Backpacking with Kids

I sometimes set out for a day with my daughter hauling so much stuff that I swear my partner thinks I’m leaving him: great, bulging bags crammed with library books and lunch boxes, swimming gear and sunscreen, hats and spares and wipes and water bottles! He loves to remind me that I take less gear backpacking, and you know what? Some days it’s true.

Thankfully, backpacking with kids brings out the minimalist in all of us, if only for the simple reason that the less we take, the less we sweat. Some travel experts might say that kids need less gear as they grow, but in the four years I’ve been travelling with my daughter Maya, I’ve never found that to be true.

It’s always a trade off because newborns need quite a bit of kit, even if they are lightweight in every other way. It certainly helps if their meals come mainly from Mum and if your babe is happy to co-sleep and hitch a papoose ride around.

But if adventurous destinations are on your travel hit-list, you’re going to have to rethink portacots, strollers, feeding chairs, blow-up bathtubs and all that other paraphernalia we become so reliant upon.

When babies become toddlers, you no longer need to cram quite so many nappies into your pack, and you can finally ditch the bottles and bibs, but this stage of life can shackle you with must-have toys and dolls and enough non-spicy snack foods to ward off starvation for fussy eaters.

We are currently having serious conversations with our four-year-old about whether her voluminous sparkly pink tutu really is “essential travel gear” for Nepal (“…what about with leggings and a beanie?” she begs…).

Anyway, the truth about packing for adventures with kids is that you are never going to have an easy trip struggling under the weight of too much gear. For most young kids, the big world outside is going to be far more interesting than a swag of toys from home.

That said, if taking along an extra Barbie doll means your child plays happily through a four-hour Indian bus ride, then consider it priority item number one.

What you pack will always depend on where you are going, in what season and just how self-sufficient you need to be. Write a list of essential items, assemble the lot on the floor in front of you and scrutinise the value of each and every item before it goes into your pack.

Choose a lean, functional wardrobe of clothes for each traveller, pare down your personal grooming items to the barest of essentials, pack miniature sizes of everything (from shampoo to books) and be prepared to jettison items along the way that don’t get used.

Consider how you are going to transport your kids (if they can’t use their own legs yet), and invest in a good child carrier if yours are aged 6 months to three or four years, preferably one with extra storage space under the child’s seat for nappies, clothes and other gear. After four years a stroller might come in handy, but often the road less travelled is too rugged for four wheels.

Having outgrown her backpack carrier a year ago, four-year-old Maya is on her own, although she still scores a piggyback when her energy levels invariably wane.

We travel with two backpacks – a smaller one for work gear (cameras, lens, laptops and the rest) and another for everything else. By necessity, our packing list is rather slim, but is you like to travel light, here’s what we have in our packs right now as we backpack through Southeast Asia.


What we wear:

We each have a pair of lightweight pants & a long-sleeve shirt, a lightweight weather-proof jacket, 2 sets of travel clothes, a thermal top, adventure sandals, swimmers, a hat, sunglasses, underwear and shower thongs.

*Once we reach Nepal our travel kit will grow to include down jackets, hiking boots & socks, sleeping bags and polartec pants for each of us.

What we share:

2 quick-dry towels, 3 lightweight sarongs (which double as sleeping sheets), a small first-aid kit, laundry items (thin nylon line, handful of pegs, soap leaves), toiletries (as few as possible), toilet paper, wet wipes, sunscreen, insect repellent, mossie coils, a lighter and a small folding knife.

Maya’s fun stuff:

Her school gear (Maya is enrolled in the Australian HIPPY program for kindergarten-aged kids), a notebook with pens & pencils, 3 small dolls, a small jigsaw, a tiny travel-sized board game, 5 small reading books, folding headphones, swimming goggles and a tiny tub of playdough.

*We tend to pack different toys and games on each trip to keep things interesting. Last year, building with Lego was a favourite pre-bed activity (remarkably we lost very few pieces as we travelled) and in Burma we bought a rattan ball so that we could attract a crowd for soccer games. When travelling in Australia, the bush provides almost all our entertainment.

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