Where the Wild Things Are

Kids and Backpacking - Part I

Hiking is great fun. Hiking with your significant other is better yet! Though, if you spend enough cold nights in close quarters you may eventually find yourselves waking up to strange sounds. Nope, not those pesky deer crunching around in the forest, more like the sorts of sounds related to hungry tummies wanting warm milk! Yes, the inevitable… children! So what happens when those kiddos metamorphosis from little bundled up burritos to the free roaming stages of life? For our family the goal was, and continues to be, including them in camping, hiking, and backpacking. It’s not a straightforward topic and I decided to tap some friends to help put some perspective on this. In the series, the first couple of parts will be written by myself, and the others by our guest authors.

I pondered over this article for some time. How would I approach it? What advice would I offer? Am I qualified to write a ‘how-to’ on the subject? The conclusion I arrived at seemed obvious in hindsight; ‘how-to’ doesn’t work with family dynamics. Like all things-parenting, we develop strategies that suit our family. With that thought, the idea solidified: I would simply share a few of our experiences in hopes of sparking some ideas within those of you who are reading along, thinking about taking your young children outdoors for a hike. Getting out the door with the kids always takes a little longer, but it’s soo worth it.

A Quick Introduction

Our kids are: Isabelle (6 years old), and Matteo (4 years old) as of the publishing of this essay. Determined that we would raise ‘outdoorsy kids’, I would lug Isabelle around in one of those kid carrier backpack thingys on short hikes up until she was about 2 years old. It was brutal, and I’m sure she got tired of looking at the back of my head all day.

Jacob D and Isabelle
A younger Jacob D with the mischievous twinkle in his eye, accompanied by Isabelle ~ 1 1/2 years

We would later learn that Isabelle has ‘mild’ cerebral palsy, which is an issue with the brain and how it controls the muscles; there are varying levels of severity. In Isabelle’s case it would mainly be muscle imbalance, low stamina, and below average strength that affected her. We began to take Isabelle on short hikes when she turned 3. Although she was eager to explore, it was apparent that she was making considerable effort and not having the best time. We wanted this to be something she’d enjoy and so we decided to take a short break from the hiking.

Sandra D and Isabelle
Along the Merced River. Sandra D and Isabelle ~ 3 years

Matteo came along, and eventually reached the age where he was ready to get outside and run around. By this time, Isabelle’s strength had improved somewhat and we decided to introduce the idea of hiking again. Although we live in the city, we would go for ‘hikes’ around the block. We’d do things like collect leaves, rocks, acorns, etc… The kind of things you’d do on real hikes. One of our goals was to get them walking longer distances, so we’d go a little farther each time to explore new areas, sometimes being out for over an hour walking around. Ultimately this led to camping, ‘real’ hiking, and finally backpacking.

Backpacking Gear for Kids

I’ll just say this now, because I’m sure it’s a the top of every parent’s check list… Gear options for young kids are not great. Most of the kids specific gear we’ve seen is over-priced, over-weight, and lackluster when it comes to utility. This is the route we’ve gone…

  • Tent: They share a tent with us, of course 🙂 We’ve been super happy with Go Lite SL5, which can fit the whole family plus gear. If it’s just two of us, we’ll use a smaller tent. The Lightheart SoLong 6 is one of my favorites in that case.
  • Backpack: More than likely you’re going to have to adapt a small day pack for their needs. We purchased packs from Little Light Gear, who was once making ultralight packs for kids, but they’re no longer in operation.
  • Sleeping Bag: enLIGHTened Equipment offers synthetic (or down) quilts in kid sizes. They’re nice – and much lighter than any of the mainstream kid’s sleeping bags (in fact, I’ll post a review on them in the near future).
  • Sleeping Pad: We cut a full length Therm-a-rest closed cell foam pad in half. Each of them get’s half of it.
  • Pillow: Exped makes a nice inflatable pillow. It packs down to nothing. A home made fleece pillow cover makes it extra comfy for the kids.
  • Clothing: We’ll hit up REI for things like synthetic shirts and rain clothes when they’re having a clearance sale. Eddie Bauer First Ascent also offers kids sizes of their down and fleece goods; good savings when on clearance, still a bit of a splurge. Mountain Goat Hats offers custom knit beanies in all sizes and colors for those who want something unique. For other things we just go to the local big box store.
  • Shoes: Good shoes have been a key factor in good trips. Slips lead to bumps, bruises and cuts, which lead to unhappy kids. The average kids’ shoe from the big box has little to no traction on the bottom. We’ve found that they slip and fall far less with real hiking shoes. We can almost always find something on clearance from REI or online.
  • Hydration: They’re fascinated by our drink tubes so we got them their own Platypus 1-liter bladders and drink tube kits. This is a lightweight solution to keep them from wanting to sip of ours’, which also makes it convenient for us, and keeps them happy. Money well spent!

A couple of final thoughts on the gear before moving on… our kids don’t think about taking care of their gear or clothes, they’re kids after all. Most of the time I’d choose fleece over down for them, although it is nice to have a down vest on hand for a little extra warmth in a compact and light package. There’s always the chance they’ll be wet from play or the occasional potty mishap. Synthetics have proven to be a winning choice for us.

Lessons Learned

These are just a few thoughts, observations, lessons… call them what you will. We learn as we go.

  1. Keep it fun

    Not fun for them = a really bad time for all of us. We like them to do some work, but not over-exert.

  2. Pick a kid-friendly location to make camp

    Water features they can safely play in or near always offer a lot to do. Some sort of point of interest near the camp is key.

  3. When it comes to food, be flexible

    Most of the dehydrated meals are not a hit for Isabelle and Matteo. It’s not unusual for us to carry heavier food than we normally do. We’re also fairly lax about what they eat while on the trail (sweet stuff, junk food, etc) – another reason for them to look forward to going hiking 🙂

  4. Bring a few comforts from home

    For us, this means a small blanket, stuffed animal, and/or a travel game. The games are especially nice to have for the evening when we’re in the tent together before bed time, or during a rainstorm.

  5. Never show fear

    If there is a problem or concern we work it out while remaining steadfast leaders of the trip, all knowing and ever confident! They’ll pick up on negative vibes right away, so best to keep them distracted from any issues that Mom/Dad need to resolve.

  6. Be Motivated!

    Most importantly, it takes motivated parents to get the kids outdoors for a little hiking. They’d happily stay immersed in their digital world if we left them to it. That’s not something to criticize them for, it’s just a fact of life these days. If we provide motivation, put the effort in, and remain persistent, we can succeed. The first trip is the hardest; they become easier with more practice. It’s up to us as Mom and Dad to get our kids off the couch and out into the wild where they belong.

The Four of Us
The Four of Us

Continue reading Part II
Continue reading Part III

We’d love to hear about your own backpacking with the kids experiences too! Hike It. Like It.

Jacob D Written by:

Jacob is the head honcho, wearer of many hats, and modern day berserker here at Hike It. Like It. When he's not out hiking or running the trails you'll find him operating in full capacity as a Super Dad and chipping away at a degree in Kinesiology. This guy likes to stay busy. Follow on Strava

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