How to: Backcountry camp with kids

The gear and equipment you need to do an overnight backpack with children

kids hiking
When kids pack in their own gear, you teach them resiliency and self sufficiency

Getting outside and into the wilds with your kid. It’s a compelling concept for so many reasons, from getting them away from digital devices and the pressures of regular life.

But we can think of few things that also teaches young people (and their parents) about self sufficiency and resiliency than an overnight hike and camping trip. One where you must carry everything you’ll need on your own backs, and puts you far enough into nature that help is not a cell-phone call away. In an emergency, these skills are paramount. Better to learn them in happy circumstances, right?

In this case, we’re talking about “primitive” or backcountry camping, which means you can’t reach the place by car, and there will be no bathrooms or pre-set camping site. It’s just you, your gear, and your wits.

We recently took just such a trip with our six-year-old son, Max, and his good friend and fellow six-year-old, Sophie, in upstate New York in the Catskill region. To read about the trip itself, see our companion piece in Cool Hunting.

However, unless you’re the kind of outdoor person who has done this lots, you may find it difficult to figure out where to start. What gear to buy; what you need and what you don’t. After all, you want to be prepared, but you also need to know that gear is heavy, especially when you’re packing it for many miles over tall mountains.

So we’ve done the work for you. Here's the stuff we brought, and the reasons why we did so.


The brand: Gregory

Models: Kids: Icarus 30; Adults: Baltoro 75

The Gregory Icarus 30

We love Gregory bags. We love the way they’re laid out as far as storage and accessibility, and we like their fit. Choose by women’s, men’s, or kid’s bags, and then figure out the right sizing by torso. The brand has lots of options.

These bags also make great go bags: The same backpack you use for a hiking trip makes a great multi-night bug-out bag. The men's Baltoro is our primary bag.

A note on the Icarus 30 kid’s bags: These are basically smaller sized versions of the adult bags. They are the real deal, with a strong internal frame, rugged construction, and ability to adjust fit. And yes, make your kids carry their own stuff. Don’t overburden them — you don’t want them to be miserable, but you do want them to understand what it feels like to carry their own stuff. It’s part of the experience!

Helpful add-ons: Compression Bags

This seems like a minor details, but stuff bags and compression sacks make a major difference when you’re packing up your stuff into an internal frame backpack. They keep all your gear segmented, and allow you to make clothes and sleeping bags into the smallest sizes possible. (This is especially true of bulky sleeping bags.)

We love the compression sacks and dry bags from Sea To Summit. Our sleeping bags were put into Ultra-Sil Compression Dry sacks, which are waterproof but also allow you to push out the excess air. Our clothes went into smaller Ultra-Sil Nano drysacks; and lastly, we used one dry bag for a bear bag (which contains your food) and another for all of our cooking gear.

Camp: The Sea To Summit Escapist ground sheet; yellow dry bags also pictured

The company also makes other handy gear, like the Escapist (Tyvek) groundsheet which we put on the ground and sat on, and fabulous eco-friendly towels and soaps. We’ll admit it: We’re kind of obsessed.


Half of our crew used NEMO tents and sleeping bags; the other half used Big Agnes tent and bags. Spoilers: Everyone slept well and nobody got wet despite rain throughout the night.

The brand: NEMO

Models: Dragonfly tent, Disco 30 adult sleeping bag, Tensor sleeping pad, kid’s Punk sleeping bag, Tensor Mummy sleeping pad.

NEMO is one of those brands that thinks about the details, with an emphasis on smart design. A great addition to the outdoor world.

Tent: Oh, where have you been all of our lives? How many hours could we have saved NOT threading poles through tiny fabric sleeves? The Dragonfly takes about three minutes to put up, including the fly, with a single pole that snaps into place in seconds. It’s roomy enough for two adults, and weighs just under three pounds. There are no frills to speak of, just lightweight but sturdy construction. It is our new go-to tent.

Adult sleeping bag: The Disco is roomy enough to allow you to sleep on your side (which we prefer), but is lightweight at just over two pounds. There’s also nifty “gills” which allow you to vent out air without actually unzipping the bag itself. It packs small.

Kid’s bag: By comparison to the adult sleeping bag, the Punk is opulent. It’s heavier, but our son Max went wild for the “fluffy” character and the fun prints and bright colors. He not only insisted on sleeping on it outdoors, but also in our NYC apartment.

Sleeping pad: The latest Tensor pad doesn’t bounce you around like other air-filled pads, and it’s made to slip inside a harness system built into NEMO’s sleeping bags — so you don’t fall off in the night. An air sack makes it easy to blow up, too, with no huffing and puffing.

