Light with kids I

In Outside Magazine Sweden July 2010 page 56 there was an article written by me about lightpacking with kids. Unfortunately, at least for my ego, my name got lost somewhere in the process. Since the article was based on a blog entry here at Fjäderlätt written a couple of years ago I thought it might be of interest for readers who do not understand Swedish to have an English version.  So here are some thoughts on how to bring kids along on longer backpackingtrips in northern Scandinavia without having mum and dad burdened by gigantic 35 kilo packs.
By Jörgen Johansson

This is a slightly revised version of an article that has been published in Swedish before here at Fjäderlätt. Please note that it was published in 2008. Some things, especially costs, will not be the same when you read this.

If you have children you have more to gain than most by adopting lightpacking techniques. As a parents you do not have to forfeit backpacking, but can bring the kids on outings that can become a source of joy for them for the rest of their lives. However, giving advice on backpacking with kids is not that easy. And that probably explains why some advice is a bit confusing.

For starters "Children" is a term that is slapped on a group of humans that encompasses everything from individuals who are basically adults both physically and mentally to infants who are totally dependent on others for both movement and food. So you have to divide this group of people into sub-groups to get anywhere.  What follows are some thoughts on how to hike in the Scandinavian mountain summer with children aged 7-15 years or so. I have of course used my own boys as guinea pigs.
Camp in Ladtjovagge, Kebnekaise area
Those who have read my book "Hike Featherlight" (Vandra Fjäderlätt) will recognize many of the following thoughts. But please note that my advice is just advice. A help for you to reflect and make your own decisions. I do not have complete knowledge of all situations and all ages and of course, not of all children.   But the key message remains, with the help of lightpacking principles backpacking with kids will make the burdens for the parents a whole lot more than manageable.

How much can children carry?
The question depends, of course, on many factors with regard to age, strength, and hiking experience. But generally, you must of course adapt the walk so that you do not go beyond what kids think is OK and can cope with.  Which does not necessarily mean that we should not encourage them to push their own boundaries and get out of their comfort zones - within reasonable limits.
Jakob 13, with a full pack of 7 kilos for a week of camping out in the mountains
Basically you do of course apply the same ideas for the childrens gear as for your own, when it comes to lowering the weight. You start out with the three big ones, which is where you can save most. This article explains the 3 for 3 method.

Let us try to find some way of calculating packweight for kids. A classic rule of thumb for adults when it comes to backpacking is that you should not carry more than a third of your body weight.  But to carry that much of your body weight in a pack is not to be recommended, on the contrary. This is thus the upper limit according to the old adage. A quarter of your body weight is more to be recommended as a maximum weight if you want to be able to enjoy your surroundings as well.  Needless to say this is far from what I call lightpacking and unnecessarily heavy. But let us start by looking at the consequences of these old rules of thumb.

The mother that weighs, let's say 57 kilos, should not carry more than 19 kilos in her pack and the father (75 kilos) should not carry more than 25 kilos. So far so good. Or bad.

But little David who weighs 21 kilos should preferably carry no more than seven kilos, and for Lisa, who weighs 39 kilos a maximum is 13 kilos of packweight.  This is when the absolute maximum, under the old rules. If  the parents also want the children to come on another hike ever, they should not carry more than a quarter of their respective body weights. David then will carry up to five kilos and Lisa ten. All this dependent on that the old rule of thumb also applies to children of their age, which is doubtful.  But we have at least set some ground rules for our planning.

What equipment is needed?
The problem is that with traditional outdoor equipment the stuff that David and Lisa have to carry is not that much lighter than mom's and dad's, even though children are smaller in stature and can carry less. Both children need backpack, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, rain gear, extra clothing and so on. And they do in fact eat as well. Something that very quickly means that David's and Lisa's maximum packweights are attained.  And the slack is of course by necessity taken up by mom and dad. Meaning that not only are their maximum packweight reached, but left way behind.

