Backpacking in Europe With the Kids

An adventure through Italy with no luggage is a lesson in simplicity and solidarity—and easier than you'd think.

By Rehana J. Rousseau   |   March 22, 2021

Italy has a lot of choice when it comes to family-friendly accommodation—it also has a distinct family-focused culture.

The moment we stepped out of our Roman apartment and saw the look of amazement on our kids’ faces as the morning light hit the Colosseum, we knew we’d made the right choice. After all, taking the whole family backpacking is not for everyone (kids included). 

Three kids, three-plus weeks travelling through Italy, three backpacks carrying everything–our clothes, essentials and activities … just the thought of this can make even the most organized parent break out in a cold sweat. 

My husband and I decided to cross Italy off our travel bucket list after already having backpacked as younger, single people. However, until Italy, all the travelling we’d done with our kids included suitcases and packs filled with things we later realized were useless (and took up space). We decided to apply some of the same principles of solo, childless backpacking to our Roman (and Tuscan) family adventure. Here are a few ways we survived and thrived.

Plan together.
“Who collects the coins at the Trevi Fountain?! They must be rich!”

“I can’t wait to see David in person, Mama!”

“Can we eat gelato for breakfast?”

These were the words out of the mouths of my babes, and this is what planning a trip with kids sounds like. We read together about the places we wanted to visit, narrowing it down to Rome, Florence, Pisa and then further into Tuscany, to the seaside town of Livorno. We plotted our route on a map and made a countdown calendar to check off the days until we departed. By the time we arrived at the mutually agreed-upon destinations, our kids were overjoyed to recognize the places we’d researched together and happy to explore.

Teach ’Em to Travel
Travel is a great way to get children thinking about the bigger world picture. It also goes a long way toward getting kids to say “yes” to new things. Always leave extra time for transportation, particularly connections.

Identify your priorities.
This is especially important if you’re planning to backpack as a family, mostly so you’re not tempted to overpack, but also to build excitement with your kids so they don’t feel they’re just being dragged along. What are the must-pack items? What does everyone want to see and do? Mapping out priorities in advance helps get your family both organized and aligned.

Pack smart.
Keep it light. Luckily, our kids are really close in age and size, so we packed items we could share with two (or all three) kids. Consider the climate so you don’t pack things you won’t use—especially crucial when you’re going to be carrying all of your things on your back. We visited Italy in the spring, so we were able to pack lightly. We made a capsule wardrobe for the kids with clothing that could be mixed, matched and shared—then halved it. While travelling, we hand-washed clothing as needed and used camping rope we’d packed to hang laundry on sunny balconies. In the end, all our clothing—including a few more formal things for restaurant dining—fit into two backpacks. We even realized during the trip that we could have packed less.

Less is more.
In the same vein as less clothing, ditch the stroller and opt for a baby carrier—especially good for destinations with cobblestone streets or for interiors where manoeuvring is tough. We used a free app on our phones for bedtime white noise (no need to pack a gadget), brought a few compact picture books, and then purchased a few more at a beautiful bookstore in Florence. Our daypack, for when we were in transit, held travel journals, pencil crayons, little puzzles and games, some Play-Doh and so forth. If this sounds like too little “stuff,” rest assured that our kids were so busy exploring, they didn’t complain about missing toys and books from home, and I have never felt more free.

“In the end, all our clothing fit into two backpacks. We even could have packed less.”


Take your time.
Map out your route in advance and give yourself extra time to make connections. Yes, it is not always easy to have a longer travel day, with potentially wonky naps or shifted meal times, but it is well worth it not to have to run through a crowded station to make a tight connection with backpacks on and kids in tow.

Sightsee smart.
We typically avoid tourist traps, but Italy is so rich in culture and art, we all agreed on seeing the Colosseum, the Forum, the Fontana di Trevi in Rome; David and the Duomo in Florence; and visiting the Tower of Pisa and the Vatican Museums, to name a few. To avoid lineups, we bought our site and museum tickets in advance online, then sailed through the entrances. We also purchased train tickets ahead of time, whenever possible.

Embrace the language.
Visiting a new country without knowing how to ask for key things such as restrooms, major landmarks, et cetera, makes things 10 times harder as a traveller (and is often viewed as disrespectful by locals). Taking the time to learn a few words and phrases before you go is not only useful, but can also be fun to do together as a family.

Go with the flow.
Sometimes, despite meticulous planning and prep, things go sideways—missed naps, wrong turns, train delays, inclement weather. Shift your mindset to embrace them as part of the adventure. Very likely those bumps in the journey will become funny “remember when?” family moments in the future.

It took us approximately four months to plan our trip, including time spent researching where to go and what to see and booking apartments and tickets for sites. We used this time to also read about Italy, learn about some of the artists whose works we’d see, practise some Italian phrases, dream about the food and think about the quality time we would spend together.

While travel for many is mostly on pause, if you aren’t ready to make a trip yet, think of this time as the perfect opportunity to make plans. One day, we will travel again and you’ll be ready to hit the airport running.

Rehana J. Rousseau

Rehana is fortunate to have begun travelling at a young age and has never looked back. She lives in Toronto with her little family and is always dreaming about where they’d like to go next.


Look for Travelier in print soon.