Camping with kids is all about highs and lows. One minute they’re ecstatic because they scrambled up a boulder. Then, in a flash they’re sobbing because they dropped a lollipop in the dirt. To parents, planning a family backpacking trip can be daunting. After all, it can take a day to pack for a 2-day outing. But getting into the backcountry–even a few miles off the beaten path–can lead to a whole different kind of adventure. In short: It’s hard work that’s worth the effort.
Plus, we can make it easier. Here’s our straight-talking, trail-tested advice for taking children of all ages into the wilderness.
6 months to 2 years
As soon as your baby can hold her head up and ride in a backpack (as opposed to a front pack), you’re ready. Parents can be edgy about hiking with little ones, but babies are ideal companions–they’re lighter than many tents and never complain about blisters and burnt rice.
Strategy Babies are portable at this stage, so take advantage of the chance to actually hike a few miles–you’ll miss this when toddlerhood comes around. Little ones love to chill out on your back and watch the scenery roll by. One key: Don’t skip naptime. Most kids will be lulled to sleep by the rhythm of walking, but if yours fights it, be sure to schedule tent time.
Single biggest challenge In a word, diapers.
Sleeping arrangements First-time parents are often terrified of suffocating their baby, but old hands know that infants don’t need their own bag. If your child is not a thrasher, simply snuggle the little nipper into your bag and spoon all night. Or zip together two compatible bags and let baby snooze between you and your spouse. If you just can’t handle a co-sleeping scenario, zip your kid into a puffy down jacket. Just be sure she wears a hat and has her own pad. (A baby-sized rectangle of open-cell foam does the trick, and it’s light in your pack.)
Become one with dirt Crawlers will get very dirty in camp. Most parents find it nerve-rackingto watch an 18-month-old slither in the dust, hands and face turning browner by the minute. But you know what? Dirt won’t kill them. Resist the urge to scrub them clean every 5 minutes, and focus on real safety issues. Visually scour the campsite, and remove or blockade anything low and dangerous–holes, fire-ant hills, thorny plants, poison ivy, scat piles. Alternate 30-minute baby-watch shifts, so no one has to blurt out: “But I thought YOU were watching her!”
Pack this Lots of gallon-size zipper-locks to pack out stinky diapers, and hand-sanitizing gel for post-change disinfecting. And since you’ll be hauling precious, heavy cargo, hike in boots with good ankle support, and trekking poles for stability. Also, for the precious cargo, down or fleece booties are critical. A baby in a kid carrier can lose some foot circulation, especially on longer, cooler hikes.
Essential gear Babies in backpacks need to be comfortable and secure. Kelty sells several models of child carriers; kelty.com.
3 to 6 years
These are the most challenging years. Kids this age are exploding with curiosity, but they’re too big to carry and too young to walk more than 20 paces without stopping to examine every caterpillar. They tire easily, melt down often, and lack the sense to back away from crumbly cliffs.
Strategy Accept this fact right now: Big miles and peakbagging are out of the question. You will only hike as far and fast as the youngest toddler in your group. Adjust your expectations, then try to devise games to encourage him or her to move leisurely down the trail. “I Spy with my little eye…a moss covered tree up ahead.”
Single biggest challenge Preventing meltdowns. Kids this age love adventures, but they also crave the comfort of their normal routine. Keep them engaged and excited about the newness of their surroundings. Make a big deal when you discover animal tracks, scat, frogs, wildflowers, or anything else of interest. Stop and ask your child questions: “What kind of animal do you think made that?” Another big hit: the treasure hunt. Give each kid a zipper-lock baggie and list of items to find: a heart-shaped rock, a red leaf, a pencil-sized stick, a pinecone, a feather. Award prizes (candy) for the best finds.
Unexpected challenge Getting your child to poop in the woods. Many kids this age will hold it as long as they can, rather than do their business without the cool, clean comfort of the porcelain throne. Obviously, this is not a good or healthy option. While it’s not unusual for a child to go the first day of a trip without a BM, after that, you should encourage it. Show them how to squat low (it helps move things along), and take the opportunity to teach Leave No Trace ethics, like burying waste and packing out toilet paper.
The Superman complex Beware: Most kids this age think they’re invincible. Unless something roars loudly and has huge, pointy fangs, they don’t consider it dangerous. So stay especially close at steep overlooks, while bouldering, or when crossing streams on slippery deadfall.
Pack this Headlamps for every child. If you don’t, they’ll beg for yours. Pick a lightweight LED lamp (a set of batteries will last forever if it’s left on). Check out Black Diamond’s website for various models. bdel.com. Also, preschoolers love to carry their own pack–if it’s comfortable and has a pocket for their favorite toy. Check out Hydrapack; hydrapak.com.
7 to 11 years
Once your kids hit this age range, you’re out of the woods, figuratively speaking. They can (pretty much) keep up with you on the trail, help with chores, and entertain themselves for hours on end, skipping rocks or picking blueberries.
