Winter Backcountry Cabins with Kids 

When tent camping season comes to an end but you don’t want to wait months for your next overnight adventure, welcome to the world of winter backcountry cabin trips! There are thousands of public use cabins and huts scattered across the U.S. just waiting to welcome you and your kids. Many other countries have excellent options as well.

Winter tent camping is a favorite activity of mine, but much of the year the temperatures in my area are just too low to do this comfortably over multiple days with children. We have taken trips to winter cabins when the temps are below 0°F and had a magical time playing in the cold and having a warm cabin to come “home” to.

Two families in front of a backcountry cabin in the winter, with all their gear

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We like to take cabin trips for our two winter birthdays, and decorate the cabin with birthday cheer. Renting a cabin or hut in the winter is a really fun getaway to celebrate anything (or nothing), and I have some tips to make your experience as cozy and magical as possible when you head out to winter backcountry cabins with kids!

Three smiling blonde children eating birthday candy under decorations in a cabin

Choosing Your Cabin

Many public use cabins and huts fill up really quickly and getting weekend reservations has become very competitive. Lots of cabins can be reserved on recreation.gov or reserveamerica.com. Cabins can be run by State Parks, USFWS, local hut groups, or even private ownership.

Some considerations to make when choosing your cabin:

  • Access – is winter access the same as summer? Are roads/trailheads maintained? Do you need 4WD/AWD to get up to the trailhead?
  • Trail – is there a separate winter trail? Is it groomed or maintained, or is there sufficient use that it will likely be packed down? If not do you need to bring snowshoes or skis?
  • Mileage – Plan on a mile an hour in winter. If there isn’t much elevation and snowpack is good you’ll make it quicker, but better to plan more time than be stuck slogging through snow in the dark rummaging for snacks when you’d hoped to be already cooking dinner in your cabin. Our favorite cabin is only a half a mile hike in and while that doesn’t feel like much, in the winter it’s plenty to provide a great private retreat, and makes it easy to go back to the vehicle for extra wood if needed. 
  • Availability – when to reserve how hard are they to get depends on the area, if you’re using Recreation.gov you can get a pretty good idea how popular an area is by browsing the availability calendar.
  • Cost – Cost can range from $40 to over $100 a night, which adds up quick if you’re used to tent camping
  • Fuel type – wood or propane (more on that later)

Where to Book Your Cabin

It’s common for cabins and campsites to become reservable 6-9 months ahead. Sometimes reservations open all at once for the following season, sometimes they open a day or week at a time. You may need to plan way ahead and have quick fingers if you need a weekend date for a popular spot, weekday availability is usually a lot easier.

Local “Cabin Cancellations” pages on Facebook can be a great way to snag a last minute cabin reservation. You also should check the pages listed above (especially recreation.gov and reserveamerica.com) because they’ll update if someone cancels their trip.

Hauling Your Gear

When I take a cabin trip with other adults I pack very differently, packing just like I do for backpacking. But when I take a trip with the kids we don’t go very minimalistic in our packing. With the kids I stick to shorter distances as there are so many really great options with shorter hikes, and we like to save some energy for exploration from the cabin.

Three kids and two kicksleds loaded with gear are standing in front of a cabin in the snow

Kicksleds

We bring out a few kicksleds when the trail isn’t too steep, which are great fun to have around the cabin and also make haunting water jugs and backpacks a lot easier. Bungee cords work OK for securing things but I prefer to have some tie down straps.

The picture below shows just how amazing a kicksled can be. We have a water jug tied to the seat with tie down straps, a duffel bag hanging off the back, and a pack strapped to the front. We’ve actually gotten even more than this on a kicksled and been comfortable with it.

A child in a snowsuit pushes a kicksled carrying water and backpacks through the snow

You can put the heaviest things on the kicksled and you don’t feel the weight the way you do with a backpack or pulling a sled. We’ve put a box of wood on a kicksled and that works great also.

Transporting Your Fuel

Cabins are primarily heated by wood or kerosene stoves. Wood is easiest but for longer trips in very cold weather it does require a very large volume of wood to heat. Sometimes wood is available on-site and an axe is provided, but we try to bring in all we’ll need on a sled or kicksled.

