Lightweight Backpacking Gear for Kids
Jay Ham, BackpackingLight.com
I have backpacked with my two daughters for 11 years, taking them from the diaper years up into their pre-teen years. The early years were definitely the hardest, when they couldn’t carry their own gear. At around age 4, they were able to carry a lightweight pack containing a sleeping bag and foam pad (kept around 4 pounds). Ivy (11 years old) and Elly (9 years old) are currently carrying around 7 pounds of gear. The gear selection presented in this article focuses on gear suited for ages 6 to 13 or so, but the rationale behind our gear selection might apply to other ages as well.
I have a simple recipe for making our trips in the backcountry fun. First, throw out all notions of mileage. Kids don’t care how far you go, unless it’s too far, and “too far” is different for every trip. If you can sell them on the end point (a water source or great bug catching area perhaps), you might get a few more miles out of them, but the goal has to be reachable and rewarding once you arrive, and a “great view” doesn’t make the cut for most kids.
Second, bring a tent-like structure. By tent-like, I mean a shelter with low sides that go nearly to the ground creating an enclosed feeling. We have done many tarp trips, but kids really like being in a “tent.” With my girls, it doesn’t have anything to do with security. I think it may be a tent’s resemblance to a playhouse, something tarps can’t compete with.
Kids like to be seen on the trail. They like to hike where they will see and be seen by other hikers. I can’t count the number of times someone on the trail has commented on what “great little hikers” they are. As my girls gleam with pride and start to pick up their dragging pace, I know I just got another half-mile or more from our friendly passer bys.
Finally, keep their packs light. There are medical reasons for keeping a child’s pack light. A heavy pack can cause serious future back problems for your child’s developing spine. Most doctors and physical therapists recommend a child carry no more than 10% to 15% of their body weight in a backpack. Look at it another way, I weight 165 pounds and prefer to carry a max weight of 20 pounds (1st day weight) when lightweight backpacking. Keeping the weight relative, this would be equivalent to my 58 pound daughter carrying 7 pounds (20/165*58=7) or around 12 percent of their body weight.
In truth, I tend to carry something closer to 30 pounds when backpacking with my girls, thanks to the larger shelter and extra food. I know if I overload their packs, I’ll end up strapping their packs to mine before the end of the trip. I carry more weight than I like and they carry their 6 to 7 pound loads without complaint, usually. This article will help you get their packs down to an appropriate weight, and suggests some excellent gear options.
When hiking with my girls, I only change a few of the items I normally carry. These include my cooking gear, shelter, and pack. All of my other gear remains the same. I exchange my solo cook set for a larger pot, but retain the alcohol stove. I also carry a couple of extra Platypus water bladders, empty unless we’re dry camping.
I swap out my ultralight spinnaker tarp for a 4-person pyramid shelter. Pyramid shelters have an enormous square foot per ounce ratio, especially when using trekking poles or found materials for the supporting center pole. For this article we reviewed Black Diamond’s Mega Light and Mega Bug shelter. Purchasing the combination (they’re sold separately) you can decide whether or not to bring along the bug protection. We usually leave the bug liner behind and carry a thin plastic drop cloth instead. This is a 4-person shelter with a trail weight of 1 pound 13.4 ounces (pyramid fly, trekking pole adapter, and titanium skewer stakes). I use my MSR Overland Carbon trekking poles with Black Diamond’s trekking pole adapter to support the shelter, saving weight by not needing extra poles.
The extra weight carried when backpacking with the girls usually convinces me to carry my “expedition” pack, a 2002 Osprey Aether 60 (3.4 pounds). Your backpack selection is a personal choice. I would recommend a pack with a volume of 3,400 cubic inches or more and enough durability and design to carry 30 to 40 pounds comfortably.
What the Girls Carry
If you drive on over to an outdoor store, you’ll find kid packs weighing between 2-1/2 and 5 pounds. These are adorned with pockets and are really downsized duplicates of the heavyweight packs many of us used to carry. Even at 2-1/2 pounds, these kid packs are roughly 40 percent of my girls’ target-carry weight of 7 pounds. When shopping for a pack, we looked instead at adult-sized, sil-nylon travel and summit packs, with a volume around 1000 to 1200 cubic inches.
