Since we started travelling, I have taken our three kids backpacking on three occasions, SOLO, and I plan to do more in the near future.
So where have we been?
Our first time was a two week trip to southern Spain. It went remarkably well so I embarked on a three month tour of South-East Asia (although we met up with Rich after five weeks before starting again) and after that a four month excursion around central America (again we met up with Rich at the beginning, in the middle and at the very end). The kids miss him so much that we can only really travel for five weeks before they need to see him.
An introduction to backpacking
What is backpacking?
backpacking (present participle)
travel or hike carrying one's belongings in a rucksack.
It’s that simple? Yes!
Backpacking is about travelling with a backpack and pretty much only a backpack. I think it still has negative connotations with being poor (budget travellers (which we are)) and usually young but we don’t care about that and actually we’ve met backpackers of all ages.
We think backpacking is fast, exciting, adventurous, even liberating and we love it.
Here’s how I manage to backpack, alone with three kids.
There’s a huge amount of choice out there and getting one online will undoubtedly save time and money but don’t do it.
In order to find a backpack that suits you, you’ll need to try them on. There’s nothing worse than buying a badly fitting backpack that cripples your shoulders and you decide you hate it after the first day.
Take a day to visit outdoor & camping stores and try as many backpacks on as possible. Smaller stores often offer discounts if you buy multiple products and they have more time to help you out.
What are your limits & stresses?
Much like any type of parenting, backpacking solo with kids can be a challenge. It is a huge drain on the parent’s energy so it’s imperative to work out your limitations. Avoiding parental burn out is essential to happy backpacking.
My limitations and stresses revolve around luggage, patience and time alone. Dealing with three independent-thinking kids can be time consuming and thus energy draining and I quickly lose patience. I need down time and time alone – even if it’s only 20 minutes. I need that time to re-align myself and gather my cool.
For this reason I decided that wherever we stayed, I wanted accommodation with a pool and if not, we needed to be within walking distance of the beach. My younger kids are so happy in the water and it gives me some breathing space as they don’t need constant supervision.
I also know that the amount of luggage we have stresses me out. It’s so difficult to keep track of many bags and getting baggage in and out of airports, on and off planes and buses is physically gruelling and it can leave us vulnerable to exploitation.
For this reason I settled on two 10kg backpacks and a small day pack however packing four people’s possessions into two backpacks does mean that we have to pack smart!
Minimalism is key!
What to pack
If you’re a hoarder or an over-packer, I’d recommend starting the packing process a few weeks prior to leaving. Arrange everything that you’d like to take and see it’ll fit into the backpack. If it fits in your pack, woop-dee-doo, you don’t need to do anything else. If it doesn’t fit, lay it all flat on a free surface and start by removing an item a day. You actually do not need half of what you think you’ll need. Really take it back to basics!
Our best tip would be to mix and match items of clothing, for example, we stuck to: one pair of leggings/trousers, two pairs of shorts and a selection of four t-shirts, a lose fitting shirt and a hooded top. Stick to colours that match that way you can wear all four tshirts with your leggings, trousers or shorts.
I would suggest taking clothes that are darker in colour. White clothes look great on day one but after that they start going grey. Take clothes that will withstand frequent hand washing.
The first time we went backpacking, we took our walking boots and had to then wear them every time we travelled – which was every three to four days. It was a massive pain in the derriere, I would drip with sweat after just a few minutes, my feet would stink and not to mention I looked seriously scruffy. I would never do it again. Unless you’re actually hiking something massive like Kilimanjaro you can wear trainers/sneakers very successfully and combine these with a pair of sandals or flips flops.
How to pack
There are many techniques to packing a backpack but our top two tips are:
- Roll your clothes up as tightly as possible
- Invest in good packing cubes
Packing cubes are invaluable to not only limiting what you take but organising it all too. They’re easily accessible and usable if necessary.
Top things to take
These are the items we’ve discovered we cannot live without.
- A maximum of four pairs of underwear for each person and three pairs of socks.
- One warm, long-sleeved jumper or hoodie per person. The days are warm but often the nights are not.
- Two very long shoelaces – we tied these together to create a clothes line and have used it everywhere we’ve been.
- Six clothes pegs – these doubled up as washing line pegs and for folding down packets of food to keep them fresh.
- A bar of olive oil soap in a small Tupperware box. I found olive oil soap to be the best at removing stains and keeping clothes fresh. The box kept it fresh and stopped soap slime.
