If you love camping, hiking, and a challenge, backpacking is the next step! Backpacking with kids can be an exciting and rewarding experience, but it can also be challenging if you’re not adequately prepared. But, where do you even begin? Today, St. Louis mom of three, Steph Hampton is here to share her family’s recent backpacking experience. As a first-time backpacker with kids, Steph learned that planning and preparation are essential to ensure a successful trip, and she’s sharing some of the tips and tricks she learned from her first time backpacking with kids with you today. 

tips and advice for parents for backpacking with kids for the first time

Our first backpacking with kids experience

Here’s an idea…why don’t we take our three young kids camping deep in the woods, with just the stuff we can carry on our backs?

Well, why not?!!

My husband and I love nature, love camping, and we love a good challenge. We have always wanted to take our kids backpacking, but until recently, it seemed too daunting. Particularly with three kids (ages 5, 3 & 1).  What if we forgot something important? What if there was an emergency? What if…what if…what if.

But…what if we did it?! 

We prepped and researched as much as we could to get us to a point where we felt very comfortable taking this leap. Leveling up our outdoor adventures isn’t new to us. We started cabin camping before progressing to car camping, then primitive camping. Backpacking felt like the next logical (albeit much more challenging) step, and we couldn’t wait to give it a try! 

We checked our schedules and found we had an open weekend in March and decided to go for it! This would not only be the first backpacking trip for my daughters but for me, as well! We can do hard things together. 

first time backpacking with kids - tips and advice

Hiking to our campsite at Cuivre River State Park

Choosing a backpacking campsite

One of the first things we did when we were ready to go backpacking was start researching backpacking campsites near us. When you’re choosing a backpacking site for a family, there are several factors to consider, including safety, accessibility, and amenities. Here are some tips from our experience. 

Start close to home

We searched our state park website for sites that offered backcountry camping within an hour of us. We chose to stick a little closer to home for our first time because those are the trails and areas we’re most familiar with. Plus, if we needed to bail for any reason, we’d be relatively close to home. For those familiar with the St. Louis area, we chose Cuivre River State Park (one hour NW from St. Louis). We chose this location because we were familiar with the park, knew there was cell service if we had an emergency come up, and we were close to a city. 

Consider making reservations

Some backcountry campsites are first-come-first-served and some allow you to make reservations to reserve your location. If you’re a serious planner or backpacking during peak season, I’d recommend starting with a campsite that you can reserve so that you’re guaranteed your space. If you’re up for being spontaneous or camping in places where they’re not much of a crowd, you can be more flexible when selecting a site. The campsite we chose did not take reservations in advance, but was available when we arrived (it’s not peak camping season here yet). We were thankful the site was open! We learned to search for future backpacking sites that we are able to reserve ahead of time.

Choose a location within a doable distance

Because you have to hike (with all your gear!) to your campsite, we chose a site down a trail that was just 1.5 miles from the trailhead. It was a great distance for all of us with what we were carrying and doable for even our youngest child. We carried everything we needed, but also had extra supplies (food & water) in the van (only 1.5 miles away), just in case. 

Could we have hiked a longer trail? Totally! But, our goal was to test out our gear and the backpacking experience. We were glad we went with a shorter trail because we didn’t feel rushed at all. We could enjoy our time in the woods with the girls.

This also was a more rustic trail (limited trail markers), so it was helpful that it was shorter to locate the correct backpacking site. Before we planned our trip, we kept in mind what distance our kids could confidently hike based on prior experiences. Our family hikes normally vary between 0.5 miles to 5 miles, so we were happy to find a backcountry trail this distance that all three of our daughters could hike independently. 

Enjoying a granola breakfast around the campfire. Our girls are wearing Merrell hiking shoes from Laurie’s Shoes, which we loved for traction on the trail!

How to get your kids involved in backpacking

Getting your kids involved in backpacking can be a fun and exciting for them. Kids are natural helpers and love getting to be involved in the process. Here are some tips to help you get your kids interested in (and excited about) backpacking:

Let them make choices

Our kids helped us choose our backpacking site and how we got there. They had fun looking at the park map to find out what route we should take to get to our campsite. Once we arrived, we let them help pick the spot for our tent and where we’d set things up. Giving them choices throughout the process made them more excited about the adventure and invested in it. 

Meal plan

Our kids also helped choose our weekend meals They each brought their own hiking backpack that carried a family meal, their spork, and their water bottle. This added to their excitement, as they had more responsibility and helped our family. We usually bring a large cooler for our previous camping experiences but were not able to when backpacking, so this was a different experience. We all felt empowered by carrying everything on our backs, including our food and water. 

Packing help

We prepped our kids that we are bringing only the bare necessities, and then got them involved in the packing process. When we car camp, our kids are used to bringing toys, many baby dolls, doll clothes, picture books, etc. But for backpacking, we all agreed ahead of time that they would each be able to bring one lovey. They had fun choosing that one special item and were excited to take it on our adventures. The girls did surprisingly great throughout the trip with limited toys. It was so neat to see their imagination blossom when playing in the woods. A huge fallen tree became the Polar Express train, and a pile of leaves and sticks became a chef’s kitchen to feed their loveys. 

Starting our 1.5 mile trail to the site, sporting our Deuter backpacking packs

Hiking to the campsite

The hike to our campsite was only 1.5 miles, but it can still be challenging to keep kids entertained and moving down the trail. Here are a few tips and tricks we implement when hiking with kids to keep their spirits high and their little feet moving!  


