In the glorious yesteryears, children were tasked from a young age carrying their own weight. By 3 they’d be in charge of basic chores: cleaning, milking cows, collecting firewood, feeding babies, carrying small loads. Mozart took up the harpsichord at 3, and by 4 Larry McMurtry was driving cattle. So this last season, with 3 years of regular family backpacking under his belt, it was time for my boy Jackson to carry his own pack. Leading to a frustrating search for a proper hiking pack for a 4-year-old. Enter my go-to Deuter and their youth Climber 22L Backpack.
Finding a Youth Backpack
On our first backpack trip of the summer, we packed Jackson’s pre-K bookbag with his change of clothes, gloves, and hat, and a thin bedtime book. But without internal structure, school book bags don’t distribute weight well, not to mention they lack waist and chest straps to keep it hugging the core and hips. Only about 2 miles in he had to transfer his pack to us, which defeated the purpose of him having his own pack.
The key to finding a backpack for young kids, I discovered, is to ensure it’s the right length and that it’s engineered for backpacking. Measure the spine from waist to neck was how I narrowed it down to the, like, 3 outdoors packs that actually fit young’uns. With a stated torso range of 10-17 inches, though, the Climber had the widest spread I saw. Jackson’s spine is 11 inches and it just fits (on the bigger side). I’ll bring the value of this up later but suffice it to say 4-year-olds — and nearly all 5-year-olds — should be perfect to get into this pack. After size, though, you also have to make sure it has waist and chest straps. We tried out a few others and they were more like kids’ bookbags sold by outdoor companies as an afterthought. The Deuter Climber 22L is actually a kid’s outdoor pack. Now it was time for the fun part — Jackson’s first big trip.
Backpacking with Kids
For our first ever dudes-only backpack, Jackson and I returned to an old favorite 9K+ foot shelf about 4 miles from the nearest trailhead, reached by a final push up the Devil’s Staircase. I had all the camping gear so it was a necessity that he carries his own clothes, water bottle, and snacks. The waist strap was a little loose on the string bean boy but once he put his jacket and a thicker layer on — did I mention we were racing a cold rainstorm along the canyon floor? — it fit perfectly. He made it the first 3 miles with little more than a bathroom break. With his bookbag he’d complained about a mile in about shoulder pain; with the Deuter Climber, he never complained. Like, never. Even when we were powering uphill at a pretty aggressive pace. This was hands down the most weight he’d ever carried and the longest distance he’d gone at a steady clip and the kid killed it. At 22L and less than a pound and a half, it’s perfect — any more capacity, you risk an elementary schooler flagging underweight. Any less, what’s the point? No doubt the cross-body straps and the plastic internal frame came in huge. And as boy or girl grows, there are plenty of points for clipping on extra pieces of gear from climbing poles to a sleeping bag to ice axe; And it’s hydration pack compatible. But I wondered, could it handle the abuse a young mountain goat can deliver?
Our late-summer backpack was over 3 miles to our site (with another couple miles after to the peak). The in was a sweaty trudge through muggy trees and sun-baked canyon rim. But given that Deuter has applied the airflow tech from its leading grown-up packs to this kid’s pack, he never overheated. The following day we hiked out in a storm cell and everything inside stayed dry. Which we’d actually already tested on that prior mission up to the Teton Shelf.
On that trip, it had been raining off and on the whole time. We’d stopped just below the stone steps to the shelf, built a camp, and cooked dinner in a vestibule to avoid the downpour. But after it passed, I’d turned to the boy: “So, what do you want to do?”
“Let’s get to the top.”
We packed up the tent and continued on. His change of clothes and his small book were dry and warm despite thick beads of water on the pack. It keeps the sweat down and keeps out the cold rain. That helps take your kid comfortably and properly into everything an outdoor adventure can throw at him or her.
And when it comes to versatility, how about staying through the ages? Kids grow, fast. With the wide range of heights and the 22L capacity, this is the pack your little adventurer can rock out for a couple years. But as we’re nearing back-to-school, this pack can also hold changes of clothes, water bottle, and anything else they’d need for pre-K and elementary school. It doubles as the coolest back-to-school pack, guaranteed to impress kids and parents alike.
Jackson’s backcountry pack also became his summer camp pack and his travel pack. He wears it onto the camp bus with pride. He packed his toys and books and iPad into it for a trans-con flight. So instead of another 20-dollar Target pack speckled with frog tesselations that’ll last maybe one year, why not buy a pack that can carry the stuff to class and school and travel in mountain adventure style but also excel on big backcountry missions?
Let me get one thing straight – I get to test a lot of gear for free. But I’ve spent more money on packs from Deuter than from any other company. They blend that Teutonic ruggedness with features and details for days. My first Deuter pack was a Guide 45+ (https://www.backcountry.com/deuter-guide-45-pack-2750cu-in) that I purchased because it was the only pack I could find with both an ice axe holder and a vertical snowboard carry. Then I was looking for a kid-carrying pack and lo and behold, after exhaustive research I discovered that the best was the Deuter Kid Comfort III (https://www.rei.com/product/864894/deuter-kid-comfort-3-child-carrier ) – that was the pack in which I carried Jackson comfortably up to the 11,200-foot summit of Sleeping Indian just after his 1st birthday, his first big summit. It’s pretty appropriate, then, that Jackson’s first outdoors backpack of his own is a Deuter.
From the moment it arrived he’s loved it; lined it up next to my Guide to comment on how much they look the same. Takes special joy in blowing the whistle built into the chest strap (though we’ve quickly taught him that’s only for emergencies). He packs it himself and has learned some very important lessons, such as “I don’t need to bring that toy camping with us since it’ll just add to the weight of my pack.” Being a kid, he’s taken some beaters, scraping it along jagged rock or chugging it through scratchy bramble when he decides he wants to make his own path; thanks to the 210-denier ripstop nylon outer, the pack still looks like new. My only word of caution is, if your kid is tall but thin like ours, lengthwise it fits but even cinched all the way the waist strap isn’t tight when just rocking a T-shirt. But yeah, that’s about it for the cons. Even the price is nothing, especially for a piece of sturdy gear he’ll probably have until he’s into middle school.
So as you finish up back-to-school shopping for your single-digits pup – much less if you just want to get the kid a functional outdoors pack – become that hero parent; get the versatile, rugged and super-engineered Deuter Climber 22L.