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We’ve been backpacking with kids, full-time for well over 5 years so we can share the best tips with you. For us it’s the vacation that never ended and we’re that rare thing, a family travel blog that actually travels full time, right now, today in 2019. We ditched the regular family vacations for a life of backpacker travel and adventure and have never once regretted that choice.
Our boys were veteran backpackers at just 6 and 8 years old and have visited the USA, the Himalayas, Thailand, Vietnam, Australia, Europe and everywhere in between. It’s great that they’ve had such an early initiation into our favourite mode of travel and have learned so much out in the real world. We know that Americans tend to refer to hiking or trekking as backpacking. We trek too, we’ve taken them half way up Everest, and to Everest Base Camp, but this post is about backpacking as a travel style, not hiking or trekking. Hope you stick around to read this, if not, click through to our Himalayan hiking (with kids) section.
This post is just about backpacking, but if you’d like our full Travelling With Kids page, with tips and destinations ideas, just click the link. We are a family world travel blog and cover over 50 countries.
Backpacking With Kids
Chances are, if you want to really travel with your kids, you’ll be backpacking.
The freedom backpacking brings and its cost-effectiveness make it our usual way to go. You can get more travel per dollar and that’s essential to families.
In 2013 we embarked on this journey with the children and every day, through 50 + countries and 4 continents, we’ve found ways to make backpacking with kids as easy as possible. We’re still on the road and learning through practice, maybe we can help you out with a few ideas before you set off.
What is Backpacking?
Backpacking is lower-cost independent travel, often with a backpack that can be easily carried as the backpacker moves from location to location. It’s not hiking or trekking, we do that too, but backpacking is travel rather than walking.
Sometimes people go backpacking with a tent, but mostly they don’t. Guest houses, hostels, beach huts, hotels, any form of accommodation, are all used by backpackers.
Between hotel stops backpackers can use any mode of travel, car hire, plane, bus, tuk tuk or horse and cart, even cruise ships. Different situations call for different solutions.
Backpacking is how we see the world and backpacking with our kids, is how they will see the world to greatly enhance their education.
We’ve were backpacking as a couple long before the kids came along and we love it, it’s not forced on us by finances, it’s our preferred way to travel. We feel more in touch with the local community when we stay in small guest houses, we find big hotels impersonal and isolating, they also happen to be cheaper.
We like public transport not tours and air-conditioned mini buses, you get a better feel for a country that way. It’s just what we enjoy and what we do most often, although not exclusively. An occasional splurge on a resort hotel is fun too!
Our Top Tips For Backpacking With Kids
Select accommodation with the children in mind.
We stay in guest houses, B&Bs, hostels and hotels. Guest houses often work out cheapest but occasionally we use hostels, such Mile Map Hostel in Silom Bangkok or Garden Village in Siem Reap. ( none of which sponsor us, we just like them and use them repeatedly, click through to get an idea of the sort of accommodation YOU will be using).
We always look for a guest house or other lodging with some outdoor space so that the boys can play, ideally on the ground floor, within our sight. We also keep an eye out for local children nearby.
My boys love rooms with little cupboards to stash their toys in, it makes them happy. Let the kids be involved in choosing your room. Boo always has to inspect them and ask about the wi-fi before we decide. Always check rooms for child safety, trip hazards, dodgy wiring, sharp edges and so on.
Buy the kids their own backpacks. UPDATE: Don’t!
I’ve changed my mind on this one. When my boys were 6 and 8 we set out into the world with 2 little 15L kids’ backpacks from REI. They rarely carried them as they weren’t well designed or comfortable. More often than not I would end up fastening one or both to the front of my harness using a carabiner. Now, at 10 and 12, they do carry their own bags and are able to carry decent sized adult packs, 1 is high tech, one is a colourful fabric bag bought in Nepal. If you’d like to know more visit our travel gear page or below.
What I wrote back in 2013 was the following:
There are plenty of reasons the children should have their own packs. They like it, all kids like having something that is their own Let them pick the colour and have some input on which style. It gives them something to be responsible for. Guest house rooms can get horribly cluttered with clothes scattered everywhere. If everyone has their own backpack you can put the laundry away in its rightful place as soon as it comes back. That makes me happy. It’s easier to find things, toys and clothes, if each child has their own pack.
