A few weeks ago Jason and I took the kids out to the bad lands to go on their first backpacking trip where they got to carry their own gear! While it didn’t last too long for the 3 year old, Max who just turned 6 was able to carry his own stuff for the full 2 miles!
Camping out in the cold with two young kids didn’t sound super fun to us until Max and Revel kept on asking about camping (we camp a lot in the summer months). We are also always looking for something different to do for celebrating Spirit Day, so we decided to head to the higher desert in the area where we released Spirit. It also happened to be a warmer weekend (highs in the 40’s) where we knew we would have sun during the day. We headed out on a warm morning and made sure that we gave ourselves plenty of time to hike the two miles into our chosen campsite (an old dried up river canyon with a cave!). One major lesson we have learned from our bike trips and packrafting trips with the boys is to allow a ton of “non rushed time” where we factor in a ton of stops. And sure enough, on our walk out, we had to stop and climb trees, adjust layers, eat snacks and land “comb” where we look at every possible bug, leaf, rock and stick. Jason and I carried most of the gear, and we didn’t shy away from packing it all in since it was only a 2 mile hike in, and if we needed anything else, it was a nice easy run to the car and back! When we got to the our spot, we had plenty of time to explore and set up our camp. That night we had no agenda really, we ate dinner when they asked for it, made a fire in the cave and went on an amazing night walk where we saw some shooting stars and talked about nocturnal animals.
Backpacking with small humans in general can be a huge job for parents, so adding on the many layers and extra things that cold brings and it can be a bit daunting. However, the minute we started on the trail and heard and saw their excitement for it all, we knew it was all worth it. Of course there were a few melt downs through out the day, but being in nature helped with all of the many feelings that came up and taught us all so much. Below are a list of tips as well as some gear pieces I found to be crucial. I hope they help and inspire you to get out with your family or even on your own! And please, do comment and share any of your pieces of advice and/or let me know if you end up getting out!
Favorite Tips for winter/cold weather camping:
Pre-Scout your site if you can!
For the past few years on our training missions, Jason and I have been saving “points” on a map that are labeled “kid adventures”. These spots are places we come upon and think “the boys would love this!” For the most part they are fairly easy to get to. We also try to make notes about possible trip ideas especially if it is logistically intensive (ie not a day trip). For this specific trip, we had noted this place on a run. A few days before we were going to go Jason ran out there to measure the distance and to make sure it for sure was a great spot! This beta helped answer the boys many questions as we hiked out there.
Let them help as much as they want to with the whole process
As slow and sometimes annoying it is to have Max and Revel help pack, in the end I have found it to be a great learning experience for them. Many questions and conversations come out of it like “How cold will it be?”, “When will it get dark?” and “do I have room for all my toys?” Being able to look up the weather and test out how much they can carry and fit into their backpacks are all good real life learning opportunities. And when they are involved from the very beginning stages, they also have a better idea of what they are in for, which for my boys (especially Max right now!) is very grounding and safe feeling.
Bank a lot more time than you think to get there:
This I feel is pretty obvious, but I still need to remind my husband of this every time we are talking about the timing of everything. So I thought it was worth mentioning! Add on an extra hour (at least) to our original estimate. And if you get to your destination early, that gives you even more time to chill and relax.
Bring on the treats!
I find that letting down the “treat ban” for special outdoor trips helps us all out a ton on the happiness and ease scale. Honestly, we are pretty relaxed when it comes to giving our kids treats, as we give them gummies for climbing and riding their bikes and we also have dessert after most dinners but I always try to pack some extra special treats for big overnight trips. Our favorites are home baked brownies or cookies and smores (if we are able to have a fire). As a kid myself, I loved stopping at Diary Queen on our way out of town to go camping and now whenever I pass one I always think of my family. So having special treat times with my boys is worth it and will hopefully bring good memories back to them someday.
Our favorite gear items:
While I am a firm believer in being simple when it comes to backpacking and camping with your kids, I do find that a few key gear pieces make it a lot more enjoyable for everyone. Below are mine!
Namuk Backpack with waist belt for kids
Surprisingly there are not a ton of good backpacks out there for tiny humans! However, I was able to find one that checks all of my boxes. Namuk makes the Eon pack and it is amazing. It has both a chest and a waist belt, it has a waterproof inner, two holders for water bottles and or treasures and a bungie to secure layers or attach things to it. Having a waist belt for kids when they are hiking makes it so much more comfortable on them! And comfort is huge for keeping them going!
Having a good bright and reliable headlamp that fits their little heads is key to being able to go on night walks and have them walk around camp safely. We love our Fenix HM65R-T ‘s – They cinch down super small, are waterproof, are super bright and are super durable. While they are a bit more expensive than the cheap “kid” headlamps, they work way better and last a lifetime – Use Bendracing to get a good discount on one!
Having a WARM sleeping kid makes all the difference when camping. And in winter it is especially important! My boys love their Big Agnes sleeping bags (we have both the Duster15 and the Little Red 20). They are warm, cozy and the Duster 15 grows with them, so we will have them for a very long time! While they both not so into the integrated pad (they love our old school accordion pads from Nemo) I am sure eventually they will start asking for pad that can fit in the sweet pad sleeve. While these are on the bigger side for sleeping bags (ours our ultra light and tiny!), they keep our boys very, very warm which I think is so worth it!
Wool Layers or Blackstrap Base Layers
I can’t really say enough about wool layers. In fact I think almost everyone of my gear centric posts mention at least one merino wool brand. My favorites as some of you already know are Iksplor and Chasing Windmills. Both brands are family owned, and are super well made. They have lasted through multiple children and are so versatile. When packing for winter camping or cabin trips, they know that all they need for base layers and jammies is one set of wool and that’s it! However, if your kid does NOT like the feeling of wool, check out BlackStrap kids base layers, Max has some that he basically lives in. They are super cozy, comfortable and can be worn day after day.
Bring at least 3 sets of wool socks, one for the hike, one for sleep and one just in case a pair gets wet. Keeping their feet warm is really really important for keeping them happy out there! We love Smartwool socks, they have fun prints and are so warm!
For if/when it gets really cold, keeping their head, neck and face can help warm them up super fast. We use the Blackstrap Balaclavas on a daily basis in the winter months for skiing and forest school. So when we were packing up for our trip, both boys said “well we of course need our balaclavas!” And they were right!
An old school nalgene bottle:
For warming up their sleeping bag at night, or warming up their hands first thing in the morning – the old school nalgene filled with hot/warm water does the trick every time for us. It has saved us so many times and doubles as a water bottle and play bucket.