How to Go Backpacking with Kids

Estimated read time 8 min read

Well, I did it! I took my son backpacking for the first time. Surprisingly, it was also my first time backpacking. You’d think that an avid camper and hiker like myself who has done almost every type of camping would have made that happen in the last 32 years, but nope. Until now!

The funny thing is that I’ve been acquiring backpacking gear for several years. Almost every holiday season, I pick up stuff with gift cards or get an awesome gift from my dad or one of my brothers. I’ve gathered things like a mess kit or a backpacking stove or a sleeping pad. But I haven’t made a real backpacking trip happen. I decided that this was going to change when I heard about an easy, family-friendly pack-in campground. A family backpack trip was an awesome idea! I asked my dad and he was totally up for going on an adventure with me and the little bean.

big sable point lighthouse ludington
Highly suggested if you’re in Ludington: go to the state park and check out the lighthouse! It’s not good for little kids because the steps are freaky and there’s a minimum height, but still cool to see from the outside. Great for older kids.

Here’s the post I originally saw: Jack Pines Hike-In Campground. I looked into the campground mentioned and thought it sounded perfect: one mile walk in on an easy trail, amenities in the park like toilets and water, and accompanying picnic table and fire ring. Great for a preschooler’s first backpack trip, right? Well, that was the plan for a long time until I realized that it’s actually a popular spot, requires a reservation, and was totally booked by the time I looked into making a reservation. So I had to find a plan B.


I consulted r/campandhikemichigan on Reddit because those people are outdoors geniuses with tons of awesome local info. They suggested Lake Michigan Recreation Area campground and Nordhouse Dunes which has dispersed camping. I hadn’t thought about that option: packing in, setting up your own site, cleaning you own water, and the whole nine yards. But, I saw there was a site open at Lake Michigan Recreation Area, so I said screw it and reserved a site thinking that would be our backup. We’d hike into Nordhouse area from the campground, and if everything fell apart, we’d go back to the campground and get extra supplies from the car. (or we’d give up and go to a Motel 6 or something—ha!)

I’m all about having fun with kids and teaching them about the outdoors, but I also am practical and never want to expect my kids to do more than they are capable of. For instance, I know my son can walk a mile with breaks and I know he loves camping. But walking two miles on the trails while carrying a (very light) pack and camping without toys, books, flowing water, or bathrooms? That is a lot different than what he’s used to. So if he couldn’t handle that as a three-year-old, it’s not his fault. That’s why we had a backup.

shark backpack
What’s cuter than a kid in a shark backpack!?

Backpacking Prep and Practice

Anyway, about the trip. We practiced walking with backpacks to the playground about a half mile from our house. I talked to him about what backpacking would be like—things like how we couldn’t bring a lot of books or toys and how we’d be sleeping in my little tent. He got really excited for the trip because of this. Plus, I think it was really helpful to set expectations before we left.

It took a lot of planning. I thought about meal prep, when we’d change clothes, how much we’d eat, weather, and so on. Then I consulted backpacking lists and the how-to guides at REI. I asked advice and finally figured we were as prepared as we could be.

I knew we’d learn a lot on this mini-trip. We definitely made some mistakes that helped us understand how we can do it better next time. I want to share these with other people who might be thinking about backpacking with kids because it was crazy-fun and I highly encourage others to try it!

What We Learned About Backpacking with Kids

macaroni and cheese backpack meal

We overpacked food.

We brought way too much food. Now that we know how big backpacking meals are and how filling some of our bars/snacks are, we’ll be better able to pack for next time. And I think it will be a good idea to take a food inventory and see what we eat in a usual day, then adjust. I just kinda took a guess and I packed a lot extra. I’m still eating leftovers. 😉

We packed more clothes than we used.

We did a pretty good job packing clothes but will not plan on changing as often next time. Multipurpose is the name of the game for sure.

We didn’t need to bring entertainment.

I was afraid my son would need some entertainment, so I brought an erector-style airplane for us to put together at camp. It was lightweight and small, so not anything I regret carrying, but we didn’t pull it out at all. He was fascinated with looking for frogs, spotting ferns and moss (he had just learned what they are, so it was pretty exciting haha), and pretending bits of gear were things like a CB radio or vehicle controls. He never got bored. Honestly, I kind of underestimated his imagination and love for being outside.

I never had time nor energy to sit and write or read. I only brought a tiny notebook with me, but I wondered beforehand if I should have brought a book. Nope. Any time I was able to just sit and relax, all I wanted to do was take in the scenery or have a snack with my booboo.

eureka solitaire one person tent

My tent didn’t hack it.

My low-cost single-person tent was not sufficient, and I’ve already found a great deal on a Big Agnes to replace it. The Eureka Solitaire was good for bumming around on trips with my friends when we were road-tripping and I wanted something really small and light, but it’s just not very durable and not good for a kid. My son pushed on the tent with his feet from inside because it was such a small space and he’s a squirmer. Well, he broke a tent pole sleeping one night, I think from his thrashy movements. The tent stayed up, but it was pretty floppy. I’m not bringing it on another trip unless I can replace the pole and see if there’s a way to fix the mesh that has started sagging lately. Plus, I’d only use it by myself. Even though we both fit, it wasn’t very comfortable.

boiling water on a backpacking stove
Shoutout to my MSR Pocket Rocket backpacking stove that has been a champ for yeeeeaaaaars.

We didn’t plan well for water.

I’d have a better way to clean water. I brought a Life Straw, but figured we’d hike back to the campground to get water because we were initially planning on just a mile walk in. Well, we actually camped over two miles into the woods and it wasn’t an easy walk. We knew we were going to run out of water by dinner. We didn’t want to do a four-mile trek to get more. Since boiling was an option, my dad and I filtered water into our pots and boiled them for several minutes before using them for cooking and drinking. I’ve since looked into different options and I think we’ll end up with a Sawyer. Putting it on the Christmas list!

We don’t know how to forage well.

My dad and I know of some safe berries to eat, but came across a lot of things in the wilderness that we thought might be edible and were unsure. We weren’t about to eat something we weren’t positive was safe, obviously! But I’d love to learn more about this. I need to get a mushroom guide for reals.

nordhouse lake backpacking

It was awesome!

We also learned that backpacking is a blast and we all loved it! I can’t wait to go backpacking again. We want to make it a family tradition for anyone brave enough to come with us. If you’re considering it for yourself or your fam, do some looking around and planning, practice, and go for it. If you’re inexperienced or unsure, just stick close to civilization. Bring backup gear in the car and have a backup site. Or do a practice run just for a day and see how it goes. It will be worth it when you figure it out!

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