We are fresh back from the Ouachita Mountains and our first backpacking excursion with our kids. I wanted to share some tips that helped make our trip a success. Together we have four kids. The boys are just turned four and almost five, and the girls are both six. Given that they whine about walking more than ten feet in a store, we were a little nervous about getting them to walk to a suitable campsite. However, we had taken them on several hikes beforehand and the distraction of nature meant they made it through several two mile hikes without complaint.
So with fingers crossed we set off from the Big Cedar Trailhead of the Ouachita National Recreation Trail. We ended up having a great time and the kids loved backpacking. Here are some tips that helped to make our trip a success.
Preparing their Packs:
When preparing their packs, rather than just considering the weight of the packs, we focused on the what percent of their body weight they would be carrying. Our goal was to have the packs definitely under 20% of their body weight and preferably under 15%. We came pretty close to this with three of the kids’ packs coming in at 13% and one of the girl’s packs at 19%.
The size of a kid’s pack might seem irrelevant as long as it fits them but especially for the littlest backpackers, an overstuffed pack can be intimidating. The kids Teton Celsius Junior sleeping bags only weighed a few pounds but, together with PJ’s and a change of clothes, completely filled the backpacks. The girls were unfazed by the size. The boys however, declared the packs too heavy before even trying them on. We ended up carrying the boys sleeping bags and giving them some food to carry instead. The food was nearly as heavy as their bags but, being more compact, was less intimidating. They carried the less stuffed packs with no problems.
Obviously, children will find it easier to hike over flat terrain than steep mountain trails. That’s not to say mountains should be avoided entirely though. The first part of the trail we took the kids while flat, was rocky and uneven. The kids’ little feet kept slipping between the rocks and this made very rough going. The first day we only managed to get a half mile in before the whining turned to tears and we decided to set up camp.
The next day we continued on and the rocky trail turned smooth but hilly. The kids took this trail in stride and conquered the steep parts with no complaints. On this smoother trail the kids happily hiked about three miles. So, while you probably want to avoid the steepest trails, the trail surface is as, or is more important to the happiness of your little hikers.
Keeping Spirits Up
When little legs start getting tired, or the trail starts getting steep, songs are a great distraction. Ask your kids what songs they know and start a sing along. Thinking of the words will distract them from the difficulty of the trail. Also, the tempo of the music will help quicken the steps of little feet. Music is a natural mood lifter and everyone will be more cheerful after singing some songs together. Unless of course they decide to sing The Never-ending Song. In which case your kids will be happy but you may long for some earplugs!
Packing in some favorite food can not only put the kids in a great mood but make their memories of the trip better. If your kids are hot dog lovers like most kids, freeze some hotdogs the night before your hike. Wrap them in some clothes before you set off and by the time you make lunch or dinner they should be defrosted. We also packed in a bag of marshmallows. Getting to roast them over the fire was a highlight of each night for the kids. Their other favorite foods while camping were Chicken and Dumplings, Spaghetti, popcorn, and dried fruit. Packing in some powdered drink mixes and hot chocolate mix were also very much appreciated.
Scheduling your first backpacking trip with your kids for the nicest weather of the year is a smart idea. If your kids’ first backpacking experience is positive they will want to do it again. It’s worth doing everything possible to make sure they have a great first time. Being cold or hot can put any of us in a bad mood but can really color a whole trip for a kid. If you can’t manage to go at the most temperate time of year, do what you can to mitigate temperature extremes for your kids.
In the cold it is worth being over prepared. Get them a sleeping bag that is rated for weather ten degrees colder than you will be experiencing. Pack warmer clothes than you think they will need. Especially when hiking in higher elevations, temperatures can drop more than forecasted. You want to avoid the kids being cold at all costs and if they are hot they can just take of layers.
In the summer try to hike and camp near a water source. Bring your kids’ bathing suits and water shoes, and let them have plenty of time to splash around and cool off in creeks. Being able to play in a beautiful creek will be a highlight of their trip and make swimming pools seem plain old boring. They will be longing for their next backpacking trip so they can play in a creek again. Also be sure to pack in plenty of water for drinking. Thirsty kids are grumpy kids. A wet bandana or cooling towel will help keep them cool on the trail.
Having their own special items makes kids feel like true backpackers. Our kids each have their own backpack and flashlight and we have a designated kid hammock. The boys have real hiking shoes and they all have hiking pants with lots of pockets. Anything that you can get them that is useful for camping and can be their own really makes them feel special. Encourage them to take responsibility for their items too. Teaching them how to set up their tent or tie the knots needed to hang their hammock gives them a sense of accomplishment.
While you might be tempted to just pick the easiest trail around for your first trip I would caution against this. Try to find a destination that offers some great reward for the effort of hiking in. If your campsite is the same level as one you would get car camping your kids are not going to think the extra work was worth it. Hike to a place with great views, a private creek, or lots of rocks to play on. The more interesting your destination the more kids will get hooked on backpacking.
Give it a Try!
While it can be intimidating taking little kids backpacking it is well worth the effort. Your kids will learn from the experience. Backpacking will be a way to bond with your kids and stay close throughout their adolescence, teen years, and into adulthood. Starting them off early will mean they can develop a lifelong healthy hobby. So load your packs, lace up your hiking shoes, cross your fingers, and get out there!
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