Tips for Backcountry Camping with Kids

Every spring, I sit down and start to brainstorm ideas for an adventure-filled summer. The season is so short, and I really like to take advantage of our beautiful province while the weather is on our side. This spring, I knew I wanted to add some backpacking into our summer adventure plans. Nothing quite says summer in Saskatchewan than sleeping under the stars in the Land of Living Skies.

While there are many places to pitch your tent in Saskatchewan, northern Saskatchewan is home to one of the most unique, family-friendly backpacking trails found anywhere in Western Canada. 

The Gem Lakes in Narrow Hills Provincial Park is a 5.5-km loop trail that takes you around seven lakes that reflect the bright colours of their namesake gemstones when the sun hits them just right. Walking through dense boreal forest, there are a few spots above the treeline that will make you think there is no way that you are on a trail in the Prairies. Bald eagles fly overhead, loons call in the distance and, if you plan your trip right, you’ll wake up right next to the glistening gem-coloured water splashing up on shore.

This backcountry trail was at the top of my Saskatchewan bucket list and the perfect place to challenge the kids by having them carry some of their own items. Accessibility to the trail is easy, and the campsites are respectively 150 m, 1 km, and 1.5 km from the trailhead making this a nice family-friendly place to have an adventure that everyone will enjoy. 

We have gone camping and backpacking in the backcountry before; however, having the girls all carry some of their own items was a new challenge, so it was important that things went relatively smooth as to build their confidence for (hopefully) some longer trips in the future.

What I have found with taking kids on camping trips (of any kind) is that the trip is more successful when everyone feels included and like they are a part of the experience.

This comes in many forms, but some of the ways that I like to include them is to look at the maps of the trail beforehand. We find all of the campsites and talk about the pros and cons of which route to take and where to pitch the tent. I refresh the kids on bear safety. I also have them help with organizing the gear before we leave. We get out the tent and pitch it in the backyard. This lets them have some fun in it but also gives me time to check and make sure everything is ready for the trip and no repairs are needed. We air out the sleeping bags, and make sure there are no leaks in the sleeping mats. This really starts the process of them being excited about the adventure ahead. 

When it comes to camping, especially with kids in the backcountry, there are five crucial things you must keep in mind to ensure that everyone stays happy and safe.

Tip #1:

The first thing to consider is the weight of the pack each child will carry. The general rule of thumb is that a pack should not exceed 10-15 per cent of your body weight. For a child, I would say no more than 5 per cent. Each one of our girls carried their own pajamas, water, a snack and a small toy of their choice. I also put our hammock in our eldest daughter’s bag, as she can hold a bit more weight. This kept everyone’s packs nice and light, while still allowing everyone to feel like they contributed to the adventure.

Tip #2:

A second thing to consider is hydration. It is so important that everyone stays hydrated. For this, each girl carries their own water bottle and they do not share. This way, I can keep track of how much water everyone has been drinking and that they are hydrated enough as we adventure. We also bring a water filter, so if anyone runs out, we can safely refill the bottle in no time. We use a MSR pump that can be purchased at places like Atmosphere or Cabela’s. I also always bring a pack of electrolyte tablets that I can pop into the water bottles if it’s been a really hot day.

Tip #3:

A third thing to consider is nutrition. When you don’t have a fridge, you can’t bring a cooler and you must hang the food you bring, it is important to pack things with intent. One thing that I have learned is to only pack items that I know everyone will eat. For this trip, all of the girls had ichiban for dinner. This is lightweight, easy to cook and always a hit with the girls. The adults had freeze-dried meals from Backpacker’s Pantry, which aren’t as bad as one may think. For snacks, we brought granola bars, fruit bars, dried fruit, trail mix, beef jerky, baby carrots, licorice and some popcorn that we pop over the fire for a bedtime snack.

Tip #4:

Fourth is clothing. Kids get messy, so just being OK with them not being clean is crucial. I put the kids in black hiking pants and a T-shirt for the hike and I brought a pair of shorts and sweaters for everyone. That’s it. For bed, the girls all wear a merino wool base layer set. Merino wool regulates temperature and is the best option I have found for backcountry pajamas. One last tip about kids and clothing in the backcountry is to not sleep in the clothes they’ve eaten in all day. We change into pajamas right before we go to sleep. This helps prevent food scent from being in the tent with us through the night.

Tip #5: 

The fifth and last important thing to consider when going into the backcountry with your kids is taking some small precautions regarding wildlife. Squirrels are cute, but they will ravage your tent for any food that they think is in there. Nothing brings a trip to an end faster than having your gear torn up. There are some rules that we set out for the kids regarding bear safety, which, for them, is simple. Don’t run too far ahead, and no running away or screaming if we do see a bear. The adults always have a bear spray each, and it’s within arm’s reach. 

Lastly, remember that you are there to have fun and make memories. I have made the mistake of taking a trip too seriously, and that, in effect, has ruined the trip for everyone. Having no plans, schedule or great expectations has always been the winning combination for our family camping trips, and the backcountry is no exception.

Author & Photographer: Holly Burgess

Holly Burgess is a full-time insurance professional at Hoffmann Kool in Saskatoon. When she is not in the office, you will find her adventuring with her husband and three young kids. She inspires other families to enjoy the outdoors with their kids through her Instagram, @burgessadventures. On her Saskatchewan bucket list is a visit to Nistowiak Falls!