Family Backpacking: The Gear You Need
Have you been wanting to try backcountry camping, also known as backpacking, with your family, but are intimidated by the gear you need to get started? That’s completely understandable! Even seasoned car campers often balk at the idea of entering the backcountry with everything carried on their backs.
We’ve gathered our list of must-have items for taking the family backpacking, including some of our favorites that we ourselves were surprised we needed! Let us walk you through the basics of the gear you will need so you can be well set up to take on backcountry camping with your family.
There are some key needs for backpacking that align with the key needs for survival in any environment. These include what to wear, a plan to eat, a plan to sleep, and the component unique to backpacking: a way to carry it.
Click on the links throughout the post to go directly to some of our favorite gear recommendations. If you want the full packing list, scroll to the end to check out our full packing list!
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Quality Well-Fitting Packs
A good pack seriously makes ALL the difference. You want backpacking to be enjoyable, not a wrestling match with a heavy load weighing you down even more than necessary thanks to a poorly-fitting back. A good backpack will not only make your backcountry adventures more enjoyable, but it can help provide long-term protection for your body in the difficult physical circumstances of backpacking.
If you are within driving distance of a backcountry outfitter, it’s highly recommended that you and your family go in-person and get fitted for packs. As with anything these days, the temptation is strong to order online and have it come right to your door, and you can do that with a lot of gear! But for this piece, take the extra step and go to the store for a fitting.
Packs come in sizes like small, medium, and large, for adults and kids. But each size can also be adjusted for different torso lengths and hip widths as well, and some just feel better than others when on. My sixteen year old daughter tried two packs in the exact same size, and one was clearly a better fit for her body type.
Consider the Pack Volume
Besides small, medium, large, kid, and adult sizes, there are many choices for pack volume as well. Since you are looking into family backpacking, naturally you will need packs suited to hiking longer distances and carrying more items.
The longer the hike, the more volume the pack needs to carry. If you and your family expect to be backpacking on weekends or for a maximum of a few days at a time, a pack volume of 38-55 liters might be just perfect for the adults!
On the other hand, if you are intending to hike longer distances, up to a week or more, or you will have very small children with you, and you will be serving as a sort of pack mule for their gear, you may want to spring for that larger volume pack, over 55L.
But Don’t Ignore the Weight!
It may be tempting to go as big as possible in your pack volume so that there is plenty of space for those endless snacks and clothing changes. However, it would be unwise to ignore personal limits regarding weight.
A good rule of thumb for pack weight is to aim to carry no more than 15-20% of your own body weight. Adults may be able to push this percentage a little higher, especially if they are carrying a baby or toddler, but particularly for kids and their growing frames, loading them down with a heavy pack weight is a bad idea.
A bigger pack is a heavier pack, and if you don’t have any plans to go those longer distances, save the weight and purchase the appropriately-sized pack. Kids can use an even smaller pack, possibly even a day pack, to stay within that 15-20% range.
Extra Pack Gear
In order to be well-prepared for whatever weather you and your family may encounter on the backpacking trail, you can also add components to waterproof your packs. A rainproof cover and liner can go a long way in keeping all of your gear dry.
Some packs come with a waterproof cover included. Check the pack details or ask the consultant at your outfitter if you are unsure. Either way, you can always purchase a pack cover separately.
A liner sits on the inside of your pack, and then all of your other gear is placed inside. Many experienced backpackers actually just use a heavy-duty trash bag–like one that would be used in a trash compactor–instead of an official liner, since it is cheaper and easily replaced if needed.
Favorite Backpacking Pack Recommendations
There are a lot of factors that go into a pack turning into a favorite, like fit, weight, color, and more. That being said, here are some of ours!
Osprey is a well-respected backpacking brand with a good track record of quality products. They make packs for adults and kids, and have lots of great features like mesh pockets, hip pockets, removable “brains” (the top of the pack), and back venting for good air flow to your body. Their packs are not ultralite, and some backpackers find them too heavy.
