One of the constant refrains I hear from parents looking to take their kids backpacking for the first time is that they don't know what they need to take. Surprisingly, it's not that much. You can get buy with a pretty minimal set of gear, but of course there are upgrades and enhancements that will make it more fun.
This is my list, divided into four categories. For each, I'll tell you what we use and whether it's necessary or a luxury. If you have any questions join the discussion on the Moosefish Facebook page and send me a message.
If you need tips on how to have a successful backpacking trip with your littles be sure to read my most popular post of all time, Raising Backpackers. For the last 10 years I've been documenting the lessons I've learned and shared them in that post.
As with any big list of gear nowadays, these are affiliate links. If you buy through moosefish.com I get a little cut at no cost to you. It's one of the ways we keep the site going. Some gear has also been provided to me for review or through sponsor relationships. Rest assured, though, if it's on this list it's gear we actually use because it gets the job done.
This first category is full of gear we use while hiking on the trail.
Backpacks. Of course you need backpacks. Kind of a silly thing to include, right? We use Deuter packs because they carry big loads, they're durable, and as a bonus we're Deuter Family Ambassadors. I use the ACT Lite 65 + 10 Pack. It's big enough that I can almost carry everything we need for two nights on the trail and it handles like a charm. The kids use a variety of packs. Clara has an ACT Lite 35 + 10 SL, Lilly carries an ACT Lite 45 + 10 SL, and Henry uses a Fox 40. The girls are both in adult packs, while Henry is still using a kid's pack. Most important about all three of these packs is they have VariQuick shoulder adjustments so the pack will grow with your kids. Remember that you don't need high-end backpacks to carry gear, but a bag that carries well will make your hike better. (Make sure your pack either comes with a pack cover for rain or buy one for each pack. Alternatively, carry some big black garbage bags.)
Boots and shoes. Maybe this should have been first, but I've hiked in sandals so maybe not. In summer we wear Altra zero-drop or Salomon trail runners because they're light. Other times of year I tend toward boots for a little more ankle support in slippery conditions. I've worn the same model of boots for at least the last 10 years: Mammut Trovat Advanced GTX. It started its life as an REI branded boot made by Raichle, then it was rebranded Raichle, Mammut bought Raichle, and finally the name has changed, but it's the same, solid, wide toe-box, waterproof boot. The kids will wear whatever strikes them. Sometimes it's Bogs Snow Boots and if it's really cold they'll go for Kamiks. What's important is making sure their footwear fits and is comfortable before you head out. Bad shoes will ruin a trip. (And don't forget a pair of cheap flip flops for getting in the water or padding around camp.)
Hydration. Water is life. The easiest way to keep them hydrated is to make the water so easily available it's right in their face. We use standard hydration systems from Source. They're resistant to the nasties that can grow in water and have big openings for filling. I also use a Sawyer Mini Filter that fits in line with my bladder so I can fill my reservoir with dirty water and drink through the filter. In camp, we use a Platypus 2L GravityWorks filter. We just fill it and let gravity do the work. While you do need a way to filter your water, you can replace the hydration systems with simple water bottles whether it's a Nalgene or an old Gatorade bottle.
Trekking poles. I suppose this is an optional item, but I find poles to be very helpful and the kids love poking things with them. There are three main types of trekking poles. Foldable "Z" poles, collapsable poles with flick locks, or collapsibles with twist locks. I'm a big fan of carbon poles with flick locks. They're light and don't slip, but they're more expensive than twist locks. You can also go old-school and find a stick on the trail, but you'll eventually decide you want good poles.
Navigation. This means at least a compass and a map. Don't tell anyone, but you can print custom maps from caltopo.com for free. Or if you have money to burn you can buy maps, but I won't even give you a link for that. If you're going deep in the backcountry with your kids I can't recommend a satellite communicator enough. We've had a Garmin inReach SE+ (originally made by DeLorme) since I was hours overdue with the girls in Olympic National Park. With the inReach we can be tracked no matter where we go and I can receive and send text messages. The peace of mind for those at home is worth it.
