Outdoor Blog

Backpacking with kids in Tahoe-Tips for success

Chase's first camping trip

Chase’s first camping trip

In an article I wrote several years ago, Backpacking around Tahoe with Kids in Tow, I described our progression of backpacking with our godchildren, Taira and Chase, now 16 and 14, from the time they were tiny tots. What I neglected to include were my recommendations for others who want to introduce their children to the joys of the backcountry.

I was reminded of this during a series of email exchanges with a reader, Diane, this summer, who wanted to introduce her husband and 6 year old daughter to backpacking. Based on my article, she was planning to take them to Little Needle Lake, an obscure spot in the Granite Chief Wilderness behind Squaw Valley, for their first backpacking trip. As our correspondence grew she shared more details about her wonderful memories of backpacking before she was married, how Pepe and Joanna had taken so well to car-camping and about how they lived in Santa Monica. Santa Monica? That made me pause. I immediately started having some qualms about my part in their planned itinerary, realizing that a person from out of town might be out of their element looking for a faint trail that doesn’t even show up on the topo map. When I re-read my article I thought I could have given a little more color commentary about our trips, how our first backpacking trip might not have been the best place to start, that it might have been too long for the kids and that the trail was difficult to locate. I vividly remembered missing the faint use trail to Little Needle Lake and leading the kids over gigantic boulders—not our finest navigational moment. I didn’t say anything right away, thinking that it was none of my business and that my reader could possess all manner of Tahoe experience and backcountry skills. We kept up an enjoyable volley of emails throughout the summer until one day, when my husband, Steve, and I were driving up to Tahoe, I told him about how rewarding it had been to have a pen pal who shared my passion for the outdoors. When I told him about their plans to take their first trip to Little Needle his response was immediate.

Inga, Laura, Steve, Chase and Taira at the Barker Pass PCT trailhead in Tahoe

Inga, Laura, Steve, Chase and Taira at the Barker Pass PCT trailhead in Tahoe

“I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” he said in that tone that indicated that he was 100% certain that was a bad idea.

“I don’t know,” I said in my tone that is meant to convey that I did know, “it could be ok if I give them the exact GPS coordinates of that place where we always miss the critical turnoff to Little Needle Lake.”

“Noooo no, no, there are so many other trails that would be so much easier for a first trip with a kid,” he said.

“Like what?” I asked.

“Like Whiskey Creek Camp, Desolation Wilderness and Loch Leven Lakes,” he said after some consideration.

“You always remember Desolation as easy but that’s a long, steep slog for kids,” I replied, “but I agree that Whiskey Creek and Loch Leven Lakes might be better.”

“Might be?” said Steve. “How would you feel knowing you were responsible for them getting lost and spending days wandering around trying to find that speck of a lake?”

Ken, Taira, Chase & Laura at Little Needle Lake

Ken, Taira, Chase & Laura at Little Needle Lake. Note that mom & dad are carrying most of the gear.

Ok, maybe he had a point. I wrote Diane and asked if she were married to the idea of going to Little Needle Lake. Fortunately, being a reasonable person, she responded that she didn’t care, she just wanted it to be fun for her daughter. I was relieved that she was open to suggestions, silently thanked Steve, and encouraged her to go to Whiskey Creek Camp. She found lots of information about the trail to Whiskey Creek online and decided to change her plans—read about her experience in Backpacking to Five Lakes with a kid. She shares some pearls of wisdom and words of warning for first timers backpacking in Tahoe with kids. After hearing about their trip I was glad they had changed their itinerary.

I decided it would be a good idea if I expanded on the best Tahoe area trails for beginner backpacking trips with little ones. Chase is now 14 and Taira 16 so we have a few more trips under our belt than when we started these adventures. See my  recommendations for first trips (coming soon).

