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Backpacking with a Toddler: What you MUST Know

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Your little one is getting bigger, they’re walking, running and climbing all over the place, and it’s awesome!  After having made it through the first year with baby where they are completely dependent on you, the toddler phase can feel liberating in so many ways. 

The best part about exploring the outdoors with a toddler is watching them come alive as the discover new and exciting things about the world around them.

What better time to give backpacking with kids a shot?

Whether you’ve gone backpacking with a baby, or backpacking with a toddler is new to you, we’ve got plenty of tips to share to help you along your way.

backpacking toddler

All of our five kids have gone backpacking as toddlers and we’ve made our share of mistakes, but also learned what works well. We are so excited to share our experiences with you to help you get on the trail as a family backpacking together.

Top Tips For Backpacking With A Toddler

If you’re wanting to get out somewhere where you toddler can explore and run free, there’s really no better place than the backcountry. When you go backpacking with a baby, all you really need to do is to take them along, but when you are backpacking with toddlers, you’ll need to do more prep work.

Read: Get Your Kids To Hike Without Whining

toddler at camp

Practice Hiking with Toddlers Before Your Backpacking Trip

While you may think that your toddler doesn’t need to do any training to get in shape, the truth is that toddlers need practice hiking before going on a family backpacking trip. They need to learn how to stay on the trail, how to hike on uneven ground, and how to wear a small backpack (if you choose to have them wear one). They also need to learn how to go farther distances than they likely have in the past. We always start our toddlers with short hikes of about 0.5 miles and gradually work up to 2 miles. We find that most toddlers can only hike 2-3 miles max, without a serious break, so we rarely have them hike more than that.

Bring A Baby Carrier

“But my toddler can just walk the whole time” Trust me, I’ve heard it before (and even said it myself a few times). If you are going backpacking with a toddler, bring a child carrier with you just in case. You never know when they will get tired of hiking, or maybe need a nap, giving you a great chance to hike to camp quickly. For a soft carrier that you can just stash in your backpack, I highly recommend the Lillebaby carrier, since your toddler can be carried in 6 different positions. 

toddler backpacking

If you know that your toddler won’t be hiking far, get a structured back carrying pack for toddler backpacking.  We are big fans of both Deuter and Osprey packs (they seem to fit us both incredibly well) and recommend this Deuter baby carrier or this Osprey Carrier for backpacking with toddlers.  Nearly all good structured kid carrying packs also have storage area which you’re going to need on a backpacking trip.  As with all packs, make sure that you try several on to get one that’s a good fit for you, and your little one.  If possible, find one that is easily adjustable so your spouse can wear it as well. Until our toddlers are close to 3, we always have a baby carrier with us when backpacking.

Get A Good Toddler Backpack for Backpacking

While there aren’t any kids backpacking backpacks that are made small enough for toddlers, there are backpacks that work better for toddlers than others. Our absolute favorite toddler backpack is the Deuter Kiki. It has fit all of our toddlers better than any other backpack largely thanks to the great chest strap that’s the perfect size for toddlers. This toddler backpacking pack isn’t huge, but it’s big enough to carry clothes for a few days, snacks and water (depending on how much your toddler can carry). If your toddler doesn’t need to carry much, you can get them a hydration pack instead of a backpack, which is a great way to make sure they drink enough!

Read: Amazing Hydration Backpacks For Kids

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Deuter Kiki Backpack

Invest In A Toddler Sleeping Bag for Backpacking

We’ve talked a lot about the importance of getting babies good sleeping bags but that advice is just as true for toddlers. The best option is to invest in a toddler sleeping bag from Morrison Outdoors.  We absolutely LOVE these sleeping bags since they’re really warm, provide a safe place for toddlers to sleep, AND they pack up really small and are super lightweight (just over a pound), so they’re a great toddler sleeping bag for backpacking. Our 4-year-old has the toddler size and it’s absolutely amazing, and it will probably last him until he’s 5.

morrison outdoors sleeping bag for toddlers

Read: The Best Sleeping Bags For Kids

Get Good Toddler Hiking Shoes

Before you head out hiking with your toddler, make sure that they have good hiking shoes. We recommend having shoes for a couple of weeks before your backpacking trip so you can break them in a bit and to make sure that there are no hot spots or blisters on their little feet after wearing them. A solid pair of tennis shoes will work, as long as it has good support and adequate traction.

Read: The Best Hiking Shoes For Kids

Focus On The Journey NOT Just The Destination With Toddlers

As adults, we have a tendency to just want to hit the trail and get to the end. Well toddlers work in the exact opposite way. They want to look at every rock, grab every stick, and wade through every little stream possible. This is really where the magic of backpacking with toddlers comes in, so slow down and try and enjoy the journey with them. Instead of constantly rushing them further along, bend down and look at bugs with them, or admire the shiney rock that they just found. You’ll come away with a whole new appreaciation of where you are, and your toddler will enjoy the hike more as well.

backpacking with toddlers

Make Sure To Bring Bribes for Toddler Backpacking

At some point, you’ll find the need to hurry your toddler down the trail (maybe it’s getting late, or you know dinner needs to be started asap). Make sure that you have some bribes with you to help. For our family, we love using Skittles and M&M’s. To help our toddler hike faster, one adult will walk ahead and put a colorful piece of candy on a rock farther down the trail. As soon as our toddlers see it, they all are a burst of energy and start rushing down the trail. While you don’t need to do this for the entire hike, it’s a great way to motivate your toddlers when they’re struggling.

