If you have kids, one of the greatest things in the world is sharing your passions with them and spending time together doing things you love.
For me, that's backpacking.
Ever since I got into backpacking after I graduated from college, I've been in love with it. Getting outdoors and connecting with nature while you disconnect from the world is when I feel the happiest.
When my son was born, I was already counting down the days until he'd be able to go on his first backpacking trip with me. After seeing him complete a 1 mile walk around the block at age 5 I figured it was time.
So we set out for the Manistee River Trail in Manistee, MI. Here is at the trailhead, all excited.
Well, things turned south after about 45 minutes and in this article, I'll talk about the real side of taking your kid backpacking that you don't usually hear about. I'll give you some of the tips that I wish I had known about before I left so you'll have a better time when you get to take your kids hiking with you.
Tip #1 - Test Their Gear Ahead of Time
Normally when I go backpacking, I test out some of my gear before I leave to make sure there aren't any issues. No leaks in the air mattress, no dead mice in the sleeping bag, etc.
But it's different for kids.
If you let them test their gear ahead of time, they'll get even more excited to go hiking and camping. Letting your kid sleep on their new sleeping pad or sleeping bag in their bedroom will be the highlight of their day and get them excited to hit the outdoors.
The only piece of gear I'd test out for functionality is my kid's backpack. You'll need to put some weight in it and dial in the straps so you can make sure it fits well and is comfortable for them.
Remember, the most they've ever carried in their backpack is probably just a couple of pounds at school. Carrying weight on their back is a brand new experience for them and you'll need to make sure you don't overload them. Which leads to my next point.
Tip #2 - Be Prepared To Carry Their Gear
After a mile of hiking my son was ready to bail on the entire trip. He wanted to set up camp and call it a day. But we were barely off of the trailhead and the closest campsite was another mile away...
So after much complaining and slow walking, I ended up carrying his backpack on mine.
Luckily I hadn't loaded him up too heavy, after all, he's a 5-year-old not a pack mule. But his backpack was pretty bulky and awkward which meant I couldn't carry it, I needed to attach it to my pack.
Luckily I had a few spare carabiners I could use to attach his pack to mine, so I'd recommend bringing some carabiners or extra rope so you can haul your kid's pack in case you need to hike faster or just take the load off their back if they can't handle it.
Tip #3 - Bring More Snacks Than You'd Ever Need
During the 2 mile hike to our campsite, we stopped 2 times for snacks. Once we got to camp, we fired up another snack.
Finally, it was time to make dinner and I had a nice freeze-dried meal I cooked up. My son decided it was "gross" and ate nothing!
So it was time for more snacks. Then another snack before bedtime.
By the next morning when we went to leave, I was already out of snacks and had to make the hike back to the car with a hungry kid.
So the next time I went I brought loads of snacks. I figured how much we ate last time and multiplied it by 3. I also threw in some candy bars and other sweets that he doesn't normally eat at home. When I pulled those out on the trail his eyes lit up and gave him some motivation to keep hiking.
Tip #4 - Plan to Hike Fewer Miles Than You'd Ever Do Alone
When I go backpacking with my wife or friends, we usually plan to hike 10-15 miles per day and we're focusing on optimizing the route, seeing the coolest amount of stuff on the trail and pushing our bodies to carry us as far as they can without getting completely exhausted.
If you're a thru hiker, then you're probably used to hiking even more miles than that every day with some days going 30-40 miles.
Unless your kid is a long distance runner or strongman, they won't be able to hang at your normal pace. You'll have to dial the miles back.
Before we left on our trip I took my son on some long walks around the block, we did a few miles and he seemed to hold up pretty well. But once you're out in the woods, it's different.
When you can't just turn around and head back to the house, you're carrying extra weight and you're hungry because you ran out of snacks (whoops), kids are going to struggle to put in miles.
The rule of thumb I use now is simple:
Assume you'll only be able to hike 1 mile per hour.
Using this rule I limit myself to 2 miles on days we're coming/going and 4 miles on days where we're planning to hike " all day". You'll have to adjust this for your own kids, especially as they get older, but for little kids I've found this to be about as much as they can handle.
Tip #5 - Let Them Choose What to Bring
When I started backpacking I was hauling around 50-55 lbs of gear and dying every time I went up a hill.
Over the years I've dialed back the extra stuff and reduced my weight down to the 35-40 lb range. I did this by getting rid of anything unessential or things I figured I could get by without.
When I asked my son what he wanted to bring it was basically only made up of unessential items and things he could easily do without, such as:
- A large cat stuffed animal
- The pillow he uses at home
- A Halloween mask
- A toy gun
The ultralight people out there might be having a stroke right now but when you're hiking with kids you've gotta go with the flow and reassess the goal of the trip.
His main goal was to have fun, not have a lightweight pack. And having a Halloween mask and a toy gun while hiking is probably the most fun you can have as a 5 year old.
So just throw in the towel, close your Lighterpack, and let your kid pack what they want. It'll make them happy and you'll be surprised how much use they might get out of a toy gun while you're at camp.
Tip #6 - Only Stay for 1 Night
At least for your first trip, I'd highly recommend only planning to stay for 1 night.
If you're trying to get your kid into hiking/backpacking, there's a good chance you've been doing it for a while and you've got a lot of experience with extended trips.
But it probably wasn't like that when you started out. Most people start out slowly with a 1 or 2 night trip to test out all their gear and get a feel for backpacking, so you should do the same thing with your child.
Not all kids will like backpacking! You might need to turn around and head back to the car sooner than you're expecting so you should plan ahead and have an escape plan.
To keep it simple, I'd recommend parking at the trailhead, walking in 1-3 miles, and setting up camp. That way if something goes wrong or if you have to leave, it's easy to get out and you've got your own car waiting for you.
Avoid shuttles/1 way routes when you're going on your first trip. Anything where you're obligated to complete the entire hike or you'll miss a connecting car/bus/train ride is too risky for the first time hiking with kids.
Make sure they can handle it and you don't have any issues with a 1 nighter before you branch into extended trips.
Taking my son backpacking was eye opening. I didn't know it was possible to get tired of hiking after 1 mile but it turns out it is. And that's OK.
There's a saying in the hiking community that you should 'hike your own hike'. Turns out my son's hike was only a mile long and involved a toy gun and a Halloween mask. And that's ok.
It wasn't the longest backpacking trip I've ever been on or the trip with the most beautiful views, but it might have been the most satisfying trip of my life. Getting your kid started on backpacking is the beginning of a lifelong adventure and connection to the outdoors. It might be a little tough to get going but it's worth it and in a few years when they're ready to go on some real trips, you'll be thankful you started them young.
So get outside and take your kid with you. Spending quality alone time with your kid in the wilderness is a magical experience for you and them and they'll remember it forever.
Words and photos by Jim Barron.