Hiking is a great way to explore the outdoors with your children, but there is something extra special about backpacking that makes you feel like you're really getting away—watching sunsets and sunrises, cooking a simple meal at the end of a day on the trail and sleeping under the stars in the backcountry. Even for an experienced backpacker, the idea of embarking on your first overnight backcountry trip with young children can seem like a daunting prospect. The following are eight tips that have worked for our family.
1. Start Early.
It may sound crazy to those who haven't tried it but when your child is an infant or toddler they are relatively portable and it can be one of the easier times to backpack with them. You do have to carry diapers, which is a hassle, but there is not much else you need other than some extra clothes and appropriate food for their age. When they are old enough to walk, let them hike until they're tired and then put them in the kid carrier for a ride and a nap. I highly recommend the Kid Comfort for backpacking, with its extra capacity for gear and superior comfort for you and your child.
2. Start small.
When your kids are hiking on their own, start preparing for their first backpacking trip with day hikes of increasing length and difficulty. Ideally, you have accomplished longer and harder hikes before your trip so that both you, and your child, have the confidence to do a short overnight trip. It's also helpful if you've already camped overnight in a tent with your children, even if it's just in the backyard. For your first overnight trip, choose a destination that is one to two miles from the trailhead.
3. Have age appropriate expectations for load carrying.
When our children were three to five they carried small daypacks with a water bottle and a few personal items, like a favorite stuffed animal or toy. Carrying a pack at this age is more about the experience than about actually carrying a load. Somewhere in the 6 to 8-year-old range they should be able to start carrying some of their own gear. My son packed his own sleeping bag and pad in the Deuter Fox 30 at this age. Be careful not to overload them with gear, you want this to be fun.
4. Have a fun destination.
If the kids know they are hiking to a cool waterfall or beautiful lake, they will be motivated to see what is at the end of the trail.
5. Bring interesting snacks.
Bring snacks you know your children love. I also look for new options or special junk food treats that they normally don't have at home. Let them choose and carry a special snack. Motivate them by designating a distance, time or location along the trail where they can have their special snack.
6. Tell stories and play games.
Kids don't always find hiking entertaining. Making up stories about fairies, creatures of the forest or anything else they enjoy, and creating games, like races and scavenger hunts, can distract them and keep them moving on the trail.
Budget plenty of time to get to your destination, stop as often as necessary and let your kids explore along the way. Enjoying the journey is much more important than how many miles you hike or how fast you do it.
8. Ask a 5-year old.
My 5-year old is excited about backpacking and keeps asking when we will go again. I asked her if she had any advice she would give to other kids. She said, “Keep going on the uphills. Don't run on the downhills.”
I hope some of these tips will help your family get out and enjoy backpacking. Every kid is different and you will need to figure out what works for you and your family. At some point you just need to do it and embrace the unknown—that is what adventure is all about. In the process you will be creating an appreciation for the outdoors and lasting memories for your children.