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What age to start kids into winter backpacking?

The Question:

At what age do most people start taking your children out on overnight winter trips in real winter conditions?

i.e. snow and ice on the ground , temps generally below freezing during the day, and say down to 0F at night or colder etc


Some background:

So my son is 5(6 in may), and he now comes with me on all of my trips spring-fall for the most part. He's in the 98% for height, so he's about the size of your average 7 or 8 yr old. He is also a pretty rough and tumble tough kid. No issues at all in more moderate weather, and he thoroughly enjoys it. We typically will do about 4 or 5 miles max in a day over relatively easy terrain, or only 2 or so over tougher terrain. I carry the vast majority of the gear, but he has a small pack that he carries some basic things like a change of clothes, a water bottle, compass, whistle, flashlight etc. Nothing more than a few pounds.

The details:

I am a year round backpacker, rain , sleet, shine , or snow. I have been hesitant thus far to bring him out on an extremely foul weather trip, mainly because I am almost certain he wouldn't find it enjoyable just yet. He doesn't mind a little rain, but when it's a complete washout he just isn't to the point where he enjoys it yet. That being said, he has really been pushing me to take him out on a winter trip. We do go on winter day hikes with no issue, but then we are only out for 2 or 3 hours max.

My real concern is here in the northeast it can get pretty darn cold at night depending on the week and of course location. I don't doubt that he would have fun provided the weather was somewhat mild, but I am just hesitant due to how bad things can turn in the winter in short notice. I am also concerned with him truthfully voicing discomfort or problems in the event it was too cold for him etc, or I guess more specifically he telling me early on and not when he was already soaked from sweat etc. I don't have any reason to believe he would, I just know from my experience with winter backpacking that I need to do certain things as soon as I begin to detect them to prevent things from getting worse. Example: like if I start to get hot and sweat I need to shed layers etc

My gut is saying maybe wait another year or two at least, but I am wondering if I am just being overly cautious. So, what do you do?



The fact that you are thinking and asking about it, and already going on trips with him, means you are an awesome dad. Therefore, I would trust your gut and wait a year. Caution never hurts and could build the anticipation even more for that first winter trip.

My son has participated in his first winter backpacking trip when he was 1.5 year old. After the first night we decided that some equipment must be fixed accordingly (our Hilleberg tent appeared too cold, and our sleeping pads - too thin).


A few months later we performed another winter trip with updated equipment, which had more success. But the child's mood was still too unstable. And starting from 2 years and half our son looks pretty happy in winter trips. But we don't go outdoors in temperatures too below the freezing. Around zero is fine.


I don't think there is a specific age. You have to balance the body and temperament of the kid with conditions and equipment to calculate if a child (or an adult heh) should be included. We do extended, multi hour snowshoe hikes, but no overnights yet. Our daughter doesn't have much meat on her bones so while clothing can keep her warm when active, she can't sit for long if it is really cold.

Good luck, have fun, bring a few extra hand warmers just in case would be my advice if you go.

Start out by winter car camping.  Then you have more gear to work with. You can abort the mission if it does not go well.  You can even start the truck heater. 

Perfect for a tent with a wood stove. 

We grew up in the outdoors from the diaper stage.  Dad took me out of school for deer hunting season for a week starting in the third grade. 

Use huts if available. Your kids will be much happier, and that means you will be too. Intermediate strategy would be to tent outside but use the hut for cooking and socializing.

I always start with how experienced the parent is. If the parent doesn't know what they are doing, then they shouldn't be endangering the kids. In your case, I'm not concerned. 

But why not start in your backyard or car camping. Have a situation where you can bug out easily enough if he's miserable. From there, expand your range until he's on the trail with you. 

not much to add, except that i would distinguish backpacking and camping from alpine climbing. in the last few years, a thirteen year old American boy and thirteen year old Indian girl reached the summit of Everest. The boy's family seemingly liked the publicity; the girl's parents are farmers in Andhra Pradesh, and she was introduced to climbing at a fairly young age because she showed talent for it. Either way, these were probably exceptional circumstances.

for camping in a less remote situation, i think people should exercise good judgment and use common sense for their situation. I can think of some eight year olds who would love camping out and cooking in the winter; it's probably best to start out in a situation where it would be pretty easy to bail out.

summer climbing, there are plenty of middle/high school kids who have awesome skills and experience, properly supervised. for winter, I might do a clinic or two or an introductory visit to the mountains in the winter, but I would wait until sixteen or seventeen to tackle a serious winter trip in the mountains unless the child has shown real interest and aptitude at a younger age.      

I remember my first long day in the cold woods: a cub scout outing somewhere in the woods NW of Chicago.  I brought a sweater.  It ended up drizzling all day.  I endured and disliked it.  I knew something about the experience wasn't acceptable, and now as an adult I realize it was poor planning by my parents and poor supervision by the attending adults.

