In an article I wrote several years ago, Backpacking around Tahoe with Kids in Tow, I described our progression of backpacking with our godchildren, Taira and Chase, now 16 and 14, from the time they were tiny tots. What I neglected to include were my recommendations for others who want to introduce their children to the joys of the backcountry.
I was reminded of this during a series of email exchanges with a reader, Diane, this summer, who wanted to introduce her husband and 6 year old daughter to backpacking. Based on my article, she was planning to take them to Little Needle Lake, an obscure spot in the Granite Chief Wilderness behind Squaw Valley, for their first backpacking trip. As our correspondence grew she shared more details about her wonderful memories of backpacking before she was married, how Pepe and Joanna had taken so well to car-camping and about how they lived in Santa Monica. Santa Monica? That made me pause. I immediately started having some qualms about my part in their planned itinerary, realizing that a person from out of town might be out of their element looking for a faint trail that doesn’t even show up on the topo map. When I re-read my article I thought I could have given a little more color commentary about our trips, how our first backpacking trip might not have been the best place to start, that it might have been too long for the kids and that the trail was difficult to locate. I vividly remembered missing the faint use trail to Little Needle Lake and leading the kids over gigantic boulders—not our finest navigational moment. I didn’t say anything right away, thinking that it was none of my business and that my reader could possess all manner of Tahoe experience and backcountry skills. We kept up an enjoyable volley of emails throughout the summer until one day, when my husband, Steve, and I were driving up to Tahoe, I told him about how rewarding it had been to have a pen pal who shared my passion for the outdoors. When I told him about their plans to take their first trip to Little Needle his response was immediate.
“I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” he said in that tone that indicated that he was 100% certain that was a bad idea.
“I don’t know,” I said in my tone that is meant to convey that I did know, “it could be ok if I give them the exact GPS coordinates of that place where we always miss the critical turnoff to Little Needle Lake.”
“Noooo no, no, there are so many other trails that would be so much easier for a first trip with a kid,” he said.
“Like what?” I asked.
“Like Whiskey Creek Camp, Desolation Wilderness and Loch Leven Lakes,” he said after some consideration.
“You always remember Desolation as easy but that’s a long, steep slog for kids,” I replied, “but I agree that Whiskey Creek and Loch Leven Lakes might be better.”
“Might be?” said Steve. “How would you feel knowing you were responsible for them getting lost and spending days wandering around trying to find that speck of a lake?”
Ok, maybe he had a point. I wrote Diane and asked if she were married to the idea of going to Little Needle Lake. Fortunately, being a reasonable person, she responded that she didn’t care, she just wanted it to be fun for her daughter. I was relieved that she was open to suggestions, silently thanked Steve, and encouraged her to go to Whiskey Creek Camp. She found lots of information about the trail to Whiskey Creek online and decided to change her plans—read about her experience in Backpacking to Five Lakes with a kid. She shares some pearls of wisdom and words of warning for first timers backpacking in Tahoe with kids. After hearing about their trip I was glad they had changed their itinerary.
I decided it would be a good idea if I expanded on the best Tahoe area trails for beginner backpacking trips with little ones. Chase is now 14 and Taira 16 so we have a few more trips under our belt than when we started these adventures. See my recommendations for first trips (coming soon).
Recap of our experience
As I outlined in Backpacking around Tahoe with Kids in Tow we progressed from an overnight at a local trailhead on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT)—just the trailhead, right off Barker Pass Road, where we could car-camp in some semblance of wilderness when our godchildren were 4 and 6. Then we tried a commercial campground at Fallen Leaf Lake—not my favorite, with all the noise and vast amounts of equipment that seemed to morph out of our pack and into the back of the jeep with coolers, Coleman stoves, lanterns, ice and the kitchen sink. It wasn’t my idea of camping. When we started going on true backpacking trips the kids were 6 and 8. Steve and I would do reconnaissance and suggest the itinerary if we liked it and thought it was easy enough. Initially both their parents came along also (4 adults and 2 children). Sometimes our theories about what was a good distance for kids were a little off, but somehow we always made it, with a good supply of Skittles and gorp to fuel them.
