There are countless ways children benefit from spending time in the great outdoors. You don’t have to wait until your kids are older to take them backpacking—with a little extra planning, preparation, and adaptation, children of all ages can enjoy backpacking adventures.
Before You Go
Plan Ahead and Be Reasonable
There are a few extra factors to consider when taking small children into the backcountry. How far can your children hike? How many nights away can you reasonably expect your children to enjoy? What activities and opportunities will be available in the area? How technical is the trail? Every child is different so many of these answers will vary. The important thing is to keep the expectations reasonable and age appropriate.
When in doubt, it’s best to start small and underestimate what you and your tiny trekker can handle. That way you and your family will be eager to come back for more rather than walk away soured from the experience.
Start Small and Local
Before your first backpacking trip, hit the trails for some day hikes. This will give you a good idea of what your children can handle and enjoy.
Children can begin walking longer distances as young as three (though every child is different). For tiny or timid hikers, start with long walks around familiar settings like neighborhoods or local parks. Build up to several hours of walking then head to the trails for a half-day hike.
If you are taking a very young child on their first hike, set the expectation that you will not carry them but they can decide to have rest times when needed. This means you will cover less distance and take many breaks at first. They will build stamina quickly.
Make hikes exciting with a few special items—perhaps a small daypack they can use to carry a snack and some water. Be sure to keep the pack light and very slowly increase the weight they carry.
Don’t be afraid to sweeten the deal! The promise of a small favorite snack at the top of the next hill or after a designated amount of time will often keep tiny legs trekking.
Pitch your tent in the back yard and do a “dry run” before your first backpacking trip. This helps children feel comfortable sleeping in new environments and lets them know what to expect. It will also increase their excitement for the real trip.
During your “dry run” talk about what you will be doing on the trip and invite them to help with the planning process. Children are far more excited to participate if they feel they have contributed along the way. Ask for ideas of what they would like to do, see, eat, or experience.
In allowing your children to participate in the planning and preparation, you are teaching valuable life skills like setting goals, planning, and problem solving.
For your first time out, particularly with small children, choose a campsite within a couple miles of the trailhead. This keeps the expectations reasonable and if, for some reason, you need to cut the trip short, you are not far from the car.
Let your children carry size and weight appropriate packs. Their extra clothes, a snack, and some water might be all they can manage to carry when first starting out. Let your children pack their bags and choose what they would like to carry (with supervision to make sure they aren’t carrying too much weight). This increases the ownership of the adventure.
Let your child bring a favorite stuffy or small comfort item. This will go a long way to reduce any anxieties about sleeping in a new environment.
Of course all this means you will carry all of the gear, which is another reason to keep your first backpacking trips short.
Keep the cuisine kid-friendly and simple. Mac-N-Cheese, quesadillas, and other kid favorites are easy to pack and make. Perhaps identify a special meal or food item you will always have on backpacking trips as a family tradition.
Dried fruits, fruit leather, trail mix, and granola bars are healthy snack options. Don’t be afraid to slip in some treats and sweets. All this will go a long way to help your child associate backpacking with fun, adventure, tasty food, and memorable traditions.
Things that are not scary to adults may be terrifying to children. Don’t shame or dismiss their fears. Instead give them concrete responses to their fears—like what to do if they see a bear or a snake. Keep it age appropriate and focus on instilling healthy confidence.
Remind them that it’s ok to feel scared or nervous but those are opportunities to practice being brave. Giving space to talk about reservations or fears will help your child develop self-awareness.
Clip a whistle to their backpack or belt loop and teach them to blow it if they are ever separated from you. Include a small headlamp or flashlight in their bag as well.
Keep Them Engaged
Most children are used to having screens and technology in their daily lives at a young age. It’s important to help them learn to “unplug” and enjoy being outside.
Be thoughtful about how much time you spend at camp to prevent boredom. Age appropriate card games are easy to pack in and there are plenty of ways to help children explore and enjoy the backcountry.
You might have seen a thousand bugs, beetles, and creepy crawlies on your hikes and adventures. Your child is just beginning his exploration of the world and is enthralled by the wonders of the shiny beetle, the babbling brook, the funny mushrooms, and everything else that catches their eye.
Foster that wonder by being excited with them! Let their enthusiastic exploration renew your own view of nature! You can even turn it into a scavenger hunt. Come up with a list of age-appropriate things to find (not collect… it’s an opportunity to teach them backcountry etiquette): a white mushroom, a yellow butterfly, a purple flower, etc.
Enhance the scavenger hunt game by giving children cameras and letting them photograph each item they find. You might even turn it into a learning opportunity by looking up information about each item when you get home.
If you have a GPS unit and are backpacking in an area that has geocache locations, this is a fun activity! Every kid loves to find hidden treasures and it is a great way to teach basic GPS or navigation skills.
If your tiny trekkers are old enough, bring a pocketknife and teach them to whittle sticks. It’s a fun, restful pass-time that creates space for talking or just enjoying time together.
Write It Down
Purchase a small journal to record their favorite activities, memories, and things they saw at the end of each day. This can be as simple or involved as you would like. Your children will love recounting adventures and it will teach them the practice of slowing down at the end of the day to remember and be thankful.
Perhaps when you return you can insert some of the favorite pictures you or your children took. Over the years these journals may become precious treasures to the whole family.
Children love to participate and take ownership. Give them tasks to complete around camp. Children can gather kindling if you are going to have a fire or collect all the empty water bottles for refilling. There are plenty of age-appropriate “chores” to be assigned.
Backpacking with children does introduce unique challenges but the wonder and adventure is worth the extra planning and preparation. Your children will develop an appreciation for nature, a sense of self-confidence, practical skills, and create fond family memories.
What are your favorite memories of backpacking as a child or with your children? Do you have any tips to pass along?