It's my family's first night in the Alaskan backcountry. Things are not going well. Actually, calling it backcountry is pushing the definition. We're about 100 yards off the pavement in a roadside state park.
Hardly a minute after our three kids pile out of the car, they're slapping at mosquitoes and acquiring that whining tone parents recognize as the precursor to imminent meltdown. Within 15 minutes, Ruby, our 5-year-old, has welts the size of nickels, and her whine-o-meter is hovering in the panic zone. Eli, 8, and Sawyer, 7, aren't faring much better.
Marypat and I exchange alarmed looks. The mosquitoes aren't nearly as bad as what we're about to experience on a 2-week float down 300 miles of the Yukon River. To their credit, the kids are seasoned campers who thrive in the outdoors. But this is the first time we've exposed them to the rigors of the northern bush.
Back in our prekid days, Marypat and I traveled often to the Arctic wilderness. It's where we fell in love, and then stayed in love. We long ago determined to share that passion with our offspring. As well, we knew there could be no better proving or learning ground. Neither of us minds if Mother Nature steps in and teaches our kids a thing or two. In fact, that's exactly what we want.
Two days later, we launch our canoes into the swift current of the Yukon. High and silty, the river is full of sticks and branches destined for logjams downstream.
In the bow of my canoe, Eli grabs a stick out of the current, inspects it, then lays it back in the water. Ruby, amidships, snatches it up as it goes past and stacks it in the canoe. Sawyer, in the bow of Marypat's boat, sees what his siblings are up to and starts his own stash. Our friends Kim and Charlie, a childless couple who have gamely signed on for a crash course in family camping, paddle ahead.
The river coils in immense bends, and forested hillsides hump away into the green distance. While the kids amass mounds of sticks the size of small beaver lodges, I allow myself a moment to be pulled into the spell of the wilderness, to sense the muscular, gritty river under the hull. I relax a notch. Maybe we can pull this off.
When we stop at the first in a series of gravel-bar island camps, the youngsters explode into action. Time spent paddling or hiking is always entertaining, but camp is where the fun stuff really happens. Log piles, pretty rocks, and sandy expanses are playgrounds that dispense with the need for toys. Kim joins in their play as they follow a set of lynx tracks down the shoreline.
On this first night of river travel, after a chapter of Harry Potter, I smile at the sound of steady sleep-breathing beside me. My pretrip concerns have faded; the wilderness already seems more welcoming than forbidding.
Each day, memories pile up like the sticks in our canoes: a cow moose browsing in a clump of willows; prospectors' cabins hunkered in the woods. What's more, Eli, Sawyer, and Ruby are coming up to speed in the ways of the bush. When the bugs are bad, they simply put on repellent and windshirts with hoods. The whine-o-meter doesn't register a blip.
This isn't to say there aren't bad moments. Ten days into the journey, a daylong rainstorm pounces. Slabs of riverbank and entire trees topple into the torrent. We slide around corners, desperate for a camp, any camp, not drowned beneath the rising river. We finally ram into a bedraggled mudbar. Within half an hour of getting a tarp up and serving the first round of hot chocolate, the grim situation has improved. Ruby is sitting next to Kim, drawing rainbows in her journal; the boys are furiously battling Charlie for the hand-slapping championship.
My children are proving themselves.
Some 250 miles downstream from Dawson, Kim and Charlie paddle
ahead to retrieve our vehicles. We have 2 final days to be a family in the Alaskan wilderness.
We float along, our canoes often rafted up together. The boys offer Ruby advice about what to expect in kindergarten. Harry Potter comes to a close. There is no shortage of sticks to collect.
On the last night, we camp at the gravel nose of another island. The kids tear around in the sand, build a fort out of logs and rocks, take dips in a sun-warmed pool, wing stones at passing driftwood logs.
Later, after dinner, Marypat herds us all together for a family photo. One of Ruby's eyes is swollen shut by a blackfly bite. All three of the children are gritty and bug-bitten and in desperate need of hot baths.
"C'mon, you guys," Marypat calls. "This is our last chance for a family shot. We get out tomorrow."
It's then that they all say, in one voice, what I most hoped to hear, words that, 2 weeks earlier in our roadside camp, I'd never have predicted I'd hear:
"Aw, Mom! Can't we stay longer? Can't we just keep on going?"
Trail-tested tips and gear to keep young hikers in high spirits.
With a bit of know-how, some toys and games to entertain, and decent gear to keep your offspring warm and dry, exploring the backcountry becomes a fantastic family experience. Just ask any of the Backpacker editors and contributors
who regularly hike with their children.
