It is one of those moments when I am suddenly reminded that parenting has a lot in common with being the ring leader of a circus. We are on a bus packed with morning commuters, and 5-year-old Max is swinging himself around a pole, taking up far more than his fair share of space. Meanwhile, 15-month-old Una is shrieking from the stroller. She wants to stand up and look out the window, but I don’t dare pick her up. There are at least 4 bags hanging off the back of the stroller, and I need her weight to keep everything balanced.
The commuters, smartly dressed in their matching khaki and black outfits, watch us through sideways glances. I hope that they are at least entertained by the spectacle. I glance over at Brad, who is also taking up more than his share of space on that crowded bus. He is wearing a giant backpack and is desperately trying to keep his balance while holding onto a suitcase and a playpen. My eyes ask him, “how much further?” But he is as clueless as I am.
There was a time when going on holiday was a relaxing adventure. When I was free to follow my every whim and was only encumbered by a small bag that was just large enough to hold everything I needed.
Looking around the crowded bus, I start to wonder what we were thinking to embark on a 3-week backpacking trip with two young children. My mother called us “brave” when we told her of our plans, but at that moment I can’t help feeling that “crazy” would have been a more apt description.
An older woman leans forward and pats Una gently on the cheek talking to her softly in Italian. I only recognize the words “ciao” and “bella.” But it is enough to turn Una’s fussing into happy chirps.
How to go backpacking with young kids
Brad and I did a LOT of travelling when our kids were little. Max and Una have been on overseas flights, overnight train rides, long-distance bus rides and overnight ferries.
We’ve also done a lot of camping and cycle touring too, but those are a different thing altogether.
For more information on how to go backpacking with young kids check out each of the sections:
- Baby (birth to walking)
- Toddler (walking to 2 years old)
- Little kids (3 to 6 years old)
Backpacking with a Baby
Travelling with a baby is either really easy and fun or absolutely horrible. It really depends on your baby. Don’t get me wrong, all babies are a lot of work, just some babies are more intense than others.
If you have the sort of baby that’s up every hour of the night, or screams themselves to sleep, then it’s probably best to keep your zombie-like self at home. No one appreciates a screaming baby in the middle of the night, even if you are in your own hotel room.
Babies who can sleep for 4-hour chunks of time and don’t seem to mind where they sleep (stroller, carrier, on a blanket on the floor) are perfect for travelling.
–I had one of each type of baby, so this comes from a certain amount of experience.–
Here are some reasons why it’s actually quite easy to take a chilled out baby backpacking:
- They fly for free, and if you book ahead you can get a bassinet seat which means extra legroom!
- You don’t have to worry about feeding them, or keeping them entertained. They’re usually pretty happy being carried along to whatever restaurant or museum you want. The only tricky thing is if you are formula feeding. Then you’ll need to make sure you have access to safe drinking water.
- A happy, chirpy baby is universally loved. Travelling with a baby is a sure way to get more chances to interact with locals.
Backpacking with a Toddler
My definition of a toddler is a baby that can walk. They are totally mobile but have absolutely no idea what they are getting into. While toddlers are a lot of fun, they are also a lot of work.
Here are a few advantages of backpacking with a toddler:
- Kids less than 2 years old either fly for free or at a greatly reduced price.
- Toddlers are almost as universally adored as babies. Not only will you get to interact with locals, you’ll probably also be given some free stuff: an extra cookie from the bakery store clerk, a bucket of sand toys from a family at the beach. Max was once given a slightly imperfect hand-made flute from an artisan.
- Strollers are perfect for carrying all your tourist gear: souvenirs, water bottles, snacks, sweaters, etc.
- Most toddlers have a 1-3 hour nap in the afternoon, giving you plenty of time to push a stroller around an art gallery.
- Some toddlers even have flexible sleep schedules so you can keep them up till 10 pm without them turning into pumpkins.
However, there are some disadvantages of backpacking with a toddler:
- Not everywhere is stroller friendly. In fact, some places, like Rome or Tangiers, are stroller unfriendly. So, it can be hard to get around.
- Some toddlers are very inflexible when it comes to sleep, which can make naps and bedtimes difficult.
- Every new hotel room or B&B requires a full scan for safety hazards. Glass tabletops, rickety floor lamps and damaged electrical outlets. They can also be very dirty in the sort of places that only a toddler would find: under beds and dressers, behind curtains.
- If you have more than one kid, then the extra attention that a toddler requires can soon overwhelm that parent-to-child ratio leaving you with very little downtime.
Backpacking with Young Kids
In certain ways, backpacking with young kids is actually more difficult than backpacking with a toddler. They don’t have naps or flexible sleep schedules. And they need time to run around and play.
Here are some things that Brad and I do to help Max and Una get the most out of backpacking.
Before you go:
- Read age-appropriate books about the places you’ll be travelling to. I like these books because they can be adapted for readers of any age. You can also find age-appropriate books from the library.
- Introduce your child to new foods ahead of time and talk about how important it is to try new things.
- Practice eating out. We play the “what can you do in a restaurant game” to remind everyone that they need to stay seated in their chair, use cutlery and talk in a quiet voice.
- Talk about cultural differences and explain how to be polite.
On the trip:
- Have your children keep a scrapbook or diary of the trip to keep them engaged with the sightseeing. It can be pictographic if they are too young to write.
- Alternatively, you could have your children take photos of a toy visiting various sights, as a fun version of the travelling gnome in Amelie.
- Give your child a small amount of spending money for each location so that they can choose their own souvenirs.
- Involve your child in planning the day. Give them choices about what you’re going to see and do.
- Don’t over-schedule yourselves. Only expect to do one or two things a day.
- Take breaks in playgrounds and parks whenever possible.
- Always carry snacks with you. The best snacks are things like boxes of raisins that can keep small children occupied for a while.
Before planning any holiday, it’s important to consider what you want from the trip. If your goal is to have a relaxing break from your every day, then you should consider going to a kid-focused resort or campground. These places will have amenities for children; some will even offer day camps and other activities to keep children entertained.
However, don’t be afraid to seek a bit of adventure. Though travelling with children does take a lot of patience and planning, it also offers more rewards. Language barriers don’t exist in a playground, or in a baby’s smile, so you may find yourself immersed in a cultural experience that goes beyond museums and market stalls.