Adventure Travel

Take Your Family Outdoors

Camping with kids can plant a wild seed in them that will grow as they do-but only if you get them Out There.

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?”

Child’s Play

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

Trail-tested tips

Gear

The best child carriers for overnight hikes allow ample comfort for parent and child. We tested a bunch and liked these models most: