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Backpacker Magazine – January 2014

Readers' Choice 2014: Skills: Family Camping

Outfit and outline your next kid-friendly hiking trip.

Chad & Kariin Heap and their kids goof around on their first backpacking trip
Chad & Kariin Heap and their kids goof around on their first backpacking trip

Family Camping

Chad and Kaarin Heap
Ramona, CA


Mom and Dad love backpacking, but don’t know how to execute fun trips for the whole family.

Plan a kid-focused hike and get the right youth gear.

Chad (39) and Kaarin (36) Heap know backpacking. But backpacking with kids? That’s another story. The Heaps wanted to get Sara, 12, Owen, 10, Emmett, 8, and Nathan, 4, out of the car campgrounds they’d mastered and into the backcountry, but didn’t know how to take the leap. Chad’s top concerns: planning, cooking, gear, and—critically—making sure the youngest Heaps had fun. “If they have a bad experience, they’re not going to want to do it anymore,” he said in his contest entry. “We need to know how to plan to make sure they have an enjoyable time.”

The Makeover
We set up the Heaps with a personalized skills tutorial from Gear Editor Kristin Hostetter, herself a seasoned family camper with sons Charlie, 13, and Joey, 11. Then we set up the clan with some key items, including kids’ hydration packs, daypacks, and sleeping bags.

Outfit Kids Right

Packs “Have kids carry a pack so they feel like they’re part of the team,” Hostetter says. Kids ages 4 to 7 can handle daypacks with clothing, snacks, and water; older kids can add their own sleeping bags. Parents: Choose packs large enough (70 to 90 liters) to schlep the kids’ extra gear. 

Footwear Youth athletic shoes are fine for most trips. Make sure boots are fully broken in on dayhikes before the trip. 

Sleeping bags/pads Child-size bags mean less weight for them (or you) to haul; most junior models are budget-friendly synthetics. Kids are usually ready for an adult bag around age 12. And don’t skip sleeping pads: “Kids absolutely need pads to protect them from the cold ground,” Hostetter says. Foam mats or thin, self-inflatable pads should do the trick.


Tents Choose a couple of two- or three-person tents over one huge family shelter; they’re much easier to pack and carry, and older kids appreciate their own space.

Cook for a Crowd

Breakfast Camp pancakes are a treat, especially with berries or chocolate chips.

Lunch Skip the elaborate midday meal for trail bars, PB&J, crackers with cheese and salami, dried fruit, and nuts.

 Make it a hot meal you know your kids will like: macaroni and cheese, pasta, fajitas, or pizza.

“Keep a supply of special snacks they wouldn’t normally get at home,” Hostetter advises. Don’t forget dessert: Hot chocolate, worms and dirt, and s’mores are big kid-pleasers (see for recipes).

Keep Kids Engaged

Involve them Older children can act as navigators by reading the map and monitoring progress. In camp, all ages can pitch in by setting up tents, fetching water, and helping with meals.

Set mini-goals Break down the hike into smaller, attainable goals: “Let’s get to the river” or “We’ll have a snack break at the top of the hill.” 

Play games Scavenger hunts are classic: “Who can find a blue bird? Birch tree?” Or prepare a list pretrip and give kids a camera for a photo hunt. Play word games, such as the ABC Game: “I’m going on a hike and I packed an avocado.” “I’m going on a hike and I packed an avocado and a baseball hat…”

The Trip
The Heaps tested their newfound knowledge on a two-nighter in California’s San Gorgonio Wilderness last August. The oldest three kids easily handled 12-pound daypacks (Nathan proudly hauled a 3-pounder of his own) on the moderate, 1.7-mile hike to camp. Once there, the kids feasted on Pop-Tarts and grilled cheese sandwiches, played card games, kicked back in hammocks, wrote in journals, invented a pinecone bowling game, and searched for scorpions (final tally: five). “My dad taught me how to filter water—it’s really fun,” Owen wrote in his journal. “And I got to do something that I’d never done before: poop in a hole. It’s a lot harder than it sounds.”

Winner Wisdom

Start kids fresh. 
“Nathan (our 4-year-old) can hike 1.7 miles, but I didn’t consider that he’d be tired from the car ride,” Chad says. “I ended up carrying him the last quarter-mile. On Sunday morning he was fresh and did much better with the hike out.”

Skip the PJs
. “Kids don’t care if they sleep in their clothes. The PJs we packed were just extra weight.”

Take loads of pictures
. “The kids loved taking and posing for photos. And when we look back at them now, they remember how much fun it was."

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