Wood-Fueled Stoves

In Alaska it’s a pretty safe bet that you’ll be able to pull your gear in a sled for most of the winter, which makes carrying your gear a lot easier. But if you live somewhere that doesn’t get regular snow cover, you’ll want to resort to a more traditional backpacking setup, but you also probably won’t need to haul as much wood.

We love bringing a sled for wood, and a really durable one made for ice fishing is ideal, but we make do with a shallower sled. We secure our wood with the carrying cases for our Kelty Loveseats and it works great, so look around and you can probably MacGyver a solution to hauling your wood.

Three kids in snowsuits stand by two sleds with gear for a cabin trip

I don’t recommend packing in a bunch of different bags like the kids did above, more on how to pack better than we sometimes do below ;). But a lot of wood fits into that sled and the loveseat covers help secure all the little pieces.

Figuring out how much wood to pack is tricky business. Pictured below is maybe 3 days worth of wood, when burning on the slowest burn with temps in the 15 degree Fahrenheit range. We don’t usually store it all by the stove, it’s best to store most of it on the porch and bring in as needed.

There are so many variables when it comes to wood that it’s very hard to gauge how much is enough. Having a lot of rounds for overnight banking of the stove is good, if all your wood is cut into quarters it will burn a lot faster and you’ll be up a lot in the night.

The good news is that you can’t bring too much… so bring as much as you can carry and leave a pile for the next people to use the cabin because it feels so amazing to walk into a cabin and see a nice pile of wood on the porch, and kindling next to the stove. It truly will make someone’s day.

A wood pile next to a wood stove in a cabin

Kerosene-Fueled Stoves

If your cabin is heated by kerosene, put your bottles in ziplocs if you’re packing them in a backpack, and keep them on the outside (I put them in the water bottle holders and mesh pockets. I try to never use single-use plastics, but this is a situation where I do because fuel spilled in your pack would be a nightmare.

There will be instructions for how to use the stove, whether it is wood-fired or propane. Usually the instructions are laminated and hanging up or on a countertop. Sometimes they’re on a board behind the stove. Lighting propane stoves can be trickier but the instructions I’ve seen have been very detailed.

Closeup view of a propane stove in a cabin

The Best Gear for Hauling Your Gear

Figure out how you want to haul your gear. Packing in as few bags as possible is ideal; sometimes the kids pack their stuff in a million bags, which makes the walk so much harder to manage. I’m usually a big fan of letting them have control over their packing but after a few trips with way too many bags I am becoming more strict about “approved” bags to pack in before they start.

Here are some of my favorite bags and ways to haul gear:

The TOBIQ duffel bag is very expensive, but I really love it. Having each kid pack in their own colorful slot has made organization so much easier. I have 3 kids and there are 4 slots so I use the last slot either for swim stuff, laundry, extra socks, or whatever makes sense for the trip we’re using it on.

Five children with backpacks and sleds on a snowy winter path

Cabin Comforts

Power and Lighting

Nothing cozies up a cabin better than some nice lighting. We bring out a huge variety of string lights, lanterns, and power banks. Since we haul our gear on sleds and kicksleds as well as in backpacks, I’m usually not too concerned with weight. 

For cabins with more elevation or distance I streamline the electronics, but pictured below is what we brought out on a 4 day cabin trip. The trip was in interior Alaska in early January, so there were only a few hours of daylight each day and this was perfect for what we needed for ample light in all areas of the cabin.

View of an assortment of electronics and lanterns on a table inside a cabin

Mpowerd String Lights

My favorite way to light our space is with the mPowerd string lights. They’re rechargeable but they last for a really nice long time and provide excellent light around the cabin. They come in a nice warm white and in multi. We have a few sets that we string in different areas of the cabin.

We like the white lights for the main areas of the cabin, but the kids really enjoy the multi in the loft. The multi lights have a few different modes including different colors and a cycling mode, but I’m not thrilled about the color options and honestly just prefer the white ones.

Wide-angle view of a cabin lit with string lights and decorations

We also use the mPowerd lights in our home for power outages. They have a solar panel for recharging (we get so little light in Alaska in the winter that we recharge them with powerbanks when needed) but they usually last us for about a day (morning and evening on low setting, turning them off for the day when we’re out adventuring).

