When we say our family follows the “one bag” rule, that includes babies and toddlers. Packing light is a necessity for us no matter what age our kids are.
I know, I know — with kids it can feel like you literally need to pack the kitchen sink to make sure you’re prepared for the unexpected, not to mention make transitions smooth and bedtime better and just keep your sanity in general.
The truth is you can get by with far less than you think you need. Less than all the packing checklists on the parenting websites tell you bring. Less than you’ll be very tempted to pack.
Why you can trust me on this whole “packing light” thing…
We really have run the gamut when it comes to traveling with babies and toddlers.
Kepler was only 11 months when we left for our one year, around-the-world trip and Johanna was just three. A year after we returned from that trip, we went back on the road when Kepler was two and a half and I was pregnant.
Since then we’ve taken Oliver on a domestic flight at two weeks old and done extensive road tripping when he was two months. All in all, we’ve done the crawling, nursing, napping baby thing and the whiny, slow-walking, mess-making toddler thing, not to mention the outfit-changing, tree-climbing, knee-hole-ripping big kid thing.
All while traveling. With one backpack per kid. It really is possible!
A “Travel Light” Backpacking Checklist for Babies & Toddlers
Back when we were first preparing to travel, I searched for good advice on specifically what to pack for kids and I didn’t find much.
Sure, there are plenty of websites and articles that teach you what to bring for adults, but a whole lot less when it comes to backpacking or traveling light with babies and small children.
My goal in sharing the finer details is to give you what I wish I’d had. Someone willing to open their bags and show me the contents. Here we go!
What’s in my 5 year old’s backpack
1 pair zip-off pants (= pants + shorts)
1 pair light sweat pants (for cold days and double as pajama bottoms)
1 rain jacket
1 light fleece hoodie
1 long sleeve shirt
5 short sleeve shirts (1 button up, 3 tees, 1 rash guard)
3 shorts (1 doubles as swim trunks)
1 hat (actually, this time I’ve got two because I know how easily little kid hats get lost and in a hot, sunny climate, I don’t want to be without one)
5 pairs underwear
2 socks – these can be worn under Keens if we either hit a really chilly day (not likely, but it’s always possible) OR if we’re hiking and the mosquitoes are bad
**Notice that everything generally matches. It’s all varying shades of navy, brighter blue, red and gray, plus neutral khaki-colored shorts. The idea is to make sure all the tops can be worn with all the bottoms. If you have maybe one top that doesn’t match one bottom, that’s probably ok, but more mis-matches than that and you might get frustrated when half their clothes are dirty and suddenly you can’t pull together a proper outfit.
***How I would alter this for multi-climate travel – I actually wouldn’t change much if we’d be encountering spring/fall weather as well. I might swap one tee for an extra long sleeve and bring a couple extra socks. If we’d be in chillier climates longer I’d consider adding running shoes, although we’ve found Keens with socks can transition very easily between changing climates. I might replace the light sweats with jeans and add in one pair of really light pajama pants for layering. But this is very similar to how we packed for around the world, in which we hit all the seasons. When we were in cold climates we layered up really well, and purchased inexpensive hats, gloves and scarves (and better shoes once when we hit cold weather for a 6 week stretch) and then we ditched all the extras when we moved on from that climate. Of course, packing for extended travel in a mostly cold climate would look quite different, but that will have to wait for another post.
- If his bag has room and isn’t getting to heavy, I may add an extra t-shirt to put in rotation as a pajama shirt/extra play shirt
- I could swap out jeans for the light sweat pants, and I probably would for a bigger kid and let them bring pajama pants/shorts. But I’m trying to keep his bag lighter because he’s young and he really likes cozy pants, so I think he’ll be happier with these and they fulfill two purposes.
- Flip flops – we may pick up a cheap pair along the way
Other things we’ll bring for Kepler:
- A stuffed friend (like a Beanie Boo) or possibly a handful of the smaller stuffed keychain Beanie Boos (he is obsessed with these toys and always sleeps with one or nine), and maybe a few small animal figurines.
- A small zip-up bag with lego (no bigger than a quart sized ziploc bag)
- A small notebook and pencil case with pencils and crayons
It all has to fit into the front zip compartments of his backpack and this is about the limit of what it will hold comfortably. I’m not a huge fan of sticking items into the mesh pockets on the sides, because I know from experience they can get lost that way.
