Once you reduce your own pack weight to a minimum, taking the kids along is fairly easy.
Compared to the drudgery of packing up a ton a gear for car camping, backpacking with children is simple. Each child can carry a small pack with their clothes and a little food. This makes them feel independent and grown up. And since they have a ton of natural energy, you might as well let them carry their share.
When are they old enough to backpack? In our family, it was as soon as they were potty-trained. As long as you’re realistic about the terrain and mileage they can cover, you should all enjoy it. There are three main rules to remember when taking the kids – keep it simple, keep it simple, and keep it simple.
For their first few times backpacking, I always tried to pick really scenic areas that weren’t very many miles from the trailhead. You can enjoy the beauty without making it a physical strain.
I took my old external frame pack and there was plenty of room for a couple of extra sleeping bags. If you can make a monetary investment in some quality sleeping bags, it simplifies everything. A couple of extra two-pound bags doesn’t take up much space in your pack or add much weight. The extra weight of the larger pack wasn’t bad because I had already reduced the overall load. With good sleeping bags you have the comforting feeling of knowing the kids will be warm at night.
The next important task is to keep them warm and dry during the day. Don’t fall into the usual trap of overkill and bring too many clothes. But make sure you have gear that keeps them warm. Do the same as you do for your gear – plan ahead. You can buy inexpensive, light clothing at regular department stores, and even thrift stores. Let the kids know early that this isn’t a fashion show.
Remember that they need rain gear, too. Windbreakers or cotton coats don’t work when it rains. But inexpensive, coated nylon will keep them dry. And if the weather forecast calls for a lot of rain, it may be best to postpone your trip. Kids will love backpacking more if their first few experiences are in good weather. Remember to take their hat for sun and rain protection.
For footwear, follow the keep it simple rule. Let them take what’s comfortable. That probably means taking what they play in around the house. But plan ahead. If their casual shoes are flat-sole, court-type shoes, you may need to buy something that’s a little more of an all-terrain shoe. Remember they’re growing fast, and don’t take anything that’s getting too small. Hiking could be torture in tight shoes.
Take extra socks. Water seems to be a magnet for kids. Stepping in a stream won’t be a such a nuisance if the extra socks are ready.
Kids won’t remember to put on the sunscreen, so you’ll need to remember for them. They will tell you if the mosquitoes are bothering them. DEET in small amounts should be safe, but if you’d rather not use DEET at all, you can substitute Cutter Advanced with Picaridin.
Kids will remember whether you kept them well fed, but your normal meal planning should be fine. It all tastes great outdoors. You’ll be a hero if you take some treats, too. Let them test some trail mixes before you go. Take some M & Ms, fruit leather, and beef jerky. That’s part of the fun.
Kids don’t need much extra gear. After you have their clothing, you can add things like their toothbrush and a spoon and plate. One thing they’ll appreciate is their own flashlight. They can rummage around at night for anything they need, and the flashlight works wonders at keeping the boogeyman away.
Take a little time to casually teach them the tricks of camping such as cooking and setting up the tent. You’ll be surprised how quickly they learn.
The very nature of ultralight backpacking is perfect for kids. Plan ahead. Keep it simple. Keep it fun. You love the outdoors, and they will, too, if they’re comfortable. Don’t forget the camera. Let them take some of the pictures, too. You’ll have some great memories.