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Get Your Kids Into Backpacking – A Dad’s Sound Advice

People find the sounds of nature while backpacking exhilarating. But there is nothing like hearing kids enjoying themselves in the outdoors. Get Your Kids Into Backpacking – A Dad’s Sound Advice offers sage advice to parents with young kids.

Now yes, there are times when kids try your patience, just bribe them with some candy…All kidding aside, the memories created while backpacking is amazing. Add the scenery, good food, laughter, occasional tears, and more importantly heart and mind filled memories that last a lifetime.

Physical well-being combined with nature, the kids, a backpack containing essential gear, for survival, and comfort.

So, how do you get your kids into backpacking? It’s pretty simple really. Just tell your kids you’re going for a hike! That you will take care of everything, and the scenery will change their lives forever.

Wait…we all know the above is a pipe-dream. It takes considerable planning and knowledge and where to begin may be daunting. That’s ok. It will get better.

The real answer is there is no real answer. It is more a recipe learned over the years. After you learn a few things and with a little improvising along the way things become easier. So, the more prepared you are, the more enjoyable hiking with kids becomes.

Rest assured, we unravel the answer here, you will be more confident and on your way, well, your kids too. Talk and ask questions (always), the rewards are unbeatable.

A little background on getting kids into backpacking

In my younger days, the unpreparedness level was high. Over the years, I have managed to become efficient and prepared, but it didn’t start that way.

So when we ask ourselves how to get kids started backpacking, there are certain things we want people to recognize. When we head out into the wild on a sunny “normal” day; it is important to know what we are doing.

Learn about available kid friendly backpacking trips in your area

As a resident of Columbia Falls, MT (near Glacier National Park) Tourists often ask me about the local trails, environment, weather patterns.

Learning about the area where you plan to hike is imperative. What to put in the pack and how much weight, keep reading, and that will come in time.

Columbia Falls Montana/ Glacier National Park, great place to hike with kids.

Backpacking preparation is the key at any age

But if we don’t know where we are going or have basic survival skills we can get ourselves into trouble. Most importantly, we do not want anything to happen to our children.

As a self-proclaimed planning geek, I always follow some general guidelines; which we will discuss later.

Preparing our children is the most important thing on our backpacking trip. Even more important than figuring out that water filter, finding the perfect location, and defending against wildlife.

Physical preparation and starting when kids are small

Let’s be honest, some kids are just natural athletes. Some don’t want to be outside, even if the family loves to hike/backpack. For me, my son was never pressured, it is something my family does.

As in anything really, start small. For kids over 3, have them practice carrying a back; around the house and at a local park. This will pay off in the long run.

We want to prepare our kids for life. We do not want to go out there and freelance around unknowingly…that’s a no-no.

Starting from the bottom up – kid’s footwear

A child’s footwear is a great place to start. They certainly can’t carry a pack far without comfortable, well-fitted hiking shoes. We all have struggled on the trail without the correct footwear. I cannot say it enough, enjoyment starts at the feet.

Here are some kids’ footwear on Amazon: Kids Hiking Shoes

Other backpacking necessities for kids

Remember, a sleeping bag, tent, stove, water filter, first-aid kit are essentials. A good light, map, and compass or GPS unit can be helpful also. A multi-tool, knife, some parachute cord can be helpful. Besides, I always like to include something for good morale in my backpack (reading material, pictures, journal, etc).

While the party may change, the goals differ, and the distance varies, we all require similar items for a comfortable and fun trip into the backcountry.

These days, there are many lightweight options for sleeping bags, tents, stoves, etc. What you decide is best for your child will come with time and practice.

Giving kids confidence…

Ok so beginning anything can seem daunting. Below, there are some questions with answers. These answers come from my own research from professionals and my own trials and tribulations in the outdoors.

We all have to begin somewhere. Do we have confidence in our knowledge? Are we alert and informed? Do the kids have reliable backpacks? Are the kids excited? If so, in a perfect world…all will be well!

What is the most weight a kid should carry while backpacking?

a kid with a backpack hiking on a log

When you are wondering how much weight your child should carry, there are some general guidelines to consider. However, it is critical to know your child’s limits of course. Your want to think about always learning to lighten the load, get a scale, test yourself.

The more you backpack, whether it’s casual or weekend warrior style, the more you need to know about comfort. You will know just how much you can carry, and how much your kids can handle. Weighing down their packs with unneeded items takes the fun out of the trip.

