Backpacking with a Preschooler: The Do’s and Don’ts

Thanks for joining us for our family backpacking series.  If you’re new, make sure you read our posts on Backpacking with a Baby, and Backpacking with a Toddler for lots of tips that also apply to preschoolers.  

backpacking preschoolers

While logically one would assume that since a preschooler is bigger that a toddler, backpacking should be easier, that’s not necessarily the case.  In fact, if you’re thinking about backpacking with a preschooler, you’re pretty much starting at square one (regardless of how many hikes you took them on as a baby or toddler).  The big difference is that toddlers are small enough to carry, whereas preschoolers…well, they’re getting big!  From ages 3-5, backpacking is all about boosting your child’s confidence will continuing to instill a love of the outdoors within them.

Logistically, backpacking with a preschooler does make it easier on the parents.  After graduating from backpacking with a toddler, your pack is suddenly 30+ pounds lighter as your child is now on their own two feet and off your back.  Here, the challenge for parents while hiking with their preschooler is to not overdo it.  While you may be eager to increase the miles, remember that this is really the first time your child will be doing this on their own.  Also, remember that the difference between and 3 and 5 year old is huge, as those are the ages of our kids in this picture.  The 5-year-old his carrying most of his own things whereas our 3-year-old daughter is just carrying the basics in a tiny pack.  

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DO

  • Take them on lots of training hikes.  This is a great chance to get them used to carrying a pack, longer days, and all things hiking.  We typically try and work our kids up to doing day hikes longer than each day of our backpacking trip and also make their pack a little heavier too (usually I make them carry my water to increase the weight).  That way when it’s time for the big trip, backpacking will seem easy to them.
  • Take “trail bait” aka little treats to bribe them on the trail.  “When we reach the next bridge, everyone gets a Starburst.”
  • Let them carry a pack.  Starting at about age 3, our children are required to carry their own food for the day and water in a day pack (sandwich, gorp, jerky, dried fruit).  As they get more used to that, we gradually increase what they carry.  On our latest trip, our five-year-old daughter was carrying her own sleeping bag, water, and clothes.
  • Take longer breaks to let them play.  While kids ages 3-5 may not still be taking naps, they do benefit from taking a few longer breaks to play during the day.   Look closely at your map and try and choose places that will be fun for them and relaxing for you, like a meadow where they can run around or a brook they can throw rocks into.
  • Get them involved in packing.  Let them help pack their own things and explain to them why you would choose one piece of gear over another (weight, size, etc).  We also let our kids pack one small toy and this is a great age for them to take more control and decide what that is (hotwheels, bouncy ball, etc).  Although they are small, you’ll be amazed what will sink in and make your trips down the road so much easier.  Because as my daughter is showing below, preschoolers will only take the most important and compact things they own…like a giant doll.
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DON’T

  • Don’t plan on carrying them a lot.  As we often have to tell our kids, this is a HIKE not a CARRY.
  • Don’t load them down too much.  Although they can carry a bit heavier pack around the house, it will quickly wear them out after miles on the trail.  Start small and add weight as they grow.
  • Don’t pick a trail that’s too difficult.  Remember, this is the age where you are encouraging your child to hike on their own and boost their trail confidence.  Nothing will dash that quite as quickly as a steep climb at the end of the day or too much mileage.  Start small and work up!
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What tricks do you use for backpacking success with your kids?

5 Comments

  • Kevin Kato says:

    Good stuff Adam. I find myself caught sometimes between what my 7 wants to do and what my 5 can do. Very true about hiking (and traveling) being easier when they are little. For a while you can just haul them around and they don’t care where they go as long as they’re fed and Comfy. When they start to develop those independent thoughts is when it gets tough!

  • jimmy says:

    I think you are right camping with preschooler is difficult then toddllers. they have large things to carry and we have to make extra efforts to make him move in the desired direction. whreas toddler are easy to carry.

  • Lora says:

    The pack they carry can also make a world of difference. You want to make sure they carry a lightweight pack with a comfortable back panel and adjustable straps. It should be easy to load and have separate compartments as well as being weather-resistant. A good pack along with these great tips will make for a very happy mini backpacker!

  • Claire says:

    what type of backpacks do you recommend for little ones? Should they have a camelback type pack? And what about shoes? Boots? Sneakers?

    I won’t be doing overnight camping with my three year old but we will be doing lots of day hikes.

    Thanks

  • M. Denney says:

    All tips are really important and very informative that you have mentioned above. I haven’t think like that before! Definitely I will apply some of those tips on my son (Jordan), he is 5 year old and I never create any pressure on him for any kind of packing. But I should do that. Thank you so much for sharing this valuable content. :)

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