Camera. I love to capture my memories and share them. A camera is a must have for me. What you carry depends on what you want to do with it. I've always got my iPhone in a LifeProof case for quick snaps. On more epic trips I carry a Nikon DSLR with an 18-300mm lens. I'll soon be adding a GoPro HERO5 Session camera for fishing tips and really bad conditions. No matter what cameras you have, remember the best one is the one you have with you. (You can also add tripods and filters and... go nuts.)
Gaiters. These are totally optional and discouraged if you like getting rocks and snow in your boots. I don't enjoy that kind of pain so I wear them without fail. In lousy conditions or loose snow I wear Outdoor Research Crocodiles, but in good conditions I wear their Flex-tex II gaiters. Clara's partial to a pair of REI gaiters she got for her birthday, but the other kids use my old gaiters when they feel the need.
Bear spray. I'll grant you that it's a little scary to think about needing to carry bear spray, but it's always better to be prepared. In the last 20 years I've only run into bears three times that made me glad I had bear spray, but I've never used it. I always carry the bear spray in a holster on my hip so it's ready if needed.
So now that you've hiked all day it's time to set up camp. Here's what we use when we're looking to turn the wilderness into a home.
Tent. Duh. Kind of necessary, right? Actually it's not such a given anymore. You could have a hammock or a bivy sack or a tarp, but yes, the tent is the traditional shelter and the one I recommend when starting with little kids if only because it turns a bare patch of ground into a little house. We use a Marmot Amp 2 tent. It's not the lightest or suited for a massive storm in the alpine, but it's good enough for a couple of nights on the trail in summer. Until it just wore out after 10 years of use we slept in an REI Half Dome. The key features I'd look for in any tent are a mesh top so you can see the sky when it's nice and a fly that goes all the way to the ground when it's not. Multiple doors are nice and integrated lights are cool, but start basic. Also consider a three person tent even if there are just two of you. A little extra space can be really nice.
Sleeping bags. We use down sleeping bags. There used to be a stronger case for a synthetic bag, but now that there are bags with hydrophobic down a little moisture isn't that big a deal. (Down loses its insulating properties when it gets wet.) We are still using REI 20F bags we got 20 years ago and they're perfectly fine for most seasons. One of my kids hates being confined in a mummy bag so she uses a Katabatic down quilt that works well in moderate and cold temperatures. When it's really cold (and I'm usually out without the kids) I have a Teton Sports Altos 0F bag that keeps me comfy in all but the worst weather.
Sleeping pads. Don't be fooled into thinking you just need a sleeping bag. You need a sleeping system. The other important component of the system, some might argue the most important component, is the sleeping pad. Any insulation you have below you in your bag is crushed and doesn't work well. Without a good pad the ground will suck the heat right out of you. We have three different kinds of pads. The most basic (and cheapest) pad is a Therm-A-Rest Z-Lite closed cell accordion-style pad. It's not super comfy, but it'll do either as a base pad or an inexpensive option. The kids use Therm-A-Rest ProLite pads. They claim to be "self inflating," but that's hooey. You'll still need to blow them up. I have a Teton Sports Altos insulated pad. I've found it's more comfortable than the others and keeps me a lot warmer even when I'm sleeping on snow.
Lighting. Nothing makes a tent in the pitch black more homey than a light. You can go with a set of battery powered twinkle lights, a fancier string from Luminoodle, or, my favorite, a LuminAID PackLite Max. It charges from the sun or USB, provides a ton of soft light, and can be used to charge your phone. Best of all: LuminAID lanterns are included in disaster kits for places like Haiti and Syria and your purchase helps support that work.
Personal lighting. Even if you don't do tent lighting you'll need personal lights. Since I hike at night more than I should I have a very powerful, but heavier Black Diamond Icon headlamp. 500 lumens on AA batteries turns night into day. The kids have Black Diamond Spot headlamps and I carry a backup light (because being in the dark is no fun) in the form of a Black Diamond Iota. Yes, we like Black Diamond.
Entertainment. Don't pretend your kids are going to be into communing with nature and deep thoughts. Make sure you have some entertainment options with you. We have a rule that prohibits screen use in National Parks and the Wilderness so we don't bring an iPad or the like, but a deck of cards and books are critical. (And yes, a book on a digital device is ok.) If you bring cards make sure you know a bunch of games or you'll wind up playing nothing but War.
