If you’re planning on backpacking with young kids, you really want them to enjoy the experience so they’ll keep coming back for more. After multiple trips taking my two young backpackers into the woods over the past two years (when they were between the ages of 4 and 8), here are a few key tips I follow to ensure a fun and enjoyable trip.
As a general rule, kids should only carry about 10 percent of their body weight and no more than 20 percent. If they only weigh 50 pounds, that’s not much weight—basically just their pack, clothes, water bottle, and a few snacks. For this amount of weight, you often don’t need to purchase kids a special backpack for the trip—their usual day packs generally suffice. (This also means, of course, that you will need to be the Daddy or Mommy Sherpa for just about everything else, including your shelter, cooking equipment, sleeping bags and pads, and most of the food.)
I like three-day, two-night outings. My preferred method is to locate a backcountry camping location that’s within a few miles of the trailhead, hike that short distance fully loaded, and then set up camp there for both nights. Look for locations where you can do a longer day-hike from base camp on day 2, carrying much lighter loads. (It’s helpful to pack in a small, lightweight day pack you can use, like these.) This base camping method lets you avoid the hassle of breaking down and re-establishing camp each night, while allowing you to hike farther with the kids on day 2 than you might otherwise.
In selecting your base camp location, the best spots have nearby things to do—a stream or river to play in, rocks to scramble on, or some other fun activity they can engage in while you’re around camp.
I’ve been continually amazed at how much kids enjoy having control over their trail snacks. Before you head out, help them put together their own trail mix/snack bag, have them carry it in their packs, and then give them autonomy to snack on it whenever they want. Let them strategize on how they want to space out their snacking over the course of the trip given the finite resource at their disposal. (The only challenge I’ve experienced with this method is that sometimes they want to stop every 100 yards to snack!)
Most kids love the stuff and it’s a great way to keep them hydrated and, perhaps more importantly, occupied while you deal with cooking dinner, which requires more focus than two rambunctious kids in the woods often allows. Plus it’s a special treat they only get in abundance when they go backpacking, a small but nice extra motivating factor.
Young kids can squirm around a lot during the night. If they’re lying on a slick, smooth sleeping pad, they can easily slide off. This can then lead to lots of middle-of-the-night dealing with getting them back on their pads. I highly recommend opting for a pad with a grippier surface.
Whether it’s a pair of walkie-talkies, lightweight binoculars, or something as simple as a length of cord or rope, in my experience kids love having their own cool stuff to play with, especially when in camp.
For most young kids, everything is normal if you treat it as such. So if it’s raining, or buggy, or cold, don’t complain about it. Just act like it’s no big thing and part of the adventure of being outdoors for days at a time. Keep a positive, happy attitude and, more likely than not, you’ll see it reflected in your young backpackers.
For more tips and recommendations on connecting children with nature, check out the archives at Great Kids, Great Outdoors.