Strategy Think action! Pick a fun destination–a lake, waterfall, or a big, slabby rock formation–no more than 2 to 4 miles from your basecamp. Plan to reach it before lunch and spend a couple of hours exploring, relaxing, eating, climbing, or swimming.
Single biggest challenge Keeping them motivated and positive. At this age, kids actually enjoy doing chores (camp chores, that is). By helping with tasks like gathering firewood, filtering water, setting up the tent or laying out the sleeping gear, preteens can earn a sense of involvement, ownership, and accomplishment.
Pack this Tent games: a deck of cards for playing Crazy Eights and Hearts, or the perennial BACKPACKER favorite, Pass the Pigs (amazon.com).
Gear to get them stoked Trekking poles are always a huge hit with this age group. (Got boys? Quickly establish a no-swordfighting rule.) Leki’s Pathfinder Jr. two-section aluminum poles adjust from 80 to 110 cm and have kid-sized grips with adjustable straps. 14 oz.; leki.com.
Time for some real boots Up until this age, kids can safely hike in sneakers. (Though there are some excellent options if you want to invest earlier.) As your offspring hit the preteen years and start to carry some weight, though, their feet need protection and support. Look for boots that are neither too stiff (uncomfortable) or too soft (unsupportive). Good hiking boots should feel different than sneakers–a bit more rigid underfoot, and often higher in the ankle. Make sure your kid logs plenty of break-in time before the trip; you don’t want to deal with pinched toes 5 miles from the car.
12 years and older
Teens are headstrong and fiercely independent. This is the perfect time to teach key outdoor skills such as firestarting, cooking, and navigation.
Strategy Grant them space and ample responsibility. Give them a map, and let them hike ahead with a mandate to wait at the next trail junction. Cut them loose from the family tent and let them pack their own, easy-to-erect 2-person shelter. Even more so than the 7-to-11 age group, teens thrive when they’re involved in camp chores. Other gratifying lessons: lighting the stove and making dinner; starting a fire with flint and tinder; hanging a food bag. Or let them study the map and plan tomorrow’s hike. Teens can also be very helpful corralling younger ones and keeping them out of trouble.
Single biggest challenge Tearing your teens away from competing interests, like friends, cell phones, and MySpace. Easy solution: let them invite a friend.
Pack this Plenty of food. Teens–expecially boys–have voracious appetites. Be sure to pack double the amount of snack food they eat at home. Stuff their pockets with granola bars and bags of trail mix, so you don’t have to stop to dole it out every 10 minutes.
Gear to get them stoked Boys (and plenty of girls) love to pack their own pocket knife for whittling and carving (a related accessory: extra bandages). Give your kid a budget and let him shop for his own Swiss Army knife at wengerna.com or swissarmy.com. Or get a new journal and an inexpensive or disposable digital camera.
Hand-me-down time For the most part, your kids are now ready for grown-up gear. That means you’ve got many more affordable options in new gear, and can finally pass along your heirloom long johns and fleece jackets.
Secrets to success, for all ages
Invite another family Don’t get all sappy with the kids about precious quality family time. Save that for Disney World. Once your kids hit about age 5, their enthusiasm for any given activity is greatly enhanced by the presence of friends. Plus, with another set of parents around, you can take shifts, maybe even allowing time for a kidless getaway hike.
Start small Make your first few trips overnights or weekenders. Choose your destination wisely, too. Don’t be overly ambitious when it comes to mileage or altitude. Look for places where you can hike in a mile or two to a scenic basecamp that’s within reach of a swimming hole, boulder field, gravelly river, or some other attraction. (Keep in mind that you’ll most likely be making at least a couple of trips to shuttle in gear.)
Bribe early and often If ever there is a time to ply your kids with sugary treats, it’s on a hiking trip. When you sense a whinefest coming on, stop for a break, bust out the Skittles, and a major attitude adjustment is guaranteed.
Check the weather A rainy afternoon holed up in a tent can be great fun, but if the forecast calls for a stormy cold front all weekend, scrap your plans until good weather returns.
Battle the bugs If mosquitoes or blackflies inhabit your chosen destination, having the right gear becomes paramount. Each kid should have a baseball cap and mosquito headnet, plus loose-fitting long-sleeve shirts and pants. Bring plenty of bug spray–look for the kid formulas with less deet–and keep it off their faces and hands.
Don’t skimp on gear Fun cannot happen without comfort. Once kids hit 4 or 5, they can’t share your sleeping bag any longer.
Ditto for clothing Invest in a few key items: quick-dry pants or shorts, a warm jacket, good raingear. (Tip: No budget for synthetic long johns? Buy a pair of perfectly functional polyester pajamas at Target, Wal-Mart, or K-Mart.)
Keep a group journal For longer trips, this is a great way to involve the whole family in a common project. Each day, assign a different journal keeper to record whatever he or she deems important–the weather, wildlife sightings, observations, conversations. Younger kids can draw pictures and gather leaves or flowers to press.