When they see that something they just can’t live without, you can remind them that if they buy it, they have to carry it. It’s a helpful line. If one of the children really isn’t feeling up to carrying their own pack, that’s OK, they are small, one of us can carry them easily ( I clip my youngest’s on the front of my harness).
I take it all back, I firmly believe that they shouldn’t be required to carry their own gear and it’s more of a hindrance than a help to mum and dad. The more packs you have, the more likely you are to lose one.
Make sure the children’s backpacks fit adequately.
My boys’ original children’s backpacks ( at 6 and 8 years old) were both 15L, fully stuffed they weigh around 5Kg. They weren’t heavy but they didn’t fit too well, they were more of a “toy” pack and I wouldn’t recommend them. They held all of their clothes and toys, I carried all the wash kit, medical kit and school books.The weight has to sit on their hips, if it doesn’t they end up leaning forward or taking all the weight on the chest strap, these little packs didn’t do that.
My eldest at 10 moved up to a 45L adult pack with a well designed harness featuring a full air-flow system. It’s far better than the old kids’ packs. The important hip strap stays firm on this one. It’s the Mountain Warehouse Extreme pack below and we’ve very pleased with it. (it also comes in pink)
My other son, at 11, now has the awesome Osprey Farpoint adult-sized pack. It’s a superb piece of luggage, comes with a lifetime guarantee and has a laptop pocket along with plenty of room for Pokemon cards.
We’re very pleased with both packs and we adults use them from time to time too. The Osprey is undoubtedly better quality and more “luggage” , the Mountain Warehouse is more of a trekking pack and I carried it in the Himalayas.
Don’t bring too many clothes.
Don’t weigh them down with just-in-case clothes and don’t buy special travel clothes. There are exceptions to this rule, obviously, but mostly you don’t need much “stuff”.
My best advice is to take whatever clothes they have at home that fit, or are slightly too big. Don’t go buying extra travel clothes. Wherever you go you will find gorgeous things to buy for the children, if the packs are full you can’t carry them.
Children grow, after only three months most of my elder child’s clothes were getting too small, we needed to buy new. Our most essential items for the children are long-sleeved cotton shirts and trousers to keep sun and mosquitoes off delicate skin, add Crocs for their feet and a good wide-brimmed hat that works for hot or cold.
Take clothes that will stand up to rough treatment and frequent washing. Don’t take delicates. Whites look great but it’s a nuisance to have to put a white wash together, so take a lot, or none.
The boys have one pair of shoes each, waterproof Croc type shoes. Waterproof shoes are essential for the sort of travelling we do, normal shoes would be ruined by now. They also wear their shoes in grotty showers. We buy new warm shoes or hiking shoes if we need them, for instance for our Nepal treks.
Don’t bring too many toys.
You know how children only play with new toys for a while before moving on? Well the same thing applies to all the “special” toys they want to put in their backpacks. DO give them the choice, give them some control Let them pick a few special toys that they can’t travel without, but maybe limit it to a small bag each. Edit as much as you can.
Obviously they need the special bear but most of the toys my children have packed never see daylight. They’ve had a lot more fun with cheap toys we’ve bought as needed. Bangkok station gave us two 10 Baht plastic dinosaurs that kept them amused for hours on the train. One morning they each bought a $2 fake Bakugan because it was what the local kids were playing with and they wanted to join in. Once they had their $2 worth of fun, we were happy to let them go.
As Birthdays and Christmases on the road have come and gone we’ve found ourselves carrying everything from Harry Potter wands to full Lego sets. Mostly we buy useful gifts, binoculars, head torches, penknives (see our post on gift ideas for travelling families) but sometimes they just can’t live without that one special thing. I love my kids with every ounce of me, so I’m willing to carry these extras, sometimes.
The boys have little pouches that they fill with treasures, we have e bags packing cubes as well as these zipped travel envelopes. Both are a good investment.
We give the children a very small amount of daily pocket-money, they can save it or spend it on whatever they like. It’s great for their maths and developing money skills.
Feed and water them well.
I don’t need to tell you that hungry kids are grumpy kids.
When we have big travelling days I always have some munchies stashed in my day pack for emergencies. The golden rule is DON’T TELL THEM! If they know you’ve got biscuits on board you’ll never hear the last of it, they’ll miraculously become starving 5 minutes after breakfast.
I’m never without water on a bus or train.
