For Rosie and Ben Platt of Portland, Ore., the keys to a successful backpacking trip with kids are “trail treats” and short distances. For Michael Lanza and Penny Beach of Boise, Idaho, plenty of breaks, candy bars and word games are crucial.
And for Richard Louv, author of “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder,” it doesn’t matter what parents bust out to motivate kids on the trail -- just that they get outside together.
“What better way to connect with your kid than to get away from the electronic distractions and peer pressure, and just go for a walk in the woods,” Louv said.
Many parents have felt the joy and rewards of day hiking with wee ones, but far fewer have backpacked overnight into the wilderness, kids in tow (or in-pack, as the case may be).
With the right gear, planning and attitude, parents and kids alike can reap the benefits of backcountry adventures.
On June 2 -- the 20th anniversary of National Trails Day -- families have another incentive to hit the trails: dozens of (mostly free) outdoor workshops, trail maintenance projects and guided hikes will be offered in just about every state. To find out what’s happening near you, check out American Hiking Society and click on your state.
Another resource for trail tips and tricks is through classes and workshops at REI, which has stores in 31 states. The Washington Trails Association's website has a great section on hiking with kids, as well as car-camping tips and a free “Families Go Hiking” newsletter.
Michael Lanza is Northwest editor of Backpacker magazine and author of “Before They’re Gone: A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks.” He and wife, Penny, have hiked with their kids, now 9 and 11, since they were babies, and began family backpacking trips when the kids turned 6.
“When you get out for a few days or more of backpacking,” Lanza said, “you shake off the stresses and distractions of civilization and enjoy plenty of time for conversation with your companions, which is incredibly energizing and a pleasure we enjoy too rarely in normal life.”
Some family backpacking tips from Lanza, who also runs the website TheBigOutside.com:
- Buy modern, lightweight gear: light backpacks, tents and cookware can shave at least 10 pounds from a family of four’s gear weight.
- Make sure gear for kids fits them well. (Lanza includes reviews of kids and adults outdoor gear at TheBigOutside.com.)
- Until age 9 or 10, kids should wear only a daypack, according to Lanza, with a liter of water, a few snacks and a stuffed animal. “Better to let them get a bit stronger and have some trail experience before having them carry much more than that,” he said. “Even 10 pounds feels like a bag of lead to a kid who weighs only 50 pounds.”
- Take only what you need on a trip: one or two changes of all-weather clothes, only the amount of food needed plus a bit extra for ravenous kids, and the amount of water needed to reach the next water source.
- Let kids take their favorite stuffed animals and favorite candy bars to eat when they’re halfway through each day’s mileage.
- Remember a small first-aid kit.
- Make sure the trip includes a river, creek, lake or wilderness beach because water “has never failed to entertain kids endlessly.”
Lanza tells parents not to be discouraged by the amount of work involved in backpacking with kids.
“Don’t wait,” he said. “Start car camping and day hiking when your children are small, and backpacking once they’re ready for that. Nurture in your kids an enthusiasm for hiking and camping beginning when they’re very young, and you will turn them into outdoors rock stars.”
Rosie and Ben Platt, who have backpacked with their now 4- and 6-year-old since they were babies, offer these tips:
- Invest in ultralight gear, including small kids’ packs that can be strapped to adults’ packs if they get tired of carrying them.
- No toys! “We made a pact from the start to not bring a single toy on the trail,” Rosie Platt said. “I was reluctant at first but it was the best move. Immediately, they found a favorite stick or rock.”
- Bring plenty of trail treats such as M&Ms, gummy bears and Goldfish crackers. And seek out “treat trees” or count out 100 steps until the next goody stop.
- Flexibility keeps it fun, she said. “Even if we hike in one mile to a mediocre campsite, it is still a memorable trip. Most of all, pack lightly, stick together and learn the flowers.”
What’s next for the adventurous Lanza and Platt families?
The Lanzas head to Norway in July to trek hut-to-hut for nine days through Jotunheimen National Park, through the highest mountains in northern Europe.
And the Platts plan to hike and camp at Yellowstone National Park in June, then head to Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming for four days of canoeing to backcountry lakeside campsites.
Louv, who has written eight books and co-founded the Children & Nature Network, continues to fish and hike with his now grown sons. But he spends most of his time running down research about nature deficit in children.
He rattles off some unnerving statistics: American children spend 70-80 percent of their time in childcare being sedentary, not counting napping or eating; just 2-3 percent of their day is spent in vigorous activity. Only 17 percent of 15-year-olds get even an hour a day of vigorous activity. The result, partially at least: skyrocketing rates of asthma, obesity, vitamin D deficiency, anxiety and depression.
“Without direct physical contact with the natural world, children’s knowledge about the environment is abstract, for the most part, and they tend to see a world with problems that are overwhelming,” Louv said. “Being outside just for the joy of it is an antidote. In innumerable ways, it helps our children’s health and ability to think and create, and our own as well.”
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