Backpacking with kids (not for the faint of/ good for the heart)

Dan and I have sat on mountain tops and imagined the day that our children would be sitting next to us.

It took an email from our boy’s school announcing the closure of the grades for a year for us to look at each other and say…… “what are we waiting for?”

We decided to take a chunk of our saved tuition money and get them some backpacking gear.

We decided to purchase a National Park annual pass.

We took a big swig of wine and decided to change our whole outlook on education, work, success, family and this entire year.

We decided to take our pack of heaviness and unknowns and stick some salami and puffy jackets in the pockets and hit the trails to find some peace with it all.

We decided to start doing all of the things that we have been dreaming of doing… today……. (er…… next week.

So that’s just what we did…. and it was incredible.

….but also exhausting!

Backpacking with kids is no joke. I thought I would write this post to address the questions I have been receiving and help out anyone else that has been sitting on the ‘backpacking with kids fence’.

I certainly don’t consider us experts… but offer up our experience as a learning tool for others.

So pull out your jet-boil, make yourself a cup of Starbucks VIA coffee, and read all about what worked and what didn’t….

The Phillips family first backpacking trip…..

First off…..

Where to go and how to get there:

Dan and I being somewhat experienced backpackers on our own had general of an idea of what we were embarking on…. but with kids we knew it would be a whole different ballgame. I reached out to a couple friends about their experiences backpacking with kids. Where did they go and how was their experience? We coupled that with looking at maps, reading reviews on Alltrails and then factored in our own kids capabilities. Finnegan is only 4 but is a beast-mode of a hiker. Henry and Tate are 6 and are also pretty strong little hikers and all have been excited about this for a long time. They have seen us leave on trips with the promise that as soon as they could carry their own packs…. they could go backpacking with us. Permits are tricky this time of year, we had a place in mind but weren’t able to get a permit there till mid September. Planning ahead and being flexible definitely pays off here. Be sure to consider the elevation gain as well as mileage…. 5 miles can be super doable flat… but if 3 miles of it are straight up… different story, depending on your kids.

Ultimately we picked a hike that gave us some options. We started at the trailhead of the upper Quilcene river in the Olympic National Forest. We made a goal of hiking up the first day to Camp Mystery (5.4 miles) with plans to day hike from there the following day up to Marmot Pass and Buckhorn mountain. This was ambitious, but we knew we had an option of setting up camp at Shelter Rock instead (3 miles in), if need be. Dan printed out all the info and tracked the entire thing on his Garmin watch. This was extremely helpful. We checked in with each other constantly about how far we had come, how far we had left, how the kids felt, how much daylight we had left, how steep the upcoming trails were…..etc. We allowed enough time for it to take all day to hike with plenty of breaks factored in if needed and for two nights camped out. We then made ferry reservations (island life) and got a hotel near the trailhead for the night before- We knew this would excite the boys, allow all of us to get a good nights sleep, and still get to the trailhead early.

Above all we wanted this to be a positive experience so that they would want to do it again!

What to bring?

Dan bought each of our 3 boys new Osprey Youth backpacks. They are easily adjustable and I was so impressed with how comfortable the boys were packing them around, we let them practice around the house, up and down stairs, and around our woods at home to make sure everything fit comfortably.

In the kids packs:

In Mom and Dad’s packs:

Everything else.


What to wear:

The boys started out each wearing a pair of pants (Tate prefers sweats, where Henry and Finn prefer leggings…. whatever you know they will be comfy in), a tee shirt, a long sleeve shirt over, a pair of thin wool hiking socks and hiking boots (another Poshmark used purchase… all their boots were in great condition for under $40 total). Bandannas for pandemic compliance and flare. We packed their jackets in their packs so they could easily put them on to stay warm during snack breaks. Everything else went into a compression sack that I carried in my pack:

I typically like to wear a tee shirt, flannel, leggings, fun socks, bandanna and comfy hiking boots. (I realize this is likely the exact description they use on the set of Portlandia for costume design.) My jackets got packed in the top of my pack, everything else in a compression bag:

  • 1 extra pair of socks
  • 1 pair of long underwear pjs
  • hoodie sweatshirt
  • 1 long sleeve hiking shirt
  • 1 sundress
  • 1 extra tee shirt
  • underoos

I will not attempt to relay the meticulous ways that Dan Phillips adorns himself for a hike, nor the methodical, slightly OCD packing strategy that is involved. This is best left to your own curiosity. However, If you’re interested in knowing more about Dan’s backpacking clothes/researching organizing skills… go ahead and shoot him a message…. I am sure he would love to create a spread sheet and explain it to you in great detail.

