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How young is too young to start backpacking?

I can't wait to share my love of the the outdoors with my daughter! She will be 9 months old this month. My wife and I love to hike and I am a pretty avid camper and backpacker (my wife has yet to get on board with the whole no hot showers for extended periods of time thing) and I would like to start planning some trips and little outings for all 3 of us. I have an Osprey carrier that works great and she really enjoys it but we haven't done anything longer than a couple miles because she starts getting fussy. Any recommendations for hiking/backpacking/camping with small children?

"I took a walk in the woods and came out taller than the trees."- Thoreau
9 Replies

The best I can offer is from my own experience with two kids for whom hiking means using the climbing game on their VR headset (seriously though, I got vertigo from the **bleep** thing). LOL

But the most important thing my wife and I discovered was we needed to end things when the kids were done, not us. And it sounds like you already know that since you say your daughter gets fussy after a couple of miles.

Keep them engaged and active - both mentally and physically. My 10 year old daughter gets really bored in the car, so I build activity books for her. And for short hikes, I'll print out pictures and write-ups of any points of interest (monuments, natural structures, historical sites, etc.) and bring them with me so she can try to spot them first, etc.

But when they were younger we learned that "when they're done, they're done" and we could always come back

“Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.” (John Muir)

Superusers do not speak on behalf of REI and may have received
one or more gifts or other benefits from the co-op.


What a great opportunity for you to introduce your daughter to the outdoors! Spending time with my kids (now 5 and 😎 outdoors is one of the most rewarding parts of being a parent. While we stayed pretty close to the trailhead when they were really little, one of the best pieces of advice I could give is similar to @Dad_Aint_Hip: we go as far as they can go and when they're done we're done. Also, bring all the snacks. For one, that makes the goal flexible and simple, and the snacks make sure they don't lose energy/interest too early. You may not even make it a mile before having to turn back but if they remember how fun that mile was they'll be more willing to go again next time. One of my proudest moments as a parent was a 14 mile bikepacking trip I took with my daughter when she was 6. It took us a long time and there was a lot of walking, but she was such a good sport and we had a blast. She talks about that trip two years later every time we ride bikes. I credit being patient with her endurance at an early age to her ability to get after it now that she's a bit older. 

I'm going to tag @ayhunt, who I bet can share some other tips and advice from trips they've done with their kids.

Hopefully this helps, best of luck, and come back and tell us about how the trip goes!

At REI, we believe time outside is fundamental to a life well lived.

Others have said some good stuff about snacks/activities and keeping it short enough for their endurance, but I want to address the other side of backpacking: namely, the sleeping. With the nap and sleep needs of young toddlers/infants, that could be a very tricky part of the proposition as well. It depends on the kid, but for ours anyway she could fall asleep in the carrier/car/bike trailer but it was never a long or very good nap. And never according to your usual home schedule, the new environment is such a routine buster for littles. And overnights add the challenge of do you haul a heavy portable crib too, or could the kid handle co-sleeping?

That said, it's no reason not to take them out into nature, but you can definitely ease into it with car camping at a state park or forest. I think ours was about 9 months for our first outing, with a spacious REI Base Camp 6 tent to set up the pack n play crib. We draped a sheet over it, hung with a carabiner from the ceiling, as a light-blocking curtain. We used our phones to play white noise as a sound machine, so a battery pack came in handy for recharging. More challenging than any of the camping/hiking was pushing through the 2.5hr drive to get there.

Our latest big outing was this summer with a 4 day/3 night adventure on Lake Superior's North Shore, at about 1.5 years old (by chance when that comet came by, such an incredible sight in dark skies!). She did quite well, but as mentioned, we totally blew her naps, none of us got great sleep overnight, and were ready to be done by the end of it even though it was definitely a good trip. It's also shocking just how much additional gear comes along for a toddler, that we're now looking into a roof cargo box because the car was absolutely stuffed for that trip.

She's just turned 2 now, and I'd say she's good for ~2-3 miles of hiking/balance biking on her own before she's hit her limit. Could definitely go more in the carrier, but now mommy and daddy hit their limits because 32lb of small, wriggling human is not exactly light... but I think we've managed upwards of 10 miles in a day as the most we've done. One thing she absolutely loves is trekking poles, trying to copy what we're doing. A regular adult pole in its collapsed state is actually a pretty good length for her. A bit double edged though because our pace absolutely plummets as she repeatedly drops it and has to pick it back up.

