Backpacking with kids: 13 steps to followJohn Cave Osborne
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There are few things I enjoy as much as backpacking through the mountains. At least twice a year, I trade my complicated yet comfortable life for a simple, arduous one. And while I’m away, I’m sure to find a tranquil perspective that’s impossible to attain during my normal routine.
My children don’t fully understand backpacking. All they know is that it’s loosely related to camping. And since they LOVE camping, they’re certain they’ll love backpacking, too. And while I hope they’re right, I’ve always had my doubts. After all, backpacking is a lot of hard work, way harder than camping.
Still, they’ve been bugging me forever to take them. Luke (who’s two) and the triplets (who are five) are clearly a bit young, still, but Alli? She’s 11, and I’ve long told her this was the summer I’d take her on her inaugural excursion. And I’m happy to report that it was a complete success.
But it wouldn’t have been had I not poured so much thought into it. See, you want everything to be just right when backpacking with kids. Because the last thing you can afford is for their first time to be an unpleasant one, lest they develop a negative past association with backpacking that can’t be overcome.
Which means you gotta get tick-tock tight before you go backpacking with kids. Here’s a list that will help you do just that:
Backpacking with Kids 1 of 14
What to pack? 2 of 14
This is the hard part. Hopefully this list will help.
Clothes: Think layers and always prepare for rain. I don't care what the forecast says. Remember: less is more. Essentials only. Multiple wearings encouraged.
Food: Obviously food is critically important, which is why it has its own slide. More on food in a bit.
Stove + fuel + pot + utensils + plates + cups
Hardware: Rope, headlamp, GPS, batteries (for headlamp or GPS), fire-starters, lighter, duct tape, knife (though I always carry my knife with me...) and things of this nature.
Water: You'll carry your water in a bladder within your backpack and your child should, too. But don't forget to bring extra water. Just in case.
Water bag: This is a bag that I tend to use (get this) when I'm around water. (I know. Genius naming system.) In it, you'll find water purification tablets, toothpaste, toothbrush, camp soap, aspirin, wipes, hand sanitizer, vaseline, etc...
Tent: Obviously, right? You'll probably want to carry a backpacking tent, as tents designed for Cadillac camping can be kinda heavy.
Sleeping bags + some sort of sleeping pads (like a Therm-a-Rest)
FIRST AID KIT! Don't leave home without it.
More on food 3 of 14
Food is critical. I always bring lots of snacky stuff to get through hikes. This includes: power bars, electrolyte tabs (I like Shot Bloks by Clif) and trail mix.
For breakfast, I'm king of oatmeal. Simple, easy and tons of carbs.
For lunch, I'm all about that tuna fish that comes in those foil-type pouches. Peanut butter's good, too. I spread either one in flour tortillas. Trust me -- bail on the whole-grain business just this once. Flour tortillas keep way better and hold food better, too.
For dinner, you have a couple of options: The first is pictured above on the left -- a pre-fabbed meal from Backpacker's Pantry (or a similar camping-grub manufacturer). Warning: those things are SODIUM BOMBS.
Which is why I often go with option #2, namely creating my own dinner. The baggie on the right contains "Mexican Beef and Rice" which I made with the help of the dehydrated ingredients contained in the white cardboard box. You can get such ingredients from Harmony House and they're fantastic.
Sidenote: the Mexican Beef and Rice that I hyper-linked above is flat-out delicious and goes really well on a flour tortilla.
Get organized! 4 of 14
Do you think your child would feel better in a home that was (a) well organized or (b) one that was a train wreck? That's right. The well organized home. Same deal out in the woods. Get tight, y'all. And be super organized. Aside from our tent, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, and water, this was all I brought for our trip. Note that everything is in a nice, neat bag.
From left to right:
Water bag and first aid kit sitting atop the food bag.
Fuel sitting atop a pot (inside of which are my stove and utensils, both inside a cup my daughter and I will share, which rests on a collapsable plate that we'll also share).
Clothes (rolled up efficiently in my Goretex shell).
Get organized part II: special tip 5 of 14
Carry a contractor bag inside your backpack so you'll have a nice staging area, if you will, upon which you can spread out your bags. Plus, it'll keep them cleaner and, more importantly, dryer!
Where to go? 6 of 14
I cannot stress this enough. When backpacking with kids, you must select a trip with which you are intimately familiar! A place you've been at least a few times if not several! Your familiarity breeds confidence and one must be completely confident when leading children on backpacking excursions. Not cocky. But confident.
Be prepared! 7 of 14
Remember how I said that you should choose a destination with which you're quite familiar? I meant it.
But no matter how familiar you are with it, you should still bring at least a map, if not a map and a guide book. I brought both. I never had to refer to them out of confusion, but they were still wonderful resources that I used to help my daughter get her bearings.
Plus, she thought it was cool that I'd learned so much about the area, in part from consulting such resources.
Have a plan B 8 of 14
The hike I planned was only three miles, but it was straight up, gaining some 2,000 feet. By all accounts, a tough hike.
Which is why I had a plan B --just in case my daughter wasn't quite up to it. And that plan B was a campsite halfway up. I prepped her about it before we even began, then touched base often once we started to see how she was holding up.
She crushed it, y'all, so there was no need for plan B. But it was there, just in case.
Have a pay off 9 of 14
That was no easy hike, right? Which is why I made sure that there was something like this view above to reward my little girl for all her hard work.
I'll never forget the time she and I spent on that rocky outcrop. And I don't think she will, either.
Teach, instruct and communicate 10 of 14
During our hike, I was continuously teaching, instructing and communicating with Alli. Teaching her about hiking in general. Instructing her on what to do and when to do it. And communicating some deeper thoughts to her. Thoughts that maybe wouldn't go over as well at home. Or even make sense for that matter.
See, the trails are filled with metaphors, only metaphors are a bit abstract for an 11-year-old. Unless she's living the metaphor.
On this particular trip, I told Alli that one reason why I loved backpacking is that it's a lot like life. Sometimes it's really, really hard. But if you can just keep a good attitude, do the right things and put one foot in front of another, you're almost always rewarded with something that's more beautiful than you could have ever imagined.
That would have garnered an eye roll at home. Here, though? "Yeah. I know what you mean."
And I bet she really did.
Prepare a nice camp 11 of 14
When you're backing with kids, about the coolest thing you can do is have a great campsite. One complete with a nice level spot for your tent, a good fire ring and plenty of room. Doesn't have to be huge. But big enough to feel like you've carved out a nice little home for yourselves.
Because that's exactly what you'll be doing.
Make sure dinner is special 12 of 14
This part's easy. (Especially if you go with that Mexican Beef and Rice dish!) Everything tastes better in the woods.
Still, make sure dinner is a special time. Because you and your child / children deserve to have a special dinner after such a special day.
Alli and I took a walk to a beautiful bluff I knew of near our camp where a phenomenal, 360-degree view of the mountains awaited. I prepared our dinner there as we watched the sun set. It was awesome!
Hang. Your. Food. 13 of 14
Period. I'm constantly amazed by how many people do NOT do this. Bears won't mess with you. But they will mess with your food. Enough said, right?
One quick note: I use 50-feet of rope that has "S hooks" on either end. Makes it very easy to hook onto your food bag as well as easy to wrap around a couple of trees several times before hooking the other end somewhere secure.
Prepare to bond 14 of 14
I get it that some people don't get it.
Only I don't get why they don't get it.
There's so much there, y'all. So very much. My daughter has already asked if we could make it an annual event.
"You bet, girl."
Next time, maybe we'll take the longer route that follows Slickrock Creek and bring a couple of rods. I bet she'd like that.