The adults and older kids in my family mostly wear Osprey packs.
- My husband’s pack – Atmos AG 65
- My pack – Ariel 65
- Melissa, age 16 – Aura AG 65
- David, age 12 – Ace 50
Deuter is another highly-thought-of backpacking brand, and many people who backpack while carrying babies or toddlers opt to use this family-friendly brand. They make lots of options for adults and kids. They also tend to be the brand that fits more body types.
- Kid Comfort Pro or Kid Comfort 3 (includes a detachable front pack for balance and extra gear)
- Deuter Fox 40 (best for kids about age 8-12)
- Deuter Schmusebar (for the smallest of backpackers taking their own gear)
This well-known outfitter also produces their own line of backpacks. They tend to be a little cheaper than the name brands above, though potentially with fewer bells and whistles. Our daughters started out in REI packs, and many families with kids love them as starter packs for their preschool and elementary backpackers.
A Cozy Place to Sleep
After all that hiking and carrying, your family will definitely want a comfortable night of sleep! Tents, sleeping bags, and sleeping pads are the critical ingredients for making that happen.
A 4-Person or 2-Person Tent?
If you are backpacking with your family, you are likely looking for a multi-person tent. Backpacking tents generally max out at a 4-person capacity, but if you have several small children, you may be able to fit as many as 6 people in a single 4-person backpacking tent.
Many families, like ours, prefer to carry multiple 2-person tents since we typically have more than one adult or older teen along. A backpacking-specific tent should translate to about 2.5 pounds of weight per person, so if there is only one full-grown hiker on your backpacking trip, you are probably limited to carrying just one tent.
Whether you opt for a 4-person tent or a 2-person tent (or tents!) for your family, you will want to make sure that it meets that weight standard of about 2.5 pounds per person! Also check for the seasonal rating on your tent to see that it is appropriate for the weather you expect to encounter.
A tent for backpacking to Mount Everest base camp needs to be a 4-season tent, but backpacking in the Smokies in June requires only a 2 or 3 season tent. Additionally, check to see if your tent has a built-in “footprint”, or protective barrier between your tent and the ground. A footprint, which can be purchased separately, will help protect your tent from the elements and extend its life!
Favorite Backpacking Tents for Families
- REI Half Dome SL 2+ (reliable tent for a good value, sleeps 2-4 cozily)
- REI Trail Hut 4 (sleeps 4-6 cozily)
- Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL3 (longer-lasting investment tent)
Backpacking Sleeping Bags for Families
Is it Hiker Midnight, also known as sundown, yet? Now your family is ready to unroll those sleeping bags and snuggle down inside your tent for some sleep!
Backpacking sleeping bags are usually much lighter and compressible than traditional sleeping bags. Ideally, a down sleeping bag will be around 2-3 pounds per person, but some bags, especially synthetic ones, are a little heavier than this and are still just fine to carry.
The temperature rating on a backpacking sleeping bag is particularly important, since in the backcountry your options are otherwise limited for staying warm. Most sleepers will be happy in choosing a bag that is rated for temperatures about 10 degrees cooler than the expected low temperature on their trip.
That means that if you are backpacking with low temps close to freezing, a 20 degree bag is the way to go! If you wouldn’t be caught dead backpacking under 50 degrees, spring for a 40 degree bag.
Another way to boost warmth is to go with a family sleeping bag. These are either individual bags that can zip together, or one larger sleeping bag that can easily be shared by two adults or one adult and 2-3 children.
Some things to keep in mind if the family sleeping bag appeals to you: a bigger bag is heavier, and if you are a solo adult with kids already carrying a large tent, adding a large sleeping bag may not be wise. Also, if you do not like sharing a bed at home, for safety or comfort reasons, you may not like it in a tent.
For babies and toddlers backpacking with their parents, a zip-on sleeper bag like those made by Morrison is a great option to help ensure their little body stays warmly inside their bag all night!
