Tips & Tricks of Backpacking with a Toddler
Last week we posted our highlight video from our recent backpacking trip to Soldier Lakes in Central Idaho. In the video we shared some of our simple tips on how to make a backpacking adventure with a toddler go smoothly. I’ll admit, I was a little apprehensive when my husband suggested a ten miles over three days trip. Even though we have gone camping with her a number of times, there are always so many unknowns or what ifs when going off the grid. Looking back now, I shouldn’t have worried. Rosalie had the time of her life, and still talks about the fish she caught and sleeping in a “fort”.
Lesson learned, my toddler is much more capable than I give her credit. I think this is the case for most toddlers, and kids in general. We won’t be able to know what they are capable of, unless we give them a chance to prove it to us. Yes, they may cry and say they want to stop. But we do that sometimes, too. Give them (and us) some motivation and encouragement, and off they go. All that said, it’s still nice to have bag of tips and tricks to help out when planning and in those frustrating moments.
Research your Destination
If this is your first time going out into the wilderness with your toddler, first think about how well they do in the car. If they have a hard time sitting in a car seat, it may be nice to go somewhere nearby. A short drive there and back will help with keeping a toddler happy. If a your child does well with longer car rides, your options of where to go are more plentiful.
Take note of the kind of trail you will be on and what that implies. How long is the trail? Going on a trail that is going to push you, may not be the best for little legs. Stick to a length that is challenging, but will still make for a good experience for the first timer. Five miles in, five miles out, with a relaxing day in the middle was a good plan for our family, but may not be for others. Another question you may ask, does the trail go along a canyon drop off or is there something else that concerns you? If so, it probably isn’t a good idea to take a toddler on a trail like that anyway. Save that one for later.
Stay updated on trail conditions. This is where we slightly erred. We chose a backpack that Kyle’s family had done several times when he was younger; the Soldier Lakes in the Frank Church Wilderness in Central Idaho. It had been about five years since his family had been there. Between then and this summer, there had been a large wildfire that wound its way through portions of the hike. Our destination lakes were untouched, but we did end up driving and hiking through a lot of burned timber. Also, check weather conditions during the week before you go. There’s nothing like getting soaking wet when you only have whatever you have on your back. Not to mention a crying toddler.
Invest in a Good Pack
This is one of those decisions that could make or break your trip (and this doesn’t just apply to the backpack carrying your toddler). If you are wearing something that hurts the minute you put it on, then that’s just asking to be grumpy. We searched far and wide before purchasing the Osprey Poco AG Premium Child Carrier and have nothing but good things to say about it. It offers a comfortable and shaded seat for your toddler, a ventilated back for you, and the most storage space we’ve seen in a child carrier, among many other great features. It is on the expensive end of child carrying packs, but for us it was worth the investment since we will be using it for years to come.
Looking for a good pack but want to save? Many outdoor retailers will do end of year or blowout sales once or twice a year. Do your research on what you’d like to purchase, wait patiently, then snatch it up on the first day of the sale. It worked for us with this pack!
Now that you have your pack, you need to fill it strategically. Even if you have a child carrier pack with a comparatively larger amount of space, it’s still less than a normal backpacking pack. Thankfully, Kyle was able to haul a good majority of our gear (thank goodness for a strong husband). The rest was spread to my father-in-law and brother-in-law, who joined us.
Here are the backpacking essentials that we were able to bring along:
- Backpacking tent
- Sleeping bags and pads (for Kyle and I)
- Rope (used to tie up food bag at night or when away from camp)
- Bug spray (we actually forgot this… Thankfully, my father-in-law had some to share)
- Lantern (we love these inflatable solar powered ones)
- Deck of cards
- Dishes (plates, cups, bowls)
- Biodegradable dish soap
- Backpacking pot and frying pan
- Portable camp stove and fuel
- Hydration bladder for each person
- Backpacking towels
- Lightweight clothes
- Rain jackets
- Wool socks
- Scentless toiletries
- First Aid Kit
- Lightweight food
- Spices container
For Rosalie, we packed the following:
- Packable down blanket (like this one), aka her sleeping “bag”
- Jacket with a hood
- Long pants/shirts
- Teddy bear
It may look like a lot of stuff, but we were able to get almost all of it in the storage space of my/Rosalie’s pack and Kyle’s pack. Some of the food and cooking supplies were carried by my in-laws, but we could have planned our meals to be smaller and lighter if needed to fit into our packs.