Goal Zero Lanterns, Pop Up Lights, and Powerbanks

Goal Zero makes the majority of my lighting options and powerbanks for camping. They’ve been making them for a really long time and for the most part I really love them. All of them can give light 360 degrees or can be put into 180 degree mode to save power and direct light only where you need it.

I have three lanterns from Goal Zero, and on cabin trips without elevation I usually bring them all. They all can be used as light but also to change other things, so sometimes I’ll be using one while also having the Mpowr String Lights plugged into it.

  • Goal Zero Lighthouse Mini Core Lantern: This is the smallest lantern and it’s portable enough for backpacking. We use it for outhouse trips because the kids prefer to have an additional light source to their headlamps, and that’s wise for wildlife visibility also.
  • Goal Zero Lighthouse Core Lantern: This is a medium-sized lantern and I use it the least of the three, only bringing it when I bring all the lights.
  • Goal Zero Lighthouse 600 Lantern: This lantern puts out a ton of light, and has the capacity to charge a lot of other lights from it because it has such a huge capacity. It has a hand crank but even though the kids love taking turns cranking it, it would take some serious time cranking to get any real power out of it that way.
A large lantern being used as a lightsource while charging another lightsource

The Crush Lights take up no space in your pack, and they’re great for the kids to carry around. They can recharge in the sun so keep it in a sunny window during the day and you’ll have some power for evening, though I’ve heard it takes a long time to fully charge them this way.

Flip power banks come in several different sizes and I’ve used them for many years. The flip-out USB does seem like a weak point, but I’m careful when I plug it in and haven’t had any issues with them failing.

I have a few of the Flip 36 which are larger, and one Flip 24, and a Flip 12 which I’m not sure they make anymore. These are light and portable enough for backpacking and I never take a trip without one.

EcoFlow RIVER 2 Portable Power Station

The EcoFlow RIVER 2 Power Station is is a big heavy powerbank, but for trips under 2 miles where we can take the kicksleds, it’s worthwhile to bring. I can charge 5 things from it at once.

A large powerbank with several lanterns and a smaller powerbank plugged into it to charge, closeup view.

It’s a lot heavier than a bunch of Goal Zero Flips would be, but I think a lot of that weight comes from added durability as it seems really rugged. Additionally it has so many different ways to charge I’m sure that adds some weight too.

I have noticed that there’s a small power drain if you don’t turn it off while not using it, you want to press and then hold the power button to turn it off, and that’s not quite as simple as just pressing a button because half the time I went to turn it off I was actually just waking it up or putting it to sleep, but it’s worth making sure it’s fully off when you won’t be using it.

The Ecoflow only takes about an hour to recharge, and comes with outlet and car charger cables. This is another one that has been great for power outages at home.

Headlamps

It’s helpful if everyone has their own headlamp for the trip, they can keep it around their bedpost and use it for bathroom trips and for when we go explore outdoors in the dark.

A child stands on a snowy path in the dark, shining a headlamp down the path

We also always keep a headlamp and small lantern on top of the water jug by the hand sanitizer, which is always by the door. That way we never have to look around for a headlamp for a late night outhouse trip!

A lantern, headlamp, and hand sanitizer sit on a water cooler

All the lighting you have for inside is great fun to bring outside. We use it to light ski trails or sledding hills at night. You can hang the Goal Zero Crush Lights on bushes by the trail, and lay out mPowerd Luci String Lights in the snow along the path.

A child skiing at night on a snowy path lit by lanterns, with a cabin in the background.

Toys and Games

Cabins almost always have a few games on the lower shelves of the kitchen shelves (they all seem to have “Sorry!”), some puzzles, maybe a deck of cards. If doing a puzzle that’s missing pieces bugs you, you might want to count the pieces first.

A group sits around the table in a log cabin playing games

We love games so we always pack a few of our favorites, some of the games we love to pack include:

Staying up late playing games after a long day playing in your own winter wonderland is one of my favorite things about our cabin trips, so it’s worth the bulk for some of these games.

Three kids in the loft of a cabin playing Rummikub by lantern light

We don’t pack light for entertainment. We love playing games and usually take multi-day trips so we bring lots of them. It’s also fun to have some favorite stuffed animals so we don’t skimp on those either.

