Our go-to suggestion for your first backpacking trip with kids!
We’ve had quite a few people ask for advice on where to take their kids or baby on their first overnight backpacking trip & Portage Pass is top on our list! Of course, I always suggest that you do a practice run from your favorite drive-in campground! But if you are an avid backpacker & feel comfortable & ready for a trip out with your kids – this is it! The trailhead is only about 1.5 hours out of Anchorage, the hike is a fairly easy 2 miles (the first 750 ft are a little steep but after that it’s all downhill - & I’m not just saying that), & the views are INCREDIBLE! Bonus, you get to drive through the second longest tunnel in North America.
This trip is one that is very weather dependent! It starts from the little town of Whittier, & when it rains in Whittier it RAINS. So keep an eye on the weather before taking off because it can change quickly.
To get there you will pass through the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel – a one-way tunnel that is scheduled every hour, once through the tunnel follow the signs to the trailhead.
This hike has gotten very popular in the last few years, but the good news is – even if you see a ton of people on the trail, there is plenty of backpacking real-estate along Portage Lake, so with a little extra walking you can be sure to have your own spot.
This hike is best done in late spring or early summer as the snow cover can take awhile to melt off over the pass. Please check local forecasts & be prepared for weather & possible snow if you’re doing this in spring or late fall.
There is no parking lot for this trailhead, expect to sandwich between two cars with one side of your vehicle fully embraced by the bushes!
As with most of Alaska – there is no overnight camping permit required.
The hike ends at a lake, so you do not need to pack in extra water (but be sure to bring a water filter).
We usually use Portage Pass trip as a last minute – the weather looks great – one nighter. We know that the hike isn’t long, so we don’t fret over weight too much and usually pack real food (not freeze-dried backpacking meals) & some luxury items like camp chairs. Below is a detailed list of what we bring for one-night (including links to the items) – for two adults, a baby and one toddler. We pack all of this gear into two kid carriers with some additional gear strapped on the outside of the packs in dry bags.
Backpacks & Bags:
We have to use two kid carriers to backpack because we don't have true mini hikers yet! It is a real game of tetrus to get it all packed in, and requires strapping some of our gear on the outside in dry bags or lose. The Switch Back foam pads we always strap on the outside, making sure they are easy access because they make great places to sit for snack breaks. We also strap on tent pole bag, Kidco tent and usually a dry bag full off easy access layers/kid jackets & rainsuits.
- Deuter Kid Comfort 3 (latest version here) – this pack has less packing volume, but we have found it to be much more comfortable when loaded up! Particularly on the waistband! This pack also seems more comfortable for bigger kids/toddlers and this is what our 2 year old rides in.
- Poco Plus (newest version here) – larger storage volume, less comfortable. Our younger daughter rode in this one.
- Light weight dry bag
- Straps for securing gear
- COMPRESSION SACKS!! We pack ALL of our clothes, the tent, sleeping bags, ANYTHING that can compress we put in compression sacks!
Tent, sleeping bags & pads (aka the bedroom):
- Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL3 Hotel (discontinued in 2019), now available as the Copper Spur HV UL3 plus Copper HV UL3 Rainfly
Pads & Sleeping Bags:
- REI Women’s Magma 30F Down Bag (discontinued)
- Cocoon silk bag liner (adds 10 degrees of warmth to bag)
- Klymit Static V
- REI Men’s Magma 18F Down Bag (discontinued)
- Nemo Equipment Switchback Pad
- Down Snowsuit
- Kidco Peapod Sleeping Tent
Kitchen & Food:
Not listed in kitchen, but important is that we both pack a 1 or 1.5L water bladder for the hike. This hike ends at a lake, so there is no need to pack in additional water, just fill your bladder for the 2 mile hike in.
We keep all our kitchen gear in a mesh gear bag, makes it easy to contain & because of the mesh it's easy to see what's in the bag!
- MSR Pocket Rocket
- Sawyer Squeeze Water Filter
- Sea to Summit Water Kettle
- Snow Peak Sporks
- 1 8oz cannister of fuel
- 2 MSR mugs
- 1 small cup and plate for toddler
We eat breakfast at home before heading out!
- We bring dried fruit, crackers, sliced cheese, salami & usually empty a box of regular old mac&cheese into a ziplock (making it easier to pack). We have snacks or mac & cheese for lunch - we just feel out what the kids might eat.
- Our most recent trip to Portage Pass we brought veggie burgers, small pita bread, mustard, cheese & a red pepper and made some veggie burgers for dinner.
On the second day we have breakfast, pack up camp & start the hike back. Usually having some snacks at the car when we're done & then stopping in Girdwood for lunch!
- We usually do instant oatmeal or cream of wheat packets (we bring one each for the kids, and 2 for us - 4 total). We add dried fruit or trail mix from our snack stash & cinnamon from our Spice Rack to make it tastier.
