01 Oct How to Go Backpacking With Young Kids: 3 Key Factors
by Chrissy Murphy, Lasting Adventures guide and mother of twin 5-year-old boys
Make your first backpacking trip with the kids a pleasant surprise using these three hacks.
Pleasantly surprised. This small phrase holds so much more meaning than a mere two words can convey. But in a nutshell, pleasantly surprised describes my reaction to our first backpacking trip with our young twins.
My husband and I both guided for Lasting Adventures for three seasons before choosing to further our careers. We were confident in our outdoor abilities and were ready to take on the challenges of backpacking with a baby. Then, we were surprised with twins and lost all hope of backpacking with our little ones in their early lives. We put our passion on pause.
Fast forward five years and I have returned to Lasting Adventures as part of the Administrative Team and we decided that it was finally time to get our littles out on the trail! We were held back by all the stuff that comes with babies and toddlers, but 5 was the perfect age for us and our twins to finally get them out on the trail.
Looking back, it was one of the most rewarding experiences that I’ve ever experienced as a parent yet.
We decided on a 15-mile loop over the course of 5 days, and the boys rocked it! We decided to spend the night before our permit date in the Tuolumne Meadows Backpacker’s Camp to allow everyone to adjust to the elevation changes before hitting the trail.
The next morning on the trail… “I’m tired…” and “are we there yet…” and “I’m hungry” filled the air the entire whopping 1.2 miles from the May Lake parking lot to May Lake. Oh boy, did we fear this would be a loooong trip! However, we were blown away by our little hikers the next day. When we woke on day two, we had no expectations for our attempt on the Mount Hoffman summit. We figured we would just make the day fun and turn around when the boys were over it. Two miles and 1500 feet of elevation gain later, we cheered with our little hikers at the summit of the geographic center of Yosemite National Park.
It was magical! Our kids continued to blow us away with their resiliency and awe for the beauty around us for the remaining three days of our trip.
Looking back at this trip, I wondered what made it such a success, other than the stars aligning and luck. I decided that there are three key components that really helped make our trip a huge success.
Planning and preparation
The route: We chose a route that was familiar to us, the parents. This way we knew what to expect and knew the difficulty of the trail. We also chose a route that had flexibility for us to shorten our trip if needed, but also allowed opportunities for continued exploration and challenges if our boys were thriving out there.
The food: When planning meals and snacks, I made sure to plan meals I knew they would like. We even tested some out at home ahead of time to get them used to a slightly different diet. We also packed some special treats that they would not normally get at home, like fruit snacks and candy. In the days approaching the trip, we talked to them about the importance of eating what is available and not wasting the food on the trip. This frontloading really helped with the picky factor and got them to eat all of their food in one sitting. Our kids are grazers so we were trying to avoid this during meal times on the trail. It worked like a charm!
The gear: We made sure that our kids had the necessary gear to keep them comfy throughout the hike, with the major items being a sleeping bag, sleeping pad, good shoes and all the necessary layers of clothing. We decided to pack their clothing items, hats and sunglasses in their little day packs, and my husband and myself carried the rest.
Toys/entertainment: We packed a little notebook and pencil, one chapter book, one audible audiobook and allowed them each to choose ONE tiny toy to take. We used the notebook and pencil daily to draw pictures of what we saw and write short descriptions. We read from their little chapter book nightly and they fell asleep to the audio book. The toys were lost in the bottom of their bags and were not brought out once!! Nature was their entertainment. They played with rocks, sticks and pinecones. They learned to climb rocks and balance on logs. Nature really has all you need.
Practice and conditioning
We decided to ease the boys into backpacking and made a point to take them on many training hikes in the months approaching the trip, which is great for anyone really. We had them wear the backpack that they would wear on the trail and slowly increased the weight each hike. We also made a point to get them up the mountain for hikes at elevation, since we knew that we would be up at over 10,000 ft.
We also prepped them ahead of time about some very important Leave No Trace (LNT) principals and backpacking ethics. We read children’s books on nature and backpacking, we practiced pooping in a hole and we practiced staying on trial.
Go with the flow and make the trip about the journey, not the destination. Stop and smell the Jeffrey Pines! We decided to build in a zero day, which gave us flexibility in our itinerary. If we needed, we could shorten our mileage per day making the days shorter and easier, or take a zero day and just enjoy swimming and exploring.
There will be surprises that will require flexibility and a little humor. Like accidents in the middle of the night! Sleeping bags and pads will dry and clothes can easily be washed in a Ziploc bag with a little biodegradable soap. Embrace the messy and sometimes unpredictable nature of being on the trail with your little ones.
To quote John Muir “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” Backpacking with your kids brings far more meaning to this quote than ever has before. Keep the pleasant surprises coming!
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