We always bring lots of coloring books and art materials, usually having colored pencils and glitter pens. The coloring books can get a bit excessive but again the mileage and duration of stay matters here, for shorter hikes and longer stays, it makes sense to bring options. For a one-night trip with a multi-mile hike, we wouldn’t bring so much.

Two children sit in a cabin with art supplies and coloring books spread out on a large table

Sleeping Comfort

Sleeping Bags

Even though you’re inside you’ll still want warm down bags, it is still a winter trip! Bring more warmth than you think we need because some cabins take quite a while to warm up, and you never know when you might have an issue with the stove (or in transit to the cabin) and need a warm bag.

Find our favorite options for kids’ sleeping bags here. For younger kids, Morrison Sleeping Bags are a great option.

Five kids in the loft of a cabin in sleeping bags

In addition to sleeping bags the kids love to pack their Selk’bags. They wear them around the cabin and often sleep in them too, but I’d never want to bring just those. Down booties are great to have in the cabin too.

Sleeping Pads

Some cabins and huts have sleep mats inside, but it’s less common and we always bring our own. Some of our favorite options can be found in our Sleeping Pad Roundup Post.

We backpack with two double mattresses between me and the three kids, but we often don’t bring a double mattress to a cabin unless we’re sure we’re either 1) sleeping in the loft; or 2) the bunks are big enough to accommodate them (many are not!).

I often want to sleep at ground level because sometimes the loft gets hotter than I’d like, so it’s good to have the option of single pad.

Sleeping for Babies

When my kids were young I’d use some portable cribs to help contain them. I really liked the Guava Lotus Travel Crib and the KidCo PeaPod.

Black and white photo of a baby staring into a lantern in a yurt

Sleeping Extras

Having a cozy sleeping area with their favorite things helps make the trip special. Say yes to stuffed animals and books.

A child lays in his bed with books and stuffed animals on the top bunk

The lip on many bunks in cabins are not very tall, once they’re on their mattress they could roll right off. My older two can sleep fine on top bunks but if my 6 year old wants to be up there she has to have a big kid “buffer” on the outside.

Two children sleep on a top bunk of a bed in a cabin.
We use rechargeable tea lights on trips and each child gets their own as a nightlight.

Clothing

We pack 2-3 sets of merino baselayers (we usually bring laters from Reima, Sloomb, and Wildhaven Wools (check out some other TMM favorites here), and try to dedicate one pair just for sleeping in (with varying levels of success…) just like we do when we backpack.

Bring enough underwear for every day plus an extra – kids’ underwear is so small there’s no excuse to run out, and outhouses are cold in the middle of the night so even if your kids never have accidents at home it’s more likely here! My kids all seem to love outhouses, which isn’t exactly good news for me because it means we’re in there allllll the time, but it does mean we don’t need all the extra undies that I’ll still pack every single time.

Also pack one pair of extra socks and a down jacket (mentioned elsewhere but you’re going to need that for bathroom trips or quicker outings doing cabin chores when you don’t want to get them all geared up).

Three kids in matching woolies and slippers sit against a cabin wall.

Food and Water

Water

If water sources will be frozen over, you’ll need a plan for water. Also keep in mind many water filters freeze very easily so plan to filter water inside the cabin rather than at a water source (if available).

You can melt snow for water but it takes a long time and a lot of snow. To save fuel you can put a pot on the wood stove in some cabins, or bring a large bag and let it melt gradually in the warmth of a cabin. We try to avoid this if possible, except for “extra” water as an activity/science experiment. 

If you’re carrying water via sled or kicksled, you’ll be able to bring a large vessel if the trip is less than a mile or so and doesn’t have too many steep sections. We use a 5 gallon Igloo jug and it lasts us for about 3-4 days. We attach the cooler to my kicksled (the lid is secure but it has no latch, if it tipped the water could easily spill out).  

If the trip is longer we’ll bring a second smaller jug and/or a bunch of Nalgenes or insulated bottles.

A large orange igloo water jug is shown next to smaller water bottles

Food

We bring a variety of food on our cabin trips, and definitely pack heavier for the flat trips we take with sleds and kicksleds. I do not bring a large camp stove, the only stove I own is my beloved MSR pocket rocket and between that for boiling water and the wood stove for heating some things up on, we get the job done. If you love cooking nice meals on a stove definitely add that to your packing list (and invite me along!).

