My husband, Sam, and I completed our first backpacking trip together in New Zealand’s rugged mountains four months after we were married. Actually, it was my first backpacking trip ever. While he grew up with parents who frequently went into the back country, we were more front country, car camping kind of people. Despite the flies, the rain, and the incredibly steep trails, I was hooked after that one experience.
Knowing how incredible it feels to wake up in a tent on top of a mountain, we agreed that we would love to share that experience someday with our kids. This last year we finally reached our goal, completing four separate excursions in various states across the U.S. We watched our kids struggle up steep trails and bundle up against cold, windy weather but then also lift their faces in awe as they soaked up an early morning sunrise.
So, how did we do it? How did we go from tent for two, to trailside with five? Here are eight tips for taking your kids into the backcountry for the first time:
There are many questions to consider when planning your child’s first backpacking trip. What are your goals? How many nights do you want to do? How far can your kids hike? What is there to do once you get there? Are you going to start after dinner? Early in the morning? How steep is the trail? Is it a long drive to the trailhead? Knowing your kids and their limits (generally speaking) can give you a good idea of where to start.
Many of our overnight hikes leave around 2pm, hike five miles to the campsite, eat dinner, have a lazy morning and hike back out around lunchtime. Simple, easy, yet a great way to unplug and be together as a family. Other families I know grab Subway after work on the way to the trailhead and hike a mere mile or two in before setting up camp for the night. Know your goals and then research the best way to accomplish them.
Long before we loaded our kids up with a pack we hit the trails. We hiked short trails, long trails, hikes in the mountains, and hikes in the desert. Our kids could hike up to ten miles, which we did repeatedly over the course of a year. Our first backpacking trip, however, was a short 3.5 miles. We’ve gradually increased the distance over time, but we’ve found that hiking with a pack is a different experience for a kid. My husband has memories growing up of even shorter, one mile hikes to backcountry sites shouldering his small backpack and water bottle. The idea is to get your kids used to hiking in to their campsite wearing a pack whether it’s one or ten miles in.
Take Your Time.
On multi-day trips, my husband and I often remind ourselves we have ALL DAY to hike with the kids. The beautiful part of backpacking is that often there’s not much to do besides hike, so taking all day to hike that 3.5 miles not going to crimp anyone’s schedule. Smell the flowers, throw rocks in the stream, take a longer snack break and don’t push too hard.
Pack Plenty of Treats.
Well-thought out and distributed candy, snacks, and gummies can help motivate even the most reluctant hiker. Quick carbohydrates and sugar are often the perfect pick-me-up. We often have a mile limit or a goal to reach before we sit down to pull out the treats, which keeps the kids from asking every five minutes if they can have skittles. A special treat for reaching the “top” is also a welcome bonus. Our kids love Australian licorice, skittles mixed with toffee covered peanuts, mini M&M’s, and Pull-and-Peel Twizzlers.
While you may enjoy a gourmet backcountry dinner, chances are your kids are just hungry. In addition to plenty of snacks and treats, we do Freezer Bag Cooking for dinner and breakfast. All dry ingredients are prepared beforehand at home and then sealed in a freezer bag before getting tossed in our packs. Once mealtime rolls around, we boil water, add to our freezer bag, stir, let it sit in a cozy for 10 minutes, and voila! Dinner is served. Our three kids typically share a meal, while Sam and I eat a second. Our favorites so far are Cheesy Bacon Onion Mashers, Chocolate Protein Oatmeal, and Chicken Thanksgiving Dinner.
Be Prepared for Boredom.
Let’s face it. Most kids are addicted to screen time and even when they are conditioned to get outside often there’s still going to be whining about being bored. At camp, my older two kids will happily read on a Kindle for an hour or two, but after ten minutes my five year old is complaining because no one will play with her. We’ve learned to be strategic about how much time we will have at camp, whether or not there is anything nearby to explore, and to bring card games and even toys to play with once we get there. Packing a compass for scavenger hunts, a GPS unit for Geocaching, or a pocket knife for whittling sticks are all fun ways to spend time together once camp is set up.
Ultralight is Best, but Don’t Stress About Gear.
Between the two of us, we carry most of the gear. From the tent to the sleeping bags, cooking gear, and the food, most of it is packed into our two larger bags. Over time we’ve been able to make adjustments and swap not-so-light gear out for less weight as we gradually increase our distance, but start with what you have. At short distances, ultra-light gear is not as important. Let your four year old wear her Winnie-the-Pooh backpack and bring her stuffed animal. You can see our gear list here.
Have a Good Attitude.
The best thing you can do to help your kids have a good attitude and appreciation of the experience is to have a good attitude yourself. If your kids hear you talk about how much you enjoy the view, how much you appreciate the challenge of that ridge in front of you, and the good memories you have of other backpacking trips, your kids are likely to adopt a similar attitude. If they hear you complain about how dirty you are, how much you miss your bed at home, and the pains you feel, they will likely adopt those feelings too. Having a good attitude can be a challenge, but the payoff is worth it!
While we introduced our kids to backcountry camping fairly spectacularly manner, camping for two nights on an island in Lake Superior is not feasible for everyone. Our main goal, however was to have the experience end solidly with a “backpacking is really awesome” mindset for the kids no matter where we went. We feel it was a success since the kids happily followed that up with three more trips over the next few months.
Backpacking, or doing anything outdoors, with kids involves a different mindset. Suddenly we weren’t doing this for us, we were doing it for them. The miles are shorter, the terrain a little easier, the views maybe not quite as majestic, but the time spent together hiking, setting up camp, and snuggling in our sleeping bags while the stars wink overhead is irreplaceable.