So you’re ready to step it up a notch and hike your kids into the wild. You want to get away from the car campsite, where RV’s and motor homes wouldn’t dream of reaching. A backpacking adventure with kids is a fantastic way to truly unplug and enjoy nature. Whether you’re an experienced backpacker, or just dipping your toes in at a walk-in campsite, with our family backpacking checklist, you should wander into the trees with confidence.
Listed below are actual items that we own and have used enough to have a strong opinion on. Included are affiliate links so you can click in and take a look at the detailed specifications. We appreciate Amazon love by purchasing from our links at no cost to you. We however encourage testing gear and developing personal preferences. Our tastes have certainly evolved and we will continue to update as we continue to evolve with our backpacking style. Please do comment on your own family backpacking checklist at the bottom! We would love to hear more insight!
One item we can’t stress doing extra research on is a backpack. If you plan on being on the trail for more than a few hours, a properly fitted backpack will make or break the entire experience.
The best advice is to go to REI with about an hour to spare and talk to an associate. REI even has a personal outfitting scheduler so you can set an appointment. The associate will stuff a bag with the appropriate weight and let you walk around the store. You can try different packs to help make a decision. They also have an excellent return policy.
What sized bag should I get?
Without kids, the most we have spent on the trail is 5 days. For that duration , a 65 liter bag works just about perfect under most conditions. We are not really cut out for much more than a weekend with our little kids. The same sized bag works though even assuming they don’t carry their own gear.
I won’t give too much detail here. Picking out a proper backpack requires an entire series of articles on how to choose the best one. Nonetheless, my personal favorite is the Osprey Atmos 65 Liter Pack…. shown below with not much in it. I wore this testing the pack on a 10 mile hike in Colorado before I decided to keep it.
I like the Atmos because I find internal frame packs to be more comfortable. The suspension system really distributes the weight evenly for my body type. It also has a well ventilated mesh backing that works well for me because I sweat like a … [fill in your own inappropriate joke].
Now that we have somewhere to put our stuff, it’s time to think about family backpacking checklist gear. While some may think the family backpacking checklist would start with a tent, we are always thinking about food. Even when you’re eating boil-in-bag, after a long hike with gear nothing tops a good meal. If you’re not properly fueled up, your adventure is over. Below are the essential items for a backpacking kitchen.
MSR WindBurner Duo Stove System – A lightweight, easy to use stove is the cornerstone of the camp kitchen. We like this cooking system as a starter kit because it comes with a lot of what is needed. Included are an insulated cooking cup, a fuel canister stabilizer, and an igniter. It also works in various weather conditions.
Platypus GravityWorks Water Filter System – Clean water is essential and for anything longer than a day hike, as it is not possible to carry enough with you. It’s also amazing to watch the filtration system work, and the gravity system is super easy to use. One pro tip is to always back flush to clean the filter to keep it working quickly and efficiently.
Stainless steel coffee mugs with lids. – You can get fancy here, but this is a starter set and these mugs work great for us. We used these on a 4 day trek through Yellowstone in September when temperatures dropped down to about 30 degrees overnight. Our coffee stayed piping hot while we ate breakfast and packed up our tents. I usually just hook mine onto my pack.
Sea to Summit X-Plate – Sea to Summit has a basic plate… that is also a bowl… that is also a cutting board, at an affordable price! The bowl feature is really great when you’re sitting on the ground eating with your kids. Stuff always seems to be rolling off their plates.
Sea to Summit Cutlery Set – After eating on the trail with a spork, I often wonder, “why do I even have forks and spoons at all in my life when a spork can solve all of my problems?” We like the Sea to Summit aluminum set because they are durable enough, but super light weight.
Humangear Gotoob+ 3 Pack – Often overlooked, but a game changer on the trail are cooking oils and sauces. For me it’s hot sauce on my eggs, especially when eating crystallized eggs. These tubes are a great way to step up your cooking game.
Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castile Liquid Soap – It’s important to wash your dishes with biodegradable soap. These little fellas are a perfect size for a few days on the trail.