Most of our trips worked out ok but the problem with Tahoe is that almost all the trails, whether day- or multi-day hikes, go straight up, then down, then repeat. That can be tough for a five- or six- year old. Chase and Taira were used to the mountains, being skiers at the Mighty Mite program at Squaw in the winter, but carrying a pack was a different story. Taira was older and could carry an appropriate amount of weight for her size but we had trouble finding a day pack for Chase that was comfortable and fit well-it always looked awkward and he was forever shedding his pack after about a half an hour, until he got big enough to wear a proper pack with waist and chest straps. His mom or dad would often end up carrying his light pack over their arm.
Now Taira would rather play water polo, work as a life guard, study math and science or wash her hair than strap on a pack but Chase is still going strong. Their dad, Ken, is happy to stay home with Taira so trips these days include Chase, his mom, Laura, Steve and me. I know someday Taira will take it up again but for now we just regale her with stories about how much fun we had and rebuff her attempts to get us to go car camping.
What to bring
I’m assuming that adult readers have backpacking experience so I won’t dwell on basic backpacking gear. Here are some random tips that relate to backpacking with kids.
Gear: Expect that the adults are going to be doing the heavy lifting, so get the lightest weight gear you can afford, especially when selecting the big three: tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad. Rent equipment from REI or other outfitters if you want to test gear. You may be able to get away with a 3-person tent for 2 adults and 2 kids when the kids are little, but eventually you’ll need a larger tent or two 2-person tents.
Packs: There are backpacking packs designed for kids but they are usually too big for a 4 or 5 year old. If you use a daypack try to find one that has some structure to it with a waist strap. Even a small child should be expected to carry a light pack with a small water bottle, snacks and a couple of clothing items.
Food: Pay careful attention to food, making sure that you have adequate calories, good variety and most importantly, foods kids like. Freeze dried food makes the most sense due to its feathery weight. Mac and Cheese, spaghetti and creamy sauces are good choices, along with string cheese, which seems to last indefinitely (not really, but it can last for an overnight or two). Aim for about 350-450 calories for adults, less for little kids and more for hungry teenagers. Trail mix, cheese and freeze dried fruit make good snacks. Tang or other powdered drink mixes are a treat. Whole dried milk such as Peak or Nido (available at Amazon and ethnic food stores) is more palatable than non-fat dried milk for cereal in the morning. Bring a favorite candy, such as Skittles or M&Ms, for on-trail motivation. Repackage what you can to minimize packaging and bring a bag for garbage.
Water: Camping near reliable sources of water minimizes one of the heaviest items you can pack and almost all kids like to play in streams and swim in lakes. We use a water filter to assure a safe drinking water supply.
Comfort: A small stuffed animal, flashlight, headlamp, or chemical snap lights will help ease nighttime fears. Bring a book or read a story to your child from your smartphone e-reader to maintain your usual bedtime routine.
Checklist: Be sure to use a checklist so you don’t forget anything. Lots of adults wing it and end up forgetting something essential—you don’t want that something to ruin your child’s first trip. Checklists are plentiful on the internet (see Backpacking Resources).
Pack weight: Debates on the ideal overall weight of a pack are endless on backpacking forums. We started out with pack weights of about 45 pounds but with determined winnowing are now down to about 25 pounds. Every ounce counts!
Trip Planning: Don’t get too ambitious for the first trip. A mile or two will get you to some beautiful places that are likely to be deserted at night even if they are popular day hiker trips. Save the longer trips for when the kids get bigger. I’ll have some specific suggestions for short, overnight trips in the Tahoe area.
Backpacking is a great family activity that builds a vast store of memories, gets everyone away from screens for awhile, builds skills and connects us to nature.
- Top five first backpacking trips for kids in Tahoe
- Backpacking with kids in Tahoe-Tips for success
- Backpacking around Tahoe with Kids in Tow
- Backpacking to Five Lakes with a kid:
- Backpacking Webber Lake to Donner Summit on the PCT-Part 1
- Backpacking to Lovely Loch Leven Lakes
- Best car camping in Lake Tahoe
More tips on backpacking with children: REI article-Backpacking with Kids
The Hungry Spork: A Long Distance Hiker’s Guide to Meal Planning by Inga Aksamit
Backpacking Gear Lists: