Getting your kids out into the backcountry with you can be one of the most rewarding experiences you can have as a parent. Hiking by day and reading bedtime stories (by headlamp) in a tent by night will create fond memories of exploring the outdoors. That being said, the first time out is the make it or break it trip. If it goes well, you will most likely have yourself a backpacking buddy for many years to come. If it doesn’t, you will probably have to become a master in the art of bribery to ever get them to go with you again. So let’s make sure you get it right the first time around.
1) Keep your mileage and destination expectations reasonable
The purpose of taking your young ones on their first backpacking trip isn’t necessarily to reach an epic wilderness destination—you have to build up to this. The more kid-friendly the journey, the more likely they’ll be stoked to get back out there with you next time. So when you are choosing the hike in and the destination, plan accordingly. This first outing should take place on a well-graded trail and have an easily accessible campsite no more than 2-3 miles from the trailhead. If they are really little a half-mile into the woods will do and if your kids are more experienced hikers you can up the mileage a bit.
2) Play games along the way
Distractions are key here. Make the journey fun, and not all about walking…. and walking… and walking. Bring small candies or other snacks and leave a trail for them to follow if they start to lag. Play I Spy as you hike—is there a squirrel in a nearby tree or a rock shaped like a troll? Engage them with their surroundings. Remember, you picked a reasonable destination, so you have all the time in the world to get there. Keep it relaxed and fun, and work with their attention span by changing the games up as often as you need to.
3) Make snack and mealtimes special and fun
Fistfuls of granola and packets of energy blocks may work just fine for you, but kids are less likely to be amped on dried fruit and nuts. Involve them in the food prep process at home, and set specific times to stop and have a fun, chosen-by-them snack along the way. Look for easy meal ideas to cook at camp, and aim for ones that you wouldn’t normally make at home (s’mores for dinner anyone?) Pack a special after-dinner treat that may not be typically incorporated into your day-to-day life. Packable ideas include gummy candies, crunchy cookies, and small snack packs such as Goldfish or Teddy Grahams.
4) Allow them to carry kid-size versions of adult backpacking gear
If your kid is carrying their own pack, they can likely carry their own water reservoir. This is a fun new way to drink water and will help keep them hydrated as they move. Incorporating new gear makes this a more exciting experience, and will help them associate backpacking with a special setup they only use for this one specific activity. It will also start to teach them about being responsible for their own stuff (just remember to help them pack at least this first time around, lest you be stuck carrying all the heavy toys they thought would be fun to bring).
5) Be sure your child’s pack fits well
We’ve all been there: stuck on a backpacking trip where your pack just doesn’t fit—the hip belt rubs, the straps pull on your shoulders, and you just can’t get it to sit right. Kid’s packs should be highly adjustable—including torso length, shoulder straps, and hip belt—have plenty of padding, and sit comfortably around the waist. The packs should be easy to organize with accessible pockets and spaces to stash small items.
Gear shop employees can help with the initial fit, but be sure to check in with your child often during the hike to camp and back, taking the pack off for breaks whenever you stop to rest. It probably goes without saying, but keep their pack load light. Water, snacks, and an extra layer or two should be all that the smallest kids should be carrying. Older children will likely be fine carrying their own sleeping bag and sleeping pad.
6) Engage your child at camp
The break from screen time and at-home conveniences is necessary, beneficial, and also might come with a healthy dose of boredom. Come prepared with outdoor games to play at camp, have them help set up the tent, and if the night is clear, look for constellations after the sun goes down. Staying positive, encouraging, and engaged with your child will keep the trip vibe happy and ensure that this backpacking trip is just the first of many to come.
There’s no need to pack up your backpacking gear and your adventurous, backcountry lifestyle when kids arrive in your world. Hiking to your destination with everything you need on your back, then sleeping under the stars is something your entire family should experience. Grab your packs, pick a fun destination, and hit the trails with your kids!
Written by Matcha for Gregory Mountain Products.
Featured image provided by Gregory Mountain Products