There are some good suggestions posted.  If you are concerned you son may get wet or too cold, let him know the importance of staying dry, and let him know that you'll have several extra pairs socks and gloves for when this occurs.  Likewise advise him that getting too hot will lead to being wet and cold, later.  And same for putting on more layers before getting uncomfortably cold. 


We definitely do a lot of day hikes, and I suppose I could drive a ways to an actual place where we could car camp, but that isn't really feasible right now. In CT car camping is almost nonexistent, at least in any fashion that I would find enjoyable. All of the state forest campgrounds close on september 4th it appears anyway.

About the closest I can get the car to any given trail campsite is about a mile. While that isn't very far, it would be essentially 10 miles at 2am with a 5 year old having a "moment". So, while the thought of being able to bail is nice, it also would not be my first choice haha.

I don't think I will take him out on an overnight this winter season. We will begin our regular trips in the spring and I will see how it goes this year. I think with another year he will be a little more responsible and understand some of the things I am trying to convey to him a bit better.


TR do you use a sled to haul your winter gear or backpack? I can see where the pulk could come in handy with a kid you needed to haul out of the woods in a hurry. Just bungee cord em down on top of the load and off you go ;)

I think you're probably making the right call not to rush things. Cold weather camping requires a lot of focus to stay safe and little minds are always wandering.

It really depends on where you are when the kid is growing up. In our case, we went skiing (staying in a lodge) when Young Son was about 4 years old. His first experience was, admittedly, terrifying. We had put him with a Kid's Intro to Skiing school while Pa and Ma were out skiing for the day. Since he caught on quickly (we thought!), we took him out with us. However, he froze up as he came down the hill, panicked at heading for a pylon and not knowing how to turn. Luckily he fell down  well short of the lift pylon. At that point, we put him back in the Kid's Intro, then hired a personal ski instructor. By the end of the week, he was out-skiing Pa and Ma, and participating in a Kid's Slalom course. He still out-skis me

Now, note that we were staying in a nice warm lodge. Over the years, we began including him on Boy Scout Troop winter camping in tents, at about 6 to 7 y.o.

In general for the Scout Winter Camping, we introduce the youth to winter camping (tents and snow shelters) at 8-9 Y.O. Frankly, we have more problems with the parents than the youth.

In the photos below, the gear was carried in on backpacks to the campsites. Mostly we pulled sleds in with the gear. Most of the time, we used snowshoes, but part time we used skis as you can see in the photos.






Thanks for your input Bill. My son goes out snowshoeing with me on day hikes, and on hikes with microspikes etc if snowshoes aren't warranted and does pretty good for his age. I've just noticed that he tends to keep discomfort to himself I.e. just embracing the suck lol. Which is why I have been hesitant to take him on true winter overnights just yet. I'm hoping with another year or so under his belt that he will understand the importance more of all of these little things I am telling him. Right now he won't say anything until he has a problem , I am trying to convey to him the importance of prevention.

For example this weekend we went on a day hike and he got one of his feet wet in a very minor stream crossing. He didn't say anything until about two hours later when his foot was super cold. Easily taken care of, but it's just little things like that that still give me cause for concern.

He always tells me about problems, it's just usually delayed to the point of it being an actual problem and not simply an inconvenience, minor problem etc. One hike at a time, we are getting there and improving!

While I am not sure what age would be a good first winters hike. When I very young I used to play outdoors a day in winter during school breaks and weekends, building my first snow caves, and igloo's. I even had a small camp tent I used to pretend I was living outdoors, I started winter camping with the Boy Scouts in the late 70's. Then in the late 70s in the late winter of 79-80 I winter camped alone from the beginning of January to the end of May.

I think the best way to introduce children to winter camping, is allowing them to try it out in the backyard. Then maybe while doing this pack a backpack for them to carry and allow them to just hike up and down the trails and roads nearest home. Then make some meals outdoors as if you were really in the wilds to show the practice of being outdoor. Then when you think they are ready take them out just overnight away from home, then a few nights if possible then longer. 

Winter camping is a frame of mind and body! You have to adjust to using clothing and a sleeping bag to stay warm 24/7. Doing most common camp chores can be a "*itch", melt ice and snow to make water, finding wood for fires buried under tons of snow! Snowshoeing or cross country skiing. Learn them to make a emergency snow cave. Igloo's are a lot of wet work and can take hours to make.

I now winter in Tucson where the only snow might exist on Mt Lemmon in the Catalina's.

Anyway I hope your kids have fun finding out about winter camping!

No such thing as too young even if they have to be carried. I walked miles to school when I was 5 at -40 or worse and most of the other children walked even further. Now a couple of blocks is too much so kids have to be driven. Where I grew up there were no cars so kids had no choice.

