By Jessica Kirby –

There certainly are things harder to do with children–grocery shopping, eating in a fancy restaurant, sleeping through the night–but backpacking doesn’t have to be one of them. With adequate planning and a few creative tricks it can be a marvelous way to get out into the wilderness with the family, burn off some energy, and learn an important lesson about doing a lot with very little.

Jack Borzel, Ryland Borzel, Keana Kirby, and Kaeden Kirby take a break from beach football on Keeha Bay, West Coast Vancouver Island. Photo: Jessica Kirby

Last summer my husband and I took our children on their first ever self-sustained backpacking trip, to Keeha Bay on the West Coast of Vancouver Island near Bamfield. The hiking part is only 3 km, but it is gnarly, wet, and so muddy—the twisted, rain forest roots and lush greenery are like something out of a fantasy movie. The bay is a vast swath of white sand and glorious sea caves and very few, if any, other campers. We went with another, extremely experienced hiking family who gave us some great tips before and during our trip, and have the whole hiking with kids thing successfully dialled in.

Overall the trip was a raging success, but there were certainly things I wish I’d done differently. Read on for my list of top hiking with kids tips, which may be obvious to the experienced but will be helpful for those just starting out.

Things we did right:

Pre-trip planning. We involved the kids in all the YouTube videos on how to pack a backpack, what to bring, and how to set up a functional camp. We set up the camp in the living room and tried dehydrated food in advance. Surprise is not your friend when it comes to backbacking gear and supplies.

Our kids (eight and twelve) packed and carried their own gear, plus one Ziploc back of general items (i.e., one carried the kitchen bag and the other carried the camp set-up bag.) This gave them a true sense of adventure, got them excited about going, and was a self-correcting mechanism against packing too much.

We chose a manageable location. Our friends chose this as a good, difficult but short trip to break into backpacking and they were right. The kids managed the terrain like pros, but having only 3 km to go in each direction meant they stayed motivated the entire way.

We went with amazing people. Our friends have been hiking with their kids for four or five years, and we have known them for over a decade, so the company was great and their advice super helpful. Our kids felt the same way, especially with their kids with whom they have been lifelong friends.

I’ll know better next time:

The kids, especially my oldest, had a hard time with rations. Unlike at home where the fridge is a 24-hour drive-thru of delights, in the wilderness you pack what you need for each day and that’s it. They had to resist the urge to go through the supplies like locusts and there was a bit of drama about who was eating whose granola bars. Next time, I will pack extra and put each kid’s food in separate Zip-locs, labelled by the day, so they can clearly see what they have and the smartest way to ration it.

Keep warm at night. Although the days were toasty hot, the nights grew chilly and because I wasn’t sure if the kids would love backpacking, I went cheap on the sleeping bags. Big mistake. I’ve since bought liners for each and have learned an emergency blanket between the bag and ground can be a great, albeit crinkly, makeshift solution.

Keeping busy was easy–someone brought a football, so we drew a field in the sand and the kids ran plays well into the night – but our kids spend a lot of time in the woods already playing and riding their bikes. I would suggest families new to backpacking with kids spend some time outdoors with no distractions to get the kids’ creative juices flowing. It might seem strange at first, but the moment your children build a fort or create a game using logs and seaweed, you will know the wilderness has done its duty. Have fun out there!


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