BearVault BV500 Food Container – No matter where you are hiking, it’s always safe to put your food in a proper bear barrel. These are also required at a lot of National Parks, and the BearVault BV500 is a pretty good size for a few people on a multi day hike.
The way these work is put your food in here and flip it upside down at least 100 yards from camp. Note they are really hard to open, but that is by design. If a bear feels obliged to sniff around your food, he may bat this sucker around a bit, but will most likely get annoyed and leave. If you have heavily scented food, it’s also a good idea to store in as scent proof plastic as possible and then put that in the barrel.
SOG Folding Salute Mini Pocket Knife – To be honest, I could put this item anywhere, but I use it most in the kitchen. You won’t find a multi-tool on this list because honestly the only thing we use is the knife. Just about any pocket knife will do, but I like the SOG mini because it’s high quality stainless steel, it has a lock mechanism, which is safer with the kids, and the mini size is all I really need. I’m not using this hunting large animals. Some folks claim it’s difficult to open, but again, I have little kids so I want dangerous stuff to be difficult to use.
Hydration system – a good old water bottle is a good start, but it’s annoying to have to reach back to grab it when you want a drink. With kids, I also like something where I can squeeze the tip and pour some water out for the little guys.
If you get the Osprey as we have, I would recommend either the 2 liter or the 3 liter. Do not get the 1.5 or the 2.5 liter. The whole number varieties have a padding on the back that helps the reservoir keep their shape. The half liter varieties don’t, which makes them feel like you have a water balloon on your back. I also recommend just getting the bigger bladder. For a very minimal difference in price you can store a lot more water, and nobody says you have to fill it up completely if you’re not hiking on a super hot day.
Actual Camp Gear
If you’re going to create a family backpacking checklist, you need to have a tent. There are a couple of different schools of thought on what type of tent to buy. Our approach to backpacking with the kids is to have multiple reasonably sized tents rather than one big one. In our family of 5 we go with one adult per tent and at most 2 kids. Our youngest is 1 so this works. On a car camping trip, we probably would go about things differently.
For us, we have both the Marmot Limelite 3P and the REI Quarterdome 3. There are a lot of options out there, but we like the 3 person tent for 2 people. There are some members of our family who will go unnamed, who sleep like starfish. Both the Limelite and the Quarter Dome are super easy to put together, the price point is not horrible, and they are durable. Both are also excellent at keeping the rain out.
The Limelite is huge for a 3P and can easily fit three kids. The Quarter Dome is not quite as big, mainly because the shape tapers at the feet to save weight and material, but it is plenty big enough for two with room for gear. Our youngest is only 1 at the moment so we’ve been just having him sleep between us in the Quarter Dome and it’s a nice fit. We like carrying two tents as opposed to one big one because it allows us to spread the weight.
Note that due to higher than anticipated demand and constraints on manufacturing timelines, REI currently only has 2 and 4 person REI tent models available. The Half Dome 2+ Print tent has slightly less floor area than my Quarterdome 3, but the REI tent pole architecture really maximizes the available interior space. Additional options include the Marmot Hatchback 3 for very similar floor and head space and also a spacious vestibule like the Quarterdome 3. The Big Agnes Tiger Wall UL3 is another great option.
Sleeping Bags and Sleeping Pads
Kelty Cosmic 20 Down Sleeping Bag – When it comes to sleeping bags it’s best to have a versatile 3 season bag. In that regard, we like to have one rated for pretty cold temperature just in case. From there the decision is whether to buy synthetic or down. Down offers lighter bags that are more compressible for the warmth they provide, but require special care to clean and stink when they get wet. Synthetic bags are cheaper and water-resistant, but heavier and less durable.
All that said, the down bags just feel more comfortable to me so that’s why I currently use this Kelty bag. If it’s especially warm out, I also have a Field & Stream synthetic bag that’s rated for 50 degrees that I got on sale at Dicks, but I prefer the Kelty bag just because it’s so comfortable. If I do get hot in the Kelty, I just unzip the sides and use it more like a blanket than a sleeping bag. It comes with a stuff sack, which can double as a camp pillow if you just stuff your puffy coat and a few other items inside.