What’s in my 20 month old’s backpack
1 pair rain splash pants (these are a little warmer than the cotton pants)
1 pair light cotton pants (I intentionally chose these because they have elastic ankles to help keep bugs out)
1 pair of two-piece light pajamas
1 light fleece zip-up sweater
1 rain jacket
2 onesies (double as tee shirts or pajamas on hot nights)
1 rash guard
3 tee shirts
1 long sleeve shirt
4 shorts (one is swim trunks)
1 Flip cloth diaper cover (to use for swimming under his shorts)
1 pair closed-toe sandals
1 pair leather Robeez (slip on shoes with elastic ankles)
2 hats (same reason as above – and one hat is more covering, specifically for at the beach)
2 pairs socks
A few notes on what I chose:
- He got 4 shorts instead of 3 because there’s no such thing as zip-off pants for babies. That said, if it feels like overkill, I’ll get rid of one pair as we go (I just find places I can donate used clothing, just like I would back home)
- I’m tempted to bring an extra onesie because they’re so handy, but his pack is already getting full and I can probably buy one on the road if needed
- And again, I coordinated all of the colors – he’s got gray, navy, brighter blue, white and a touch of green and orange. There is one black tee shirt in there that doesn’t look good with the one pair of navy shorts, but everything else matches so I think we’re good. And if I’m desperate, we’ll mix navy and black and be cool like that. 🙂
Other things we’ll bring for Oliver:
- A stuffed friend or baby doll of his choosing
- A small zip-up bag with animal figurines, his current toy of choice.
- One glass bottle for nap/night. (We have this one)
- A portable baby bed – we chose the Peapod Plus and it will go in the bottom of Ryan’s backpack.
- Possibly an Ergo baby carrier (we’re just making sure we can fit it, because it has to go in one of our adult bags which are already carrying a lot, but carriers are amazing for when we go for walks or hikes). We did bring the Ergo on our year long trip when we had a younger baby and used it a lot until he got closer to 2 years near the end of our trip, which is why I’m a bit hesitant about it. Oliver will be almost 2 by the time we get home. But if it fits, it’ll come. EDIT: I did some more research, because the Ergo just really wasn’t going to fit. A wonderful reader suggested the Ergo Stowaway, which folds up much smaller. From there, I went on a rabbit trail and ultimately found the even lighter and more compact Boba Air which is what we’ve chosen to use.
- A sturdy lightweight umbrella stroller – I never, ever travel without a stroller for a child under 3. They make life a million times easier. We like the Chicco Capri stroller a lot (we’re on our second one, after our first was stolen while traveling – big bummer).
- One large lightweight blanket (like a swaddling blanket) – we’ll use this whenever a hotel or rental house doesn’t have extra sheets or blankets or for when we’re on the plane or bus. I’ll keep it in my bag.
- Disposable diapers, purchased in small amounts as we go along. I may try to potty train him once we arrive in the warmer weather, but we’ll see. He’s still young.
- A plastic bib that folds up super small (I think it’s a old version of this inexpensive Bumkins bib)
Who’s carrying Oliver’s things?
He is, sort of. We’ve got a very small, toddler-sized backpack for him (it’s a 12 L REI Sprig – now called the Tarn). He can wear it so long as I pack it a little light. When I tried putting all his gear in, he was pretty wobbly and did a turtle-on-its-back move.
All the “extras” (bed, bottle, blanket, stroller, etc.) will be carried by either Ryan or I. Oliver’s backpack will contain a lightened version of the wardrobe listed above. The extra items will go either in one of our backpacks, or possibly in one of our two oldest children’s packs, depending on who can take it best.
But realistically, Oliver will hardly wear his pack (at least until he walks more steadily – he’s competent but still a tad wobbly at times). Mostly his pack will be slung over the stroller handle or over my backpack’s handle (I have a convertible pack with wheels and retractable pull handle).
So why still bring a pack for him? Well, mine is just large enough that most airlines will probably make me check it, so I like to be able to bring his on as a carry-on for clothing changes as needed. I also like the separation of having each person’s things contained to one bag. And my new bag is a bit smaller than last time we travelled, so I can’t carry his clothes like I did on our round-the-world trip.
Plus, I’m a fan of training even small children to carry their own gear for short periods of time, so long as you’re not asking them to carry something that’s too much for their body size/ability.