Lots of stuff but as little weight as possible

Some will throw what they need in the pack and go where they need to. Not me, at least not now. When I plan a trip, I lay out everything first. Then I look at the pile, organize it, and remove any unneeded items. I do this with my son’s pack as well.

We need to keep our and our kid’s bodies strong. Carrying less weight will keep everybody comfortable and allow for longer treks; especially for the little ones.

When kids are between zero and three

For ages up to three years old, I suggest a front chest pack. Usually, a framed backpack can have internal supports or external metal built on the outside. There are so many front chest pack options out there. I am sure that you will find an inexpensive option online, at a garage sale, or when talking to friends.

I have pulled kids in sleds on cross-country ski trips. In the early years, kids are going to spend time on their shoulders. They will continue this until they are ready to do the distance on their own.

I remember proudly pushing the limits as a new dad. We live near Glacier National Park and I wanted my kids to enjoy it as much as I did.

But I soon realized that keeping my children safe is far more important than endangering them.

So, for weight, there is a general rule. It states that the child should carry between 0 and 5 percent of their weight. But remember, not every kid is made equal. They all have different requirements and limitations.

As kids get older: from ages four through about seven

For ages 4-7, 5-10% is a general rule but will vary for some. And, most school-age kids should be able to carry about 10 to 15% of their body weight. Again, this is an estimate.

Parents who pay attention to their kids will have a general idea of their carrying capacity.

Things to consider include: How active is the child? Have they ever hiked before with a pack on? I can’t say this enough: if the child is not ready, it is a good idea to lighten the load; right-sizing the load to the child’s activity tolerance.

We don’t want to set anyone up for failure, injury, discomfort, or a dislike of backpacking. Truth is until the child is mature enough physically, and mentally…we as adults will be carrying most of the weight as this applies to children under 4 years old.

A person, whether a child or a teenager, emerging adult…should carry what is comfortable for them.

A child of any age is not going to think a pack is comfortable. Maybe when it’s brand new and it hasn’t been worn for a couple of miles. So, be aware that there will be times when you will need to remove the weight.

Kids resting overlooking beautiful canyon

Ask your doctor!

It’s never a bad idea to consult your kid’s pediatrician before you head out. Let them know your plans. Ask if they have any concerns before you go. For example discuss allergies, obesity, physical impairments, or any other medical needs.

How far can or should a kid go backpacking?

I use a general rule for my son who is now 8 years old. For every year of age, add a mile. My son is now 8, and last spring he did 8 miles through the Mt. Henry Scenic Trail System out of Yaak, Montana.

Are we there yet? Paying attention to your child’s limits.

Kids of any age are usually going to complain at some point. Whether the weight they are carrying is too heavy, or, they will say “How much farther?”

I recall a time when my son just did not want to keep going; he was 6 at the time and we had another mile of gradual uphill to go. He had a very light pack but he refused to move on. I did everything I could to coax him into continuing, however, he wouldn’t budge. I even told him that I would give him as much candy as he wanted if he finished. Not ideal, but it worked very well ; ).

I want to gently prod those with me, but only if I know their limits. What are the “actually” capable of doing? I knew my kid was capable and it wouldn’t hurt him to continue.

On another occasion, I remember sitting in the Jewel Basin of Montana with my son. I explained the importance of having real and authentic experiences with my son. That developing a character within us–that ultimately wants to keep going. I told him that pushing the extra little bit can bring a sense of great accomplishment.

But the truth is, turn around when in doubt, it’s not worth it, our kids are gems…sometimes little steps go along way.

Starting your kids with light day hikes

If you and your kids are truly new to backpacking I recommend a series of light starter hikes.

Kids get accustomed to the rigors of hiking with shorter and easier trails. You can adjust pack weight while growing stronger. As the trips lengthen your kids will be more prepared for the increased strain on their bodies.

Remember, our kids may out hike us some day. So, if we are going to “push it” make sure you weigh your consequences.

Every child has a certain limit. Pay attention, don’t put them into harmful positions, and they will grow to love this sport. If the “add a mile per year” rule doesn’t work for your child try something new.

After researching and speaking with many people on the subject, toddlers are usually averaging up to 1 mile, one way. School-age kids are averaging 2-4 miles one way, always give and take. 8 years and older are averaging 8-10 miles, general guidelines, suggestions on where to start.

What are other things to be aware of when backpacking with kids? (weather-hot, cold, rain, snow)

kid hiking in the rain

Moving on from the weight and miles, there are always other things to consider and maybe, the most important. In the past, I would look at the weather forecast and try to decide what to put into my pack. And what to remove for the trip.