If your child doesn’t like the local food they could get really freaked out. Eat pizza, or whatever they enjoy, if it makes them happy and helps them feel more “at home”. They will adapt more quickly to new environments if they have some familiarity.
I’m a big believer in staying healthy through good diet and hydration. It does become difficult sometimes. I’m struggling with getting calcium into them in Asia, dairy is thin on the ground here and they won’t eat the mountains of greens that mum and dad get through. I always pack kids’ multivitamins for emergencies. I’d probably do better with single calcium supplements or iron supplements or whatever, but the multis will do for now.
Keep Prices Down By Finding the Best Deals
We can recommend some favouite places to stay with kids in all the big backpacker hubs. For Bangkok, try Shanti Lodge or Mile Map, for Kuala Lumpur try Back Home, for Chiang Mai try Central. We’ve generally been there so scan our site for the places we use and recommend.
Travelling with children is a financial headache, keep prices low by being a deal finding ninja. Use Skyscanner ( see our Skyscanner tips here) to find the best days, prices and routes to fly, then use the right accommodation booking sites for the job. Hotels Combined is a jack of all trades, it compares multiple sites to find the best deal for your dates, It checks sites such as Priceline and Hotels.com so you can be sure of a bargain. Agoda are the Asia specialists, always check them on this continent, here Agoda . We use Booking.com more for Europe, they are often worth a look for fully-refundable deals.
Get them excited before you go.
Tell them about all the cool, interesting, exciting things they’ll be seeing. Show them maps, talk about history, food and cultures. Read books together, children’s picture books or novels, anything that introduces them to the countries they are to visit. They need to know what to expect and get excited about it. Let them have some input, ask them which countries they most want to visit and where they’d like to go next.
Put a positive spin on everything, talk about how great flying is or tell them how lucky they are to have ten hours relaxing on a bus seeing the countryside. It works, if you’re negative, it rubs off.
This goes double for visiting museums or historic sites. Prep them first, tell them the amazing story of whatever it is, they’ll be amazed to see it in real life.
Take medical supplies and keep them handy.
The boys are forever cutting, scraping and otherwise injuring themselves.
My best friend is a tiny bottle of iodine I bought in Thailand. It lives in the side pocket of my day pack and I use it almost every day. After six years of living in the tropics I know how badly things can get infected.
The next most important thing is plasters or band aids. Keep them handy, you don’t need to rummage in the bottom of your bag when your baby is hurt.
I always carry children’s paracetamol, just for when a fever starts on a bus or train. I’m a worrier so I also carry larger dressings and an elasticated bandage ( snake bites, of course!). In some countries (for instance Cambodia) we found it impossible to buy large self adhesive dressings ( after a nasty playground knee-scrape), have a few handy.
My big medical kit lives in my backpack and is never too far away. Read about our travel medical kit, what we’ve used and what we haven’t, here. Always carry tissues or toilet roll, a plastic bag or two is a good idea on bus journeys even if your child isn’t prone to motion sickness.
A pack of wet wipes and hand sanitiser come in handy, too. Of course, keep the kids out of the sun, wear a broad brimmed hat at least. We go with long sleeves and trousers as much as possible, rather than sunblock.
Do plenty of things “just for them”.
This goes for any sort of travel with kids. Give them down time if they need it, build time into your day for resting and play. Find children’s attractions when you can, playgrounds, water parks, zoos, whatever your children love.
Put them in situations where they can make new friends, even if those friendships are fleeting it makes for happier kids.
If they are having fun don’t rush off. I’ve seen people do this, hurry kids along, don’t, their needs are important.
Don’t expect them to walk too far and always have a plan.
Take a tuk tuk or an Uber, they don’t want to walk far and it will spoil everybody’s day.
Our days of walking miles to save money on transport are over! When you arrive in a new town have a plan or even better, a map. You can’t just wander aimlessly looking for accommodation. We always have an idea of which area we need to check out when we get off the bus or train.
I made that mistake on our first week backpacking with kids in Malaysia. I decided I’d just get off the train and find our pre-booked hostel ( this is our favourite hostel in Kuala Lumpur). It wasn’t as easy as I thought, we were lost, tired, hot and both children were upset. I learned from that mistake!
We love our lifestyle, we love backpacking with kids and without. We love exploring our amazing and beautiful planet and backpacking is often the best possible way to do that. Sign up to follow our journey in the sidebar, we’re back in the Himalayas soon.