Backpacking with a Toddler: Why It’s Worth It

A couple of months ago our family of three hiked into the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, a large and beautiful part of our Cascade Mountains, and spent the night on the shores of Lake Dorothy. This was our third backpacking trip with our son, then eighteen months old. I’ve talked about backpacking with a baby before on this blog but, as we’re learning, taking a toddler along is a whole new thing!

Total distance: 4.5 miles
Number of nights: 1
Location: Lake Dorothy

We arrived at the nearly empty trailhead on a sunny Friday morning, and pulled up next to a dad and his daughter getting ready for an overnight trip, too. The little girl was in deep concentration, filming a butterfly as it flew around the parking lot. Johann was fascinated by the movie-making and watched intently. That is, for about a minute, until he lost interest and ran off to find the nearest stick he could pick up. In chatting with the dad-daughter duo, we found out that this trip was a birthday celebration and a different sort of milestone for them. The little girl was turning nine soon, and this was her first trip where she would be carrying all of her own gear. She was excited to do something so special with her dad for her birthday. Wow! The dad asked how old Johann was, watching with interest as we strapped Johann into the Ergo carrier and got our gear ready, then started sharing his own stories about how he and his wife adventured this same way when their daughter was Johann’s age. The whole incident made both Ryan and me very happy. It was a brief but realistic glimpse into what our future could look like just a few years from now. We want to live with peace and confidence, without guilt or shame, about raising our son to love the outdoors and teach him how to push himself to face new challenges. Watching this dad and daughter do the same thing was validation.

All five of us geared up and headed out, each group taking turns snapping photos of the other. It was just over two miles to the lake and campsites, and about one thousand feet in elevation gain. As Johann has grown and changed, so has our packing approach. I was also nearly four months pregnant at this time, and still “being careful” as we hadn’t shared our news with too many people yet.

Ryan volunteered to carry Johann in front, on the Ergo carrier, and take my smaller pack. I took his bigger pack, but still carried less weight than Ryan did. He ended up carrying about twenty pounds more than I did, poor guy. He felt really manly, though. We took our time hiking up, soaking in the scenery as we went. This was a new trail for us, and there was a lot to look at!

Camp Robber Creek
Camp Robber Creek

We hadn’t seen anyone else there besides the dad and daughter, so we had our pick of campsites when we got to the lake. The trail that runs along the 1.8 mile length of Lake Dorothy is several hundred feet high up along a ridge, with occasional steep boot paths that lead towards the lake, and flat areas for tents along the way. We went back and forth a bit trying to find a good spot. We chose a really pretty site that had a few fallen logs bordering one side (Johann loved climbing on these!).

We had a nice view of the lake and mountains through the trees, and a steep bootpath down to our own nice sun-warmed rock beach. The smooth rock-face formed perfect seats, no chairs needed. The whole site offered a high degree of privacy, exactly what we wanted, since we like our quiet and we had a toddler! We dumped our stuff, and headed down to the water to relax over our lunch, take in the views and dip our feet in the cold water.


The next order of business was to set up camp. It is in these moments that one realizes backpacking with a toddler is ten times more difficult than with a baby. We were basically down one adult, because one of us had to watch Johann the whole time. The biggest hazard here was the possibility of him rolling down the steep hillside about a hundred feet into the lake. He is curious and has absolutely no sense of self-preservation, which made things like tent set-up a lot more challenging. There were times when he wanted to “help” so, as long as his interest held, we would just let him be right in the middle of everything, even if it went slower and took us twice as long as a result.

Once the tent was mostly up, we put him inside to explore for a bit, since it was probably the safest place for him to be anyway, and the zippered doors were still a bit tricky for him to figure out. (However, this was almost three months ago and he has figured it out now. I’m glad we milked that while we could.)

