Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Backpacking with Kids

This is a repost from a 2011 article. My kids are quite a bit older now...

So here's the deal...  I'm an outdoor enthusiast and a mountain guide.  I'm also the father of a three year-old and a four year-old.  I don't really care if my kids are climbers or skiers, but I really do want them to love the outdoors and to cherish the types of outdoor experiences that have colored my life.

With that in mind, the kids have been on numerous car camping trips and hikes...but we've been hesitant to push to the next level, to take the kids backpacking.  We've been hesitant until now.

Over the Fourth of July weekend, my wife and I took Holly and Caden on their first backpacking trip.  The objective was nothing less than a whopping 1.8 miles along a wide and heavily used trail with a minimal amount of elevation gain and loss, to a camp on Baker Lake.

Holly on her first backpacking trip.

This might not be rocket science, but the first step to backpacking with kids is camping with them. Car camping with small children is pretty easy.  It's a little more difficult to get them to go to sleep, since they're in a tent.  And there is the constant concern of the campfire, and the campground roads (which have signs that say 5mph that are ignored). But the rest of it isn't much more difficult than anything else you might do with kids.

The second step is to take them hiking.  Lots of outdoorsy parents get after it with their kids in child carriers on their backs...and we have too, but that doesn't train the kids to walk for themselves.  Hiking on easy trails where the kids can make their own way, pick up sticks and toss rocks into the bushes, is a surefire way to prep them for something more aggressive.  It also gets them excited to be near the ground, where they can stop and check out things that they might find interesting.

I gave the kids each a pole to assist with their hike, but that didn't really work.
They wanted to hit the bushes with them more than to use them for assistance.

Hiking with the kids before backpacking will also prep you for another issue. Do the kids have appropriate footwear?  They don't really need boots or anything like that if you've done a good job with both trail selection and weather.  But you should know if their feet are going to blister and you should take steps to circumvent that before it starts on a real trip.

Caden with his "backpacking" backpack.

As you might have guessed, the trick to backpacking with two small children is for them to carry a minimal amount, while the adults are loaded down.  You want the kids to be able to walk a distance without complaining too much.  But they should also respect the fact that on a backpacking trip, one has to carry everything in and out.

My kids each carried their own backpacks, which were packed with water, a sweatshirt, one toy (a tractor for my son, a stuffed butterfly for my daughter), a plastic shovel, and their "snuggle blankies." Additionally, my son -- who is on-again/off-again potty-trained -- carried his clean diapers in, while I carried the dirty version out.  In my pack, I hauled a tent, two sleeping bags, three pads, food and my personal equipment.  My wife carried, one pad, two sleeping bags, food, kid clothes, and her personal equipment.

The tent that we elected to use was a Hilleberg Keron 4 GT. At the American Alpine Institute, we tend to use these tents for Denali expeditions.  This is commonly the Guide Tent on such trips because there is a lot of storage room and tons of space cook in the vestibule.  I've been using this tent for car camping with the kids quite a bit, and I was a little worried about how it would carry in a family backpacking setting, but it worked like a dream.

Be wary of creek crossings.  
Don't hesitate to hold onto your kid if anything looks sketchy at all.

It's incredibly important to get the kinks out of any tent system that you might use in a front-country camping situation first. The last thing you want to realize with the whole family out in the woods, is that the tent you were going to use is a bit on the tight side, so everybody is getting wet from condensation.

Trail selection is key.  The trail should be short, scenic, and there shouldn't be a lot of elevation gain.  The trail that we selected was on the east bank of Baker Lake.  It had each of these attributes.  It took us about an hour-and-a-half each way to travel on the 1.8 mile stretch from car to camp.

I would strongly recommend researching your trail online before committing completely to it.  Sometimes there are factors that might make it difficult for little kids that aren't really detailed in a guidebook.  Are there any weird creek crossings?  Are there any steep drop-offs?  What's the mosquito scene?  What's the bee scene?  Is the terrain open and hot?  Or is there a good canopy above?  Is the trail clear of snow...?

The kids in camp - Note that I told my daughter to smile.

The weather on a backpacking trip is always important, but it's never more important than on a trip like this.  If the kids end up cold and wet, then it's going to be difficult to get them psyched up for the next trip.  There's no reason to push it with small children.  If the weekend you selected is going to be marginal, then pick another time...your kids and your spouse will appreciate it, a lot.  And ultimately, you'll appreciate it more because you'll be able to do it again...

Backpacking with little ones is a bit more work than backpacking with friends.  Okay, it's a lot more work.  But the reward is greater too.  I mean, think about it.  You're creating great memories, while prepping your kids to have all kinds of adventures with you in the future.

--Jason D. Martin


Michael Stanton said...

Such a great article Jason, thanks for sharing your tips! Last year I made an article on hut-stays with kids, if you live in a mountain area with huts (http://www.summitpost.org/mountain-huts-with-5-year-olds/680706). I'm taking the kids for their first week long hike next week, very excited...

Jason Landry said...

We've taken our kids car camping many times and I've often wondered when we could tackle a backpacking trip, but I now see that I've been thinking about it the wrong way.

I've been asking myself when the kids would be old enough when I should have been asking which route would be appropriate. Thanks for changing the perspective.

Brad Myers said...

Jason, awesome article/pics. Not having a family of my own yet i really appreciate this post as a preview of what I hope is in store for me. Thanks for sharing.