“It will all be worth it when we get to camp,” my mom reassured me, handing me a fruit roll-up with one hand and swatting a mosquito with the other. “These first days in the forest are the worst, and our packs are at their heaviest.” The pine trees provided spotty relief from the sun’s blazing heat. Easing my body and backpack down to the ground, I grabbed the snack with a sigh.

My dad had started the 15-minute timer already. Forty-five minutes hiking, 15-minute break, 45 minutes hiking, 15-minute break, minutes strung together with games, singing and riddles to distract us from heavy loads and tired legs. Draping my sopping wet handkerchief on my head, I questioned which go-to comeback to pull from my small repertoire—the postcard comment or the Disneyland complaint—and opted for the latter. “Why can’t we just go to Disneyland for vacation like all of my friends do?”

I was 9 years old, and halfway through day one of a seven day family backpacking trip through the Wind River Range in Wyoming. I had done a good deal of backpacking already in my short life, but my parents upped the ante this particular summer, likely trusting that their daughters were ready. They planned a pair of weeklong trips, back-to-back. When I was in a good mood, that meant two weeks of Kool-Aid and Cup-a-Soup, building ornate backcountry bathrooms, naming the local marmots and sliding down snowfields into glacial tarns. When I was in a bad mood, it meant two weeks of pure suffering.

family backpacking trip

The suffering never lasted long though, and as my mother tried to remind me, was all worth it in the end. As a 9-year-old I understood that, and now as a 31-year-old, I know it all the more. I’m grateful for a mountain sense that was cultivated at young age, and I’m grateful for a mind and body that grew up in the elements. More than anything, I’m grateful for my parents, who did an unquantifiable amount of planning, packing and cajoling, all to bestow upon their two daughters a fierce love for wild places.

So with decades of experience under their belts and two daughters who successfully graduated from Disneyland comments to actively choosing to live the bulk of their lives in the wilderness, my mom and dad have much wisdom to share with parents hoping to take their families on the trail. Minimalists at heart, and without many extra pennies when I was a child, they had to be creative in packing, and artful in bestowing luxury status to non-luxurious items. Recently, they helped me put together this list of essentials for a successful backpacking trip with kids.

1. A Surprise Treat

backpacking trip with kids

Day four of seven. By now you’re almost certainly in the alpine. Camp is beautiful tonight, a freezing cold lake lapping on the flat glacial rocks on which you’ve built your temporary home. It’s nearing dinnertime, and Mountain House meals have just started to lose their allure. Dad is walking back from the lake with a sly grin on his face, looking like he just hid something in the snow—it’s pop time!!! Every trip, my dad would hike in two cans of pop, a Coke for my sister, and a root beer or Sprite for me. He’d carry them until the time was right— when we needed a pick-me-up, there was snow for chilling, or it had been a hot day—and it was always, somehow, a surprise.

2. Handkerchief

backpacking with kids

The handkerchief is a brilliant backcountry item, a single lightweight piece of fabric that serves as a fly swatter, bandana, washrag, and gray water sieve (and I’m sure you and your kids could come up with more functions too). Picking out a new bandana for each trip was a special event that always provoked excitement to head for the hills.

3. Friends

This is a big one. My parents learned early on that my sister and I would have a great deal more fun (and be better behaved) if friends joined us on our backpacking trips. Sometimes our cousins came along, sometimes my parents’ friends or their children, and when we got older, our own friends came. Looking back, this was not only a gift for my family, but also for the people we ended up adopting into our clan.

4. Therm-a-Rest Goodies

Of course you would never want to head to the mountains without a sleeping pad, that’s a no brainer. But while my sister and I made our pillows out of clothing and chairs out of rocks, there are some amazing Therm-a-Rest not-quite-essentials out there that could bring a lot of joy to a family backpacking trip. It’s a fun idea to bring one single pillow or chair along on the trip, a prize doled out for winning daily contests or as a reward for positive attitudes.

5. Cup & Spoon

My parents have always been good at keeping it simple, and mealtimes are no exception. We didn’t carry sporks, plates, or mugs and bowls—just a simple cup and spoon for oatmeal, dinner, hot chocolate dessert, and Kool-Aid snow slushees.  It was my sister and my responsibility to keep our cups clean; the simplicity of having just one vessel is incentive to take care of it and call it your own.

6. Books

Some of my favorite memories on backpacking trips come from finding the perfect spot with a view to settle into and read a book. We read every day on our trips, and my dad would often bring a book of his own to read to us as we fell asleep. I remember this especially coming in handy on one trip in the North Cascades when weather kept us in the tent for a full 24 hours!

With all of the ways we have of separating ourselves from quiet, solitude, and beautiful wild spaces, it has become more important than ever to seek out those essentials. It doesn’t need to be complicated to seek out simplicity, as my parents modeled well. Hopefully you can go out and discover the same, and if your kids ask you why you don’t just buy the postcard, take heart. I did the same thing.


Originally published August 16, 2016