Johann played in the tent for a few minutes while we put everything else away. It was around 4 p.m. now and, feeling settled, we were eager to explore our beautiful new surroundings.  We headed down the trail to see the rest of the lake. Johann was overdue for his nap so when he fell asleep right away, we took our time exploring, lingered to take a lot of pictures, and finally returned to camp around 6 p.m.

The sun was just starting to dip over the mountains. We cooked dinner and enjoyed being on the rocks again, taking in the sunset as we ate. We took turns exploring the area with Johann, helping him simultaneously indulge his curiosity and burn off as much energy as he could, and cleaning up dishes. We walked around for a little while trying to find a good spot to hang up our bear bag. I gave Johann a headlamp to play with since this was another task which would go so much faster with two people. He had never played with it before, so it held his attention for about three minutes but he was more fascinated with what we were doing. “Daddy, why are you hoisting all our food up into a tree?”

The light was fading fast, and we all turned in for the night just before 9 p.m. Sleep has been another challenge on these trips. At home, we can just say “Goodnight, Johann” put him in his crib and not see each other again until everyone is well rested and awake the next day. It’s a little different in a tent, when he’s laying a mere inch or two from both of us. So we snuggled into our sleeping bags and alternated between playing quiet silly games, and pretended to sleep, hoping he would fall for that. And then somehow, Johann ended up fish-hooking Ryan and giving him a bloody nose. Our first-aid kit was handy but proved unnecessary as a bandana took care of it. I was more concerned about the fact that Ryan doesn’t like the sight of blood. I scooted Johann far over to my other side for the next few minutes, and just hoped Ryan wouldn’t pass out.

Crisis averted, it was now around 9:45 p.m. and we looked over at Johann to find that he was fast asleep. He stayed fast asleep until 7 a.m., opening his eyes and cooing just as the sun came up over the mountains. We were floored! He had stirred twice during the night, for a second or two each time, but quickly found a new position and went back to sleep both times. The whole sleep thing is an adjustment, for sure, since we’re away from our normal routine. Ryan and I have had to adjust our expectations about what “a good night’s sleep” looks like on these kinds of trips, and that’s half the battle. While Ryan and I may still toss and turn at night on backpacking and camping trips, compared to our own bed at home, our kid sleeps comparatively much better than we do, and we are very grateful for it. Johann also got his own sleeping bag this summer, which has made it more comfortable for all of us. It’s a nice kid-sized sleeping bag that we hope will stay with him through his preteen years and many more wilderness memories to come.

We woke up to see that it was a brisk 40 degrees Fahrenheit, so layered up before getting coffee and breakfast going. It promised to be another sunny, beautiful spring day.

Early morning is one of my absolute favorite parts of a backpacking trip. Why? The stillness of the mornings make it very easy to appreciate the peace, calm, and raw beauty of the lake or mountains, or wherever we may be. Here, there was absolute stillness, punctuated only by birdsong. No motor noises, no electronic whirring noises, no people-chatter. It was pure joy.

As soon as Johann was up he wanted to run around, exploring our campsite as if he were seeing it for the first time. So.much.excitement. He loved climbing on trees and big rocks, picking up sticks and pinecones.

Johann loved climbing on all the logs at our campsite.
Johann loved climbing on all the logs at our campsite.

We let him have as much freedom as possible in the safer, flatter areas away from the steep drop-off and thorny brambles. He especially loved our private little rock beach, and stopping at the creeks nearby to drop rocks into the water.

Our oatmeal was taking longer to cook than Johann liked, and he started getting fussy. Ryan decided to tide him over with a few cheerios and eventually just put him in the Ergo. It worked, and he calmed down right away! We enjoyed our hot oatmeal by the water, cleaned up, then set off to do some more exploring.

“I’ll take my coffee straight up, thanks!”

Everything looked totally different in the morning light, compared to the previous evening, and we were able to appreciate it all over again.

Looking up Lake Dorothy from the outlet.