Don’t Leave Teddy
Almost every toddler I know has some sort of comfort item; a blanket, a stuffed animal, a toy car. For Rosie, it’s her little teddy bear. He saved us on multiple occasions as Rosalie’s cuddle buddy as she fell asleep and acting as a pillow in the backpack when she fell asleep (can you see his little foot popping out in the shot of Rosie snoozing?). He also played an exciting puppeted game of peek-a-boo with her when we were in the final half mile to our destination, and she wanted out. He only took up little room as he sat in one of the exterior pockets of our pack, which despite already being packed to the max, made it completely worth it to bring him along.
Bring Friends or Family
Kyle’s dad and brother were kind enough to join us for our experimental toddler trip. I’ve already mentioned that they helped carry some of the things we couldn’t, but more than that, we enjoyed their company. Rosalie loved having her grandpa and uncle to play with, and we enjoyed talking with them as we hiked. The men also got some good male bonding time over fishing while I attempted to get Rosalie to take a nap (which was unsuccessful, but helped her sleep that night because she was so tired).
I’ve already mentioned that some of these tips are not necessarily things that we did, but come from what we didn’t do. Because we had returned from another trip the night before, and had a much longer drive than expected due to a under maintained road, we started hiking in the late afternoon. We were still able to make it to camp before dark, because of our brisk pace. However, I think we would have enjoyed the hike more if we had been able to “stop and smell the roses”.
On that same note, little legs need a slower pace. They also need breaks more often. Thankfully, we still had enough sunlight to let Rosalie walk as far as she was able. But, it helps to put a mind at rest when there is ample time.
One thing that I am trying to teach my daughter is to do things that are difficult. I think that the satisfaction of accomplishing a hard task is so crucial for kids to experience and develop. Even at her young age, I encourage Rosalie to keep trying, get back up again, and do her best even when it is hard. That is one thing I especially love about hiking; getting to the destination can be long and difficult. Yet, in the end, the elation felt from making it through the challenge far outweighs the tiredness from pushing yourself.
That being said, it is important to encourage your child to do the best they can, but you also need to know their limitations. Kyle and I had been planning this trip for quite some time before it actually happened. This gave us some “training” time. I took Rosalie on a hike almost every week during the two months before the hike. She hiked as much as she could, and then rode the the backpack the rest of the time. Had we not done that training, I don’t think she would have been quite as happy during our adventure. Be aware of what your child can and can’t do, and plan accordingly.
Bring Lots of Snacks
If you were to look through the different pockets in the waistband of my pack, you would find an assortment of snacks; trail mix, fruit snacks, Crasins, fruit leather, Goldfish, and M&M’s. Distraction is a parent’s favorite tool. These were our to “stay in the pack a little longer”, and “if you hike to the top of the next hill” motivators. On another note, little bodies working hard get hungry. It was nice to have those snacks in an easily accessible area for quick refueling.
On the same train of thought, having a hydration bladder in the same backpack as the child was incredibly helpful. Much of the time, I kept the straw and mouthpiece in an area where Rosalie could reach and help herself to a drink. We didn’t have to stop to get a drink, and Rosalie stayed hydrated.
Let Them Get Dirty
I don’t have much to say about this one, except it’s going to happen anyway. Don’t fight it. Bring some antibacterial wipes/gel, some extra diaper wipes, and a fresh pair of clothes for each day. Then let them lose to enjoy getting dirty like they can’t get at home.
Pack it in, pack it out. This saying applies to everything in your pack, including diapers. We packed a gallon sized ziplock bag and slipped the soiled diapers in that. That helped control the smell quite a bit. If you’re willing to take it to the next level, you can also consider the dig a hole method. Just as you have to dig a hole to get rid of your waste, you can do the same with your child’s bowel movement and then pack out the rest of the diaper. It does take off some of the weight… Also, remember to string up the dirty diapers with your food bag (separately, for sanitary reasons), during the night or when you are away from camp.
Last but not least, my favorite tip! Don’t do everything for your child, let them help you by doing a job around camp. I had Rosalie help me set up the tent, blow up air mattresses, and un-stuff sleeping bags. She also helped to collect firewood, which she really enjoyed. We would go searching for the best sticks, which she would bring back with a big, accomplished smile on her face. Other jobs included pumping water and helping make meals. Honestly, I think she enjoyed helping me more while camping, than she does at home.
Whew! If you have made it to this point, I hope that these tips will help as you prepare for your next adventure. it really is well worth the effort to give your toddler the experience of doing something new, challenging, and the opportunity to enjoy the great outdoors! Best of luck with your adventures. Let us know in the comments if these worked on your toddler’s backpack trip or if you have any tips or tricks that have worked for you.