Backpacking with Children: A Guide to Success in the Woods

Heading into the woods to go backpacking with children can be one of the most rewarding experiences a family can have. This is "quality time" to the extreme; no TV, videogames, or computers to separate parent from child, or brother from sister. At the same time, however, setting into the backcountry can spell disaster if your family is unprepared. There's little room for error outdoors. That said, as long as you take the time to make proper arrangements for your trip, you'll likely reap the benefits of a wonderful time with your loved ones.

Backpacking with children is very different from hiking solo (or even with a partner). The needs of the group must be put ahead of your personal priorities. Remember the saying: "a team is only as strong as its weakest member". That means you'll have to make accommodations to keep everyone comfortable. This manifests itself in different ways. For one thing, you'll have to make adjustments to your schedule. You won't be scurrying up mountains with toddlers in tow. Instead, focus on comfort; perhaps you'll want to travel fewer miles, while carrying more of the creature comforts your kids are used to from home.

Have a Backup Plan for your Backup Plan

The number one rule for backpacking with kids is to make sure you have a backup plan, in case of emergencies... and then a backup plan for your backup plan. Of course, the word "emergency" is open to interpretation when backpacking with children. This can be anything from a serious injury to a more minor "GET ME OUT OF THE WOODS!" meltdown. Either way, you'll need to at least take this into account when planning your trip. That means that you can't get too far into the backcountry. Make sure to have at route of escape mapped out. This should be less than 10 miles of hiking, and thus easily doable in less than one day.

Above all, maintain a spirit of flexibility. Has the weather been poor throughout your four day family backpacking trip? It probably makes sense to shave a day off the hike, and enjoy a nice hotel room with hot showers after three full days on the trail. There's no need to subject your family to a grueling experience, especially if you want them to accompany you on later trips!

Ease on Down the Road

To slowly ease your kids into hiking, you may want to consider sending them on one of the myriad backpacking tours available. Different companies, schools, and organizations offer various courses in some of the most beautiful locations in the world. You would do well to explore the options. Two great examples are the National Outdoor Leadership School (often referred to as NOLS), and Outward Bound. You may think that you are an experienced outdoorsman, but wait until your kids return from a summer with one of these groups! The skills learned can be invaluable. Your children will also likely come back with a lifelong appreciation the outdoors. Kids backpacking together operate in an entirely different dynamic than when they walk with their family, and the experience can often be more enjoyable. Kids are less likely to complain when the other kids their age aren't whining, so they might be more likely to give it an open-minded try. Then, after their backpacking tour, they'll want to show you all that they've learned, so take a family backpacking trip soon, before they've forgotten how cool it is!

Kids Love Power

Backpacking with children can be an extremely rewarding experience, provided you plan your trip accordingly. Kids LOVE making decisions and feeling a part of the planning process (it gives them a feeling of power and control that kids don't often get). Sit your family down today, and let them know what you're thinking. If you get your kids involved in the decision-making process, and keep them informed throughout, the trek is likely to be a success.

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