It was almost noon when we got back to camp. We wanted to leave soon, so we could go pick up our dogs. So I occupied Johann with lunch while Ryan started breaking down camp. We said “bye bye” to Lake Dorothy, and headed out.

Lo and behold, who should we run into again but the dad-daughter duo! We asked the little girl how the trip had gone and, with a huge grin on her face, she said “great!” and that her favorite part was swimming in the frigid alpine lake. Yikes! (Kids.) What a memory this is going to be for her – one that will shape her, stay with her, become a part of her.

I felt so lucky to witness this. It made us feel like we’re on the right track with this crazy stuff that we drag Johann into, that the things we do will have meaningful results just a few years from now. It completely validated our why.

Backpacking with a toddler is far more challenging than with an infant. But still possible. And, in many ways, slowly becoming more rewarding. His personality traits are starting to show themselves more, and it is wonderful to interact with him. To notice things the way he notices them. To explore the outdoors with him as if for the first time, every time. To watch him pick up a stick and wave it around like it’s the most exciting thing in the world. To hear him squeal with glee when he drops a rock into the water.

This is a fun age, and we are enjoying this precious time before Johann crosses over from being a stowaway, to becoming an active contributor to and participant of our family life and adventures. We had a weekend of priceless memories that made the work of it all totally worth it.

Are you thinking of taking your baby or young child on a backpacking trip? How can we encourage you?

Germany and India, with a Toddler: Part IV

We’ve been sharing our experiences from the trip we took to Germany and India earlier this summer. So far, you’ve heard our stories from Germany, and now we’ve arrived in India. While we’re hardly the first family to travel there with a baby or toddler, there are a few things we learned that made life a bit easier on us. And, there were things we could do nothing about, things that we just had to roll with.

India, as always, was amazing! I enjoyed taking my son to familiar places from my childhood, and we spent happy days at the beach, but our time there was really all about soaking up my family’s love and attention. My grandmother was especially happy to meet her first great-grandchild for the first time.

I really cannot talk about a trip to see my family without talking about food. I come from a family of foodies, most of whom are talented home cooks as well. On top of that, there was amazing restaurant food too. But, the food was the easy part. Mealtimes, however, were very different than Johann was used to. So, our schedule had to change a bit…


The days are laid out quite differently in India. A typical workday usually doesn’t start until around 9:30 or 10 a.m. Lunch doesn’t usually happen until after 1 p.m., and dinner doesn’t usually happen until 9:00 or 10 p.m. (usually much later if eating out). A far cry from Johann’s normal 7:30 p.m. to 7:30 a.m. routine. To get through the longer days, we adjusted right away by putting Johann down for a nap mid-morning, then an afternoon nap again later. He had been on a one-nap-a-day schedule for the past eight months so it was different than usual, but he took right to it since he needed his sleep and he knew it. Despite the extra nap, his overnight sleep was still far less than normal, and so he only got about ten or eleven hours of total sleep per day, at the most, compared to at least thirteen or fourteen hours a day back home. We’ll chalk it up to “vacation schedule” since he hopped right back into his old routine when we got home. But, he was happy to sleep in his travel crib, and quite comfortable since the bedroom we slept in was air-conditioned! Which brings me to…


Southern India is hot, like most people expect, but it’s tolerable if you know how to adapt. My husband’s favorite climate adaptation in Indian living spaces is the ceiling fan! Not just any ole’ ceiling fan, but an Indian ceiling fan. Why is that special? Let me illustrate. Comparing a ceiling fan in America to a ceiling fan in India is like comparing a paper airplane to a helicopter. With high humidity and average temperatures being in the high 90s or 100 F, even hot air moving fast feels good. Those fans are pretty powerful.