Kids will accept anything if they don't know any better. We all accepted it because everyone lived that way. We did not know the pioneering days were over and everyone had gone soft. I was in grade 3 or so when a child came up from boarding school in the city. I tried to show her my school but she collapsed half way there. She did not have to walk more than a few yards a day. She could not believe we lived this way. In retrospect it was fortunate she did not reach the school for if she needed to use the bathroom, the outhouse would not have been a pleasant experience, especially in winter. I thought her unbelievably soft, as I had never met anyone like that before, but I later realized she was the norm and we were the exception.

The problem is not kids, but parents. I once went on a duck hunting trip with my father. There was already snow on the ground and I was freezing and wet in the canoe but I loved it. Probably by coincidence I fell sick after the trip and mother would not let me go duck hunting again. Parents are so risk adverse they don't let their children find their own limits. As a result they miss a lot of exciting adventures.

Despite my enthusiasm above, I feel obliged to add a note of caution. Never take children to a place you can't get back from.

I know this from experience. My daughter wanted to climb up a mountain. I thought she would soon tire of it and we left for the hike with just summer clothes and nothing else. A walk of a few minutes went on and on and higher and higher until we were nearing the summit and it was going to get dark and cold soon. As going down hill would be easier than going up I thought we would have time to do it before dark. However she decided she was not leaving her mountain, and lay down and refused to move. As it was an unplanned walk no one would know where we were or expect us for days. I could not go and get help as she might get lost in the woods or fall down. All I could do was literally drag her down off the mountain, which didn't bother her, but bothered me. Had the mountain been less steep I could not have done it. In these situations it is useful to take a responsible person with you to go back for help, or have a child you are able to control.

Pretty much this thread's question has been well answered but here are tidbits for others also.

I say as soon as you and they can handle it properly clothed and equipped. I carried my daughter in a snugli her first winter into the ADKs [she was born in January]. You know your child best and can also ask him or her...and let them be in on some of the planning if they are interested.

Had one grandson and  one granddaughter, her recently, on snowshoes at age 8 and they'd have been on them sooner if they lived closer to me. All 4 grandkids have their own packs, stoves, etc. and can use them.

My stepson was I believe aged 10 when we did Marcy in the winter.

Probably best to hike with the kids first multiple times, all weather, then backpack at first. You'll all learn.

With kids expect anything. The two girls showed up one time and hiked with Hoola Hoops. Really. And I've seen plenty of girls hike with mirrors and make up, etc. and one girl snowshoed in high heeled snow boots...was hard to keep the toe in the straps but she was happy and had fun.

Most important is get them out there and see what happens with proper introductions to whatever you plan to do.

I started my oldest son snow camping when my son was 11yo.  I am not rich so, we got our woolen pants and socks from military surplus stores.  He had enough sweaters, woolen socks, other close, etc.  He had a very good polarguard sleeping bag and we used a borrowed a friends TNF VE-24 tent.  He was in good condition for soccer season ended two weeks earlier.  We had been on several X-C ski day trips so, this trip would be different in that he would be carrying a backpack.  We spent three days and two nights and we had a great time.  Several years later I took my youngest son and my son in-law on a snow camping, the four of us had a fantastic time on the four day three night trip.

One factor that occurred to me is where in this country do you live?  I live in Silicon Valley, so it is always a 200 mile drive to get to snow country, this the only time my children visited snow country.  But, if you live where it snows in the fall and winter, your children are accustomed to cold winters and their perspective is entirely different.  Their will to spend long periods of time outdoors is far greater.

Adrian_D said:

But, if you live where it snows in the fall and winter, your children are accustomed to cold winters and their perspective is entirely different.  Their will to spend long periods of time outdoors is far greater.

 Unfortunately that's not entirely correct. My son is 3, and he sees snow every year, but in winter backcountry trips he's absolutely not interested in surrounding environment covered by snow. And it's difficult to walk for him. We must actively entertain him all day long, otherwise he's getting bored almost instantly. In summer trips the things are much easier.

I think you are both correct to some extent. Kids who grow up in a colder area are going to acclimate easier to cold weather camping, but kids are still kids. If they aren't mature enough to handle the mental aspects of cold weather camping no amount of expensive equipment is going to help. That applies to children and adults :)

I realized that part of being outdoors after I posted my last message. LoneStranger, you are correct.

LoneStranger said:

I think you are both correct to some extent. Kids who grow up in a colder area are going to acclimate easier to cold weather camping, but kids are still kids. If they aren't mature enough to handle the mental aspects of cold weather camping no amount of expensive equipment is going to help. That applies to children and adults :)

 Absolutely! Just listening to how many Mainers (it seems like a majority!) complain about winter starting sometime in November proves that location is pretty much irrelevant. What I do think is that people who live in cold areas and enjoy getting out in it do better than many others because they’re more in tune with how cold they can get before it becomes dangerous. 

Just give him a few more years. You want him to love winter camping as much as you do.

Explore different winter destinations and let him choose one that HE thinks will be fun.  

You sure don't want him to hate it.

October 28, 2020
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