As I lay here writing this, my three-year-old daughter is flipping and flopping, chatting and singing, and not going to sleep. Welcome to backcountry camping with kids! Or at least my kids. While I joke that we don’t get much sleep, because we really don’t, backcountry camping is so much fun. There are no distractions. No TV, no cell service, no internet… Just hours and hours of child-led play. If you’ve never heard of child-led play, look it up! Going through a challenging phase with your toddler? Child-led play is where it’s at. But, in the backcountry, it’s all day, every day, and it’s awesome! I feel so connected with my children when we spend hours on the beach picking rocks and throwing them in the lake. We build mini ant-sized dams in creek beds and walk hand-in-hand on trails surrounded by wild flowers. They talk and we listen. It is magical and truly fascinating watching them explore and create and lead with their wild imaginations. Plus all that fresh air! After typing that paragraph, my daughter went from tossing and turning behind my back, to being fast asleep – I’m finding the older my kids get, the better they sleep while camping, so don’t let that stop you!
When we got started
Our youngest was 12-weeks- old her first time backcountry camping. My husband and I each wore our overnight hiking packs on our backs, I carried Niia in a baby wrap on my front, and Jaxon hiked as far as he could before he was up on John’s shoulders. When they are this young (3 and under), I’d say from my own personal experience, I would suggest starting with one night and a camp that is within 3km of your car. That way, if it isn’t going well, you can call it, pack up, and go home. Go at an easy pace and most importantly, have fun!
While there are many ways to get to a backcountry campsite, the ways we have tried with our kids is hiking, canoeing, and mountain biking in. Once, I went solo backcountry camping with my 3-year-old (at the time), Jaxon – we packed all of our gear in the chariot and we both rode our bikes into camp. This summer, we are trying sailing with a friend, where we will then camp on the beach!
Our list of essentials when backpacking with young kids:
First, please know that we are not affiliated with any of the brands linked below! These are what my family and I personally use.
- Overnight backpack
- Backcountry tent (this is the one we’ve used in the past, this year we need to buy a new one)
- Sleeping bags
- Sleeping mats
- Head lamps
- Flashlight & extra batteries
- Waterproof matches
- Lighter and fire starter (our kids love doing some of these for crafts)
- First aid kit
- Food (we love this brand)
- Baby food/formula
- Water filter (we also use Life Straw for smaller quantities)
- Water bottles
- Camping stove
- Propane, plus an extra
- Pots, bowls, utensils
- Toilet paper
- Bear spray
- Hiking poles (not essential)
- Satellite phone (we’ve done years of backcountry camping without one but we will be investing this year)
- Garbage bag (Remember: everything you pack in you must pack out!)
- Hats & sunglasses
- Bug spray
Items for Comfort
- Layers (depending on the season)
- Toques & mitts for the chilly nights and mornings
- Waterproof hikers
- Hut booties
- Waterproof layers
- Baby bunting suit
- Backcountry pillow* (we just stuff our extra layers in our stuff sacks and call it a night)
- Instant coffee* (while we were gifted a backcountry coffee grinder, we have never actually used it. I don’t like coffee, but my husband does and he uses this pre-ground coffee he grinds at home)
- Towwhee rope (if biking in)
- Wine* (necessary, or essential? I’ll let you decide)
*nice, but not essential
Most family-friendly backcountry campsites have wood pre-chopped or a communal axe for fire wood. They usually have an outhouse of some sort and a communal fire pit kitchen area. They will often have Bear Lockers for your food and smelly items (toiletries) as well.
-Never bring your deodorant, toothpaste, or food into your tent! Also, never leave any of these items out over night at your campsite. Always lock them up in the provided bear-proof lockers, or learn how to hang a bear bag!
-We never let our children wander unattended.
-Children must always be within arms-reach when near water.
-The first thing we do at any campsite is draw a circle around the fire pit with a stick and create a safety circle that the kids are not allowed to pass. Our children are not allowed to run when near a fire pit.
Games and fun activities
My son Jaxon’s sleep mat has a game designed on it, which is one of his favourite things about backcountry camping. If it rains, this gives us hours of fun. We will be purchasing a sleep mat and sleeping bag for my youngest, Niia, this year. Up until now, she has been fine in her layers (wool base layer, wool socks, slippers, bunting suit, toque), and an adult sleeping bag over top of the two like a blanket. It can get toasty with 4 bodies in our little 3-person tent. The kids love to play tic-tac-toe with sticks drawn in dirt and we play bocce ball with rocks. They haven’t asked, so we haven’t packed in extra toys and games, as that would be extra items to carry, and we like to see our kids use nature and their imaginations. We love to hike on the trails around the campsite and play all sorts of imaginary games with sticks.
A few takeaways
Every child is different, Jaxon is a great sleeper and has gone backcountry camping with us every year. We chose not to take Niia when she was two-years-old and she skipped a year. She stayed home with dad when Jaxon and I did our bike in. You do what is best for your family. We have yet to try a multi-hike trip with them, but as they get older, it’s something we will definitely do. The price for everything listed above is costly to get you started, but don’t let this stop you from trying it. You can rent a lot of the essential items that you need from different outdoor stores or try borrowing from a friend. You can often find a lot of pre owned gear on different sites as well. As always, you don’t need the top brands to have a good time, but do make sure the quality is good enough to stay dry, warm and comfortable!
Adventuring Mama from the Canadian Rocky Mountains, Kids Who Explore’s Brand/Sponsor Manager, and One of the Mamas Behind Our Podcast