Hiking and backpacking with children

Hiking and backpacking with kids can be an excellent and inexpensive way to enjoy being together as a family. Getting out on the Pacific Crest Trail is a great way to expose young people to the joys of being outdoors. The PCT offers endless possibilities for hiking as a family due to its excellent quality and close proximity to populated areas. We believe that fostering your children’s connection with the outdoors should start at a young age. Here are some tips for bringing young children out on the trail.

Planning

Before you head out on the trail, there are some planning tasks that can make the trip far more successful.

  1. Involve your kids in the trip and route planning. Bring out the map at the kitchen table and show your kids some options on where to go hiking.
  2. When choosing between two hikes, opt for the one that will be the most fun. For kids, that’s usually the shorter hike. Loop hikes can be tricky with kids. If they decide that they’re not interested in hiking anymore, you could end up carrying them and all their stuff much further than you want.
  3. Be prepared. In addition to the normal items you may bring along on a hiking or backpacking trip, there are additional pieces of gear that may be helpful to include in your packing list. Here’s a list of some of those items:
    1. Diapers
    2. Baby wipes (even for older kids)
    3. Toilet paper and/or facial tissue
    4. Plastic grocery bag for garbage or dirty diapers
    5. Extra clothes for your kids (socks, underwear, pants, shirts)
    6. Light kids jacket
    7. Whistle for kids age 4 and older. Teach them how and when to use it.
    8. Fun snacks or treats. It’s OK to save a “treat” for your kids to be enjoyed at your hike’s destination. Have certain fun foods that you only have on hikes. This keeps them special. Even better, let your kids pick out their own special snack.
  4. Here’s a list of optional items that can keep your kids entertained:
    1. Binoculars. Try to avoid the large adult sized ones. Find a cheaper small pair that the kids can keep around their necks and you don’t mind if they get damaged.
    2. Field guides for the flora and fauna of the area. Being able to point out various plants and animals with their names and some other interesting tidbits can be a great way to keep your kids aware of their surroundings.
    3. Camera for the kids. Even a cheap disposable camera can give your kids a great connection to their surroundings.
    4. Journal for your kids to record the day’s events, animals, plants, and sights.

On The Trail

It goes without saying that the priorities and interests of children in the wilderness can vary greatly from those of their parents. Be aware that the beauty and solitude of the outdoors may not really appeal to kids as much as adults. They more often are interested in what’s at their feet, what’s that sound they hear, or how many cool rocks and sticks can they find. Here are some tips and tricks to help your young ones pass the miles.

  1. Photo by David HeinrichPlay games. Games that can be played while continuing to walk are ideal. They allow you to distract your kids while still making miles. Recommendations:
    1. I Spy
    2. Guessing game (What animal starts with a “Z” and has stripes?)
    3. Counting games (Let’s see how many butterflies we can find)
    4. Bird or animal imitations
  2. Tell stories. Ask your kids what they want a story about. Stretch it out. Get the kids involved in parts of it. Bring in aspects of your hike. This can work wonders.
  3. Make frequent rest stops. Let’s face it, kids don’t have the attention span that most adults do. For this reason, make sure you take plenty of rest stops when hiking with your kids.
  4. Bring friends. Hiking or backpacking with another family with kids of similar ages can make a huge difference in the outlook of your own kids. Even if you run into a family you don’t know on the trail, think about budding up with them if you’re headed in the same direction. The distraction from the hiking can increase your kid’s endurance many times over.
  5. Know when to call it quits. A miserable kid on a hike will make everyone miserable. Don’t let the destination cloud your decision on when to turn back. For kids, the view of a neat lake or overlook is rarely as rewarding as it is for the parents.

Equipment

Having the right equipment can make all the difference in the happiness of the parents. The following list offers some suggestions for various equipment choices.

  1. Baby Carriers. Framed or not, consider the weight of the carrier. Soft carriers are far lighter than framed packs and can be used on kids as old as 5. They can be packed into a backpack if your toddler wants to walk on their own.
  2. Packs for your kids. Around age 4, you can typically start having your children carry some of their own equipment. A great way to begin is by getting them a kids hydration pack with some small pockets to carry snacks, toys, or other interesting things found on the hike. Around age 6 or 7 you can probably have them carry their own sleeping bag, sleeping pad, some clothes, and their favorite cuddle toy.
  3. Be sure to pack clothes and a sleeping bag that will keep your kids warm enough for the conditions you will be in.

Tips and Tricks

  • Start them as young as you can.
  • Go often. Make it seem like it’s part of your everyday life that you get outdoors.
  • Keep drive times down. Hikes within an hour away from your house are ideal for toddlers and pre-schoolers.
  • Infants are arguably the easiest to hike with. Outside of keeping them warm, fed, and rested, you can take them as far as you can carry them.
  • Stay flexible. Kids will change their minds 15 times in 5 minutes. Be willing to work with what their needs are.
  • If you’re hiking in a group with older kids, agree on a funny word (squiggles!) that anyone can say that will signal that they need to stop. If you’re on a multi-day trip, change the word daily to keep it fun.
  • Keep your kids involved. Make them hike. Give them chores to do and show them the proper way to do them. Make sure you let them know how big and helpful they are when the help.
  • Creeks, lakes, and large rock outcroppings are almost always great places to stop and play.
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Photo by: Nathaniel Middleton