Favorite Sleeping Bags for Families for Backpacking
- Sierra Designs Backcountry Bed 20 (great for side sleepers, non-zip)
- Morrison Big or Little Mo (zip-on sleeper-style bag, two temp rating options)
- Big Agnes Dream Island 20 Double Bag (family bag for co-sleeping)
- REI Co-op Down Time 25 (great kids’ bag for most temperature conditions)
Sleeping Pads for Backpacking
That grassy field and fresh earth can be really lovely to sit and relax next to, but when it comes to actually sleeping, most of us want a little cushion. Backpackers usually consider a sleeping pad to be another essential item on their packing list.
Sleeping pads can be inflatable or foam. In our family, we have opted for foldable foam pads for our kids, since they are typically less expensive, fairly durable, and usually provide sufficient padding for lighter kid bodies. They don’t offer quite as much cushion, and we adults prefer inflatable pads.
Regardless of the type of pad, a sleep system including a bag and a pad should have a weight limit around 4 pounds. Remember that 15% weight guide? Four pounds of sleeping gear, along with water and snacks is often a perfect amount of gear for young kids to carry!
- Therm-a-rest Z Lite Sol Sleeping Pad (heat-retaining foldable foam)
- Sea to Summit Ether Light XT (no-pump inflatable pad)
- Nemo Switchback (basic foam pad for kids and short adults)
Sleeping Extras: Pillows for Backpacking and Cases
The sleeping bag and sleeping pad are the only true bedding essentials. However, some backpackers do like to carry a pillow as well. Our family mostly just uses our extra clothes as a pillow of sorts.
Pillows can also be foam or inflatable. Just like with regular pillows, it can be tricky to find just the right one, so this is another item worth investigating when you are in-person at the outfitter.
Head Lamps & Lights for Backpacking
I am of the mindset that no outdoor kid (or adult for that matter) should be without a headlamp. They’re a perfect small gift, can be used year-round and tend to hold up for a very long time. They go with us on every camping and backpacking trip and are used daily in the winter at home too.
Turn them off while you sleep of course, but keep them close for those midnight potty runs for your little ones, and let’s be honest, for mom. Headlamps are not only an important piece of safety gear, they are fun for kids!!
There are a bazillion headlamp choices out there, but we recommend the Petzl Tikkina for the entire family. We also like the Black Diamond Wiz for kids. Willing to spend a little more? This one by Fenix is small and lightweight, yet packs a serious lumen punch.
We also haul lightweight Luci Lanterns which are solar-powered and produce great in-tent light.
Meals In the Backcountry
Hiking all of those miles in the fresh air will absolutely work up big appetites for your family. With little ones, you may want to plan a snack and water break as often as every mile, or half hour!
Simple and Lightweight Stoves
Backpacking meals can be cooked with a simple stove setup. Either a rapid-boil pot or a “pocket rocket” stove with a separate cooking pot can result in delicious meals in just a few minutes.
Backpacking outfitters have multiple options for lightweight cooking setups, from brands like Jetboil and MSR. We also bought an aluminum Stanley cooking pot at Walmart that we take with us on backpacking trips. It doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive to get the job done!
Cooking fuel is important to keep in stock on your trip. Check the type of stove you plan to use for the appropriate fuel blend. Fuel canisters are not airplane-safe, so if you are flying to your backcountry location, you will have to purchase those once you arrive.
- Jetboil Flash Cooking System (super quick boil, pot included)
- MSR PocketRocket 2 (small lightweight stove, no pot)
- Stanley Camping Mess Kit (6-piece pot and dishware set)
Dishes and Silverware
Like all backpacking gear, dishes and silverware should be light and minimal. A spork is essential, and depending on your cooking plans, a cup and bowl or plate may also be necessary.
Some dehydrated backpacking meals can be cooked and eaten right out of the bag. Regardless of how you serve and eat meals, all food should be consumed away from sleeping areas and trash should be packed out.
