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Family Fun (part I): First Backpacking Tips
By Courtenay Schurman, MS, CSCS
If you are thinking about trying a first backpacking trip with a young child, you will want to prepare ahead of time for the challenges of carrying gear for more than one person while helping your child fully enjoy the experience. Below, we provide our favorite tips for getting your child ready for an easy backpacking trip this summer. If you are heading for the mountains with a child in a carrier or on your back, see our specific suggestions at www.bodyresults.com/e2babyhike.asp; for tips on participating on day hikes with children ages 2-4, see www.bodyresults.com/e2hikingwithkids.asp. The eight tips below pertain primarily to a single child in the 4-8 year age range; for multiple children (depending on their ages and fitness levels) it definitely helps to have an adult-to-child correspondence of 1:1.
Have a Master Gear List
While you probably will develop your master list as you gain more experience with your family, we have found that each trip is far easier to plan when we refer to a Trip Template and adjust accordingly. We took this idea from our climbing background, for which we had created a Technical gear list and Nontechnical overnight gear list, and added a third (Family Backpack) and fourth (Family Dayhike). You can think of your backpack as being the “house on your back” (see http://www.newmango.com/backpack/tips.html for a good list of things to bring) or you might prefer instead to think in terms of essential systems that encompass things for sleeping (bags, mats, tent, flashlights, stuff sacks for pillows), eating (snacks, meals, preparation, cleaning, and drinking), and wearing (from head to foot, with suitable changes based on length of stay). Don’t forget foul weather gear and things appropriate for the specific destination. For example, if you will be camping at a lake, you may want to take swim suits and a towel or a lightweight water toy (a kid’s fishing pole, bucket, or inflatable raft can all be strapped to the outside of a pack). If you are going in late fall, include down jackets that can be stuffed into the same sack as your sleeping bag for little extra weight. With a master gear list in hand you have a template to work from and can easily add or subtract for future trips as you discover what you never needed or what you decided you absolutely couldn’t do without.
If your child is under the age of 10, add to your Master Gear List an additional category called entertaining, which encompasses items to keep the child occupied without breaking your back carrying it with you. This can be as simple as a deck of cards, a list of charade ideas, a small travel game, or a book on identifying plants and animal tracks. It might also include a few small trinkets you can then hide at the camp site so that the child anticipates a treasure or scavenger hunt as a reward for reaching the destination. Replace “summit treats” with “camp treats” once you reach and set up your camp site.
Bring a Friend
Doing anything as a child is far more fun when you have a friend along! Have them encourage, help and support each other as one way to learn about team building. Suggest fun songs to sing or games to play such as “I spy”. One my daughter likes to play is a rhyming game; we think of an outdoor term (such as “rock”) and ask her to think of something she might see on the ground that rhymes with “sock.” Another is to ask the kids to see how many mushrooms, birds, squirrels, or different colors of flowers they can spot. A third is to suggest playing hide-and-seek along the way, with one child scurrying ahead to find a good spot to rest and the other trying to guess where she might be. Make the games age-appropriate and interesting to both or all children.
When selecting a backpacking destination, be sure you try to match the length of the hike and difficulty of the terrain to your child’s abilities. Just as you would your own training, add mileage and pack weight very gradually. Before you do a backpacking trip, try some day hikes so the child gets used to carrying a light backpack of some food, a sweater, and water, wearing different boots, and being active for several hours at a time. Gradually add distance (about .25 miles per outing depending on end objective and child’s endurance) until you can do a day hike that is slightly longer than the one-way distance you will try as an overnight backpack. Build in plenty of breaks, snack stops, and rests any time the child carries weight. Before our first family backpacking trip, we went on several 2.5-4 mile day hikes of varied difficulty, ranging from her carrying no weight to carrying a light day pack with food and water, before we embarked on the relatively flat 2-mile hike to and from Barclay Lake (see Barclay.doc) with her carrying her own snacks and some clothing.
In addition to testing out day hiking, try a few overnight car-camping trips in the weeks or months leading up to the backpack trip to help get your child used to your family’s camping routine, particularly what to expect once you reach camp, what happens as it starts to get dark, and what meals are like outside. While it would be ideal to have a child experience all sorts of weather conditions, especially if you enjoy backpacking in all seasons, for a FIRST backpacking trip try to coordinate the timing of it so there are few bugs, little rain, no snow, and relatively warm conditions!
Provide constant encouragement but make it match the effort. One mistake I have already made (kids are very bright!) is to say “we’re almost there.” Instead, use “let’s go five more minutes before we take a short break” or “when we see another nurse log we’ll stop for a few pictures and a drink.” Include the child in the planning from the start so they have a vested interest in the entire trip, from what you will eat at camp, what snacks she can carry in her backpack, what toy to bring, and the final destination.
Include Favorite Foods
This one really speaks for itself. Following our longest hike leading up to the backpacking trip, we treated a tired little girl to a delicious ice cream sundae after she successfully did the whole thing on her own. On our backpacking trip, we took more food than we could ever eat, tasty trail mix, delicious macaroni and cheese, dried fruit, oatmeal, string cheese, and hot cocoa mix; what child doesn’t like these things? Let the child carry some food in her pack and decide for herself when she wants some. Get her involved ahead of time in choosing and preparing the foods that go on the trip.
Take pictures of the packing, food preparation, eating and hiking so that you can appreciate the entire process afterward as you plan for your next adventure. Make a poster, photo album, or scrapbook of funny or memorable photographs that you can discuss for weeks to come. Finally, if you are as lucky as we are to have a child who asks to go back to a certain place she’s been before, seize the opportunity to return as soon as possible. You may have a family member who just might become hooked on the outdoors!