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.
Recap of our experience
We progressed from a starting point of 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.
What to bring
I’m assuming that adult readers have backpacking experience so I won’t dwell on the basics. Here are some 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 day pack, 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 several weeks). Aim for about 3,000-3,500 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) 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. We started out with pack weights of about 45 pounds but with determined winnowing are now down to about 25 pounds including food and water. 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.
Backpacking is a great family activity that builds a large store of memories, gets everyone away from screens for awhile, builds skills and connects us to nature.
The Hungry Spork: A Long Distance Hiker’s Guide to Meal Planning by Inga Aksamit