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The Basics of Backpacking with Kids

04.18.17

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The Basics of Backpacking with Kids
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  • Stopping to look at black slugs on the Hoh River trail in Olympic National Park.- The Basics of Backpacking with Kids
  • Backpacking along the Hoh River in Olympic National Park.- The Basics of Backpacking with Kids
  • 5 Mile Island backcountry camping in Olympic National Park.- The Basics of Backpacking with Kids
  • 5 Mile Island signpost on Hoh River trail in Olympic National Park.- The Basics of Backpacking with Kids
  • Backcountry campsite on Hoh River trail in Olympic National Park.- The Basics of Backpacking with Kids
  • Enormous trees along the Hoh River trail in Olympic National Park.- The Basics of Backpacking with Kids
  • Lush green forests along the Hoh River in Olympic National Park.- The Basics of Backpacking with Kids
  • Stream crossing on the Hoh River trail in Olympic National Park.- The Basics of Backpacking with Kids
  • Entering the Olympic Guard Station in Olympic National Park backcountry.- The Basics of Backpacking with Kids
  • Pumping water on the Hoh River in Olympic National Park.- The Basics of Backpacking with Kids
  • Backcountry campsite in Olympic National Park up the Hoh River valley.- The Basics of Backpacking with Kids
  • A short break on the steps of Olympic Guard Station in the Hoh River valley of Olympic National Park.- The Basics of Backpacking with Kids
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Why You Should Go Now | Choosing Your Trail  | Packing Up  | Food  | First Aid | Weather | Know Your LimitsSpecial Considerations  | Final Thoughts

Why You Should Go Now

The average U.S. child spends a minimum of 3 hours a day in front of a screen. With shorter recess breaks at school and busy schedules running from activity to activity, children are in need of unstructured outdoor play more than ever. Spending time with our kids away from the busy ringing of the phone, dinging emails, and must-see TV offers us a chance to really engage, listen, and explore as families. Some of the best conversations with my kids have occurred as we've hiked along muddy trails. Their minds are as free to wander as their feet. I've fielded questions on checks and balances of our government, debated whether or not you can spit in space, and solved endless math questions from my son. Listening to their curiosity bubble up stirs my own questions and ideas. We grow closer as a family, as we learn and explore together. Once you've spent a little time getting a handle on the basics of camping with your kids, taking your kids backpacking doesn't have to be a daunting affair. With the right planning and a serious amount of flexibility and patience, the experience can be a fantastic adventure.

Choosing Your Trail

Choosing a trail that is suitable for kids for overnight backpacking involves some planning, a basic understanding of your children’s temperament, and a tiny bit of luck. Knowing the age and experience level of your kids will be helpful in choosing appropriately. If you select a trail that is too long or steep, mutiny may ensue. For a first time trip, planning a single overnight or two-night adventure offers enough of a distance and distinction from car camping to be special. I find that hikes that end with some form of water are the biggest success. After a long day of hiking, the freedom to splash in a river or lake makes for much happier kids.  

I usually look in our local national forests and national parks first when hunting for a new trail. The level of upkeep at the national level typically means better trail conditions and availability of online maps. My criteria are fairly simple: I look for each leg of the trip to be roughly 5 miles or less if there’s any real elevation gain, water at the campsite each night for splashing and play where possible, and multiple options for campsites and retreating early (if necessary). After experiencing a few trips with surprise thunderstorms or dying headlamp batteries, I’ve learned to be flexible in my expectations for how long we stay. The most important thing for me is that the kids enjoy the trip overall.  