- Snacks at the car & then drive to Girdwood Brewing Co for an after hike refreshment & food truck meal!
- First Aid Kit
- Ziplocks for used TP & diapers
- Paper towels (if you’re not bringing baby wipes)
- InReach - we have an older Dolorme Satalite Texter that we bring on our adventures for emergencies, but I feel strongly that you cannot rely on these as a fail safe! Know your skills & be prepared!
Luxury/Makes life easier with kids:
- Camp chairs – Helinox
- Tarp – or extra ground clothe. This is a big one for us, which babies and toddlers who crawl around & lay around it’s so nice to have a tarp along so that you can stay dry & really spread out and hang!
- Camp pillow stuff sacks!
What to wear:
Whittier is one of the rainiest places in Alaska, so make sure to go prepared! No matter the forecast, bring rain gear & warm clothes because the weather can change quickly! Below is the gear we pack on an over-night backpacking trip for one night. The last time we did this trip, it was beautiful and sunny on the way out & that night, but we woke up to cold rain! So please always be prepared no matter the forecast!
- Hiking pants or shorts (decide which is best depending on weather or bug season)
- Nursing sports bra
- Shirt – nothing special, it was a sunny day so I wore a t-shirt
- Altra Superior Trail Runners (or your go-to hiking footwear)
- Hiking pants (only if I hiked in shorts)
- Baselayer pants for sleeping (only if temps are in the low 40s or 30s)
- Extra Undies
- Rain jacket (because it’s Alaska & the forecast changes so fast!)
- Packable down jacket
- Thin fleece jacket
- 1 pair of wool socks (for sleeping/hanging at camp)
- 1 pair of super lightweight clogs (such as Crocs)
- A beanie
- Hiking pants, t-shirt, trail runners
- Patagonia R1 Hoodie
- Cotopaxi Windbreaker
- Raincoat (if forecasted – he’s a rule breaker & doesn’t always bring it)
- Extra undies & socks
- Packable Down Jacket
- Long sleeve or short sleeve shirt depending on weather – we don’t get too complicated with this. Etta often just wears a cotton shirt (taboo) and is fine.
- Pants – something she’s comfy in and moves easy. Again, she’s been known to wear cotton sweat pants
- Hiking shoes (Keen Chandler CNX are our absolute favorites!)
- 1 extra base layer (long sleeves and pants) – in a technical fabric or merino wool for sleeping in & hiking out in
- 1 fleece midlayer, used for sleeping (can just bring fleece pjs, but if you have separates that’s great because then you can use them for hiking out if the weather turns).
- Fleece jacket
- 2 extra pairs of wool socks (because this hike ends at water, & toddlers will be toddlers & get their feet wet).
- Trapper hat – for sleeping in & staying cozy!
- Crocs – we make sure to switch into crocs as soon as we get close to water! Her hiking shoes stay dry & the Crocs drain out & can keep being worn!
- Long sleeve shirt & pants (we rarely do short sleeves in Alaska because the baby isn’t walking and it’s rarely warm enough to need anything else and even then it’s nice to have her protected from the sun).
- Hat – sun hat or trapper depending on weather.
- Socks – if the baby is walking, bring shoes or booties
- 2 extra base layers (long sleeve shirts & pants, or a one piece jumper). We always bring 2 extras because babies are messy & the potential for a blow-out always exists).
- 1 fleece footed pjs
- Fleece Bunting
- 1 extra pair of wool socks
- Trapper hat
- Diapers & Wipes (we usually plan on 5 diapers a day – we have never used them all, but feel it’s better to be safe than sorry).
This trip is in bear country, so please be bear aware! Bring bear spray, keep your food away from your sleeping area. A bear canister is advised, although we do not use them (and they are not required). But if you would like to bring one along, there is a loan program in Alaska that allows you to borrow one! Please always review bear safety & know before you go!
We generally choose to hang out and make dinner a little ways away from our tent so that any food particles that get left behind or spilled (toddlers & babies!!) are away from our sleeping area.
Trail & Camping:
This hike is an out and back taking you to some of the most scenic & magical views after just two miles (not to mention the views while you hike). You end at Portage Lake & can camp anywhere along the lake. You can walk another mile-ish around the lake toward the glacier & camp closer to the glacier. There you can find a nice flat gravel bed with lots of flat space for setting up a tent. It’s more secluded from day hikers & the wide open space is great for kids to run around and play in the rocks!
This trip report serves as a guideline to backpacking Portage Pass. Please be honest you’re yourself and your abilities, tailor any packing lists to your own family’s needs & adventure with care!
Happy trails & of course please follow the LEAVE NO TRACE guidelines to keep our backcountry protected!
Let us know if you’ve done this trip before, if you have any additional information to add, or if you’ve got questions in the comments!