A few weeks ago, my nephews and mom came to join me on the trail for a week of hiking. My mom already had a hundred or so miles of hiking experience, but this was the first time for the boys (ages 8 and 12). There were times where I could have never imagined a worse situation, like when Ethan (12) fell in the river during a fording, lost his pack downstream (I fished it out), and upon reaching camp realized that the tent poles had slipped out and been lost in the water. Thankfully, it didn’t rain that night and we all peacefully cowboy camped on a tent platform.
We also had lots of good times. Upon reaching the top of their first mountain, they insisted I take a photo of them and text it to their parents. Elated they asked me, “Is this the biggest mountain in the whole area?”
“No,” I answered, gleefully. “We’re climbing the biggest mountain tomorrow.” They were not impressed.
The boys had fun, got to hike up big mountains, and learned a bit about nature. They departed at the end of the week, swearing that they would never come hiking with me again, but based on how excited they were to recount their adventures to their parents I think they were lying.
Here are my tips for backpacking with kids:
- However far you think they can hike, cut that in half. I had a few ten mile days to hike because of my ridge runner job duties. After taking an hour to hike the 0.7 miles to the first campsite, I didn’t see a 10 mile day happening. For the boys, 5 mile days were much more reasonable. Our group averaged a mile an hour, not including breaks.
- Let them do things for themselves. We gave Toby (8) the job duty of getting water for the group in the evening. He seemed to like being responsible for something so important, but it wasn’t such a big job that it was overwhelming for him. We also had the boys pack up their own gear in the morning, so they would get a feel of how important their equipment was to a successful hike.
- Figure out what they like to do, and make time for it. The actual task of hiking wasn’t very entertaining for the boys. What they liked was sitting at viewpoints, eating snacks, looking at toads and salamanders, talking to other hikers, and exploring around camp. We had to strike a balance between pushing them to hike, and giving them time to relax and have fun.
- Double check their packs. Leaving the car, the boys said they had everything they needed. We took their word for it since it was starting to rain and we had 3 miles to hike. Surprise, they forgot half of their food for the trip in the car and I had to hike back and retrieve it.
- Come up with a reward system. Obviously, kids are going to misbehave a lot. I’m not good with discipline, seeing as I have no children so I don’t know how it should work. Thankfully, my mom does know how it should work. She brought a giant bag of M&M’s. Good behavior would earn you an M&M, and bad behavior would lose you an M&M (she let me play too, I earned lots of M&M’s). The boys placed a high value on their candy, since they knew it would be days until reaching civilization and having access to more chocolate.
- Teach them Leave No Trace principles. If left to their own devices, boys will want to crash through the forest and hit things with sticks. Give them a briefing on how important it is to not kidnap salamanders, not crush plant life, and not to yell at a campsite and disturb other hikers. Imagine my pride when I spotted Ethan poking an anthill, and Toby telling him, “You’re not leaving no trace!”
- Have a backup plan. Not all kids are going to like hiking. We had the car parked close by in case we needed to abandon the hike early. They did finish the section we had planned for them, but I can definitely see how some kids maybe wouldn’t have liked it as much. You want them to have fond memories of their adventure, not hate it because they were forced to do something they didn’t enjoy.
Taking your kids (or nephews or whoever) on a backpacking trip can be rewarding for the whole family. Plan ahead as much as possible, but keep a laid back attitude.