What to eat:

This comes down to personal preference and weight but also prioritizing importance… (example: mayyyyyyybe the bladder of wine is important to you. Maybe not. Mayyyyybe in the past you have enjoyed a mountain house chili mac and slept alone in your 1-man tent and didn’t mind what the aftermath was. Mayyyyyyyybe now your wife and children’s nostrils and breathing ability is important. Maybe the chili mac stays behind). The following is what we packed for 2 adults and three kids:

Breakfast6 packets of Peaches n cream oatmeal

6 ziplock baggies of granola

8 packages of Starbucks VIA coffee (its not worth the risk of this running low…..)

6 packages of hot cocoa




  • trail mix
  • 6 granola bars
  • 3 peanut butter cliff bars
  • 3 Paleo bars
  • 1 package of Trapper’s beef jerky (life)
  • 1 large package of m&m’s (we used this just for hiking as a reward)

Packing and re-packing… and packing again:

It’s hard to pinpoint what is the most important component of the puzzle…. but this one is near the top. Having a well thought out pack will make your life so much easier and will make or break how far you get and how happy/comfortable you all are when you get there. (example: having snacks easily accessible at the top of your food bag vs. stuffed in the bottom). We like to lay out everything out the night before in the living room and sort everything into piles. We had enough waterproof compression sacks for 2 food bags, 3 clothes bags (Mom, Dad, kids), 5 sleeping bags. Then it’s just a game of tetris. We packed a separate bag with one pair of pjs and the outfit that everyone was going to hike in for the hotel the night before. I also packed an extra outfit to keep in the van for us to change into when we got down the mountain all sweaty for the drive home. *Something to keep in mind…. Anything you not packing up, will be in your vehicle at the trailhead for how ever many days you are gone. I leave my purse/anything valuable at home and just take some cash/id/credit card on me for the hike.

The scene of the pack….

The trip:

Ok, so now we are packed, we know where we are going and we feel pretty prepared, the boys are pumped, the parents feel strong and capable and sufficiently caffeinated…… all that is left is to get in the van and get the heck outta here!

Toot – a – loo!

Night one: We made it over to Port Angeles with plenty of time to check in, go get a delicious steak dinner at a REAL LIFE RESTAURANT (the boys hadn’t been out to eat since this pandemic started) and then snuggled up in our beds for a good nights sleep.

mmm… steak and sunsets…..
Night night, Sugars!

Day one:

We hit the road and got to the trailhead by 8:30. Everyone took one last visit to the luxurious porta potty and it was packs on!

Upper Quilcene River Trailhead

We gradually climbed along the Quilcene river, testing out trekking pole heights and adjusting packs and getting everything jusssst right. The boys took turns leading and we talked with them about trail etiquette and responsibilities of trail leaders. They joyfully called out trail conditions to their ‘team’ behind them and this made the hike entertaining and light. “Wuff tewain ahead!” “Hole in the trail! Watch your step!” “Flattens out here…. Let’s gain some ground!!!!”

We made a fun rule that whenever someone yells out “Ahoy!!!!” …. then we all yell out “Ahoy!” back. This came in handy when parts of the ‘team’ got a bit ahead or behind the others. We settled into a comfort level of having one of us adults right behind the leader, and one of us adults pulling up the tail behind everyone. The boys were used to hiking this far, but with the packs and incline…. they were definitely feeling the burn. Dan and I checked in a few times about possibly camping at Shelter Rock and hiking up to Camp Mystery the following day depending on how everyone felt after our lunch/rest.

After a few miles and a few water/snack breaks, we reached Shelter Rock.

* every break we would pull out their hats and down jackets, you get sweaty while hiking and will chill fast as soon as you stop.

