I’ve always been an avid outdoorsman. Grew up in a family of hunters and, while they failed to make much of a great white hunter out of me – the love of being out in the quiet green places latched on tight. Fishing, camping, semi-aimless wandering through the woods . . you name it. Then college, career, marriage, and parenthood happened and I found myself not making time to get out and I discovered fly fishing. You’d be surprised at how well some of the concepts of gearing up to walk a river parallel that of planning a good hike, but that’s for another post. As my oldest son grew from infant to toddler, I started casting around for activities I could share with my boy. (Standing hip-deep in a river just didn’t work out well with a 3-yr-old.)
When I first took on a pack, I teamed up with another dad. At the time his son and mine were close in age and good friends. Neither one of us had any experience backpacking with kids, even though he was an experienced backpacker. Now we each have two sons. That makes potentially four boys out on the trail with us on any given pretty weekend; ages 6, 5, 2, and <1. While we still do “daddy hikes” that soak up distance as well as bad weather, we’re most happy when we have our boys out in the green with us. So, in that spirit, here are some tips for backpacking with kids.
#1 – It is the kids’ hike – This is the most important one. I’ve seen too many dads on the trail trying to hustle their kids along. The man is miserable, the poor kid is just miserable with it. I want my boys to still love hiking when they’re 85. For the younger ones, we plan about a mile an hour (they usually go faster than that, but all that means is more time at the swimming holes and climbing rocks). Lots of cool things they can stop and explore if they want. Lots of time to stop and rest whenever they want.
#2 – Dad is the pack mule – The oldest kid in our crew is 10. He has his own pack, but we keep it light. My 6 yr-old has a fanny pack that spends about half of any given hike strapped to my pack. It really doesn’t take much extra equipment for the little guys. . . I always over-pack food anyway. My boy swings in an ultralight open hammock with half a fleece blanket for a liner. I can fit his extra clothing in one of my outer pockets. As with #1, I’ve seen too many overloaded kids on the trail.
#3 – Keep ’em fed ‘n watered – The fanny pack I have for my 5 yr-old is strictly for snacks and a water bottle. They usually don’t forget to eat, but we have to be constantly on them all to drink enough. They just get excited and don’t think about it, I guess. The less hungry and thirsty they are, the happier everyone is. Pack extra trail snacks and be ready to hump the extra water.
#4 – Do your homework – If you’re like me, you ain’t exactly Les Stroud. But considering how often they ask me questions, my boys must think me omniscient. I carry field guides with me – weight I’d never even consider when hiking without kids. But when they point and ask, if I don’t know, then we learn together. I also try to take them on trails I’ve already hiked during that season so I know the best places to linger or make camp. Even when the crew is doing a grown-up hike, we all have a tendency to eye the trail with a potential kid-hike in mind.
#5 – Gradual release of responsibility – That’s a teacher-phrase for you. It means start early giving them small pieces of responsibility in planning and leading the hike. Last year, we finished my son’s first overnight hike (8 miles, Pigeon Roost trail in Hobbs St. Park). His job was to sit down with a pen and paper the night before and make a list of what food we needed to pack. I made a chart with columns for each day and rows for each meal. I talked him through it when he asked, and took him to Walmart with his list and we bought everything he wrote down. Next hike, I’ll have him do the food list and his own gear list. Eventually those boys will all head off into the green without any of us old men. They’ll be ready.
#6 – Comfort is king – Keep their feet dry and blister free. Keep ’em warm when it is cold, cool when it’s hot, dry when it is wet, and wet when they’re dry. Fed when they’re hungry and rested when they’re tired. We’re notorious about letting the testosterone flow as we bleed and pant our way up a mountain, but see #1. My boy sleeps in a hammock and his shoes cost more than my entire trail wardrobe. I’m okay with that. If he’s happy and well at the end of it, then I am too. If he can’t wait to get back out on the trail, then we’ve done good.