How to Backpack with Kids
Our first dates were hikes and rambles on the trails of Santa Cruz.
So, I imagined that when we had children we’d share with them our love of the outdoors and the excitement and adventure that comes from leaving behind the trappings of civilization and venturing off into the wilderness.
The challenges of the first years of parenthood – colic, diapers, bad sleep – curbed our enthusiasm for venturing too far from home. But last summer, with our 5-year-old in tow, we decided to explore Olympic National Park in Washington.
For years, I’d heard stories about the park. It’s the quietest place in America to camp because planes don’t fly overhead. One of the park’s prime attractions is the Hoh Rainforest, one of the largest temperate rainforests in the United States. Google it and you’ll be treated to pictures of old-growth Sitka spruce protected by layers of ferns. It looks like The Shire from The Hobbit.
You can car camp in the rainforest – there are plenty of sites that allow you to drive up with your tent. But Dan and I decided to immerse ourselves in the quiet solitude of the backcountry. We have noisy neighbors at home; we didn’t want them in one of the quietest places in America.
First, we had to figure out how we’d manage a two-day backpack trip with a person too small to carry her own gear. We also had to plan for the critical issues of how we’d manage food, water and other everyday necessities for two nights of camping.
We made lists of the gear we’d need to bring, and the gear and food we’d need to buy once we arrived. Planning and staging a backpacking trip are incredibly important because essentials that we take for granted (toilet paper!) can be easily forgotten. It complicated things that we were flying to Seattle and couldn’t bring everything we needed on the plane. The fuel for our camp stove would have been confiscated by TSA, for instance, so we would need to purchase it after we landed.
We organized our list into things we could bring with us (our camping gear, clothes, etc.) and things we’d need to buy once we got there (matches, camp fuel and food).
Then we started preparing Julianna for the adventure, so she understood what to expect and what was expected as she set out into the wild.
Following are our tips for how to prepare for your child’s first backpacking trip:
1. Buy proper shoes. My sweet-natured daughter can occasionally get whiny when it comes to physical exertion. If she’s tired, a two-block walk downtown can turn into a whine-fest. I worried we’d be in the woods, weighed down with gear, and unable to convince her to budge. How could we convince her to hike two miles a day in the wilderness?
The first step was proper footwear. Julianna loves to wear crocs (unless she’s dressing up as Elsa, when she prefers her Mary Janes). It can sound like a no-brainer, but making sure a kid has warm socks and good shoes can make the difference in whether they are willing to walk several miles over sometimes difficult terrain. Make sure your child goes with you to pick out the shoes, so they are a pair that she likes. And give her plenty of time to break them in before the trip. As any backpacker will tell you, blisters from shoes that haven’t been worn in can curtail an excursion into the wild.&pagebreaking&2. Pop your tent in the backyard. Our little group consisted of three people, but only two could carry a tent. We decided we’d need to bring a small, two-person tent light enough to carry, and adjust to cramped quarters. I worried that we’d keep each other up all night long with our loud snoring, tossing and turning. Also, I still suffer from Post Traumatic Colic Baby Syndrome. While we had done plenty of car camping, Julianna was used to having two tents, real pillows and even a futon mat. I was concerned she would have a hard time falling asleep and staying asleep in such a different environment.
At home, a week before the trip, we set up our tent in the backyard so that Julianna would get used to it. We put in our sleeping pads and sleeping bags. We even practiced where we’d all sleep. At the park, we were so tired at the end of each night that we had no trouble falling asleep.
3. Practice filtering water. We made sure that Julianna understood that we wouldn’t be near drinking fountains or sinks. Water in the backcountry is one of the most essential and precious items. My husband ran out of water in the desert once while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail and was so exhausted from dehydration that he bit into a cactus with the thorns still on it.
Before we packed the filter, Julianna helped Dan clean and inspect it. Then they went through the steps of filtering water. Dan showed her how the pumping mechanism works, and explained how dirty water could be turned into something we would drink. We also brought along filtration tablets in case there were any issues with the filter.
4. Plan your menu. Is your child a fussy eater? There’s nothing like a day of hiking in the backcountry to stimulate an appetite, and to teach the important lesson that food is precious. At first, Julianna was shocked when she learned that the food we brought was the only option. Yes, we’d all have preferred a turkey burger, but we only had Mountain House Mac ’N’ Cheese. Julianna was with us when we bought the food, so she had some input into what we brought along. Also, it’s worth carrying a few lightweight dessert options. We bought dehydrated ice cream sandwiches that were surprisingly tasty. Even if you only backpack for a few miles, there’s something about being in the outdoors that makes us all more hungry. Maybe it’s all that fresh air. Plan protein-rich meals and snacks. A jar of peanut butter is worth the pack-weight.
5. Talk about toilets. If your child is already potty trained, you’ll have to explain that you’ll be heading into the backcountry, far from a toilet. If your child is anything like mine, she will find the entire thing hilarious. Honestly, most adults have more of a hang-up about this part of backpacking than kids. Just make sure they’re prepared.&pagebreaking&6. Learn about your environment. Julianna didn’t complain during the trek to our camping site. She was too busy studying the woods. She had a bag full of snacks in her hand and was listening to the sounds of the birdcalls and learning about tree and plant identification. It’s helpful to keep kids entertained and engaged by teaching them about what they are seeing and hearing while they walk.
If your kids like games more than lectures, try making a list of what you will find on the hike, and let your kids have a scavenger hunt. Learning about your environment is important for adults, too. By talking to the rangers ahead of time, we learned we had bears near our site, and we needed to properly store our food. We also discovered we needed to be cautious of the elk who were getting ready to give birth to their young. Like humans, these animals get cranky and protective when it comes to their kids.
Teaching your kids to enjoy the outdoors without some of the comforts of home is easier than you might think. Even though we faced some unexpected challenges (almost running out of food on the last night!), our family had a wonderful trip. We were completely disconnected from the Internet and connected to each other. For that reason alone, it was worth every mile of travel.
Make sure to bring:
Comfortable sleeping pad/sleeping bags
Flashlights (one for each person)
Pot for boiling water
Filter/tablets for treating water
Hand sanitizer or baby wipes
Layers of clothing, including extra underwear and extra socks. (You don’t need a fresh shirt every day, but if you’re walking, you want clean, comfortable socks.)
First aid kit:
Moleskin for blisters
Antibiotic ointment for cuts and scrapes
Amy Ettinger is the online/social media editor at Bay Area Parent.