The boys were tired and we set up a little mini lunch camp on the river. It felt amazing to have come this far already and take those heavy packs off! The boys played by the river and we all munched on bagels and trail mix and Dan and I pulled out their mats and sleeping bags. This was not something we had planned on but if we were going to press on, we could tell they needed to rest. All three boys snuggled up in their bags post lunch I told them a story and sang them a song. By the end of the song two out of three were snoring! I can’t say that I blame them, the Phillips have a knack for taking advantage of perfect napping spots. Henry made boats out of sticks and leaves and Dan and I planned out the rest of the day. I was another 2.8 miles to Camp Mystery (ended up being over 3), and the description said ‘an aggressive ascent’. We planned on letting the boys sleep for an hour and a half and then we were going to go for it. We agreed to take as many breaks as we needed and worst case scenario, we just come back to camp here. We had plenty of time before dark to go as slow as we needed. We spent the next hour pumping ourselves up and repacking our packs. We put Henry and Tate’s sleeping bags in our packs so their’s would be lighter and I took Finnegan’s pack onto my my own so he could navigate the rocky incline without added weight.

Up we go!

This was hard. I am not going to lie. Physically and mentally demanding. About halfway up I remembered an episode of Reading Rainbow that they boys love. Levar talks about pushing through physical walls. When you think you can’t go on, and you push through to do one more rep… one more step… one more mile. We talked about it and it seemed to motivate the boys. They pushed through wall after wall……… and were soon rewarded. The trees opened up and we found ourselves surrounded by jagged mountain peaks, alpine meadows of wildflowers, a flatter trail. We all gasped at the beauty of it all. The boys had never seen anything like this. We told them over and over how proud we were and to look at what they did!!! This was the reward for working so hard. You get to experience this. You get to see things that most people don’t get to see, breathe air that most people don’t get to breathe. Your body is so so capable of doing amazing things if your mind believes it can do it. We sat on a big rock and took it all in. We drank a bunch of water and ate a granola bar and prepared for the final climb into camp.

*The trail up to mystery camp I would only recommend for kids that are extremely good hikers. It was challenging and slippery and at times and we had to really take our time to ensure everyone was safe. I would not have attempted it with the kids without Dan, who I consider a very experienced backpacker.

We made it!

Nap time? haha…………..

Time to set up camp. The boys took their heART journals out of their packs and scattered around the camp to sketch and collect plants…. I took 1 minute to allow my heart to melt into a puddle and then joined Dan for the camp chores…………..Pump water. Cocoa in cups. Get the tent up. Mats unrolled. Sleeping bags in. Bug spray on. Cook dinner. Hang bear wire. Get the boys dressed in long underwear pjs and wool socks. Hiking boots off. Hiking boots on. Hiking boots off. Hiking boots on. *we will definitely bring them crocs next time. Dig holes for pooing…. times 3. Set up chairs. Tuck kids in. Read book. Sing songs. Zip up tent……………..

Sit down and pinch oursleves.

Are we really here? With our kids? We laid out our pads and looked up at the stars and was lucky enough to see some of the meteor shower before we passed out in our tent with everything we ever wanted between us and feeling overwhelmingly grateful.

Day two:

There is nothing like waking up in a tent. I opened my eyes and saw a little Finnegan poke his head out of his cozy cocoon. The sun was on the face of the mountain and it was heaven on earth. We made the boys cocoa and us coffee an date some breakfast. We had planned on seeing how the boys felt before planning our day and to our surprise/delight… the first thing they said was “Where are we hiking today?!? Are we going to climb a mountain????” Dan and I were thrilled. While the boys played around camp we packed up two of the kid’s packs to carry ourselves for our day hike. Our plan was to hike up to Marmot pass and explore up there and eat lunch and then hike back to camp to relax/play for the rest of the day. We knew there was no water up there, so we pumped plenty before we left.

Off we go!

