How To Backpack With A Toddler (Part 1)

backpack with a toddler

This is a guest post by the hugely knowledgeable and informed Eternal Voyageur. This incredibly brave lady backpacked around South America pregnant and with a two year old kiddo! Impressive no?!

How to Backpack with a Toddler

People often hesitate to travel with small children. Not only do they expect it to be hard work, but they feel guilty about dragging the little ones around the world for their own selfish pleasure. Here I’ll tell you why you shouldn’t wait to travel till your kids are older, and how to stay sane through it all!One of the best trips in my life was in the seventh month of pregnancy, with 2-year old Pequenita and my husband. It was a week-long overland travel from Lima, Peru to Cochbamba, Bolivia involving 16-hour bus rides, lots of museums, trekking at 4000 meters above sea level, picking flowers, tantrums and making friends with llamas. Not only did I actually survive – it was fun ! It was probably the best trip of my life. My inspiration for for this was my mom, who traveled with my younger brothers and me all over India, all on a shoe-string budget. Whenever I got worried about travelling with kids, I think of my mom. (For info on backpacking while pregnant check out my article here)

Why You Should Consider Traveling with Your Toddler

Why would you backpack with a kid anyway?

If you love travelling, why should you let anyone stop you from doing it? That tiny tot in your arms ? Think of him as a fledgling backpacker and discoverer. After the initial rough patch, most kids love travelling. Besides, it’s not like you’re talking about pub-hopping all night: travelling is an amazingly enriching experience that every kid deserves! Kids are one of the best culture-bridges. Toddlers usually make contact with strangers easily, and even if yours is shy he will make you appear more approachable. You’ll get smiles, curious questions and even food from the locals. So, although having a kid with you does mean missing out on some stuff, you also get experiences which you would have missed otherwise.

I feel guilty dragging my kids through the world for my selfish pleasure! Shouldn’t I wait till my kids are older?

There is no magical age when kids start automatically tolerating long bus drives and museums, if they’ve never done them before. In fact, the older they are, the less adaptable they become. And they are way more vocal about what they don’t like. The younger they catch the travel bug, the more they’ll love travelling later!

But my kids won’t remember anything of it anyway!

I’ll bet you don’t remember what you learned in first grade either, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have gone to school. At this age kids learn through experiencing and doing, and exposing them to a different culture and a new environment gives them so many opportunities to learn. They will learn new skills, develop a sense of adventure, learn to “rough it,” expand their physical and mental comfort zone. I was amazed how independent and self-sufficient Pequenita became in just two short weeks of our journey. She got a chance to talk more Spanish, see all the animals that she only knew from pictures, try out weird fruits and get down and dirty in nature (something that she couldn’t get much of in normal city-life).

I can’t imagine a 3-hour drive with my child, let alone a 20-hour flight…

The first flight with Pequenita was pretty hard since she couldn’t stay still and ran around the aisles till she bumped into an armrest. Gradually she learned that there are times when she has to sit still and occupy herself. The flight home was a breeze. Moral: Kids will learn to survive transport, but only through experience. If you don’t teach your kids to get through the hardships of travelling now, they will be just as whiny and difficult at the age of 10.

Kids are as comfort-loving as you make them

In my travels as a kid in India, we did 2-week long treks in the Himalayas and 36-hour train rides in second class. We learned to grin and bear discomforts for the sake of the amazing adventures ahead of us. Life in the West can be a bit too comfortable, and breeds comfort-lovers who can’t imagine leaving their hair dryer behind and facing the bugs in the tent. View this as a chance to infect your kids with the travel bug and teach them the fun of roughing it!

How to Travel with a Toddler: The Nitty Gritty Details

Where to go

Consider redefining ‘kid-friendly.’ Are you thinking in categories of stroller-friendly roads and changing tables in public bathrooms? Peru had none of that and their high-chairs were incredibly rickety. But nobody minded a toddler running around an old monastery, nobody shushed us in museums and a couple of times the waitresses played with Pequenita while we ate. So, I guess that makes Peru more child-friendly than many parts of Europe. Another great thing about the third world is that you can afford that extra seat in the bus, if needed – though obviously, you don’t want to go somewhere with extreme temperatures or raging epidemics. Also check if your child is old enough for the necessary vaccinations. But other than that… don’t limit yourself to the western world!