Depending on your child’s experience in the outdoors, the trail you hike can range from a wide gentle path to a narrow rocky ledge. Parent judgment on appropriate risk will vary. I have been hiking with both of my kids since my oldest was four years old, providing ample opportunity to watch him and have a pretty good idea of how he’ll react in different environments. One of my challenges has been managing my son’s speed on the trail. He can easily outhike his younger sister and will often march ahead, putting significant distance between us. To mitigate my worry, we’ve begun using walkie-talkies, and the kids know to stop and wait at any trail junctions as a matter of safety. Walkie-talkie batteries can die however, so having conversations ahead of time about maintaining contact is very important. On our recent trip to the Hoh, I experienced an uncomfortable amount of worry as my son charged ahead and failed to take frequent stops. We've since changed our rules on appropriate distances for him to hike alone. Some good rules of thumb are stopping for trail junctions and any water crossings. Knowing your child’s temperament makes trail choice easier. If you have a run-and-dash kid, a trail filled with steep drop-offs and significant ledges might not be the best choice, for example. It’s probably best to save the peak-bagging for kid-free trips.

It’s important to allow ample time for the distance to be covered each day. Leisurely hiking with frequent breaks for snacks and play make the miles pass much more enjoyably than forced marching. As soon as I see a hint of grumpiness or reluctance to hike, we break for food and some water. Taking off the packs, looking at flowers, poking in holes, and stretching legs can turn a sour mood into a happy mood in minutes. Nine times out of ten, the grumpiness is caused by hunger or thirst. Both are easy fixes with a well-stocked pack.

Packing Up

As with most outdoor activities, age and ability play a role in deciding how much weight to give a child while backpacking. I’ve had the most success when I let my children choose what goes into their packs. Special stuffed animals are always a given. Flashlights, notebooks, and pens also find their way in. I usually ask them to carry that day’s snack. As they’ve aged, I have begun including a half-filled water bladder for drinking. They usually ask to carry tent poles. My goal for this summer is for them to start carrying their own sleeping bags by the end of the season.

In preparation for our longer overnight trips, I always ask the kids if they’d like to carry a pack on our day hikes. I usually mention that I will be carrying mine. The incentive to be a “real hiker” wins out and they now assume that a pack is part of normal hiking. On our day hikes, I keep the weight extremely minimal: a water bottle, a snack, a treat, and maybe a rain jacket. Day hikes are the perfect low-commitment opportunity for trying out more challenging terrain, slightly elevated risk, or less than ideal weather conditions. I try not to let wet weather inhibit our outdoor plans; as my kids get used to a bit of discomfort, they become sturdier hikers in the backcountry.  

The reality is that parents do end up carrying the bulk of the load. A change of clothes, extra warm and dry socks and underwear for everyone, extra snacks and surprise treats, maybe even sleeping bags and water. All of this, on top of our own gear! In an effort to lighten my pack, my own needs often get pared down. I rarely bring more than a warm dry sleeping outfit, rewearing the previous day’s sweaty gear for hiking. I do try to maximize comfort where possible, with lightweight fleece hats and gloves, and good long underwear. Clever Hiker offers videos on lightweight packing for more information.

Food

Sticking to familiar foods and plenty of treats as snacks will keep bellies full and complaints to a minimum. There are good tasting freeze-dried meals on the market that can make dinner a breeze while in the backcountry. Our family favorites have been ones with chicken and noodles, spaghetti, or macaroni and cheese: familiar flavors in a different format. The excitement of preparing meals in a bag certainly helps them disappear. It's always a good idea to pack one extra meal: once on a hike along the Washington coast, I managed to dump our dinner out all over the ground before we could eat it! Also, with all of the log scrambling, rock throwing, creek stomping, and hiking, most kids are ravenous by the time the evening rolls around. Simple foods like tortillas, pita bread, hard cheese (like cheddar), pepperoni sticks, salami, and apples and oranges can be pushed into packs for easy eating. Small chocolate bars, hard candy, granola and energy bars go a long way towards boosting flagging spirits as well. Children have smaller fat reserves and will need to snack much more frequently on the trail than adults, so packing an excess of small snacks helps keep moods even-keeled. Excellent lightweight meal ideas can be found here. Depending on where you travel, there may be special requirements for storing and protecting your food from wild animals. Following the rules on food storage keeps wild animals wild and keeps you fed. Losing a trip's worth of food to rodents or other creatures can ruin an entire trip. Wildlife-proof food storage can be simple.

