are our tips for a successful foray into the wilderness with your own kidlet.
What to Carry Your Child In Backpacking With a Toddler
How do you hike on a trail with a toddler who just learned how to walk a few months ago? You carry them, of course. There are a wide variety of child carriers available for hiking (here’s the selection available at REI).
On our backpacking trip, we used our Osprey Poco Plus, which we purchased at REI about a year before and had used on shorter three to five mile day hikes. We really liked this pack, but it did start to feel uncomfortable a few miles in.
I wore it on the first day, and by the end of the day the back of my neck was aching. I chalked it up to inexperience and possibly not wearing the pack correctly, but on the second day my husband and I switched packs. I wore his heavier Dana Designs pack and it made such a positive difference in my hiking experience. K complained about his neck hurting while wearing the baby carrier as well (but not as much as I did), so it may be that particular model is better for shorter hikes.
Whatever child carrier you choose, make sure it has extra storage space to carry all the things you will need to access easily on the trail: snacks, lunch food, jackets or sweatshirts, extra clothing, diapers, wipes, dirty diaper bags, etc.
What to Bring Backpacking With a Toddler
When backpacking with a toddler, you only need to bring a little bit more than what you would normally bring on a backpacking trip. The extra food we brought on our trip were toddler snacks. For meals, Fi did what she does in our regular lives, which is eat a little from both of our plates. We brought powdered milk because our kid LOVES milk, but we used the powdered milk only once because it tasted disgusting.
For diapering, we brought a set of day diapers and a couple night diapers, two travel sets of 20 baby wipes, and a couple gallon size Ziploc bags to use to pack the dirty diapers out. We also brought two extra sets of clothes and a sweatshirt.
I’ve compiled a list of all the items we brought with us for two days of hiking and one night of camping:
- The 10 Essentials:
- Sun protection: sunglasses, sunscreen, and hat
- First aid kit with insect repellent
- Canister stove, matches, and lighter
- Lightweight tent
- Extra food
- Extra water
- Extra clothes (change of clothes, jackets, long pants); PSA: Ladies, bring an extra sports bra. Just trust me on this one. Also bring extra hair ties. Fi’s broke and her hair was a mess the second day.
- Two sleeping bags
- Two sleeping pads
- One pot with lid
- Three bowls (we used Fi’s lightweight plastic bowls from home)
- Two sporks
- Freeze dried backpacking meals
- Hot chocolate packs
- Instant coffee
- Vacuum sealed lunches: crackers, cheese, dried fruit, and trail mix
- Toddler snacks: peanut butter Ritz cracker sandwiches, applesauce pouches, Cheerios
- Two Nalgene water bottles
- Walter filter
- Rope to hang the bear bag
- Bag for bear bag (used sleeping bag stuff sack)
- Carabiner to hang bear bag (added weight when tied to end of rope thrown over the branch)
- Lots of Ziploc bags to pack out food and dirty diapers
- Roll of toilet paper
- Paper towels
- Camera (I would opt to not bring this next time)
- Child carrier
- Trekking poles
- Hiking boots
- Cell phones and battery cell phone charger
On the Trail Backpacking With a Toddler
When out on the trail, how do you keep your toddler entertained? It’s not always fun to be strapped into a child carrier for hours on end. Since we had been on many day hikes with Fi starting when she was 2 weeks old, we already had a few tricks up our sleeves ready to be used on this trip.
The first trick is providing snacks. Lots and lots of snacks. It’s hard to be discontent when you’re munching on carbs. Our standbys are peanut butter Ritz cracker sandwiches, applesauce pouches, and Cheerios. We carry the Cheerios in a Munchkin snack catcher. This bowl has a lid with flaps that allow little hands to grab food out of the bowl without spilling the whole container. It’s not perfect, as there are always some Cheerios that fall out, but it works pretty well overall. One last little tip is we placed a long zip tie around her sippy cup and tied a short rope from the zip tie to the child carrier. This way when she inevitably let go of her sippy cup, it just fell to the side of the pack instead of down the side of the mountain.
Another trick we’ve learned is to allow our daughter to walk for the first half mile or whenever she gets tired. This gets some energy out and it’s one half mile you don’t have to walk with her strapped to your back. It does, however, take an eternity for you to travel that short distance.
We also will sing songs or point out neat things we see on the trail when Fi seems to be getting squirmy. This doesn’t always work, but it does distract her for a few minutes. I have seen some people bring toys for their kids to play with, but that doesn’t seem to work for very long with our little one. Sometimes, especially at her 5:00-6:00 p.m. witching hour, there is nothing that will calm her and we (and every person and animal within earshot) just have to endure whatever irrational tantrum she’s throwing. C’est la vie.
We brought our two person lightweight Big Agnes tent. It was just the right size for all of us. We opted for Fi to sleep in our sleeping bag with us. Since I didn’t have much room in my sleeping bag, Fi slept with K. Or at least she did eventually.
The tent was like her personal indoor playground. She spent the majority of the evening running around inside it, rolling around and sliding on the sleeping bags. We thought she’d settle down once we turned off the light, but that was not the case.
She moved from one corner of the tent to another for most of the night. Every hour or so, either K or I would wake up and check to make sure she was warm enough, as she not only wasn’t under any covers, but she had taken off her socks as well (what is it with toddlers and socks?). I put a sweatshirt on her, and by 4:00 a.m. she had finally settled in K’s sleeping bag.
Needless to say, we slept in until around 9:00 a.m.!
Safety Tips for Backpacking With a Toddler
While on the trail and at camp, safety with Fi was our biggest concern. We were hiking near cliff edges and our campsite was near a steep cliff that dropped down to a creek, so we didn’t let her wander or let her out of our sight.
This was really difficult to achieve, especially when we were putting up the tent. For this reason, we are getting a toddler leash. Gasp! The horror! But come on, it’s not like we’re putting our kid on a leash for everyday experiences. We’re putting our kid on a leash so we can put up a tent without her wandering over a cliff edge and drowning in a creek.
Also, it would have been nice to have a leash during our lunch breaks on the trail. We ate near some unsafe cliffs on the first day, so Fi didn’t get out of the child carrier until the end of the meal when we our hands were free to corral her.
Another way we kept Fi safe was by keeping her in the tent for most of our evening. We got into camp later than we had anticipated, so staying inside kept her from wandering away in the dark.
One other thing we did in the name of safety was taking everything that had a scent, including dirty diapers and baby wipes, and putting it in a bear bag. We hung the bear bag a fair distance away from our tent so as not to give bears any reason to come sniffing around us in the middle of the night.
Finally, we used a water filter when taking water from the river. This is a “no, duh”, obvious action for any human, but it’s especially important for tiny humans and their developing immune systems.
Okay, But Was Backpacking With a Toddler Worth It?
Backpacking with our toddler turned out to be an amazing experience for our whole family. Would it have been easier without her? For sure. But we want to have another kid, and if we were to wait until our children are out of the toddler stage, we’d have to wait another four years! We’re not putting our lives on hold for that.
We firmly believe in traveling with our children and taking them on as many experiences as possible. It’s pretty much never easy traveling with babies and toddlers and the experience is always a fraction of what it would be if you didn’t have those pesky naps or early bedtimes eating up your day, but it’s worth it 90% of the time. (I say 90% because there was one trip we took to Vancouver Island when Fi was 7 months old that was awful through and through.)
So go on and take a risk! Pick a weekend and take your toddler backpacking. It will most likely be amazing, and if it isn’t, it will only suck for 36 hours. Happy backpacking, friends!