When we went out, Johann’s hair was constantly stuck to his neck and forehead in sweaty clumps. But he didn’t seem to mind that he was plucked from the mild Pacific Northwest and put in the middle of South India’s summer. It was really only miserable if we were outside, or traveling in confined spaces. Which leads me into…


Car travel was the only real low-point of the trip. We didn’t bring Johann’s carseat because he didn’t need it. In Germany we only used trains and public transit. India has no carseat laws, and while nowadays you will find people using carseats there (mostly modern urban families with the means and inclination to do so), carseats are still very far from the norm. It’s not even an option for the vast majority of the population who don’t own cars but instead cart their babies, toddlers, grown kids and elderly relatives alike on the backs of motorcycles or scooters. Sometimes it’s all a matter of perspective, isn’t it?

We were only too happy not to lug his carseat around anyway. So how did we deal with car travel in India?

If it was just the three of us and my mom in her tiny car, either Ryan or I would sit in the back seat with Johann. That was the safest place for him to be. On the 20-minute ride home from the airport he sat quietly next to us the whole time. He must have been either wordlessly absorbing all the culture shock (which is a real thing, even for a toddler), or just very tired since it was 1:30 a.m. The next car ride, in broad daylight, and all subsequent car rides in Chennai for that matter, were a completely different story. Johann would start out sitting obediently in one of our laps for the first few minutes, but found the numerous sights, sounds, and smells out the window to be far too fascinating. And who can blame him? Car travel in India provides far too many compelling sensory treats even for fully grown adults.

The “low points” here were basically every time we added one or two more adults to the already small car, but particularly so in stop-n-go traffic, in the stifling heat. The cars are all air-conditioned, but it’s not the same in that kind of heat. This is where you remind yourself of all those jokes you once laughed at: How many elephants can you fit in a Volkswagen? And then you realize that you’re in it right now. You’re the elephant sweating in a Volkswagen, with a toddler dashing back and forth on your laps between the back windows cackling at the two swarthy gentlemen sitting on the motorcycle stopped at the traffic light right next to you. Maybe Johann found their mustaches amusing. And, rush hour? It’s every hour, all day, every day, with few exceptions.

But the worst part was when we all piled into said tiny car (that’s five adults, plus one active toddler, if you’re keeping track) with each person’s luggage and Johann’s travel crib, and drove down the coast for over three hours, on one particularly hot and humid day, to meet up with the rest of my family for the weekend. Being with the whole family was a very happy occasion indeed (more on that below), but that car ride was miserable. There was little room to breathe, and we were all uncomfortable. Johann napped for a grand total of about thirty minutes, but woke up for a delicious roadside treat: A summer fruit with a short season that I grew up calling “nungu,” but known in English as “ice apples.”

The "ice apple" inside the husky shell.
The “ice apple” inside the husky shell.

Neither icy nor tasting anything like apples (although they do look a little icy and, once removed from their husky shells, sort of like apples in profile, if you squint), these are actually the fruit of a particular variety of palm tree. It tastes similar to a really thick, sticky, tender coconut but not as sweet.

Jackfruit was in season, too.

Jackfruit bigger than our kid!
Jackfruit bigger than our kid!

Stopping for roadside treats were awesome, especially when seasonal fruit was involved. But the car travel in general was tough.


As I mentioned earlier, we headed down the coast to meet up with my extended family for a few days at a beach resort. On the way there, we stopped at an organic farm outside the city, and Johann got on a horse for the first time (closely held by his Daddy, who grew up riding horses and loves them).

This kid really loves animals too.

We ate a delicious farm-to-table breakfast, saw all sorts of farm animals, then continued on our drive down the coast. We arrived at the beach to a warm welcome after our hot sweaty car journey, and very much ready to start relaxing!

We enjoyed hanging out with my family, the balmy sea breeze (which actually made the hot weather “feel” pretty comfortable), no mosquitos, and also some pool fun. We went to the beach early in the mornings, and had the place to ourselves except for a handful of people who strolled by.

The waters were rough, and the current was very strong, so one of us had a tight grip on Johann at all times. But the beach was beautiful, clean and very sandy.