The brand: Big Agnes

The construction on the Big Agnes products is top notch. The stuff is rugged and built to last for years, with an emphasis on use that you’ll get years out of. This is the opposite of throwaway gear.

Models: Tiger Wall mtnGLO tent, adult Anvil Horn sleeping bags: kid’s Duster sleeping bag.

The tent: Something always seems to be blinding you inside a tent. Usually it’s your tentmate when they’re trying to get off their pants and their headlamp is shining directly in your eyes. The Tiger Wall cleverly overcomes the lighting issue with a super trick system: It has an LED lighting system sewn into the tent itself. It also comes with a super-efficient hub pole design, has two doors, and weights under three pounds. It can, however, feel a bit snug with two adults.

Adult sleeping bags: Owing to a squared-off bottom, there is lots of foot room in the Big Agnes Anvil Horn bags. The exterior is water repellent and it also uses a technical, water repelling down inside. Simple and comfortable. A great adult bag.

Kid’s sleeping bag: The Duster 15 has a cinching system that allows you to adjust the bag for the size of your kid. You don’t want lots of excess space (and air) inside the bag, so this allows you to use for smaller children and keep using as they get older. Cute, too.



The kid's Targhee boot from KEEN. Waterproof? You bet

The brands: Keen and Vasque.

Models: Kids KEEN Targhee kid’s hiking boots and Newport 2 H2 sandals. Adult’s Vasque Breeze LT GTX.

Obviously what’s on your (and your kid’s) feet is super important. Keen’s Targhee boots are real-deal tough. They’re waterproof, fit snugly enough so as not to allow rocks or debris to get inside, and the treads lend great traction. End of day, though, your kid will want to take them off (and maybe play in the creek), which is where the Newport sandals come in handy. Light enough to pack, they also glow in the dark, which is equal measures fun and nice so you can keep track of them when the sun falls.

Vasque Breeze LT hiking boot

Vasque’s new Breeze LTs really are super light. They feel more like a trail running shoe than a heavy boot, and yet give surprising support around the ankles — a bonus when you’re carrying a heavy pack. They’re waterproof, and the Vibram soles are not only less weight than other models due to a new technology, they are super sticky on slick rocks.

Jackets and underlayers

Guess what? Even in the summer, mountain weather can be tricky. You’ll need a hat and gloves, and an underlayer that wicks moisture but keeps you warm. We put the kids in 100 percent New Zealand merino wool tops and bottoms for sleeping and a chilly morning hike. The Icebreaker kid’s 200 Oasis Long Sleeve Crewe and 200 Oasis leggings are the best at allowing the body to self regulate temperatures, wick away sweat, and they never stink. There’s a very good reason we’re obsessed by merino wool.

Meanwhile, the other virtual guarantee on any multi-day hike? There will be moisture. So you better bring the best (and lightest) rain gear you can find. For this, we went with our fave, North Face.

For the adults, we wore North Face Dryzlle jackets and rain pants (pictured below, far right, on Corey). The rain jacket fits great on the body, cuts both wind and protects from the rain, and is the kind of jacket we’ll find ourselves using for years. This is a great piece of kit.

So too go the kid’s product. North Face Allproof rain jackets (first photo above) are another version of a piece of equipment based off adult products. It is fascinating to watch the water bead up on the surface of the jackets, even in a pounding rain. It comes in a variety of colors, too.

We also wore a range of North Face clothing, from the kid’s Spur Trail Pants, which is comfy and quick drying.


Stuff to cook with

The truly fabulous Jetboil MiniMo

You need a camp stove. These little, magnificent wonders of technology use isobutane, and will produce four cups of boiling water boiled for you in, like, two minutes. We chose the Jetboil MiniMo for a variety of reasons: It’s small and the form factor is ideal for packing. But it’s also cleverly engineered with an insulating cozy and a great ease of use. The ability to tweak the flame height allows for fine simmer control, making the addition of a pot support and the new lightweight Summit Skillet a must if you want to cook eggs in the morning. Critically (for us, anyhow), you can also get a Jetboil coffee press as an accessory. Because life isn’t living without coffee.

Know what you don’t want to use out in the wood? Plastic utensils. We packed along two Gerber Compleat kits. It is an ultra lightweight combination of fork, spoon, and spatula that snaps together and yet still feels good in the hand. There’s even a vegetable peeler included. Genius.