Everything else. In addition to all these items there's the extras. Stuff like a mosquito net in case the bugs are bad or just a head net to keep the bugs off your face. Make sure you have enough cordage to fix whatever breaks and to hang your food. A packable towel is always a winner, too, especially if you are going to be near water. And don't forget bags for your garbage and what is left by whoever came before you.
FOOD! Food can make an adventure more fun and feel like home. NEVER SKIMP ON FOOD! It doesn't have to be fancy (and with kids that goes double), but you need to have enough and it needs to be tasty.
Cooking. Cold food is boring. Fires are not always allowed and I usually burn hot dogs. We cook exclusively by boiling water and pouring it into bags. There are lots of stoves, we use a Jetboil. It's fast and works in all conditions, especially with four-season fuel. If you've got tons of people, consider a bigger pot like the Group Cooking Pot.
SPORKS! Everybody loves a spork. It's a spoon. It's a fork. It's almost Spock. Sporks are the way to go when camping because they serve so many purposes. We have Snow Peak titanium sporks, but you can go cheaper with a plastic GSI spork or wiser with a long-handled Sea to Summit aluminum spork perfect for getting to the bottom of a bag.
Bowls and plates. You're camping. Eat out of the bags and use your hands. No bowls or plates. The kids will love it. (If you feel the need for a bowl go simple, there are lots of choices.)
Food security. Perhaps the worst thing that can happen to your food is having it eaten by someone else. Worse: something else. Mice are everywhere and bigger animals will gladly eat your food, too. Worse, they become habituated to human food and nothing good comes of that. We've used both an Ursack bear resistant bag and a BearVault bear can. Both work, but I like the Ursack more because it's not a rigid space so when it's not full it's easy to pack. On the downside, the Ursack is not accepted in all National Parks so you can't use it in places like Olympic National Park or Yosemite.
Meals. Figure out what your kids like and bring that. I've tried being fancy and adventurous, but it's never worked out. The biggest success is when we stick with the tried and true. They love Mountain House Macaroni and Cheese. I know, I know, but if they'll eat it I'll cook it. There are lots of other freeze dried foods available, too. Don't think you need go for expensive freeze dried, though. Bagels and Top Ramen works just as well (you'll need to put the noodles in your stove pot making cleanup a little more onerous) and you can make your own trail food, too. Check out the guides and recipes at trailcooking.com.
Snacks. In real life, snacks are limited and we try to be healthy. Not so on the trail. Pringles are big winners as are energy bars, jerky, and candy. Make sure you bring surprises, too. I've never been so admired by my kids as when I popped Jiffy Pop on the Jetboil.
Coffee. You can get by in the woods even if you're addicted to coffee. (I'm not addicted. I can quit any time I want.) A couple of Starbucks VIA packets and hot cocoa powder will make a passable camp mocha.
This last section is boring. It's personal items and clothing. How exciting can that be? It's necessary, though.
Clothing. You need standard hiking clothes during the day and warm, comfy clothes when you roll into camp. And always bring extras. Kids fall down, wade through creeks, and make other bad choices. We're big fans of WoolX base layers in both warm and cool conditions. For socks, we all wear Injinji toe socks. Perhaps most important is to make sure you pack "comfy cozies" for the ride home. I have yet to have a drive home that doesn't put the kids to sleep so be sure they're snooze-compatible clothing.
Toilet stuff. Unless you're camped where there's a privy you need to be ready to take care of business by yourself. That means having a cheap plastic trowel, toilet paper, and soap. (Remember: Hand sanitizer isn't effective against some of the nastier things in human waste.) If this seems crazy to you, check out How to **** in the woods.
First Aid. Finally, make sure you have a first aid kit. More importantly, stock extra bandages. Sometimes a "fashion aid" is the most effective form of medicine a kid can get.
This list is by no means exhaustive and you should customize it to fit your needs. I didn't list a lot of items from the 10 essentials that you need to carry always. I've been adapting this list over the last 10 years to cover what we need and it gets tweaked for every trip. For example, when we are thru-hiking (moving camp every day for longer trails) I will pare down the weight. On shorter hiking trips where we camp for several nights in one place I'll carry heavier gear for a more comfortable camp.
You can bet this list will keep evolving over time. I'm too much of a gear junkie to be happy with the same stuff for too long.
Do you have something you love that's not on the list? Send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.