Here are their hard-won tips on keeping young campers happy, plus a look at some of the gear that has earned the approval of trail-seasoned testers Austin, 4, son of Southwest Editor Annette McGivney; Siena, 5, daughter of Northwest Editor John Harlin; and Hadley, 5, and Abby, 3, daughters of Managing Editor Jonathan Dorn. Their field trials took place in such varied locales as Oregon's Mt. Hood, the deserts of Arizona and Utah, and along Pennsylvania's portion of the Appalachian Trail.
Infant to 2 years
- Watch her head. As soon as Baby can hold her head up, you have the green light to hit the trail. Load her in a chest carrier, which allows you to shoulder a light backpack, as well.
- Pack yummy morsels. Nursing infants need only Mama for food. Bring dried banana strips (not slices) for teething toddlers; they keep infants busy for long stretches of time, if you don't mind the drool. Bring a hand-crank food mill for grinding up the leftovers from adult meals to feed those eating some solid foods.
- Bow to your baby. When paddling with an infant, make sure your boat has ample bow room. The youngster will sit on your lap most of the time, or nap between your feet.
- Boatsit the baby. On canoe trips, use the beached boat as a playpen for pretoddlers. Pull the boat into camp, throw in a few toys and let Baby ramble, free from the dangers of thistles, sand, and goose poop.
- Camp in chokeproof sites. When Baby's in the put-everything-in-his-or-her-mouth stage, seek out hiking destinations with chokeproof terrain, such as a sandy beach or grassy meadow, for campsites.
- Ride in style. Decorate your child carrier with dangling playpen doodads to make it more like home. Baby will sleep better if you drape the official "blankie" over the carrier frame.
- Cover those tootsies. Bundle little feet in insulated booties during cool hikes. Lack of movement, combined with restricted circulation in legs dangling from the carrier cockpit, can lead to cold piggies and irritability.
- Bed down with care. On cold-weather trips, your down jacket atop a flattened camp chair is a fine bed for Baby. Some parents zip their bags together and sleep with baby in the middle; use the same caution you do at home to prevent smothering.
- Batten down the hatches. Securely stake and weight your tent so it doesn't blow away while Baby is taking her nap.
The best child carriers for overnight hikes allow ample comfort for parent and child. We tested a bunch and liked these models most:
Jack Wolfskin Watchtower Premium. "Siena loves the colorful wolf-track motif and the detachable kid-size pack," says her dad. This 1,770-cubic-inch-capacity carrier offers enough storage space for a multiday trip and plenty of load-carrying comfort, thanks to a suspension system with a well-proportioned lumbar pad, a cushioned hipbelt, and adjustable load lifters. "And it's so comfortable for her," says John, "that there's little incentive for Siena to do what she's supposed to do?hike on her own two legs!" Rated for a 45-pound child. Weight: 6 lbs. 10 oz. Price: $179.
Kelty Explorer and Expedition. Backpacker parents have logged many miles in the Expedition (3,840-cubic-inch capacity) and the slightly smaller Explorer (3,140-cubic-inch capacity). The Expedition won a 1999 Editors' Choice Award (April) for its ability to carry loads of gear and a child comfortably. Roomy cockpits make these carriers best suited to older, awake toddlers, not sleeping babies. Rated for a 45-pound child. Weight: Expedition, 7 lbs. 5 oz.; Explorer, 6 lbs. 6 oz. Price: Expedition, $260; Explorer, $230.
Madden Caravan. "It's comfortable and indestructible no matter how much you carry or how far," says Jon of this rugged carrier. The suspension system is streamlined, but offers just the right amount of padding on the back and hipbelt. Two compartments (2,500 cubic inches total) carry gear, and the simple design keeps the Caravan's weight down. For kids, there are toy loops, a comfortable harness, and amply sized foot stirrups. The original Caravan won an Editors' Choice Award in 1995 (April). The Caravan provided excellent comfort when carrying up to 45 pounds of child and gear. Weight: 5 lbs. 9 oz. Price: $249.
2 to 6 years
- Bribe with trail treats. Diversions of the edible variety are an essential hiking tool. Bring trail mix, gummy worms, lollipops, or licorice. Set goals for the next treat stop: a mile, half an hour, the next lake, a huge tree in the distance.
- Plan playtime. Schedule numerous rest/play stops. Kids tire faster than adults do, plus they can teach you a thing or two about stopping to smell the flowers.
- Walk with wheels. On well-groomed trails, a jogging stroller allows you to carry a full backpack and still ferry your child when she becomes too tired to walk. Note: You can't take jogging strollers (wheels!) into designated wilderness areas.
- Think quality, not quantity. A successful family backpacking trip doesn't have to cover much ground if there are rocks to scramble on, trees to climb, and water to play in. Adults tend to have a "proceed from Point A to Point B" mentality, but kids are much more likely to be satisfied with immediate experiences. Keep your total trip mileage well below what you would cover without children.
