This summer we took our 2 young kids backpacking. Our kids are 4 and 6. We went with another family with 3 kids whose youngest is 3. Many people thought we were a bit crazy, but we pulled it off and they had a great time.
As a bit of a background, we had taken our kids camping 3 times before this, so they knew the ropes, but in my opinion taking your kids camping beforehand isn’t a pre-requisite. Adding a backpack and a hike to the mix simply requires more planning on your part–its no more for the kids.
- Start small. We hiked to Hyas lake (yes this is pronounced “high-ass” lake) which is on the eastern side of the North Cascades in Washington State just north of Cle Elum. The hike in was a flat mile and a half, which took us about an hour and a half. This was a perfect distance. For the most part, there was little whining and the kids were pretty enthusiastic. Any longer and things might have gone downhill.
- Plan your route using a good guidebook for KIDS hikes. We used a great book called Best Hikes with Kids – Western Washington and the Cascades by Joan Burton. I almost didnt buy this because I already have a library of guidebooks, but I think this was definitely worth the investment. A kids focused guidebook will ensure that you only consider hikes that are suitable. All the risks that you might worry about, such as steep cliffy trails, or rushing rivers, will be called out for each hike.
- Go with friends. We went with another family whose kids are friends with ours. The kids kept each other going, and there was even a bit of a competition on the trail to see who was the toughest. At night after the kids are asleep, you’ve got someone to sip your bourbon with.
- Give them their own flashlight and/or headlamp, cup, bowl and spoon. Let’s face it… half the fun of camping for kids is all the gear.
- Be very patient on the trail and expect it to take three times as long as with adults. This is very important… If you are trying to rush things, nobody will have any fun. Let them stop and look under mossy rocks. On the trail, we broke up into several groups based on pace so that the smaller kids could go at their own pace.
- Bring freeze dried ice cream sandwiches. Roast marshmallows. Treats are good and keep everyone happy.
- Overlook the dirt. Your kids will get incredibly dirty. It will be in their hair, on their faces, and they’ll have filthy hands. They will drop their utensils in the dirt. Go with it. Getting extra dirty for a couple days won’t kill anyone–in fact, you don’t even get sick from dirt.
- Keep them in site at all times. I am very risk averse with our kids. Even if you’ve picked a flat hike away from rushing rivers, there are still bears depending on where you are. If you are near your kids, and run into a bear, you’ll be fine–most adults intimidate bears because of our height (thank god). If your kids are 200 yards ahead of you and around a bend and they run into a bear, this might be trouble.
- Asign a leader and rotate. Kids love to be the leader. The leader hikes in front and sets the pace. This definitely kept things moving.
- Establish clear rules for them before you set off. The primary rule we set was related to #8–stay within site and stick together.