Be Prepared For Bathroom Accidents

If you have a newly potty trained child, make sure to plan for a few accidents. Take some extra underwear, plastic bags, and pants, since kids often have a hard time using the bathroom in new places. It’s also a great idea to practice going to the bathroom outside before you leave home. This is simple to do in your own backyard. If you need help teaching your girl how to pee outside, this video will help.

Even if your child is night time toilet trained it’s a good idea to have them sleep in a pull-up just in case. There are few things that can ruin a backcountry trip with a toddler faster than a late night accident in a sleeping bag.

backpacking with toddlers
While not a bathroom accident, our youngest jumped into a lake fully clothed while backpacking, so we were thankful for the extra clothes.

Keep Your Hike Short

Even if you think your toddler can hike farther, plan on keeping your backpacking trip on the shorter side. We’ve found that our sweet spot for backpacking with toddlers is going for 2 nights and 3 days but camping in the same spot both nights. Then we go for a day hike on the second day and let our toddlers pace determine how far we go. It is very likely that once you’re out on the trail with your toddler, you will be amazed by how much they can do.  I remember that when our oldest was barely 3, he surprised us by hiking 8 miles one day, more than twice what we had planned.  As long as you make it fun and exciting, it will be fantastic.

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Hike When Toddlers Have Lots Of Energy

It’s important that you plan your hike for a time of the day when your toddler has lot of energy if they plan on hiking on their own. If your toddler will be in the carrier for the whole trip, plan to hike during nap time. Make sure that your time on the trail isn’t more than a few hours at most and that you factor in your regular schedule so that your toddler can be at their best!

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Get In Shape Before You Leave

Make sure you’re in good shape before going backpacking with a toddler- yes, I’m talking to YOU mom and dad!!  There’s a pretty solid chance that someone will be carrying your toddler for a good chunk of this trip.  That means splitting up the gear and turning yourself into a pack animal (see more tips for this in backpacking with a baby).  You can a.) both parents carry a backpack and either do a shoulder carry or soft front pack or b.) use a kid carrier pack and have the other parent carry most of the gear.  Either way, your going to be hauling a lot of weight, so just be prepared!

 What tips and tricks have you used when out backpacking with your toddler?

15 thoughts on “Backpacking with a Toddler: What you MUST Know”

  1. Backpacking with toddllers is an amazing experience and also you have to face more problem with toddlers. you have nicely mentioned advantages and disadvantages of carrying child on hiking.

    1. Karen, I forgot to add that! Here you go
      Make sure you’re in good shape. There’s a pretty solid chance that someone will be carrying your toddler for a good chunk of this trip. That means splitting up the gear and turning yourself into a pack animal (see more tips for this in backpacking with a baby). You can a.) both parents carry a backpack and either do a shoulder carry or soft front pack or b.) use a kid carrier pack and have the other parent carry most of the gear. Either way, your going to be hauling a lot of weight, so just be prepared!

  2. Hi, we have twin 3.5 year olds and are looking forward to a couple of weeks in CO this summer with some great day hiking. Neither of us is a seasoned hiker but we’re fairly fit. The boys are very outdoorsy but this is their first real hiking adventure and that combined with the altitude will likely wear us all out fast. I was wondering if there might be a place to go to rent some of the carriers you’ve been referencing? We don’t live where we’d use them often plus with twins it’s always twice the investment to buy gear. THANKS!

    1. Arlene, at 3.5yo you’d need carriers specifically geared toward toddlers/preschoolers. Check out Toddler Tula and Lillebaby CarryOn. Some shops may rent them, but another option is to buy used and re-sell. Both Tula and Lillebaby have their own buy/sell/trade groups on facebook in addition to The Babywearing Swap group. Happy trails!

        1. Definitely check with the rental company! Your boys might be too big for that type of carrier. We have a similar one, which was good for 6mo to *maybe* 2yrs. My son is 3.5yo and and definitely wouldn’t be an appropriate choice for him.

    2. I know your twins are probably no longer needing to be carried but if they are (or if you have had other children since or if the random comment reader comes along and needs this info) I cannot recommend Kinderpack toddler (they also have preschool) carriers enough. I can still wear/carry my 4 year old who is 43 pounds without too much difficulty and I don’t even consider myself in super shape. Also, highly recommend (where possible) that you find a local babywearing group because they often have carriers you can try to see how your child and you like the fit. 🙂 Happy Hiking and wearing!

  3. Hey Jessica,
    I need tips for sleeping arrangements when two kids are involved. What do you do for sleeping bags? When we car camp, we have a double wide sleeping bag that my wife and the kids pile into. But for backpacking, its kinda bulky and too heavy to bring. What do you recommend? Kids are 3.5 and 2 yrs.
    Thanks.

    1. Try either two kid sized mummy bags (most of them get pretty compact), or get an adult sized rectangular bag and unzip the bottom and have a kid sleep at each. Lately, we’ve ended up just taking a double and sleeping all 4 kids in it, two on each end, which keeps them all toasty and then saves tent space too.

        1. We actually have some that are just a little under 3 lbs so it works out pretty good weight wise, especially when you factor in that it’s for multiple kids. So, yes, we take them backpacking. We have some olderones from Slumberjack that we love, but it looks like they don’t make the ones we have anymore 🙁

  4. Great Tips, our little one is 14 months but was a preemie and not quite walking yet. I don’t think she is ready but it’s definitely something I’m looking to do in the future, once she starts walking. It’s good to see other parents out there doing and it gives me faith it can be done. I know she would love it. I think first I will just start out small, you know don’t start with a week long hike, maybe a simple overnight hike and see how it goes.

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