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Family Backpacking with Lightweight Gear

If you ask hikers why they got into lightweight or ultra-lightweight backpacking, you’ll get many answers.

My reason was my kids. The high-tech of ultra-light gear and the mess and muss of kids may seem contradictory, but with each new addition to my family I’ve become a stronger proponent of the ultra-light mindset. Now, this doesn’t mean that my ultimate pack weight will necessarily be something I’ll be swinging leisurely on my shoulder, but the weight savings is what makes backpacking with my four little kids possible.

Family backpacking is about making it fun for the kids, which usually means that essentially the weight of caring for everyone falls on the adults. Sure, the kids want to carry their own ultralight kids backpack, but you can’t expect them to carry much. The recommended weight is 1 lb. for each year of age. That means my two oldest should be carrying 5 and 6.5 lbs. For multi-day trips their changes of clothes, rain and insulating layers and food are carried by either my wife or me. They carry only water, headlamps and sleeping bags… barely. No room for a 15 lb. family tent!

Family Backpacking with Ultralight Gear

Take, for example, our recent backpacking trip. We took our kids (6 ½, 5, 2 ½ and 8 months) out to the Ozette Triangle on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State for three days. Beautiful. Gorgeous. Totally recommend it, especially for kids. My wife’s Gossamer Gear Mariposa was filled with 3 sleeping bags, 5 sleeping pads, diapers, 1 2-liter pot, a UL 4-person tent (for six), water and snacks for the day. Oh, and the baby in a front carrier! We almost got all of that in a smaller pack, but I ran out of space in my pack so she had to take the Mariposa. I carried the clothes, mid-and-outer clothing layers, 2nd cook set, mugs and bowls, dirty diapers, flashlights, bear canister (Park backcountry regulations) with backpacking food for 6 people for 3 days, headlamps, etc… and the 2.5 year old on the front when he wasn’t walking… which seemed to be most of the time.

The outdoor wilderness experience is too precious and too wonderful not to share with our kids. High-tech lightweight gear has made it possible for even city parents of little chubby-legged toddlers to get out deep into the unspoiled wild wonderland and share it with them. As John Muir once said, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.”

This post was written by former Trail Ambassador Paul Osborn and Editor. 

8 Responses to Family Backpacking with Lightweight Gear

  1. Stu July 1, 2013 at 11:31 am #

    I remember a friend telling me about family trips he took when he was young, where his dad would have a full expedition sized backpack, as well as gear in either hand. Stories like that always make me wonder why people don’t go searching for an ultralight solution, especially when you’re having to carry more than just your gear.

  2. Damien Tougas July 1, 2013 at 10:42 pm #

    This post sounds a lot like my background. Going light for us was essential to us being able to do this as a family – comfortably. Now everyone is sold on the concept, and are always looking for ways to lighten their loads.

  3. Shel July 4, 2013 at 9:16 am #

    Great timing. I’m leaving this morning with my family of four (5 year old and 1 year old). I’ve taken my 5 year old on a few short backpacking trips where I carry most of the load, but we’ve found that canoeing as a family is the way to go for the next few years. We still go as light as possible, but the space in the canoe means that we have lots of room for diapers and kid stuff. Looking forward to quite lakes and fishing with my son.

    • Kip July 1, 2016 at 10:16 pm #

      Are your kids comfortable in their life jackets? That’s been the hold up for us and our 7 month old.

  4. Eric July 4, 2013 at 10:50 am #

    Great article. I grew up backpacking, my grandparents took me into the High Sierras once I got to be about 5. Our packs would be considered heavy by today’s standards, but there were fewer options then. Regardless of the weight, back in the early 1960’s, me and the dog had our own packs and those experiences instilled the reverence that I have for the outdoors to this day.
    It is easy to forget why pack weights were higher in the past. My grandparents had 2 of the first ten backpacks that Dick Kelty made by hand in his garage. These were the first aluminum external-framed packs and the first made specifically for civilian use. It was the first time that people could start getting gear that was (somewhat) lighter than military gear, Kelty was perhaps the first of the lightweight backpacking cottage industry businesses. Anybody here remember sleeping in “tube tents”? In my day they were the lightweight (and cheap) alternative to a nylon scout tent.

    So get your families out there, and we all know that reducing your carry weight makes it easier.

  5. mossy mom July 4, 2013 at 11:17 am #

    We should go backpacking together… I’m on the Oly pen and go ultralight with a 9 year old.

  6. Ian July 6, 2013 at 3:42 pm #

    Nice post. Can you comment on what type of gear you have for babies (under 1 year old) for backpacking trips (such a sleeping equipement)? Thanks!

  7. Jodi August 22, 2016 at 3:12 pm #

    Inspired! Your wife is a rockstar!

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