- Silicone Collapsible Travel Cups (easy stow, easy clean, set of 4)
- Tritan Sporks, 12-pack (spoon and fork at opposite ends, fun colors!)
- MSR Trail Lite Duo System (good quality cooking pot, bowls, cups, and spoons for 2)
- Lightweight Bowls (tack these on to make your mess kit good for a family)
Cooking over a fire is a possibility in the backcountry, but can’t be counted on as the sole means of dining. Safety restrictions or limits on resources can make a campfire impossible. No matter what, always bring matches to fire up your stove!
Stowing your food in stuff sacks is a convenient way to organize your food into your packs. We like to split our food up by meal type so it’s easy to figure out where certain meals are.
Stuff sacks can also be used as trash bags after meals, storing toiletries, or containing changes of clothes. If you go with a waterproof option, they can also provide some protection against the elements.
- REI Ditty Sacks (multi-pack of colors and sizes)
- Osprey Ultralight Dry Sack (heavy duty waterproof bag)
Food Security and Animal Safety
Animals love people food. It’s easy to eat and obviously delicious, but trains the animals to seek out populated areas for a quick snack. So don’t let it be easy for them to access your food! Ginny wrote an in-depth article detailing why and how to prevent food-sharing with wild animals.
Some areas have specific requirements for how to secure your food away from animals, like inside a bear- or animal-proof container, or hanging food high. Other locations may provide infrastructure for securing food. Make sure you know the backcountry rules for the location of your backpacking trip!
A bear- or animal-proof container can be a bear can or a critter resistance sack. Containers are a simpler method and more conducive to beginners than other approaches such as using a bear hang, unless the bear hangs are provided as part of a backcountry site.
- Bear Vault Trek BV475 (hard-walled container required in grizzly country)
- Ursack AllMitey Bear and Critter Sack (soft-walled heavy-duty bag for other regions)
Cleaning the Kitchen
Unfortunately, just like in the kitchen at home, dishes have to be washed. Fortunately, the process is simple and should be minimal in the backcountry.
Some backpackers use biodegradable soaps, but in most cases, dishware can be sufficiently cleaned with just water. Heat an extra cup or two of water in your pot to make cleanup even easier.
Loosen food with water, rinse clean, and wipe dry with a microfiber cloth. Always make sure to dump your gray water away from your camping space, and pack out all trash!
Drinking water is obviously critical on backcountry trips. If you are lucky enough to be hiking Patagonia, you don’t have to filter! For the rest of us regular backpacking folks, filtration is almost always a must to guard against illness.
For a family, gravity bags are an efficient and cost-effective way to filter water for a crowd. We love our Platypus filter and accompanying bladder bags.
Gravity filters can filter a large volume of water while you relax at the campsite. They typically attach well to large mouth Nalgene-type water bottles.
Single-serve filtration water bottles are also a convenient way to clean water on the go. They can’t filter the quantity of gravity bags, but the positive trade off is that each hiker, even small ones, can filter and carry their own water.
Chemical water treatment is another method for cleaning water in the backcountry. This method usually involves two types of chemical and time-delayed application of each. It’s certainly a viable option, but not as convenient as other direct filtration methods, and it doesn’t filter out sediments.
- Platypus GravityWorks Complete Kit – 2 liter (filter, dirty bag, clean carry bag)
- Katadyn BeFree Water Filter Bottle (single-user bottle)
- Aquamira Water Treatment (two-step antibacterial treatment drops)
What to Wear Backpacking
On the Appalachian Trail, there is a day called Hike Naked Day. For a number of reasons, I do not recommend this approach while backpacking with your family. 😉
Backpacking means you’re often wearing the same clothes for days on end. We choose merino + quick drying clothing whenever we can for as many layers as possible (yep, even underwear!) Always opt for clothes that dry quickly so that your family can limit the clothing changes you each have to carry!