Our daughters were in charge of finding the trail markers, which is always a fun “I Spy” game. The trail markers were limited on the trail to our campsite, so it was really helpful to have a few more eyes searching! From the “I Spy” of trail markers, we also transitioned to search for animals, flowers, trees, and animal tracks.

Sing songs

Dancing and singing always seem more fun in the woods. My husband and I brought back ALLLLLLL the scout songs when we entered parenthood. Princess Pat, Boom Chicka Boom, or Alice the Camel, anyone? We also like to make up songs from what we see on a hike (nature, animals, weather, etc). Singing and dancing definitely keep us moving!

Carry ultra-light backpacking gear

I highly recommend ultra-light gear when you’re backpacking. 1.5 miles might not sound like a long distance, but heavy gear can make any distance feel grueling. As this was our first family backpacking trip, we did have to make some purchases of ultra-light items, and I was thankful for the light weight of our gear. My husband carried 45 pounds in his pack, while I carried 35 pounds in my pack. (Normally, I carry my 30lb daughter in a hiking backpack on hikes, so this wasn’t too different for me!) If you’re not used to a hiking with a heavy pack, the shorter distance and ultra-light gear can make a huge difference. 

Involving our kids in setting up our tent

Tent setup

Include your kids in the setup process

We let our girls help figure out where the best spot to set up the tent would be and got them involved in each step of the process. Do you want the tent on a slope or flat? Why do we need a tarp under the tent? All of these questions helped the girls be more invested in our tent setup. Their favorite part was snapping the tent poles together!

Organize the inside of your tent

Inside our tent, our girls were thrilled to play “Tetris” to figure out where everyone should sleep. They helped blow up our insulated sleeping pads and roll out our sleeping bags (my husband and I had sleeping bags, while our daughters wore Morrison Outdoors wearable sleeping bags). We were camping in the spring and the temperature got down to 40 degrees at night. I was a little cold at one point, but everyone else was warm enough. While we had a 4-person tent with 5 people, we were all on one side of the tent by the morning, snuggling. 


Our tent has a vestibule (an outer room) we could use to set things up before entering the tent. Our girls thought this was the coolest thing to have a “tent porch” and were excited to lay out our hiking shoes there. This helped to keep our gear dry, as it rained a bit throughout the night. 

Cuddling as the sun rises

Our first-time backpacking tips and takeaways

Lower your expectations

As with anything with kids, be flexible and lower your expectations! Did you lower them? Now lower them again! Don’t set yourself up for failure thinking that this will be an easy, peaceful, restful experience. Backpacking (and all camping) is work, and anytime you get kids out of their comfort zone, there will be hiccups.

My husband and I went into the trip knowing that we would probably not get much sleep, and that helped (because we didn’t). Our two older daughters slept through the night, but our youngest was very excited and had a pretty hard time sleeping. This meant she was climbing over us and all through the tent all night long. At one point she went over to her older sisters, tapped their heads, and said, “Sisters, awake?” In our previous tent camping experiences, we brought a pack n’ play for her to keep her contained and provide some familiarity. With all the space (and us!) I don’t know she knew what to do with herself! For us, lowering our expectations helped because the experience was so worth the limited sleep! 

Next time, we’ll make reservations

As I mentioned above, some backcountry campsites allow you to make reservations, and we already reserved our next campsite for our next adventure! This one will have a little longer trail (at Hawn State Park for Missourians) and a water source available, so we can filter our own water and not have to pack in so much (you go through more water than you realize). 

Keep it simple

Our biggest takeaway was just how much fun it was to unplug, live simply, and have fun. One of the most unexpected benefits of backpacking is how you realize just how simply you can live and that you really don’t need that much stuff. We could only bring the most absolute essentials on our backs, so we didn’t have the option to overpack. And it was wonderful!

Although, I will admit that I splurged and brought s’mores fixings (because it’s not really camping without s’mores, right?). I put the graham crackers in a Tupperware container so they didn’t crumble. This luxury item was totally worth the little extra weight!

Peace in the woods at night!

Making the leap to backpacking

Camping as a family is my favorite outdoor activity because it allows us to unplug and spend real quality time together, just the five of us. No technology (except the occasional phone photo), no laundry, no home projects…just special time together bonding, playing, and adventuring. 

There is something for everyone in the outdoors, whether it is a family walk in the neighborhood, hiking in the woods, or camping. If camping is something you also enjoy, but you’re unsure about taking the leap to backpacking, I highly encourage you to go for it! Start small and give it a try! The family memories are well worth it!

Have you ever gone backpacking?
Where will your family adventure together next?

About the author

Steph lives in St. Louis with her husband, Mark, their three daughters (ages 5, 3 & 1), and their funny pup. Steph taught elementary school for five years and became a stay-at-home mom when her first child was born. When the pandemic hit and the playgrounds were closed, she started taking her kids hiking on a different trail each day. Steph is also a NICU mama (her 2nd daughter was born 3 months early). The outdoors has been so healing for her and her family, not to mention fun!

Since the pandemic started, their family has visited over 175 parks and hiked over 200 trails around St. Louis and Missouri. Their family also loves to tent camp, canoe, and bike. Steph has a passion for exploring the outdoors, helping start a free, weekly nature playgroup, and sharing adventure tips with others. When she is not hiking, she loves baking, reading, and dreaming of being a Survivor contestant. 

You can find more from Steph in the following locations:
Instagram: @explorestlparks
RWMC posts: Steph Hampton