But really it all comes down to patience. Patience with the activity itself, and patience that they'll work their way up to longer adventures as they grow. Keep it enjoyable for them to build a lifelong love for it, rather than pushing them away from pushing them too hard.

Superusers do not speak on behalf of REI and may have received
one or more gifts or other benefits from the co-op.

Realistically no age is too young, you just may be hauling in more stuff and not walking as far.  We found it is best to keep trips short and activities fun to really keep them wanting to come back.  A short hike to a site, campfire dinner, smores, and then pack out and leave early the next day.  A two+ night trip became loads easier when the youngest was around age 4.

Superusers do not speak on behalf of REI and may have received
one or more gifts or other benefits from the co-op.

So great job getting started and wanting to include your daughter! I'm the father of an 8 (about to be 9) year old girl who started young like you are with yours. I did the same thing as you, 2-5 mile hikes in a frame backpack carrier as well as lots of time in her BOB running stroller... she came on lots of training runs, literally daily @5-10 miles. She started life in a wrap style carrier for 2-5 mile walks every day for the first 3-4 months as well, so she has always been on the move with us.

I agree with everyone else, the trip is over when they are done (most of the time!) and make sure to bring snacks, cold drinks, and toys. We used to stop every time she got excited or pointed and made noises to see what she was looking at. Took her out, carried her in mom's arms (or mine, depending on who she was riding with) and explored the area of interest. Usually a stream, open area, butterflies etc but always good for her...that helped extend the time and eventually the distance.

Its fine to make this a "daddy/daughter" thing. My daughter loves to kayak and bike ride with mom but we ski together as "our time" and its pretty special. Good luck, have fun!

"Life is not a Dress Rehearsal" -me

"There is no 'good life' or 'bad life', just 'your life'" -me;
"Get busy living, or get busy dying" -Andy Dufresne

Never too young because especially at that age they aren't very heavy yet. 🙂 Once they are walking on their own Snacks is key. If you can keep the snacks flowing and manage the pace their endurance will surprise you. 

Boy, great questions & answers! We had a used backpacking kid carrier that held quite a bit. Once my husband & his brother each packed in a pack & play tied onto their backpacks (we didn't go very far!!). That was a bit much. In truth, we parents did not sleep in the family tent until the kids were 3 & 5. It was a rough 5 years, to be sure. Sometimes we brought 2 tents. One of us would have the kids while the other slept. If the weather was nice, one of us would sleep out under the stars, etc. 

Yes, I co-slept while breastfeeding the 2nd kiddo. I am a very light sleeper, do not smoke, am not overweight, etc., but as a Family Med Doc, I cringe a little to admit this. The first kiddo we packed a little bassinette & then a little pop-up mosquito net similar to this one:

That little netted bassinette was sure key on rafting trips, stopping for breaks backpacking, & for use inside the tent for separate sleeping. 

Find what works for you & your family : ) Hope a few of these suggestions are useful. 

A sarong is one of my favorite items as well: instant shade, cooling with wet/wrung out, towel, nursing cover, fast to dry, quick baby carrier, etc. 

My son is 4 and we are doing his first backpacking trip in a few weeks. The trip will be short. Only about an hours worth of hiking each way to the tent site albeit on some challenging terrain. I have been prepping for this trip for the last year by hiking with him on trails of increasing intensity and duration.  He has seen the pictures of my backpacking trips and has come to the point where he is interested and has asked. That’s how I know it’s time. 

This is a wonderful question! I think I should differentiate between camping (staying at the same place, with short hikes around) and backpacking (moving from place to place with your whole equipment).

For camping, I don't think there is a "minimum" age. Children get used to be (and sleep) outdoors surprisingly easily. We started taking our kids camping when they were old enough to sit without back support, about seven months old, and hiked with them on a back carrier (nothing fancy, just a piece of fabric with ties) or a stroller if the trail allowed it. In my experience, the key for kids willing to walk is (suspense)... make them walk. Even when they were toddlers, I was surprised by how long they could walk as long as the hike was interesting and snacks were provided; that meant stopping every now and then to look at rocks or flowers, pointing at animals, making funny noises, you know the drill.

For backpacking, it depends on each family. We didn't backpack long distances as a family until recently (my kids are 8 and 10 now); they got tired, they whined a bit, but they enjoyed it immensely and despite all their complains, as soon as we arrived to a nice place they would get all bouncy and run around while we parents could hardly stay on our feet. My take is that around five years old (again, depending on each kid) they are already able to hike for 5 or 6 miles, as other people mentioned, provided that you supply them with water, snacks and interesting conversation, so to speak.

Farther. Higher. Longer.