It is tempting to buy one of the kid sized sleeping bags, but why bother? I get wanting to save on space and weight, but for us the cost/benefit just doesn’t make sense. When buying new, the kid bags are usually a little bit cheaper, but if you check out REI Used or hit up an REI Garage Sale then you should be able to find a quality adult bag at a good price.
REI Co-op AirRail Plus Self-Inflating Sleeping Pad – We have both the AirRail and the Nemo Tensor Ultralight. The REI AirRail is self inflating and I find it more comfortable. It is also usually significantly cheaper than the Nemo. The Nemo, however, inflates in a snap and is indeed, ultra light. It’s up for debate in our household, but we just waited for an REI garage sale and put the kids on the AirRail. Brittany goes with the Nemo though because it is roughly half the weight and takes up about 1/3 of the space.
Misc Family Backpacking Checklist Gear
My Medic MyFak Basic First Aid Kit – First Aid is an obvious must on any trip, and if you don’t already have a kit, the MyMedic MyFak is a great investment. I won’t say who, but on our last backpacking trip a certain member of the FivePax family tripped and hit his or her face on a rock. When you have a 35-40 lb pack on your back, keeping your balance is a whole different ballgame than just walking through your neighborhood.
Petzl Actik Headlamp – You can go nuts on headlamps, but the Petzl is a great starter. Some folks like the rechargeable lamps, but that’s when things start getting expensive. What I like about a headlamp like the Petzl is the ability to used either a wide or narrow beam depending on if I’m trying to find something I dropped near the camp kitchen or walking on a path to use the bathroom. It also has the option to switch into red light mode if you don’t want to blind yourself in the tent in the middle of the night. If you’re backpacking with kids, just be ready for them to fall in love with playing with these things.
Sea to Summit Wilderness Wipes – Your personal hygiene family backpacking checklist should include hand sanitizer, zip lock bags, toilet paper, and we recommend wilderness wipes. Showers ain’t happening on the trail, but we found the wilderness wipes to be a good alternative. Remember the leave no trace motto though, and make sure you stash everything in your ziplock bags and bring it out with you, including the used toilet paper. Pro Tip: We actually bring dog poo bags so that we’re not looking at the used TP.
Duct Tape – Nothing special here, but it’s always good to have some duct tape around. You never know when you will need it to tape a strap on your backpack or even if something happens like the glue holding together the sole of your shoe starts to lose it’s adhesive properties. If I don’t have dog poo bags, I put duct tape around my ziplock so that I’m not looking at used TP. A pro tip is to pull some duct tape off the roll and just wrap it around a small piece of cardboard to save space.
Family Backpacking Checklist Clothing
This section will only include men’s and/or women’s clothing. For the most part, I listed one or the other. The exceptions are things like pants where I will not be caught wearing tights, but Brittany prefers them. If packing for kids, assume they will need the kid equivalent for whatever age they are. Our kids are currently 1, 4, and 6 at the time of this writing and they’re all boys. The general rule of thumb is we basically pack one item of clothing for the following:
- any weather condition you might encounter
- a sleeping outfit
- plus an extra pair of undies, socks, and a t-shirt
KUHL Konfidant Air Pants – I’ve tried on an embarrassing amount of hiking pants and like these the best. My problem is I like hiking pants enough that I end up wearing them to work, and when you have pants that zip off into shorts, people tend to make fun of you. The KUHL pants, however, pass off as fairly nice looking pants with great functionality. They are quick dry and have vents at the knees so they’re great for heat and humidity.
Fjallraven Women’s Abisko Trekking Tights – Brittany had an internal debate about whether or not purchasing these tights was worth the investment, but in the end was happy she did. I’m not sure I’d wear these out on a Friday night, but the padded knees and butt are a pretty nice touch to help with wear and tear. I know finding a pair of tights for women often comes down to how they fit and these are a great fit for Brittany’s body type.
