Backpacking with Kids

Getting your monsters into the woods
Words and photos by Tim Hauserman

Photo: Tim Hauserman

Photo: Tim Hauserman

These days, kids spend their days glued to electronic devices, or being shuttled from one scheduled and structured activity to the next. In my humble opinion these kids need to get into the woods. Just to play. And while one day of nature play is a great start, several days on a backpack trip is much better, because it gives children the chance to actually deprogram and discover the joys of nature.

I started backpacking with my daughters when they were seven, and now that they are 24 and 21, I still look back at our annual three day trips as the best thing I ever did with them. Why? Because it is the time they can escape from human created distractions and experience the joys of imagination, while also learning how to take care of themselves. Get them out there. You will be amazed by what your kids can do.

A few backpacking tips:

1. If you have never backpacked, read a guidebook to figure out the basics, but just remember to relax and have fun and don’t be concerned if everything doesn’t turn out perfect. It’s less about teaching your children backpacking techniques, and more about getting them out in the woods to explore.

2. Patience. If you are an athlete used to pushing yourself and keeping up a fast, aerobic pace, forget about it! It’s stop and smell the roses times. Let the kids set the pace, although a bit of gentle guiding and bribery with sugary treats may be necessary.

Photo: Tim Hauserman

Photo: Tim Hauserman

3. Make sure you have everything you need, but what you need is a lot less then what you think you may need. Keep it simple, but once you have your list, double check it because what you really do need, you really do need (and what you don’t need is any extra clothes).

4. Kids should carry a small backpack to learn personal responsibility, but keep the load as light as you can (increasing the weight as they age and gain experience). Sometimes more weight on you is less painful than trying to keep them happy when they are carrying too much.

5. Go someplace beautiful. We may think it’s about the journey, but for the kids, it’s about the destination. Take them to a beautiful lake surrounded by granite.

6. Learn the joys of a layover day. You get to hike to some glorious spot. Set up camp and then spend two nights in the same place. Your kids then get to enjoy an entire day of just hanging out, swimming, and relaxing. This is when the good stuff happens. Kids build rock forts, put on crazy theater performances or create sailboats out of twigs and needles. You get to watch their imaginations fly.

7. Talk to your kids…now is your chance. The TV is off, the computer is off, the phone is off…and they may even be open to a conversation.

Photo: Tim Hauserman

Photo: Tim Hauserman

8. Practice Leave No Trace principles: Learn what they are and teach them to your kids. A quick summary: Bring everything out that you bring in. Make your camp look just like it was when you arrived (or better if someone was not so nice). Keep the noise down. Practice proper pooping and peeing.

9. Take my advice: Once you have spent a rainy day in a tent without a deck of cards or a book, you’ll never make that mistake again.

10. Be prepared and have what you need, but don’t be freaked-out about safety. It will be ok. They are safer in the woods then riding in a car. Perhaps your kid will skin their knee and you will see how they have the capacity to deal with it.

Tim Hauserman is the author of Monsters in the Woods: Backpacking with Children, published by University of Nevada Press.

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