Not only will merino wool help keep your family dry and temperature regulated in all climates, but the unique anti-microbial properties of wool will help protect everyone’s hygiene even in situations where washing opportunities are limited. Bonus: base layers can double as pajamas!
- Iksplor Layers (use code MTNMAMA for 10% off)
- REI Lightweight Crew Long Underwear (shirts and leggings available)
- REI Sahara Pants (convertible shorts-to-pants options for adults and kids!)
Rain and Water Protection
Staying dry while backpacking can sometimes require more than just merino wool layers. Wet clothes and feet can lead to chafing and blisters, so it’s definitely critical to keep as dry as possible!
In addition to pack liners and covers, cover your people with a good quality lightweight rain jacket! Rain pants provide additional coverage if desired, and full body rain suits can be perfect for toddlers riding in carriers.
Reima, Columbia, Black Diamond, and others all make great rain jackets! REI produces several quality rain pant options. If you like to keep raindrops off your face, Sunday Afternoons adventure hats are lightweight and double as sun hats.
Whatever your rain protection strategy, keep dry sleeping outfits and pairs of socks safely in ziploc bags so that everyone can sleep cozily dry in your tent.
- Reima Roiske Rain Suit (waterproof suit for littles)
- Columbia Watertight Rain Jacket (lightweight, for kids 4-16)
- Black Diamond TreeLine Stretch Shell Rain Jacket (waterproof, for women)
Hiking Socks and Shoes
Quality shoes and socks are essential for a backpacking trip with your family. Your feet are responsible for carrying the rest of you and should be treated accordingly!
Wool hiking socks are a favorite piece of backpacking gear in our family! While blisters are possible for anyone, you and your family will greatly reduce the likelihood of blisters by wearing wool socks, which hold water away from your skin and dry quickly, essential components in blister prevention.
We love our socks from Darn Tough Vermont. Others opt for Smartwool, or even wool socks from Amazon. The name brand socks will likely last longer, but for a short trip or limited use, other options work just fine. Check out these great women-owned Tough Cutie socks as well!
Hiking Shoes or Boots
Since kids aren’t carrying a super heavy pack, they can get away with shoes if they’re more comfortable in them opposed to boots for necessary ankle support, but it’s a good idea to make sure they have great traction. Some of our favorite shoes are outlined in this post.
Adults carrying the heavy packs really should we wearing supportive shoes with ankle support. Ladies, we also have a full list of our favorite hiking boots here, which we update annually.
I have personally loved Keen, my husband prefers Eddie Bauer, my 16 year old daughter wears Oboz, and other kids in our family have gone with Keen and Merrell. Everyone’s feet and comfort preferences are so different that it’s worth a trip to the store.
Here are a few specific favorites of ours to help get you started!
- Keen Womens Targhee III Waterproof Mid (boots with great water protection)
- Eddie Bauer Mens Lukla Pro Waterproof Lightweight Hiker (low-top, good value)
- Oboz Sawtooth X Low Waterproof Hiking Shoes (low-top, available in kid and adult sizes)
- Keen Big and Little Kids Ridge Flex Waterproof Boot (long-lasting brand to hand down)
Backpacking and hygiene might seem like they don’t belong in the same sentence, and to some extent, you do have to just accept that you and your family will be dirtier than you would be in your own home. However, it’s still possible to maintain a decent standard of hygiene on the trail!
Everyone has to use the bathroom, so preparing to use the World’s Largest Bathroom is not something to neglect! It’s also a significant fear for a lot of would-be backpackers. Make it as simple as possible with just a couple of items.
A Pee Rag
Yep, never thought it would be on my list either. But on our last backpacking trip, all us girls had Kula Cloths and it was a total game-changer. We didn’t have to find the TP every time someone had to pee (which was often) and we weren’t having to pack it out either.
Only issue? We all had the same design – for next trip I am letting them get their own they pick so it’s easier to keep track.
We washed them out in the lake, hung them on trees to dry quickly and rested easy knowing their antimicrobial properties were going to work. They are seriously a must-have for hiking, camping and backpacking.