Moisture wicking underwear – Some hard liners will say that underwear is optional, but we wear the knickers. Once you buy moisture-wicking underwear, you’ll never go back. Nothing worse than swamp ass. While you’re at it, buy the camouflage set for the trail. Seriously though, it gets sweaty on the trail if you’re working hard. Literally every item of clothing should be moisture wicking, or some sort of quick dry material, and that is especially true for the layer that’s closest to your body.
Fleece or wool Gloves – Assuming you are out in temperatures cold enough for gloves.
Comfortable camp shoes – Any shoe will really do here. Running shoes are good, Berkenstocks, etc. I like to have a pair of water shoes though just in case there’s fun to be had in the water. I typically don’t like going barefoot so a pair of Tevas or Keens will do the trick.
Hiking socks – as with most items, wool or moisture wicking is essential here. I usually pack an extra pair of socks just in case mine get soaked from stepping in a puddle or if it’s really hot out and my feet get super sweaty. Some folks also opt for liner socks to help with sweat as well, but I’ve tried them and they honestly just make my feet more hot.
Insulated, packable jacket – I used to steer clear of the puffer jackets because I thought they made me look like the stay puff marshmallow man, but it turns out if you buy a lighter one that fits right, the fattening qualities don’t stand out as much. In any case, when you’re tight on space, and especially when you’re packing for more than one person per bag, it’s clutch to have a jacket that smashes down into a tiny little ball. We ended up with the Men’s and Women’s version of this same jacket.
Base layer top – The Nike dryfit training top works well as a base layer top. It’s super light weight, moisture wicking, breathable, and just enough warmth as that first long sleeve layer. I also usually pack 2 short sleeve versions of this same top.
Insulated long sleeve shirt – We like using a half zip pullover here because it’s good to have a little bit of extra neck coverage when it’s either a little chilly or for sun protection.
Patagonia Torrentshell Rain Jacket – A good rain jacket is nice, but it is really only going to delay the inevitable. Nonetheless, even when I’m not on the trail, I actually prefer a good rain jacket to an umbrella. The nice thing about the Patagonia jacket is the ability to unzip some air flow into the armpits. I’m not sure if you gathered, but I sweat a lot. When I’m wearing the same outfit over multiple days, I do what I can to delay the stink.
Shorts – You will probably end up wearing pants during the day just because of either mosquitoes, sun protection, or not getting your legs scratched up, but it’s nice to sleep in something more comfortable.
UnderArmour Leggings – Yes I previously said I would not be seen in leggings, but also, if it’s cold out, these will definitely be a base layer for everyone.
Other Family Backpacking Checklist Items
- Bear Spray! A lot of times you can rent bear spray near the ranger station wherever you are going. I’m just not keen on packing something like this. I have a fear of it somehow blasting all over my stuff in the plane.
- Hat – Wear some sort of hat for sun protection, especially if you’re bald like me.
- Sun Glasses
- Insect Repellent
- Large Plastic Garbage Bag – this is not for trash. What we do is drop this garbage bag into our backpack and then stuff all of our belongings inside. This way if it rains or if you fall in a river your most important stuff will stay dry.
- Gallon and Sandwich Sized Ziplock Bags – This is for trash as well as anything else that might attract animals. Remember even your trash food needs to go into the bear barrel.
- Camp chair – Most people can afford to bring one luxury item, mine is a camp chair. I agree with a lot of the camp chair reviews out there and really enjoy the Helinox chairs. My personal favorite is the swivel chair because it is comfortable, lightweight, and I can swivel to see what the kids are doing. The kids like this chair because they can flip it over and pretend to drive it like a car.
- Hammock – OK I said one luxury item, but there’s nothing I like more than taking a nap in a hammock.
Things that are missing that you may or may not consider for your family backpacking checklist
- Rain Pants – If it’s pretty cold out I might pack these. I, however, probably would not take my kids on a cold/wet backpacking adventure. As with the rain jacket, rain pants really just delay the inevitable. You also should have quick dry pants anyway.
- Travel Pillow – Some folks recommend this, but we don’t. We just stuff our sleeping bag stuff sack with whatever we can find that’s soft.
- Multi-tool – If you have one laying around, these are fine, but we’ve really only ever used the knife.
- Trekking Poles – these are a personal choice
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