- Transplant toys. Pack a sandbox shovel and little plastic toys to amuse the kids in camp. Bring books, paper, crayons, or an Etch A Sketch for tent-bound entertainment.
- Let them get dirty. Parents who are fanatics about regularly bathing their children must check that notion at the trailhead. Consider basecamping. This allows for casual dayhikes and lightens the load for overburdened parents.
- Make merry with mud pies. Plan to camp along a stream or near a lake. There's nothing like sand, mud, and water to occupy children for hours. Avoid critter visits. Reduce your child's attractiveness to animals and insects by avoiding sweet-smelling lotions and wipes. At bedtime, check pockets for half-eaten snacks. Do a quick safety check around camp for snakes, cacti, cliffs, and other hazards before letting Junior roam.
- Talk the walk. Encourage kids to chat about things to keep their minds off hiking. Start a story line and pass it from person to person, or try participatory camp songs (think "Itsy Bitsy Spider").
Tough Traveler Growing Bear Sleeping Bag. The Growing Bear's zip-on extension allows your child to get 5 to 7 years' use out of this sleeping bag. At its smallest, 39-inch size, the Growing Bear is hoodless with a U-shaped opening for the child's head. But zip in the extension and hood, and the bag becomes a 55-inch mummy. Hadley and Abby slept soundly in temperatures down to 20 degrees F, even when the insulation got wet. Jon adds that the Growing Bear is "somewhat bulky, but has taken a beating without showing serious signs of wear." Weight: 2 lbs. (with extension). Price: $148.
Timberland Eurohiker Day Hiker Boots. This all-leather boot was Austin's favorite because its light weight, generous Achilles notch, and flexible sole allow for uninhibited running and climbing, whether hiking in the desert, slogging through snow, or playing at the playground. Sizes: 5-12. Price: $50.
Painter Outdoor Step by Step Backpack. "I'm backpacking just like you!" Austin proclaimed at age 3 1/2, as he carried his own sleeping bag, minipad, and jacket. With adjustable shoulder straps, a hipbelt, and a sternum strap, this pack lets kids feel like they're shouldering their fair share. The modular system accommodates your growing child by letting you attach cargo bags of different sizes to two sizes of shoulder straps (for torso lengths of 9 to 20 inches) and a hipbelt. Austin especially liked the juice-bottle holster and snack pouch on the hipbelt, and the red safety whistle on the shoulder strap. Of course, Mom ended up lashing Austin's little pack onto hers after 3 miles, but seeing him enjoy his first foray into backcountry self-sufficiency was worth it for her. Weight (junior shoulder straps, hipbelt, two-compartment packbag, snack pack, and water pouch): 2 lbs. 5 oz. Price: $130 (components also sold separately).
6 to 12 years
- Think "the more, the merrier." Bring friends or partner with other families. The kids entertain each other, plus parents can take turns watching the crew and getting some much-needed adult time.
- Catch shutterbugs. Give kids a disposable or inexpensive camera so they can chronicle their expedition.
- Fish for excitement. A simple spin-casting rig and a few lures can entertain for many an afternoon. Be prepared to do some wading for the inevitable snagged hooks.
- Put 'em to work! Involve children in camp chores to give them a sense of ownership in the excursion. Even very young children can help gather tinder for the fire or bring sleeping bags to the tent.
- Follow the leader. Let kids lead, especially when they begin to lag behind. Sometimes putting them up front and giving them the power to dictate the pace translates into a burst of energy.
- Gear up for less. When money's an object, spend your pennies on top-of-the-line long undies, shell wear, and footwear. Scrimp on no-name fleece.
- Capture the wild in words. Bring journals for the youngsters to write and color in. Have them trace leaves and sketch salamanders to create long-lasting memories.
- Be prepared. Bring one more set of clothes than you think you need for your child. Kids always get wetter and muddier than you expect.
- Weigh in. Don't overload kids with backpack weight; a minimal load (a small backpack with sleeping bag, pad, and raingear for a total weight of 7 or so pounds) for a full day will be plenty.
Kelty Voyager Sleeping Bag. The Voyager kept Austin cozy on a 2-week spring kayaking trip down Utah's San Juan River. He liked to snuggle up in the bag's soft fleece lining and appreciated the pillow pocket in the hood. Austin's mom appreciated that the Voyager's synthetic insulation dried quickly. Though this rectangular, 63-inch-long bag is rated to 40 degrees F, it kept Siena warm at 32 degrees F. Weight: 2 lbs. 10 oz. Price: $49.
Patagonia Capilene Midweight Crew and Bottoms. The soft feel, super warmth, and flat seams made this the base layer of choice for Hadley. Unfortunately, the pieces don't hold up well to early morning rock climbing: Austin's Capilenes are sporting a fair number of snags. Sizes: 3-14. Price: $20 per piece.