What to eat

Camping with kids? Snacks are key. We ate LOTS of Honey Stinger waffles

For the lightest and easiest options, consider dehydrated food packets like those from Good To-Go. These dehydrated meals are prepared by former NYC chef Jennifer Scism. Many entrees are vegetarian or even vegan, and all you have to do is pour boiling water into the packets and wait for 20 minutes. Though there are some pretty entertaining options, like Korean Bibimbap, for kids you might want more familiar food like oatmeal and heated granola for breakfast (hearty and delicious) and spaghetti marinara at night.

There are few other items more important when you’re with the kids than snacks. One of our main snacking decisions was to bring along Honey Stinger products like their organic waffles. Unlike, say, Snickers, they give a good pop of energy, but use natural products to do so.


Max and Sophie use LifeStraw's Go water botttle with integrated filter

You’ll want to pack water with you, but you won’t want to pack too much. Ideally you’ll refill your water bottles along the way from streams, and also use a local water source near camp (though it should be noted that backcountry camps should be placed at least 150 feet from any stream, river, or trail).

The Platypus water filtration system doing its thing

But you want to avoid getting sick, clearly, which is where filters come in. We’ve reached a point where all different manners of filters exist that will excise more than 99 percent of the bacteria from your water.

We took two different type of filters along: Water bottles with their own internal filters, so we could fill up as we hiked, and a second to filter lots of water, quickly, while at camp.

The former is from Lifestraw, our go-to brand when it comes to filters. We’ve long recommended their products, and we take a Flex on every trip we go on. But for a hiking trip, the Lifestraw Play for kids and larger Go for adults are ideal. The filters are inside hard plastic bottles, so easy to refill at a stream. The only downside is that the kids found the Play somewhat difficult to get water from while sucking it through the filter. The larger Go’s system is actually easier to use.

Second up is the Platypus Gravityworks Water Filter. It is a double bag system, where you put up to 8 liters of dirty water in one bag; it gravity feeds through the filter, and then empties into a clean bag. It takes only minutes to gets LOTS of water, which is good for everything from water to boil and cook with to water to clean eating gear. At camp, it was a godsend.


SOG's super cool Kiku Japanese fixed blade

Okay, we’ll admit it: One of the reasons we love to camp is the excuse to bring along our favorite knife. We unleash it for all kinds of reasons, big and small. We’ve had amazing luck with the SOG Kiku. Japanese steel is known as some of the best material in the world on an edged tool, and SOG uses the good stuff here. The Kiku is balanced and elegant and beautiful to look at, and the knife fits securely into the sophisticated composite sheath without having to use an extra securing loop.

We also love SOG’s smallest multitool, the diminutive PowerPint, which fits into a front pocket, but has all the stuff you need on a backcountry pursuit.


Flashlights are great, but when you’re on the move or trying to get stuff done around camp, a headlamp is better. We’ve long loved the brand Black Diamond and their lamps, and this time around we got one for each of the kids. The Wiz is light, reliable, and it will turn itself off after two hours if your child forgets to snap it off. Even more fun, you can change the color of the light. Our kids went wild for them. Super useful, but also a fun distraction.

When you get into the tent, it’s nice to have a light, and for that Goal Zero Crush lights are excellent. They are wafer thin solar lights that pop into a lantern form. It’s a design worthy of MOMA, and the light is excellent. They’re small and light enough that each tent deserves one.


This is a big one. As we noted in our Cool Hunting (LINK) story, we saw poisonous snakes and experienced a number of falls. And when you’re way out in the woods, help isn’t easy to get quickly, so you really need a good first-aid kit.

Perhaps the Adventure Medical Kit 9 wouldn’t have helped us in case of a snake bite, but it’s a waterproof kit with all of the essentials. It’s wisely laid out, and you can find what you need, quickly. We also tucked QuickClot trauma pack inside, which is a special agent that will help staunch bleeding. We made sure we sprayed ourselves Natrapel, which has Picardin, which wards off both mosquitoes and ticks and isn’t an irritant like deet. Lastly, we brought along After Bite, as my son Max has a tendency to break out in welts after being bitten.

Phone home: Getting a signal on the SPOT X emergency device

If something HAD happened (like getting bit by a copperhead), we’d have gone for the SPOT X two-way satellite device we brought along. It allows you to send texts to loved ones, or summon help with an integrated SOS function. From there, they can hone in on your GPS location. The idea is fabulous, but we did find satellite coverage difficult to get with any trees nearby, and the interface is clunky. I sent several text messages to my wife as a test, and it wasn’t clear if they had gone through or not.

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