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?

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