Patagonia El Cap Snapover and Pants. This midweight fleece sweater and pants make great insulating layers in cold weather. Austin liked the pants pockets for stashing hands and rocks. He also appreciated the way the snap collar on the sweater slid easily over his cranium. Hadley found the fleece plenty warm, but her daddy reported that two seams have begun to unravel. Sizes: XXS-XL. Price: Snapover, $42; Pants, $38.
Molehill Mountain Equipment Full-Zip Wind Pro Jacket. "The Molehill Wind Pro is Siena's ideal all-around mild-winter-weather jacket," says her dad. "Not only is the fleece cozy and warm, but the Wind Pro cuts most of the wind, letting her hike without a shell." Sizes: 4-14. Price: $80-$90.
Kamik Courage Boots. All-leather waterproof construction, a grippy rubber lugged sole, and a high cut for secure ankle support proved the Courage is an adult-caliber backpacking boot made to fit children. Austin wore these supersturdy boots on a rim-to-river hike in the Grand Canyon. He walked all the way, which is a tribute, in part, to the support and comfort of his footwear. Sizes: 10-6. Price: $49.
Leki Pathfinder Junior Trekking Poles. Two-section aluminum poles that extend from 29 to 44 inches, the Pathfinders are light enough for young children, and our testers seemed to have fewer stumbles. The rubber handle accommodates smaller digits, and the carbide tips are blunter than adult poles to avoid injury during the inevitable swordplay. Weight: 7 oz. (each pole). Price: $50.
12 to 18 Years
- Let the big kids hike ahead. Teenagers have more energy than you do, and need personal space. If it's safe, allow them to hike at their own pace. Use trail junctions, water crossings, and other landmarks for meeting points. Bring a buddy. A teen who takes a friend along has a good shot at having fun in the wilderness.
- Keep birds of a feather together. For groups with more than one teen, have the teens pack their own tent and set it up far enough away that they don't keep you up all night.
- Fuel the flock. Growing teenagers-especially boys-need to eat a lot and often. Stuff their pockets with trail mix and energy bars so you don't have a feeding frenzy at every meal.
- Teach, don't do. Kids age 12 and older are ready to learn backpacking skills and chores. Teach them how to use a compass, pick a campsite, work the stove, hang the bear bag, clean the water filter, and so on.
- Plan lots of free time. Physically, teens may be capable of hiking all day, but that doesn't mean it's good for them. Throw in a deck of cards, Hacky Sack, or Frisbee. Bring a field book and make a contest out of identifying plants. Allow time for swimming, snowball fights, writing in journals, and sketching.
- Don't skimp on gear. Many teens are able to carry an adult-size load, and it's unfair to ask them to do it with a child-size pack.
- Lead by example. It won't be long before these kids will be backpacking on their own. It's up to you to teach them low-impact camping techniques and respect for the wilderness.
Like everything in a teenager's life, finding the right backpacking gear is more complicated than you might expect. In some ways, they're young adults who can use grown-up gear, but in other respects, they're still youngsters. In general, buy them adult products that are durable and adjustable in fit. You'll save money in the long run if big-ticket items like packs and sleeping bags don't have to be replaced again.
Boots. Teenagers' feet grow fast, so don't invest a lot of money in top-of-the-line boots that will be two sizes too small by the time they're broken in. For three-season hiking, choose lightweight footwear with adequate ankle support. If you plan on-trail hikes only, durable sneakers may be adequate.
Raingear. Buy good rain protection, or else you may have a wet, unhappy, and possibly hypothermic teen on your hands. That said, a good old-fashioned rain slicker can keep a growing kid dry without breaking the bank.
Packs. Don't borrow Uncle Earl's old pack, and don't stretch out another season with that pack you bought your daughter when she was 9. Several manufacturers, including Kelty, REI, and L.L. Bean, make youth internal and external frame packs, or you might be able to fit your teen into a women's size small pack.
Base layers. Teens can wear the same clothing you do. Perfect fit and costly technical features aren't necessary, but it's important that layers keep your teen warm and dry.
Jack Wolfskin, (888) 378-9653; www.wolfskin.com
Kamik, (800) 341-3950; www.kamik.com
Kelty, (800) 423-2320; www.kelty.com
Leki USA, (800) 255-9982; www.leki.com
L.L. Bean, (800) 809-7057; www.llbean.com
Madden Mountaineering, (303) 442-5828; www.maddenusa.com
Molehill Mountain Equipment, (800) 804-0820; www.molehillmtn.com
Patagonia, (800) 638-6464;
Painter Outdoor Gear, (888) 714-4888; www.trailinks.com
REI, (800) 426-4840; www.rei.com
Timberland, (800) 445-5545; www.timberland.com
Tough Traveler, (800) 468-6844; www.toughtraveler.com