We tested two packs suitable for lightweight backpacking with kids. Both are 1200 cubic inches and weigh less than 12 ounces. Patagonia’s Lightweight Travel Pack weighs 11.2 ounces and was a pretty good fit for Ivy (11 years old, 72 pounds) but was too tall for Elly (8 years old, 58 pounds). This pack has a top pocket, internal hydration pocket, and two side-panel water bottle pockets. The shoulder strap width is narrow enough for smaller bodies, but the hip belt rides too low (or rather the torso length is a bit long), and provides minimal assistance to load support. While Elly was testing this pack we left the strap dangling and kept the load light.
A much better fit was MontBell’s Versalite 20, an 11.5 ounce sil-nylon summit pack. This pack is only slightly too long for my youngest, and by twisting the hip belt once around the lower shoulder strap, the pack was adjusted to a near perfect fit. The Versalite 20 has a hood pocket, wrap around front/side-panel pocket, and internal hydration pocket. It became the favorite pack for both of my daughters.
Although companies like The North Face, REI, and SlumberJack make mummy shaped bags that are sized for children, these synthetic fills are generally heavier and bulkier than high-end adult-sized down bags. Our current favorite is MontBell’s Lightweight Alpine Down Hugger #3 bags. These 22.6 ounce bags are rated to 32°F and employ elastic along the inner baffle seams to keep the fit trim. The other great feature, directly suited to children, is the draw corded foot section. The last baffle is draw corded to allow adults to cinch and seal their feet in the bottom of the bag. In addition, the bottom baffled section can be pushed up into the bag, and the draw cord cinched to shorten the bag. The combination of this bag, and the clothing worn to bed (including insulated jackets in some situations) has effectively kept my girls warm at temperatures around the freezing point.
I developed their clothing system to be lightweight and versatile; interchanging to adapt to changing field conditions. To keep cost down, and because they jump clothing sizes too frequently, we integrate some street clothes into our system. They usually wear a cotton t-shirt, cotton shorts, and their school sneakers. This is their only clothing layer that fits. It makes for better photographs and they feel more comfortable being seen on the trail in clothing that is the right size.
We carry a simple emergency rain poncho (2.5 ounces) for wet weather. We generally don’t hike in the rain. The ponchos are carried in case we are caught by a storm on the trail. We’ll use the ponchos to get us to a reasonable shelter location, and set up the pyramid tent until the storm passes. Ponchos are great for this purpose as they cover both the child and their gear. The emergency ponchos are sized to fit adults, providing very good coverage for children down to their ankles.
I like them to carry a few accessories in their packs. These items could easily be carried in my pack. These are of minimal weight and size. However, keeping these items “stored” in their backpacks greatly streamlines packing for trips with or without the girls.
For mealtimes, Ivy and Elly carry a Light My Fire Spork (0.35 ounces) and Gladwear bowl-size container without lid (0.9 ounce). They also carry a 1-liter platypus bottle (0.9 ounces). Living in the southwest, we frequently dry camp or need additional water on the trail. I carry most or all of our water, but when the need arises, the girls will carry up to a liter each. We then drink from their water bottles starting with Elly’s and then Ivy’s, to lighten their load as soon as practical.
They like to have a small knife (Swiss Army Classic, 0.7 ounces) in camp, so I keep a small Swiss Army Classic in each of their packs on a lanyard with a Photon flashlight (0.22 ounces) and emergency whistle (0.3 ounces). The Spectra lanyard is sized to fit around their neck. In camp they will wear their “knives” at all times, which gives me peace of mind knowing they will also wear their emergency whistle and flashlight at all times without being asked.
Finally, they carry a folding toothbrush to keep mom happy (0.5 ounce). Toothpaste is a standard item in my pack, so they don’t carry their own.
Their packs usually weigh between 5 and 7 pounds depending on the amount of water carried and which stuffed animal they choose to bring along. The items described in this article are the items we almost always carry and for 90 percent of our trips are ideally suited. This selection of gear may not work for everyone, but I hope there are enough good ideas here to get your kids into the backcountry.
Reprinted by permission of backpackingLignt.com. This article by Jay Ham first appeared on 07/11/2007 in BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364). . Please visit BackpackingLight.com for additional reviews on the gear mentioned in this article and for many more excellent articles about ultralight backpacking.