It was unquestionably peaceful. Johann was having a blast, and so were we. The whole weekend, and getting to spend time with my family was great. It was fun to be with my cousins, and watch them play with, wrangle, and generally enjoy Johann.

And where my family is involved, there is always food. It was a blessing to enjoy meals together, and eat well as a whole group.


If you’re still thinking about those “ice apples” and Jackfruit, I don’t need to tell you that Indian food is a treat. My family is serious about good food, and Johann definitely fits that mould. He savored everything he tried, which included so many new foods, even spicy dishes.

Dinner at one of my favorite places!

He ate everything without question or complaint, and faithfully proclaimed his enjoyment of all meals with hearty toddler belches politely followed by the sweetest grins in the world. There’s no doubt this kid likes to eat, despite his tiny frame. Small but mighty, as Ryan and I like to say.

Mangoes, veggies (many of which were seasonal and not even available at the Indian stores in the States!), and any kind of fish were his favorites. He loved the local milk and yogurt, too. The milk, as I grew up drinking it, would be hand-delivered to your doorstep by an actual milkman wheeling his own cart around the neighborhood. Straight from a cow, usually not touched by middlemen, the milk needs to be boiled at home for safe consumption. With its full-fat and rich taste, I don’t blame Johann for glugging down several cups a day. Same with yogurt, or “curds” as it is called in English over there.

Really good yogurt!
Really good yogurt!

Johann scooped up as much yogurt as he could with lunch and dinner, daily. He probably dreams of decadent yogurt baths. With a little milk thrown in there (for splashing, y’know).

We ate our fill of delicious food. Some of it is not even Indian, but still very much a part of my childhood.

Ais Kacang! A popular Malaysian dessert. You know you want to eat this.

It was all food I grew up with. Food I’ve loved. Even some food I hated as a kid but love now (don’t we all have at least one or two of those?).

While the food was fantastic, our trips to India are ultimately about family and this trip was no exception. We were happy to enjoy a semi-routine at home, eat, veg, and just spend the precious little time with loved ones. Johann soaked up all the attention, and easily found entertainment in little things.


Since we were traveling so light, we had brought hardly anything for Johann to play with. A very small board book, a cheap set of beach toys, and some very small toys that were really just distractions for the plane rides. He pretty much ran around as fast as he could, as often as he could. The apartment building had a huge rooftop terrace that was nice to go up to when the sun wasn’t so harsh, and Johann liked running the length of the clotheslines and seeing people’s clean laundry fluttering in the breeze. When he wanted to sit still, he found various things around the apartment to play with, and it was wonderful to watch his curiosity and imagination unfold in new ways. One game he invented involved emptying out all the take-out-menus that my Grandma had put into a little envelope holder on the side table next to the phone, and transferring them one by one all the way across the living room, then back again into the envelope holder in a totally different arrangement of his own choosing. The balcony, however, was hands-down his favorite entertainment. He had a great view from up above, and enjoyed the constant distractions out on the street. That, and opening and closing the french doors to the balcony. I’ve already talked about the great balcony-bird-poop incident.

We also found playgrounds wherever we could. Some kids just have to stop to play at a playground every time they see one!

Everything was new, novel, and held his attention far longer than we hoped. Especially the balcony. And, all this entertainment was free.

The coming months will find us in a new season of life, one where we don’t expect to do any 9+ hour flights. We won’t say so definitively, since we love seeing new places, but I cannot underscore enough how much work it is to travel that far with babies and toddlers. Even though our motivation is strong, and our travel plans are usually well thought out, there is always something unexpected to deal with, which is difficult enough for an adult to handle (let alone families with little ones in diapers). In a couple of months, we’ll have two littles in our house, and we’ll probably scale back our adventures a bit as we adjust to a new normal. We’ll continue sharing how we explore and do things simply around here, on this blog, but mostly we’ll just be enjoying our current season. Thanks for sharing the journey with us!