- Kindles. Four kindles took up virtually no space at all but meant that each child could have one and was able to have quiet time or keep themselves occupied. Invaluable! We bought ours second hand off eBay for a bargain.
- Microfiber towels were our best packed item. We purchased ours from ‘the little bodhi’ and each one was 130 x 90cm but folded up into a carry bag of about 10 x 8 x 2cm. They dried really quickly and took up virtually no room. in a side pocket.
- Consider taking a small day back-pack for trips. Our day pack was a really old, ripped and stained bag but it was awesome at hiding my camera and carrying water and food too.
- A plastic bag for bottles of water, dirty/wet clothes, food or to prevent toiletry leakage. Alternatively a tote bag.
- I am in love with my mooncup and cannot recommend it enough. In many countries we visited, female products were hard to source. The mooncup takes up less than 5cm of space and is great for the environment too.
- Water bottles take up room but they’re essential in keeping hydrated. Maybe consider a water bag. Depending on where you’re going you might want water tablets too.
- A very small first aid kit; some plasters, bite cream, antiseptic cream, tweezers, eye drops, lip balm, diarrhea tablets, paracetamol, calpol sachets
Once you’ve packed your backpack, wear it, take it out, practice walking with it and taking it on and off.
Practicing will give you a better understanding of how you’ll manage with it. If it’s too heavy, you’ll know to pack less.
To buy kids their own backpacks or not?
Some families say yes, definitely, whilst others say no. I think giving kids their own backpacks is a brilliant idea but only if they can manage them and only if it doesn’t add to your stressors.
We have travelled with and without them for various reasons and I’ll try and explain.
Whilst we were in south-east Asia the kids didn’t have backpacks. The reason for this was because we travelled very quickly, no more than three nights in one place, all the accommodation I booked had pools or was beachside and so they had no need for toys. It was very exciting and fast paced and all of the activities we did were child friendly and fun and in the evenings we were out in food markets. They fell asleep as soon as their heads hit the pillow!
However when we back-packed central America we booked accommodation for a week at a time and it often wasn’t as child friendly. For example we spent a week overlooking Lake Atitlan in Guatemala where the house was very rural. We took some time to rest and they were grateful for having a small selection of toys. On this occasion they each had very small, half size backpacks that they could manage and knew were entirely their own responsibility.
We are just about to backpack Jordan and Egypt and they will not take their backpacks, instead they have opted just to take their MP3 players and headphones and share a small backpack with me and my camera.
Get kids on board with research
It goes without saying that when kids feel included their behaviour is much improved and their participation is much greater.
I’m not suggesting you give them an entirely free reign (although this has worked really well with our teenager) but allowing them the ability to research and help with planning is very beneficial to them and you. As we don’t have access to libraries, we encourage our children to use Google Images to find places or activities that look interesting. At 8 and 10 they’re not ready to read blogs but they can use Pinterest.
This is how they discovered a cooking course in Thailand which was a HUGE success and Phare Cambodian Circus in Siem Reap.
Note on the teenager: I gave her a monthly budget and asked her to plan where we could go. I gave her a list of everything that had to be included in the cost (flights, transport, accommodation, food, spending money etc) and allowed her the freedom to choose us a country to visit within Europe. She did very well and that’s why we visited Sardinia.
Compromise & Negotiate
The two words parents detest most. Am I right?!
It’s really eessential though that when you’re backpacking to compromise and negotiate with your kids. Fast travel can be pretty exhausting and to avoid burned-out kids you might have to compromise on your expectations.
So long as I factored in enough pool or swim time, my kids were happy to come and spend the day looking at temples and markets. They even had a good time lol.
It’s super important to have expectations but it’s crucial to be realistic too. Here’s our top tips on how to get the best out of backpacking with kids.
- Don’t cram in too much.
- Be content with what you’ve achieved.
- Be flexible.
- Always be positive.
- Understand their needs are different to yours.
- They will find fun anywhere they go, so whilst you’re admiring the temples, they’re looking for bugs on the floor.
- Let them get dirty. It’s only dirt. It can be washed off.
- Don’t be too precious. About anything!
- Remember to laugh. Don’t take yourself too seriously lol.
Is backpacking for you?
Backpacking isn’t for everyone! Rich hates it, I love it and our kids sometimes love it (depending on the location).
How about you? If you haven’t been backpacking have we convinced you to have a go at it? If you’re a regular backpacker, will you keep going?
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