Recap of our experience

Car camping at Fallen Leaf Lake--look at all that stuff! Taira, Laura, Steve, Chase

Car camping at Fallen Leaf Lake–look at all that stuff! Taira, Laura, Steve, Chase

As I outlined in  Backpacking around Tahoe with Kids in Tow we progressed from an overnight at a local trailhead on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT)—just the trailhead, right off Barker Pass Road, where we could car-camp in some semblance of wilderness when our godchildren were 4 and 6. Then we tried a commercial campground at Fallen Leaf Lake—not my favorite, with all the noise and vast amounts of equipment that seemed to morph out of our pack and into the back of the jeep with coolers, Coleman stoves, lanterns, ice and the kitchen sink. It wasn’t my idea of camping. When we started going on true backpacking trips the kids were 6 and 8.  Steve and I would do reconnaissance and suggest the itinerary if we liked it and thought it was easy enough. Initially both their parents came along also (4 adults and 2 children). Sometimes our theories about what was a good distance for kids were a little off, but somehow we always made it, with a good supply of Skittles and gorp to fuel them.

Most of our trips worked out ok but the problem with Tahoe is that almost all the trails, whether day- or multi-day hikes, go straight up, then down, then repeat. That can be tough for a five- or six- year old. Chase and Taira were used to the mountains, being skiers at the Mighty Mite program at Squaw in the winter, but carrying a pack was a different story. Taira was older and could carry an appropriate amount of weight for her size but we had trouble finding a day pack for Chase that was comfortable and fit well-it always looked awkward and he was forever shedding his pack after about a half an hour, until he got big enough to wear a proper pack with waist and chest straps. His mom or dad would often end up carrying his light pack over their arm.

Now Taira would rather play water polo, work as a life guard, study math and science or wash her hair than strap on a pack but Chase is still going strong. Their dad, Ken, is happy to stay home with Taira so trips these days include Chase, his mom, Laura, Steve and me. I know someday Taira will take it up again but for now we just regale her with stories about how much fun we had and rebuff her attempts to get us to go car camping.

What to bring

Taira could always carry a pretty heavy pack

Taira could always carry a pretty heavy pack

I’m assuming that adult readers have backpacking experience so I won’t dwell on basic backpacking gear. Here are some random tips that relate to backpacking with kids.

Gear: Expect that the adults are going to be doing the heavy lifting, so get the lightest weight gear you can afford, especially when selecting the big three: tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad. Rent equipment from REI or other outfitters if you want to test gear. You may be able to get away with a 3-person tent for 2 adults and 2 kids when the kids are little, but eventually you’ll need a larger tent or two 2-person tents.

Packs: There are backpacking packs designed for kids but they are usually too big for a 4 or 5 year old. If you use a daypack try to find one that has some structure to it with a waist strap. Even a small child should be expected to carry a light pack with a small water bottle, snacks and a couple of clothing items.

Food: Pay careful attention to food, making sure that you have adequate calories, good variety and most importantly, foods kids like. Freeze dried food makes the most sense due to its feathery weight. Mac and Cheese, spaghetti and creamy sauces are good choices, along with string cheese, which seems to last indefinitely (not really, but it can last for an overnight or two). Aim for about 350-450 calories for adults, less for little kids and more for hungry teenagers. Trail mix, cheese and freeze dried fruit  make good snacks. Tang or other powdered drink mixes are a treat. Whole dried milk such as Peak or Nido (available at Amazon and ethnic food stores) is more palatable than non-fat dried milk for cereal in the morning. Bring a favorite candy, such as Skittles or M&Ms, for on-trail motivation. Repackage what you can to minimize packaging and bring a bag for garbage.

Steve and Chase near the end of the trail

Steve and Chase near the end of the trail

Water: Camping near reliable sources of water minimizes one of the heaviest items you can pack and almost all kids like to play in streams and swim in lakes. We use a water filter to assure a safe drinking water supply.

Comfort: A small stuffed animal, flashlight, headlamp, or chemical snap lights will help ease nighttime fears. Bring a book or read a story to your child from your smartphone e-reader to maintain your usual bedtime routine.

Checklist: Be sure to use a checklist so you don’t forget anything. Lots of adults wing it and end up forgetting something essential—you don’t want that something to ruin your child’s first trip. Checklists are plentiful on the internet (see Backpacking Resources).

