10 Tips for Backpacking with Your Teen

Backpacking with teens

Today we have a Guest Post from Lauren Caselli who is giving us some tips on backpacking with your teen.  At the end of this post you will find details on how you can WIN some Alpengirl swag.

We all know that thereʼs a mountain of evidence that suggests getting your kids outdoors is super beneficial, right? I mean, I don’t have kids, but after spending two weeks at a time in the woods with girls between the ages of 11 and 17, I can say with confidence that spending time outdoors teaches kids and teens a heck of a lot more than just how to set up a tent.

But sometimes? Itʼs a pain. Packing for a four-day trip with two kids who arenʼt quite old enough to remember that they need to pack synthetic, not cotton tees, and likely wonʼt think of bringing rain pants unless you explicitly tell them can be exhausting.

But! It doesnʼt have to be all groans and moans. Over at Alpengirl, we prep teenagers who have NEVER EVER BEEN CAMPING BEFORE and teach them both how to live outdoors and how to be an effective team member on a backpacking trip.That’s pretty impressive, particularly because our girls are as young as eleven years old.

Here are our tried and true best tips that you can implement with your family (or even your friends!).

1. Have a conversation. We love openness at Alpengirl, so the morning before we get packed up to head out, we sit our girls down and have an honest and open conversation with them about what they are going to experience.

Their most frequently asked questions are these: where do we go to the bathroom? Will it be hard? What if my pack is really heavy? What if it rains?

Addressing all these questions and creating an open forum for your child and teen to feel like they have a say in the process is a great way to quell anxiety. Plus, they may even give you some food for thought (wait, where ARE we going to go to the bathroom?).

2. Pick a route. Together. The biggest fear of our girls is that the trip will be too hard. Assuage this fear by letting your kid have a say. Get out the map, make a few suggestions on mileage and encourage them to speak their minds.

Most kids and teens will understand why 1-mile of flat terrain takes less time than 1-mile of 1,000 feet of elevation gain. Giving them the knowledge of exactly how hard or easy the route is going to be allows them to prepare mentally.

3. Go through each item in their packs with them. At Alpengirl, we have a packing list even for our backpacking portion, we need to cut down from here. We really cut to the bare minimum (one or two tshirts, one pair of shorts, two pairs of socks) because nothing makes a trip more terrible than an unnecessarily heavy pack.

My first time leading all girls backpacking trips, I didn’t do this and was shocked when, two days into the trip, I realized that most of them had brought three pairs of shoes (!) and one girl brought her entire toiletry kit (Deodorant! Makeup! Shampoo! BODY SPRAY!). It was then that I vowed to look at every item that went into a backpack BEFORE we got on the trail. (At least she smelled good.)

Backpacking girls on a Mountain

4. Teach them a few things at a time. We have two weeks to teach the girls everything at Alpengirl, but we do it in bits. We teach them how to set up the tent, cook a meal, and what to wear to bed. However, it takes them at least four or five days of frontcountry camping to get everything pieced together.

If this is your child’s first backcountry experience, take it slow. Pack their packs for them the first time and help them with their tent set up. Show them how to hang a bear bag and where a good spot is, but hang it yourself. They will pick up on it eventually, and probably faster than you think.

 5. Let them do stuff. Like hang on to the map. By the time they are 11 or 12, they are old enough to read a map and make decisions on route finding. Ditto with choosing a campsite or deciding what to cook for dinner. And they are even old enough to chop up veggies and hold the pot (with pot grips!) over the camp stove.

The sense of ownership that kids and teens have over their own projects is pretty remarkable. Allow them the freedom to feel like they are a member of the expedition, only interjecting or revising their plans if it’s a threat to safety.

6. Make it fun. Backpacking doesnʼt have to be all hiking all the time. You can go on a five-day trip and stay in the same campsite for two nights (provided you picked a route that is compatible with this plan). Rather than backpacking for all five days, entertain the idea of spending one day without packs and exploring some mining ruins, or sunning yourselves at an alpine lake.

hiking girls playing in the snow

7. Start late in the day.

I know, right? This doesnʼt seem to make sense. But this means everyone can wake up late, have a yummy breakfast, get nice and comfortable with the idea that theyʼll be heading off into the woods for a while, and nothing feels rushed.

We usually spend the morning giving girls a tutorial about what to bring and what not to bring, taking a little snack break, helping them pack up their backpacks, aiming to be at the trailhead for lunch, and then maybe hiking a few miles until we set up camp for the first night. This gets everyone ready for the trip without it being a total fire drill trying to rush around and get on the trail early.

8. Practice.

Set up a tent in the backyard, spend a weekend tent camping at a nearby campground, maybe do a one-night overnight at the nearest trailhead. One of the biggest reasons that our girls don’t want to go on a backpacking trip is fear: they have no idea what they’re getting themselves into.

The more practice scenarios you allow your child, the more familiar they get with the concept of being in the backcountry, and the less scary and more willing they are to try longer, more adventurous trips.

 9. Model “expedition behavior.” You know the worst part about backpacking with teens? Complaining. But! It doesn’t have to be all feet-dragging and eye-rolling. Sure, a two-hour downpour is pretty awful. But if you take out your rain gear and trudge along as if all is normal, maybe even with a smile on your face? Your teen is more likely to keep the complaining to a minimum.

If you model “expedition behavior” (helping set up the tent, creating a kitchen shelter, gathering wood without yelling or getting frustrated with other members of your party) the experience is much more enjoyable for everyone, and your teen is much less likely to stomp into their tent and slap the flap.

 10. Relax. And also? Take a deep breath and then get over the fact that this isnʼt going to be the most epic backpacking trip youʼve ever taken. Know that teens in the woods are still just teens, and sometimes they donʼt want to wake up at sunrise and put in a nine-mile day and their idea of an epic backpacking day is successfully surviving a four-mile hike.

Keep your expectations low and remember that this is about introducing your child to something that they might incorporate into the rest of their lives, not bagging as many peaks as you can.

What are some of your tips to creating a positive introductory experience with your teen? Even though it’s winter, do you have any plans with your family to camp or backpack when the snow melts?

Alpengirl Giveaway!

Alpengirl swag

And that’s not all! We’re doing a giveaway! We’ve decided to share the Alpengirl love by gifting one of you with an exclusive Alpengirl tshirt and bumper sticker that says “This vehicle stops for Roadside Dance Parties.” Perfect for hanging in your locker (though it’s not removable!), covering your notebooks, or even posting on the back of your family’s ride!

Here’s what you have to do:

1)      Head over to the Alpengirl Facebook page

2)      Click ‘Like’

3)      Leave us a comment, telling us you entered our giveaway on A Little Campy. Winner will be announced on January 30, 2013.


Lauren Caselli was a guide at Alpengirl Camp during the summer of 2012. A Manhattan desk-jockey-turned-wilderness-junkie, she left her NYC apartment for the wide open valleys of Montana. After 22 years in the traditional education system, Lauren learned more about her passions, her values, and herself during 18 months of wilderness exploration than she ever did in the halls of her public school. An advocate of writing-as-self-discovery, she manages the Alpengirl blog.


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Tiffany loves tent camping and knows how to bait a hook.

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  1. I liked Alpengirl fb page and am entering contest!

  2. Thank you for the opportunity!

  3. I liked Alpengirl for my alpine girls.

  4. Great reminders of how to go about introducing teens to the love we share of the outdoors. I liked this article, so I “liked” your FB page & am entering the contest. Keep the great content coming!

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