One of the joys of summer is exploring nature. Car camping has its place in family fun, especially if your children are really young, but nothing compares to backpacking for true wilderness adventure. I have just returned from four days of backpacking and am planning a trip with my daughter this week. From building character to spending true quality time together, there are so many reasons to take your child backpacking. Unfortunately, if you don’t plan accordingly, your trip could end up with tears and frustration. Here are five things I have learned about backpacking with children.
1. Choose the Right Trail
This is the most important part of your wilderness experience. Do your research and choose an appropriate trail. Last summer, I took my eight-year-old daughter backpacking twice. The first trail was perfect: 3.5 miles with gradual ascent to a high alpine lake. The spot also afforded great day hiking to other lakes. For the second trip, I chose a four mile trail thinking she could handle it. Unfortunately, I did not do my homework. It was four miles of serious altitude climbing. It was a challenge, and she did it, but there was lots of whining involved.
When choosing a trail, make sure you don’t just focus on length but consider elevation change. Too steep is hard going up and hard going down. Two to five miles is the perfect length for child, but not if it is too steep. Besides, your pack will be heavier on a kids’ trip, so you will want an easier trail too.
2. Take Good, Real Food
We do not backpack with dehydrated backpacking food. We take real food into the wilderness and cook good meals. In fact, my daughter told me she thought we ate better backpacking than at home! Choose food you know your child likes, take enough of it, and enjoy. It’s worth the extra weight in your pack!
3. Take Other Children
If you are going to include other people in your trip, it is important to bring little people. Your children is much more likely to rise to the challenges of backpacking and enjoy themselves if there are other children on the trip. There is far less whining and complaining when other kids are together. My daughter loves backpacking, and maybe it was because of the steep trail, but our second trip last summer was much harder psychologically for her. She was the only child with three adults. It’s better to have balance.
4. Include Your Child in Planning
Backpacking is a communal activity. Let your child feel part of the community by helping choose the trail, carry some of the food, lead on the trail at times, etc. It is also important to include your child in backpacking chores. From filtering water to meal prep, your child will want to help out and will be helpful (more so than at home). There’s something about carrying all of your needs on your back for miles on a trail that changes kids.
5. Give Your Child Responsibility and Trust
Children in our culture are not given the trust and responsibility they deserve. I am guilty of doing too much for my kids that they could do for themselves. I’ve been reading a book on Reggio Emilia, and one common theme is trusting children and recognizing they are competent. Backpacking is a great way to show your child you trust them. From explaining how to bury your poop then sending your child into the woods to filtering water from a creek, I’ve seen major changes in my relationship with my child via backpacking. It helped me realize my daughter was a responsible, capable being beyond my imagination.
6. Use Real Gear
To have a good wilderness experience, children need and deserve real gear. From a sleeping bag to thermarest, adult gear is fine. One exception is a backpack. Purchasing a quality kids’ backpack, like the Osprey Ace 48 Mountaineering Backpack, is essential. An adult pack will not fit properly and cause pain over time. Good foot gear is also crucial.
Backpacking is such an incredible experience your child will never forget. Car camping may be easier, but the results are not the same for both parent and child. Remember: Leave no trace!