Pack weight: Debates on the ideal overall weight of a pack are endless on backpacking forums. We started out with pack weights of about 45  pounds but with determined winnowing are now down to about 25  pounds.  Every ounce counts!

Trip Planning: Don’t get too ambitious for the first trip. A mile or two will get you to some beautiful places that are likely to be deserted at night even if they are popular day hiker trips. Save the longer trips for when the kids get bigger. I’ll have some specific suggestions for short, overnight trips in the Tahoe area.


Backpacking is a great family activity that builds a vast store of memories, gets everyone away from screens for awhile, builds skills and connects us to nature.



More tips on backpacking with children: REI article-Backpacking with Kids

Backpacking Resources

The Hungry Spork: A Long Distance Hiker’s Guide to Meal Planning by Inga Aksamit

Backpacking Gear Lists:

Sunset at the Peter Grubb Hut

Sunset at the Peter Grubb Hut

4 thoughts on “Backpacking with kids in Tahoe-Tips for success”

  1. Backpacking to Five Lakes with a kid | Inga's Adventures October 10, 2013

    […] Diane wrote to me early in the summer to ask some questions about backpacking with kids. We kept up a lively correspondence and as Diane got further in her planning we realized that she, her 6 year old daughter, Joanna, and husband, Pepe, would be passing right by our house in Alpine Meadows as they embarked on their first backpacking trip. Diane had backpacking experience but it was to be Pepe’s and Joanna’s first time hiking with heavy packs. I insisted that they stop by to say ‘hi’ and sort their gear at our house before they took off. It was so much fun to see all their new equipment, share Joanna’s excitement with her stuffed animal affixed to her pack, and go through all of Pepe’s highly organized equipment. Pepe had a lot of concerns about bears after seeing the educational video at Yosemite that describes in graphic detail how destructive bears can be and no amount of reassurance could put him fully at ease. He made it through the night, I’m sure with very little sleep. Read more about how their trip affected me in  Backpacking with kids in Tahoe-Tips for success. […]

  2. Top five first backpacking trips for kids in Tahoe | Inga's Adventures October 18, 2013

    […] a previous article, Backpacking with Kids in Tahoe-Tips for Success, I describe a dawning realization that an article written a few years ago, Backpacking around […]

  3. Mike June 10, 2016

    Thank you for sharing your experience and advice. I have long loved the outdoors and began backpacking a couple years ago. My kids both started day hikes from when they were able to sit up in my Kelty carrier to present and both love car camping. I had planned to take my son, 6 years, on his first backpacking trip in a few weeks and was going to do Big Meadows to Dardanelles lake. I got thinking 8 miles might be a bit much for him even though he has hiked 4 miles in a day, it was minus the weight and elevation gain. I do know he was able to hike his pack 3.8 miles in Auburn as a test run earlier this year and I was excited to find your information on the starter hikes. I am changing our hike to Five Lakes. My daughter, 4 years old wants to go and she is well off on hikes as well but she has never carried weight. Two questions; Would you think this hike is good for that young of an age with a light pack? Do you think its a bad idea to be outnumbered by kids two to one? Thanks again for all your articles of life experiences you choose to share.

    1. Inga June 16, 2016

      It sounds like you’re doing a good job getting your kids out early. I think Five Lakes is OK but it is fairly steep so frequent breaks will be in order. Your six year old will probably be fine. Four years old is pretty young but it all depends on the kid and her motivation. It’s definitely easier with 1 adult per kid on the first trip but again, it depends on the kids. When our godchildren were 4 and 6 we camped in the wilderness but right by a remote road that we could drive to, then did day hikes. Ideally, you’d take kids that young on a 1-2 mile fairly level trail but those are heard to come by in Tahoe. I think you’ll be ok as long as you don’t feel pressed for time and aren’t carrying too much weight. Probably the 4 year old won’t be carrying any weight to speak of so you’ll be doing the lion’s share of carrying the weight. Good luck!

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