Don’t do it alone

You need another adult with you, trust me on that. I mean, imagine getting your kid and all your stuff through the airport security check without a second pair of hands (and legs)!? Preferably the adults should outnumber the kids. Also, your travel partner should be strong enough to carry the toddler.

Teaching useful skills before travel

Depending on the age of your toddler this might be teaching them words for “hungry” or “full diaper,” walking on the street while holding your hand, teaching them to use a grown-up toilet or simply squatting (lots of kids will balk at squatting behind a bush if they have never done it before !) This is not, I repeat not, a good time to start toilet training.

What you need to learn before travel

Scour the net for new finger games, songs; learn to make origami. I also taught Pequenita the llama song.

What To Pack when Traveling with Children

  • Bibs: you won’t need to take so many shirts.
  • Kitchen towels: (stronger and bigger than tissues) for cleaning hands, as impromptu bibs, diaper wipes, etc. Tear the sheets from the roll and fold into squares.
  • Quick-drying clothes: toddlers get extremely dirty (as if I need to tell you that), so you’ll be doing a lot of washing. If the clothes dry fast, this is very easy and painless.
  • A wide-brimmed hat, with an elastic: Actually we bought this in Peru, since the hats in Germany have really narrow brims. An elastic or string to tie under the neck is a must.
  • Sunscreen: it’s important to choose mineral sunscreen without nano-particles. Chemical sunscreens have hormone-mimicking ingredients that can really mess with a kid’s health. Luckily, kids don’t mind the whiteness of mineral sunscreen!
  • Insect-repellent: this is tricky, since they are usually pretty toxic. If going for something with DEET, make sure that it is not more than 30%, The new Autan from Bayer is DEET-free, and is reported to be pretty effective.
  • Sleeping bag: It’s really convenient, like when your kid is curled on your lap in a bus and a blanket would keep getting entangled or falling off.
  • Diapering: Diaper-changing pad: we used a light, disposable one for the whole trip. I’ve became an expert in squatting down in tiny Bolivian toilets and changing Pequenita on the floor. Don’t bother to bring diapers, they are available in most parts of the world. What I did bring with me was some organic baby wipes (that’s because I’m concerned about the chemicals and perfumes even in German baby wipes). These wipes were just for emergencies, normally we used paper tissues moistened with water.
  • Kid’s own backpack: if they show interest in having one. This also works as a museum pack.
  • Snacks for the flight: I had apples, dried fruit and organic crackers.
  • Toys: Don’t take much from home, since it is a better idea to buy pretty local handicrafts at your travel destination. Stuffed llama or a condor finger-puppet anyone? I’d suggest bringing something old and something new from home. The new item for novelty, and the old for security (that would be your kid’s favourite toy or comfort item. Pichichinia had a pair of striped pyjamas that she HAD to have with her at all times).
  • Hand puppets are also great ideas since since they provide endless play possibilities, and might even be helpful in convincing your kid to eat her food. Also, a little notepad with a pencil tied to it is very versatile. A book can also be nice, we took a “Wimmel buch” because they are chock-full of tiny little scenes, and kids can spend a month looking through each one.
  • An attachment strap like the ones for pacifiers: It’s lovely to have something that will prevent the bear from falling under the bus seat every other minute.

Tomorrow, Part 2 – surviving the flight, making it through museums and cajoling the picky eater!  Have you ever traveled with a kiddo? Any other advice to share?
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  1. Nisha

    Seriously, that's so inspiring- putting the rest of us to shame!

    Don't have kids yet but something I would love to do! Very much like The Wild Thornberrys hehehe I think it would teach your kids so much and would be really fun.

  2. Amélie

    Such a great post! I've realized recently that I want two things really in life: 1) live wild transcontinental adventures, & 2) have kids with someone I love. After reading this, I'm starting to think it might not be as incompatible as I had initially thought! ;p

  3. Claire

    I love this! It's so inspirational and encouraging. I'm passionate about traveling and I can't imagine giving it up once I have a family. I'd love to give my future children the opportunity to experience travel and other cultures while their still young. Thanks for posting!

  4. Kitty

    What a great post. So many people are convinced that having babies will be the end of their lives… Hooray for those who know better!


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