Without packs we couldn’t believe how fast the kids mobbed up the mountain. Beautiful wildflowers, natural springs, meadows and views all the way to the cascades. We met a few day hikers whose jaws were on the ground to see kids hiking these trails, let alone a 4 year old leading the way! Everyone had bandannas or masks that they would put up upon seeing other hikers very responsible on the trail to give proper distance. The boys would announce “bandannas up!” When they saw someone and this was a big hit. We reached the pass in about an hour and a half and walked around the ridge to Buckhorn Mountain… again…. is this real life? Are we seriously climbing mountains with our three little kids? They were rockstars. We hunkered down in one of the meadows and the boys played ‘Revolutionary war’ and ‘duck hunting’ with the trekking poles while Dan and I made lunch. *something worth mentioning and definitely one of the biggest differences from backpacking with adults…. the poo situation. Our kids are comfortable doing all business in the woods but it is something you will want to practice before hand if yours are not. Teaching them the responsible way to to dig down and how far away and not close to water sources etc…. and how to squat so you don’t have… problems…. it’s all stuff you have to consider! There was plenty of evidence that even most adults don’t know how to do this to make training little stewards of this beautiful land even more important to us.

After lunch it was time to head back to camp. In hindsight one of the things we wished we would have done is hiked around the pass longer… we got down the mountain so fast and had a lot of time to play at camp. Without a ton of extra clothes and the general temptation for our children to get soaking wet/covered in mud at any chance they get… well… we just didn’t think that part through entirely.

Going down was a great opportunity to teach them the trail right of way rule. We (going down) will pull off the trail and give the ones coming up plenty of space to pass. They took their job seriously and greeted everyone with a cheery hello and “enjoy your hike!”

When at the bottom we had the rest of the day to play around, The boys had found a piece of rope and made ‘fishing poles’ and headed for the creek. We met a few other backpackers and chit chatted. We made note of how much busier Friday was than Thursday and determined that all future trips with kids would be planned for mid week. Mostly out of respect for other people, who even when they were super kind and made friends with the boys and praised us as parents, I knew they didn’t hike all day to the middle of the mountains to hear small children cackling in the creek (because I feel the same!).

After dinner it was early to bed for the kids and everyone was snoozing away before dark. I set aside clothes to hike out in and packed everything else. Dan and I enjoyed a romantic walk out to the bear wire and came back to a sky full of stars. We made plans for a swift pack and departure in the morning, pumped water and loosely talked about strategies to safely get them all back down the mountain. We snuggled on in and all had the best sleep that we have had in 5 months.

The hike out:

None of us wanted to leave. We woke up so relaxed and rested and happy. Dan made cocoa while I stuffed sleeping bags into compression sacks and got the boys changed and ready for their hike. Then he took down the tent while I made breakfast. Teamwork, I tell ya… it makes things so much easier. As we were getting packs on, several other backpackers that had been scattered around, camping in the woods came over to tell us how much they enjoyed watching our family. A woman who had kids told us we had given her hope that she might get to take her kids with her someday. Another mom asked where she could get a couple heART journals (does this mean the whole trip is a write off? 😉 A man from Finland admired how they were writing their names in the dirt with their trekking poles and remarked how much it reminded him of the way kids learn in his country “more nature… less of these schools with walls. They like to learn this way”. Amen, brother. These people without knowing it gave me the confidence I needed. Not for hiking down a mountain with 3 little kids… I knew we could do that. But the confidence to get back in our van and drive back into this beautiful broken world.

The first hour was the hardest. Slippery footing and steep, rooty trails. The boys and I had made up some little rhymes the day before and they happily sang them to me all the way down the side of a cliff while I was sweating bullets… “Little rocks mean little steps!” “Trust your boots when there’s rock and roots!” “pitter patter going down the ladder!” “Flat trail-smooth sail!”

We found a good pace and flew. Dan and Tate went ahead and I hiked out with Henry and Finn. We had planned to stop at Shelter Rock for lunch but the boys were doing so good that we just kept going. Water and snack breaks every 30 mins or so and near the end they were so tired. When we got near the bottom and saw that lovely scene of cars peeking through the trees…..Henry, Finn and I yelled out one last “Ahoy!”….. Tate and Dan “Ahoyed” us back. All hands in….. “one, two, three…..PHILLIPS FAMILY!!!!!”

We did it.

One Comment

  1. Andrea Neault

    Oh my gosh, Rachel. I am so proud of how your life has gone. If you need any support at all in the teaching piece of this, let me know. As someone who has taken kids on backpacking trips as a job, I know how challenging this can be, and you did great.

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