Backpacking is one of the best ways to experience nature and take a little break from our hectic modern lifestyle, yet all too often we stop those kinds of activities once we start having children. And it’s easy to understand, as we’re now also carrying for another human (who requires twice the amount of stuff we think they should), and it really adds to the complexity of just about any activity.
But it doesn’t have to be that way, as kids are remarkably adaptable and can accompany you just about anywhere, including backpacking, as long as you take some time to plan your trips wisely. Taking your kids out on the trail and into the backcountry with you may seem a little intimidating at first, but once you figure out how to make your trips kid-friendly, a whole new world opens up for family activities.
Obviously, the age of your child will determine much of your choices, as taking a 6 year old out on the trail is a completely different matter than taking a 2 year old, but some of the same guidelines apply to just about any kid-friendly adventure.
Start Nearby: By finding trails which are nearby and easy to access at first, your kids won’t have to do two trips – a car trip before the backpacking trip – and it’s an easier transition to longer road trips to the trailhead once they start getting used to the routine. If you must drive longer to get to the trailhead, and that entails an early wake-up for the kids, then try to have all of their gear ready and packed the night before, plus a separate bag with food/water/activities for the ride.
Consider the Conditions: Hiking in the desert with kids in June might seem like a good idea on paper, but is probably not going to go very well, as the heat is intense, and there’s no shade in sight. And no matter how beautiful it is, when kids are physically uncomfortable, they aren’t going to be happy campers. Planning a backpacking trip which takes into consideration the current weather, your kids’ tolerance for being hot/cold/tired/hungry, and the number of mosquitoes you’re likely to encounter is a tricky one. When in doubt, choose the gentlest option for the kids, and have a backup plan if the weather suddenly changes.
Length Matters: The distance that you could hike in a day is a thing of the past – get over it. Kids aren’t going to be able to keep up with your pace or your distance until they’re much older, so hiking and backpacking trips need to be led by their own speed limits and “range”. If you know the mileage per day or per hike that they can manage, that is the basic unit for planning. If you don’t know that, then it’s important to go for some practice hikes first, so you can use that information to plan your routes. If your little ones are only capable of walking a couple of miles between having to rest or eat or nap, then you might want to just start with a trip that is only that far to the campsite.
Minimize the Elevation Changes: When planning your trip, consider how much climbing and descending is on the trail you’re considering, and whether your kids are up to it. Do they poop out easily while hiking uphill? Most of them do until they grow older and stronger, so think about picking a route with as flat a profile as possible to begin with, and then gradually increase the difficulty of your trips as your kids become more adept.
Plan Your Exits: When random or unexpected things happen to us, we can deal with them pretty easily, but when they happen to our children, sometimes it’s best to know when to bail out on our plans or hightail it back to the car or home. Planning a backpacking trip with the kids should also take this into account, and besides being prepared with our gear, we should also be prepared to bail if our kids aren’t feeling well or if we see that they are not going to be able to complete the trip as planned.
Where’s the Fun?: While just being in nature may be enough for us, our kids might need something a bit more interesting, or with more of a point to it than just walking in the woods. Consider planning a trip which has some fun side-trips or distractions on the way, to help lure young ones onward, or with a really fun activity at the destination that will motivate them to keep moving. While on the trail, you can also consider taking some regular breaks in hiking for the kids to explore or horse around or amuse themselves.
Finding a kid-friendly backpacking destination isn’t as difficult as you’d think, because as long as you keep your kid’s needs in mind while planning, you can take them just about anywhere!
[Image: Trekking Rinjani]