I’ve been backpacking with my kids for many years now, so I guess that makes me something of an expert. Well, maybe not an expert, but at least I have lots of experience. The following tips are things I mostly learned the hard way, through experience.
1. It’s got to be fun
If it isn’t fun your kids won’t want to go next time. Remember that with your kids along it will be a very different trip than when you go alone or with friends. Slow down and enjoy the scenery. Keep mileage low, very low for really little kids. Our first trip for my younger kids was about a 1.5 mile hike into a lake, not much elevation gain. This gave them a good sense of accomplishment that challenged them, but was within their means. As they get older, you can increase the mileage. The focus of the trip should be on the kids.
2. Have fun destinations
Hike to a lake, or hike along a beautiful river, or something like that. Kids will feel a stronger sense of accomplishment by arriving at a cool destination.
3. Provide motivation
We use Jolly Rancher candies. When the kids get tired and didn’t want to go on, we lure them along with Jolly Ranchers. Use whatever your kids like (and don’t get much at home). This can be a great motivator. Years ago we were hiking a 10 km section of the Great Wall in China. We had a special treat at each of the watch towers (37 in all). It was just what our 4 year old needed to keep him motivated.
4. Bring some games or a child’s blanket or stuffed animal
The kind of games you bring will depend on how old your kids are. We usually bring a small deck of cards. Games come in handy when you are tent bound in the rain. We play Old Maid, or War, or something simple like that. Likewise, your child may sleep better if they have their favorite small blanket or stuffed animal that they usually sleep with.
Make sure you pack enough food and that the kids will like it. Also, make sure you pack enough snacks. My kids like to remind me that I never bring enough food and they are always starving on our backpacking trips. I’m getting better though. One year the kids, as usual, claimed they were starving and that I didn’t bring enough food, so they solemnly declared they were going out to find some food. “Fine” I replied, “Good luck with that.” I took a nap in camp. About an hour later they triumphantly returned with a shirt full of potatoes. This was in the High Uintas at a lake at about 9500.’ I couldn’t believe it. They nonchalantly told me that they dug them up. Apparently some previous backpacker had stashed them near another campsite. So we sliced them up and fried them in a pan. The kids were feeling really smug about that. If it is appropriate for your area, build a campfire at night. Kids love to sit round a warm campfire on a cold night.
6. Play with the kids
With little kids we often only plan to hike for a couple hours a day so there is plenty of time to explore. Bring a fishing rod or climb to the top of a nearby peak. Or simply throw rocks in the water. Just watch out where you stand. I’ve been hit in the head with rocks thrown by tiny hands. One game we really like to play (even the teenagers) is what we call the log game. In heavily wooded areas there are typically lots of downed trees. The game is simply this, one person leads off on a fallen log and the others follow. You have to stay on fallen logs and cannot touch the ground. We have covered long distances this way, once all the way around a lake on fallen logs. It’s great fun and can occupy hours.
Whittling is another thing we like to do. Depending on the ages of your kids, provide them with a pocket knife and they will spend all kinds of time whittling knives and swords or spoons. One time we each carved an eating implement and had to eat our next meal with it.
7. Involve the kids with the planning
If they are old enough, involve them with the planning. Pull out your maps and show them your route (you might as well teach them how to use a map and compass while you’re at it). Plan the meals together as well. If they are old enough, let them be in charge of a meal or two.
You don’t need a lot of fancy, expensive equipment, but you do need decent stuff that will keep you comfortable and protected.
a. Rain gear
Kids should have their own. It’s quite dry where we backpack so we usually don’t pack rain pants. We like ponchos for the kids. They provide lots of coverage, even for their legs. Campmor sells inexpensive, good rain ponchos for kids.
b. Sleeping bags
If your kids are cold, they won’t be having fun. There are kid specific sleeping bags which we have used in the past, but they tend to be heavy and bulky. We ended up using regular down sleeping bags for the kids. They are warmer and lighter. With the extra length, simply fold up the end either under them or over the top for some extra insulation. For pads we use Cascade Design Ridgerest pads. They are reasonably priced and really all a kid needs (and they are kid proof, i.e. they can’t pop).
Make sure your tent can withstand extended rain and wind. There’s not much worse than a leaky tent during a storm. A nice, snug tent will help little ones feel safe in a storm.
We have found that external frame packs work really well for kids. Internal frame packs sized for kids are pretty small and usually aren’t big enough for a sleeping bag. We have used REI and Kelty brand external frame packs that we have been happy with. If you are going really lightweight, an internal frame pack will work well for kids. They tend to be more comfortable than external frame packs.
Kids sunburn pretty easily. Make sure your kids wear a hat to keep the sun out of their face. And bring sunscreen as well.
Synthetic fabrics dry faster when wet. A pair of lightweight nylon pants and a synthetic t-shirt are all they need. Depending on their age, a back-up set of clothes is a good idea. If you are only going for one or two nights, kids are fine wearing the same clothes. They don’t need much. If they get dirty, so what, isn’t that the point? Also make sure they have a warm coat. Usually a fleece jacket will be good for most areas. If it is really cold, they can put their rain coat on over their fleece jacket. A fleece beanie is a must. Have them sleep with their beanie on and it will keep them much warmer. We don’t bring gloves on summer backpacking trips, that’s what pockets are for.
Bring some hand sanitizer to clean up after using the bathroom. It also makes a great fire starter. We also like Dr. Bronner’s soap for washing dishes and other clean up. We also like to have a bandanna for each kid. They can use it as a towel, wrap it around their head pirate style, or a million other uses. Let them pick one out in their favorite color.
Again, the most important thing is to have fun. Keep it simple. You don’t need to pack in the kitchen sink. Keep it lightweight, or you will be miserable. You’d be surprised at how much you can do without. And take lots of photos.