This can easily lead to parents staying at home instead of doing what they would wish; bringing their children on overnight backpacking trips.  Or perhaps you walk between the huts, which definitely is not a bad solution.  Apart from that you would actually like to be in a tent, both for its own sake and to show the children how wonderful life can be on a walk beyond the beaten track.

For the lightpacker it is probably obvious that much of the above can be overcome by applying the philosophy and techniques for lightpacking to children and their gear. Lightpacking truly opens up new opportunities for families to walk light and far without neither the children nor the parents break down and cry.

How do you do this?
Let us, as always, start where it counts and look at the big 3, the heaviest objects in the packs, and see what we can do.
Spoon 10 grams, bowl 17 grams, Jakob 45 kilograms
In my expericence (kids 7-15 years old) you can let them carry all their personal equipment, providing you pick light gear. Personal gear is pack, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, rain gear, warm jacket/sweater, extra socks and long underwear, spoon, eating bowl and cup. This does not need to weigh more than 4-5 kilos, meaning that kids that weigh around 20 kilos should be able to carry this (according to the old rules). In my mind 25% of body weight is too much for anyone, and I recommend 10-20%. So if the personal gear exceeds this limit mum and dad will have to step in. Which is not such a big chore if you have picked few and light pieces of gear for your kids.

On a 5-7 days hike with food for the kids weighing 500-1000 grams per day this means that their packs will weigh 7-12 kilos or so, if the kids carry all their own food (or the equivalent weight). Kids from about 40 kilos and upwards should then be able to carry their own gear and food. As they grow bigger they can also start to carry some of the community gear that so far have rested in the parents packs.

To the top of Sweden?
I will illustrate this somewhat theoretical prologue with how this turned out in real life a couple of years ago. It all stared with my son Jakob wanting to climb to the summit of Kebnekaise, the highest Swedish mountain at some 2100 meters. After some careful questioning it was clear that he also saw Dad as part of this endeavor. I sighed quietly with joy and the planning began during the winter. The rest of the story you find here.


  1. I reckon if going with your children, you can share at least the tarp/ tent and kitchen weight or the adult carries it all. If I would have children and take them backpacking, they likely would not sleep in their own shelter, but one can share it (which I reckon you did =).

    Looking forward to the story of climbing Kebnekaise!

  2. Hendrik,
    You are of course right on; the basic idea is that the adult(s) carry all community gear (shelter, cooking, repairs, medical stuff etc). But more about that in the upcoming article.

  3. Nice that you translated this article. I will write a trip report of my overnight tent trip in Hemavan with my you kids, aged 3 and 5. In my experience the challenge with young children is mostly psychological.

    They can walk and they can carry a few kilos, but it is difficult to make them walk in the correct direction at the correct time! Having a tent alleviates this concern quite a lot, but you still have to get home in time!

  4. Thanks for translating this article Jörgen.

    I think a lot of this information is useful for anyone sharing their 'lightpacking' adventures with anyone, not just kids. The last few trips I've been on have been with 'newbies' and I was pleasantly surprised how comfortable and enjoyable they found the experience despite carrying far less equipment than they were used to.

  5. Gustav,
    I'm glad to hear that you will do a writeup on your experiences with smaller kids than mine. When mine where of the same age as yours are now, I had not really discovered lightpacking.

    That is my experience as well. Which makes it a bit frustrating sometimes when you see people carrying more than they have to; like 10-15 kilos in spite of not even sleeping out but staying in huts.

  6. When I became a father, I thought I would start backpacking with kids and be able to write about that.

    Instead it seems I have finally understood the sweetness of solo backpacking :)

  7. An article about hiking with smaller children would be very much appreciated...

    Since I spent this summer at home with a new born and a 1.5 year old it would be nice to have something to look forward to for summers to come :D


  8. Crilloan,
    I know the situation. At some stages in life it is very difficult to get some serious hiking done if you do not want to dump everything else on your partner.
    Gustav at The Bearable Lightness blog spent a couple of days with his 3 and 5-year olds in the mountains recently and is planning to write about that soon.


Post a Comment