Packing and drinking adequate fluids is crucial while hiking. Small children can dehydrate easily, especially in the warmer summer months. Offering frequent water breaks and carrying enough water bottles for everyone in the party helps to reduce the risk of heat stroke. Any water collected in the backcountry should be purified by filter or boiling and iodine tablets. To mask unusual flavors of water, drink powders can be a useful supplement in the pack. Small and lightweight, the variety of kid-friendly flavors is enormous. Clean water doesn't have to mean a heavy pack. Lightweight options abound

First Aid

A solid first aid kit is necessary on any outdoor adventure. It doesn’t need to be huge to be effective, but there are certain go-to items that should always be present. Involving your kids before you hit the trail ensures that they understand the basic safety rules. Talking about what to do if people get lost or separated from the group is an important lesson. Make sure even the smallest children in the group understand to stop, sit down, and wait, blow their whistles. Tucking a small whistle inside each child's pack gives them a loud method for attracting attention to themselves. Be forewarned though, they'll probably find ways to make quite a racket with it in the meantime! With older kids, the first aid basics of how to tie a splint, wrap a bandage, or even just find the right size band-aid in the first aid kit can help give them confidence on the trail.  

Weather

Knowing the typical weather for the season you expect to be hiking helps in packing appropriate gear. It's helpful to check the forecast the morning before setting out on your hike. Conditions can change quickly in the backcountry. Having enough warm, dry clothes in the event of a surprise shower can make the difference between a miserable night and a cozy rest in the tent. Forecasts specific to the area where you are traveling can sometimes be tricky to locate. Calling the nearest ranger station or visitor center to your hike will give you the most accurate picture. If rain is expected in higher elevations, streams can experience noticeable rise. Fording high waters with small children is not recommended. 

Know Your Limits

Sometimes no amount of snack or water breaks can get an unhappy child moving on the trail. I have strong memories of my little brother, at six years old, 15 miles into the backcountry of Olympic National Park, absolutely refusing to move for several hours up the trail crossing First Divide. I can only imagine the frustration and worry it caused my parents at the time. As I hike with my kids now, I try to limit the risk of a similar event. By lightening packs ahead of steep inclines, taking extra long breaks in the shade, offering multiple treats (sometimes at each switchback, if necessary), or creating games and telling stories as we hike, the risk of a full-blown meltdown is reduced. Stops for impromptu drawing sessions with small notepads can offer a physical and mental break as well as create artistic reminders of the trip to be enjoyed later.

It's important to know when enough is enough. Sometimes, the best choice is the hardest one to make. Fortunately, the trail will be there for another trip if you need to retreat early. The goal of traveling in the outdoors with our kids is to help them love and enjoy the wilds as much as we do. Keeping trips enjoyable, especially in the beginning, ensures that they want to return. 

Special Considerations

While the hiking during the day is usually fun, new challenges arise for parents once the sun goes down. Having adequate light sources in the tent can help calm nervous kids as darkness falls. Cheap glowsticks are an easy fix, as are inexpensive flashlights. Tying one or two to the tent roof or sides can prevent the lights from getting lost in sleeping bags. It's helpful to make sure every child has had a trip (or two!) to relieve themselves before crawling in to sleep. Struggling with zippers, shoes, tree roots, and pajamas in the middle of the night is no fun. I usually pack flimsy paperback books and their favorite stuffed animals for comfort at bedtime. Maintaining our evening rituals, even in the backcountry, helps maintain a sense of calm and familiarity. Fortunately, the exertion of the hike usually helps kids fall asleep quickly in the evenings.  

Final Thoughts

It's not always easy to go into the backcountry with children, and your pack weight will have you wondering if you're more pack mule than parent. However, the rewards are many. Spending uninterrupted quality time with kids away from the distractions of normal life builds memories that last a lifetime. The best way to have an enjoyable trip is to go slow and small in the beginning. Building that base of experience over multiple trips will allow you to increase the miles and difficulty as they age. From early meanders on short little nature trails, to multi-day backpacking trips, the time between passes quickly. Patience at the start will make the process fun for the whole family.  

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