Over the years, I do really have a cardinal rule. I do not look at the weather anymore, I am simply ready for anything, that is the hope at least.

I drive my partner and my son crazy because I am constantly nagging them to be prepared for anything. They remark, “but it’s like 70 degrees out and no wind, and the forecast says no wind”. It kind of sends chills down my spine.

General preparedness

I highly recommend preparing for all kinds of elements. Essentials include bug spray, sunscreen, light, firestarter, and bear spray. Also, a map helps keep you safe when your GPS goes down.

And don’t forget the uber-essentials food, water, and proper clothing: thermals, shells, and layers.

Hot weather recommendations

In the heat, the water is crucial, we all may have been there, where we didn’t bring enough water. Thanks to the great addition of some wonderful water filtration systems, drinking water in the backcountry is safe.

In general, adults require about 1.5 quarts of water every hour. Children usually require less. Each person’s water requirements depend on needs, physical ability, and conditioning.

Kids should drink plenty of water. Fortunately, kids will know if they have had too much. Try to never get yourself or your family in a situation where water is scarce.

When beginning backpacking, know the water requirements of the people with you. In some cases, you may have to carry more water than anything else. In the colder climates, drinking less water may be possible.

Hiking in the rainy and wet weather with kids

Hiking in Cordova last year with the family, they learned what living in a temperate rain forest is like. More importantly, they realized how serious I was regarding good rain gear. Now I’ll admit, backpacking in the pouring rain is fun for a short distance and then it’s not. Maybe if there is a fireplace with dry wood at the end.

Always cover your pack with a backpack cover, DIY style tarps and garbage bags work as well. Line the inside with garbage bags or your liner of choice. Keeping your feet dry is crucial, bringing extra socks is worthless if they are wet. Always keep backpacks and clothing dry.

Brrrrr, how about hiking in the snow? Kids?

In the snow, polypropelyne and layering. Layers and shells, fleece and polyester blends, light wool blends these days are great also. You have to think about your method of transportation (i.e snowshoes, skis, raft, etc.).

In the elements, their are really only two rules:

  1. KEEP EVERTHING DRY and
  2. KEEP EVERYTHING DRY!

Starter backpacking trip ideas for the family

Begin small of course. Start conditioning or light walking weeks to months before your trip. This will increase stamina, confidence, and well-being.

Get used to the equipment

All backpacks need some adjusting after the purchase. No matter how well it felt in the store, I encourage people to wear them at home. This way they can get used to them and make adjustments in the comfort of their home.

The same with buying new hiking boots or shoes. Get used to them, figure out the annoying sore spots before heading out into the wilderness.

Also, learn how to adjust the pack, have a professional at a retail store help you. Often, friends and family members can help. Backpacks become trusted “friends” and something kids don’t want to part with.

Get to know the area, learn about the State and Forest Service access points (if any). Learn about public lands and the animals in your area. Most importantly, educate yourself on defending and avoiding wildlife encounters.

For starters

Begin with a day hike. After you have worked some bugs out move on to maybe an overnight camp. There are a few ways to do this. Hike to a camp a few miles in, camp, and return the way you came the day before.

camping near home

Or, you can drop a car at one end, drive to the other end of the trail, and hike in. Camp about halfway the first day then proceeds along the trail to your parked car. Remember that you will have to drive several miles just to retrieve your car. Not fun when you are already tired and grumpy.

Many families use bikes to ‘portage’ into hiking areas. My family often rafts into our camp spots then venture out from there.

If you are up in my neck of the woods

For example, when people ask me for starter hiking ideas when in Montana, I recommend a couple of options. First, something like a 2-mile hike to an alpine lake. Or second, a hike along the river and then camp at a primitive spot or developed campground.

The more you explore out there, the more you may come across some pretty cool spots people have made over the years. Always set the tent up with the kids before you head out–ALWAYS.

Whatever the style or comfort level of your children, getting out there is all that really matters. Remember to do it as safely as possible.

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Author Bio

Get Your Kids Started Backpacking - A Dad's Sound Advice - Author Matthew Opalka

Matthew Opalka

For me, Backpacking began on Mt. Vanderwhacker in the Adirondack Mountains of New York State. Staring at the High Peaks created a lifelong love of the outdoors and backpacking.

From New York to Alaska, the Northwest, and here in Montana, this is what I love to do. And I will continue to do so while sharing those experiences with my friends and family.

“The mountains are calling and I must go”.—-John Muir