Camp stove setup pictured showing making hot chocolate.

I always have some freeze dried backpacking meals to bring with us (see our favorites here!), and sometimes we have those on their own but we’ll usually use them in combination with some tortillas and cheese, or over nachos that we make on the stove. The meals with beans and veggies are great for this. Sometimes we bring a tub of whole milk plain yogurt because the kids love it for snack and they like it just as much as sour cream on nachos.

For breakfast we are super simple and just do oatmeal every single day. We get the Quaker Oatmeal packets, but top it off with some regular oats to reduce the sweetness a bit. The kids have never gotten tired of this even though we’ve done it a hundred times, and I love it because the cleanup is super easy and all I have to do is boil water.

Sometimes we’ll bring out some smoked salmon lox, bagels, and cream cheese. This makes a great “brunch” or dinner.

Kids sitting around a table eating lox on bagels with cream cheese, party hats are behind them and mountains are out the window.

Lunches we often do PB sandwiches or a basic charcuterie spread. Grapes, apples, and oranges are great fruits to bring; and carrots and peppers are great veggies. We sometimes bring bananas because we love them in PB sandwiches, but we’ve never done it without massively bruising them.

Three children in PJs sitting in a cabin eating charcuterie items

Starting nachos and a quesadilla on the wood stove. Aluminum foil works well for this, but we use it sparingly and will reuse it throughout the trip or to save leftovers.

Starting nachos and a quesadilla on a wood stove

Some other favorite cabin food items we bring: 

  • Lots of hot chocolate 
  • Herbal teas (cinnamon apple chamomile, Meyer lemon, raspberry zinger)
  • Yogurt pouches (something we buy only for cabin trips so they’re really special and a nice snack)
  • Some special snacks, we usually do Oreos and cheese and caramel popcorn

Here’s food for a week in a cabin with one adult and three children. This cabin was on the road system so it was just a short walk from the parking lot and we just threw a bunch of stuff in. We had a small cooler and an action packer that we strapped to the kicksled.

Camp food laid out on a table

We always keep food pretty simple, but you can get some great ideas for creative camping meal prep ideas from these great TMM posts:

Other Things to Bring

  • Don’t forget your combo to get into your cabin! I always screenshot the email because I usually don’t have service where I’m at. Some cabins will have key access, some don’t have locks, but many have a combination code that is emailed to you once you’ve reserved it.
  • A lightweight clothesline can be helpful but most cabins where we are have lots of hooks to hang and dry gear. My backpacking clothesline is so tiny I always throw it in if I’m not sure what the cabin will look like inside.
  • Toilet kit (TP, hand sanitizer, dedicated lantern with your toilet kit stored by door)
  • Puffy jackets just for bathroom trips – especially important if you’re just bringing one piece snowsuits for the kids like we do, and it’s also a good extra layer to put on while you’re getting the cabin heated up.

Packing Up

A few hours before it’s time to go, start packing everything up. After packing, make sure you tidy up. This always includes wiping down the table and counters, and sweeping all surfaces. There’s always a broom or two and the kids love making the cabin clean for the next user so involve them in this early.

The cabins usually have shovels too so we try to leave the path to the cabin and outhouse better than we found it. Make sure to lock the door if instructed, and check out before checkout time which is usually 12:00. I like to savor my morning and be ready to go but never leave before exactly 12:00… because cabin trips are just the best :).

So What Are you Waiting For…?

When the nights start getting darker and colder don’t let that quiet your adventurous spirit! Take extended trips by utilizing the cabin system in your area and treat your family to a new way to embrace winter.

 A mom and her three kids outside a cabin with lots of gear and big smiles.

Winter Backcountry Cabins with Kids 

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Author

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  • Kristin grew up in Western Massachusetts but moved north to Alaska in 2008 in search of more snow and bigger mountains. She homeschools her three children and tries to spend as much time as possible learning outside. Kristin loves hiking, camping, puddle stomping, laughing, igloo building, reading, science, baking, photography, and watching the sun go down from on top of a mountain; and is passionate about sharing her enthusiasm for the natural world and her knowledge of the gear that can get you out there in every kind of weather. She works part-time from home as an Environmental Scientist and technical editor.

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