For those times when a pee cloth isn’t the right tool for the job, bring along a mini trowel to dig a cat hole–a 6” deep hole for burying any paper or natural waste. It’s generally a good idea to carry any clean toilet paper in a ziploc or other waterproof bag to make sure it stays dry before use. Don’t forget some mini hand sanitizer as well!
Note: some locations, especially in deserts or at high elevations, do not allow the digging of cat holes and even sometimes require ALL waste to be packed out. Check the regulations in your hiking region!
For basic toothbrushing needs, those mini tubes of toothpaste are great for most backpacking trips. Some locations may not be conducive to traditional toothbrushing, and toothpaste tabs are another option.
No matter what you use, any toiletries that have an odor or could be confused for food should be secured from animals with your food, and all cleanup or gray water should be disposed of away from camp.
Additional Backpacking Gear
There are a handful of other items that are useful to have while backpacking. Depending on the location of your trip, as well as how much your group is able to carry, some of them are more luxury than necessity.
Navigation is absolutely a must, but the level of navigation equipment may vary. Our family has hiked a 2.5 mile backpacking trail within an Indiana state park, where the park’s paper map is definitely sufficient, and we have also backpacked rim-to-rim in the Grand Canyon where navigation is pretty straightforward.
In an age of phone mapping, you may be most comfortable navigating that way. All Trails and Google Maps, among others, have options to download maps directly to your phone. Definitely plan on a loss of signal once you are in the backcountry!
Other more extreme navigation devices include GPS trackers linked to satellite. Make sure you know what the charging needs are of your device, especially in an emergency, and it’s always a good idea to have a compass and regional map along so if all else fails, you know you aren’t hiking in circles.
- AllTrails+ (paid subscription that enables you to download maps for off-signal gps tracking)
- Garmin GPSMAP 67i (downloadable maps, emergency signaling, satellite-based communication)
- Compass (tried and true for centuries)
A small first aid kit is an important piece of gear for your backpacking trip. Minimum supplies should include bandages, pain relief, and antibacterial ointment. Consider taking a wilderness safety course as well!
Hiking poles are probably a luxury for kids, who don’t yet have the height and weight to be regularly concerned about knee injuries and balance. Adults may find them to be more of a necessity, especially for hikes with steep elevation descents, lots of creek crossings, or if carrying a child. Balance is tricky with lots of extra weight, and poles give you three to four legs instead of two.
A tarp is a borderline necessity. If you are backpacking to shelters, it’s probably unneeded. If there are no shelters on your route, a lightweight tarp can be really handy in case of rain. It’s far more pleasant to eat under a tarp than under raindrops.
Some backpacking trips are hiking morning to night, and others are a few hours of hiking with a lot of relaxing. Bring along a deck of cards or other small and lightweight games for those off hours! A mini football can be a lot of fun for kids and is super light.
A backpacking chair definitely falls into the luxury category, but it sure is nice to have! Some sites will have logs or benches for seating, but if not, you can choose between the extra weight of a chair or the comfort of the dirt for a seat.
Knives and Hatchets
A knife is a necessity, but a hatchet is a luxury. Pocket knives are great for so many things, and are usually small and light enough to toss into anyone’s pack. Here are our favorites for kids. Some hikers do like to bring a hatchet for chopping small branches to build a fire.
If you want to take on the extra weight of a hatchet, also make sure your hiking area allows their use. National parks tend to allow already-downed branches to be chopped and used for campfires, but some state parks don’t. And always check the local fire regulations before lighting in the woods!
Practice Makes Perfect
Just like anything, your family’s backpacking abilities will grow with time and practice. Gathering all the gear may seem intimidating at first, but once you have tried it that first time, you’ve gone from being a rookie to being experienced. It will keep getting easier!
There is just nothing quite like hiking through the wilderness with everything on your back, surrounded by nature and the people you love.
Family Backpacking: The Gear You Need
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