08/27/2013 07:37 am ET Updated Oct 27, 2013

Backpacking With Kids

If you are anything like me, you pride yourself on the number of passport stamps you've earned. You brag about your adventures; your travel struggles; your experiences abroad. You've heaved a 40 pound backpack onto your shoulders and ascended mountains, explored darkened villages trying to find a bed for the night, and even (gulp) slept in places you wouldn't tell your mom about.

You, my friend, are a traveler. Not a tourist. Not on vacation. But a traveler.

Until you had kids.

Seems people like to make you feel like the only way to travel with little ones is to buy a rolling suitcase, stuff it with diapers, or toys, or playdoh, or cheddar bunnies; pay a buttload of cash to fly to some tropical destination resort that costs another buttload of cash; and then try to force yourself into having a vacation in a place that you know has culture, and street food, and humans, but none of that can be experienced inside the protected walls of your resort; and you wonder (worry) if it is safe to bring your precious mini-me away from the sanitized water, the kiddie pool (with slides!), and the 24-hour food service. And once you brave the energy to explore, hopping on a bus, or renting a car, or even walking, little Sadie needs a nap, or a diaper change, or is too hot, and you're backtracking to the hotel, ordering another round of pina coladas, and acting like vacation is oh-so-much-fun.


The truth: Let me be the first backpacking mama to tell you that a) resorts aren't all bad (more on that later); and b) you don't have to travel that way.

The low-down on resorts: I remember when I first had Kai and a traveling mama (who has taken her kids all over the world) said not to sneer too hard at resorts in the first few years of your child's life. Mainly because you need a break; you need to be pampered; and you need to relax. Life is hard enough with 2 a.m. teething fits and post-school meltdowns that really you do just want to chill by the pool and read People magazine. Ok, maybe not People, maybe the New Yorker.

If you do it once, twice, even 10 times, you have not lost your backpacker's sense of self. I promise. You can still make fun of the people who put a T-shirt on the lounge chair at 7 a.m. so they can claim their coveted seat by the pool. You can still complain about the price of nachos. You can still leave and go exploring.

I know what some of you are thinking: she sold out!

No, no no no no no no NOOOOO!

And to prove it, I will tell you a bit about my last adventure to Japan with my six- and two-year-old boys. Sure, Eddie and I now own a rolling suitcase and a backpack (though the backpack attaches to the rolling suitcase should we need additional back space); and yes, we did stay at hotels that are way nicer than I did when I was a 20-year-old backpacker in Europe. But we did maintain that backpack mentality.

We did not once eat in a chain restaurant. We skipped Tokyo Disney. We only visited Starbucks to pee and change a diaper (good international travel tip, FYI). We ate at noodle houses, in train stations, and department stores. We walked all over the city. We didn't have hotel reservations for the last four nights of our trip. We introduced our kids to Japanese people outside of our hotel. We talked to people. We explored. We spent time doing nothing on a river bank on numerous occasions. We took time to simply be without trying to do it all.

The Secret to Traveling With Kids: You see, your kids don't give a &@** about seeing every temple in Kyoto, in fact they can't really sustain attention in one. But they are more like backpackers than most adults, because they are present, and without plans. If they see a cool toy store, or grassy area, or bike rack, suddenly that is all they need to entertain themselves.

And so, while you may not be strapping your backpack on your back anymore, you can, and you should, strap your kids on your back. For them to live among other places, even for a week or two, seeing you work your way through a foreign culture, and then letting them help you decode subway ticket machines and maps, seeing you thrive in the joys of that foreign-ness, that sense of being lost and not caring, that sense of adventure, and spirit, offers more than any school lesson can impart.

Seeing the world cements your entire family's connection to the world. And as a traveler, isn't that why you started backpacking in the first place?

Should you need additional assistance setting up an adventure with kids, drop me a line. Check out my site Planet Playground.