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Backpacking With Kids: Mom Tested & Kid Approved

A common question when folks encounter our family on the trails or hear of our long miles and long epic stories of adventures is: “How do you do it with kids?”

I decided in order to attempt to answer this common question I would hit up my own set of experts in the field – my very own wild and free, slightly feral children: ‘buckets’ age 11 and ‘monkey’ age 7.

These two combined have climbed hundreds of mountains, logged thousands of miles on trails, have been both above 14,000 elevation and below sea level, backpacked some of the most beautiful wilderness areas, are experienced rock climbers both indoors and outdoors, and can complain louder and longer than any other soul I know. I present to you some helpful tips from two of the most delightfully helpful wild children to help get you and your young children outdoors backpacking.

Backpacking With Kids: Mom Tested & Kid Approved

Hide and Seek

Side note: I do not actually recommend playing Hide and Seek while in the wilderness. As much as we love Search and Rescue, you definitely do not want to need to call for their assistance in case the hiding morphs into lost. 

So, what is a fun way to keep the family going when the trees get tiring? Conversational games! Conversation games are games that require only conversational ability, or simply put – you just need to talk.

These games can be played almost anywhere with almost anyone and are perfect for backpacking since they require no need to add to your base weight. These games will help the young ones be distracted from any physical discomfort they may be experiencing. It also will take the focus away from ‘how much farther’ and center it simply on enjoying being in the moment. When the miles get long and laborious, try busting out an easy game that everyone can contribute to. 

Here are some of our favorite games:

  • Name Ten. The classic conversation game in which one person declares a category such as sports/cartoons/animals and the other members of the family must come up with ten examples of that category. The kids will love this game because the person who came up with the category gets to determine whether the examples fit or not. Hello – in control over siblings winning! 
  • I Spy. This game traditionally is a long car trip distractor. It is pretty simple starting with the phrase ‘I spy with my little eye something…’ and then one descriptor is added such as black, furry, moving-right-towards-us-ah-it’s-a-bear. Okay maybe not that last descriptor. The other family members take turns trying to guess what the item is. The person who guesses then gets to be the “spy.”
  • Questions Only. Everything anyone says must be stated in the form of a question. Think Jeopardy answers only. This conversation game is incredibly simple, has no real winner or concrete ending, it will keep you giggling and like it or not, it may just crop back up hours after you thought it was finished. It truly is the baby shark of conversational games. 
  • Alphabet Game. This game is both easy for the ABC seasoned as well as a great secret educational tool for those working on phonics. One participant chooses a topic such as animals/places/food and other family members take turns naming an object that matches the letter landed upon. If someone can not find any X names animal they are out! It’s a cut throat, every man for themselves preschool world we live in. 

Treats On A String Motivation 

If you ever hike with us or have passed us on the trail there is a strong chance you may have heard one of us holler ‘pit stop’ up into the pines. I pack the kids favorite candy and every few miles we enjoy a sweet, sugary snack to keep going. Although classic trail trash food such as gummy bears, Swedish fish and skittles are preferred, here are some other treats that range from healthy to just plain fun: 

  • Nut Butter. I love classic peanut butter but these days you can pretty much get any type of nut butter goodness. For the trail, look for single-serving packets or multi-serving pouches. Some options include almond, hazelnut, tahini, chocolate, and maple versions! 
  • Jerky. Jerky is meat candy in our household. With so many types from bison to alligator you can munch on all the animals without worry of refrigeration. 
  • Dark chocolate. Described as the perfect energy food combination of sugar, fat, and a little caffeine – dark chocolate is a great pick me up. Just be mindful it’s a cold weather friend unless you like dark chocolate goo. 
  • Bars. Cliff bars, Luna bars, Kind bars and more! Our family does not eat these condensed treats often so when I whip one out on the trail there are usually audible cheers of delight. Easy to pack, not messy and lightweight; trail inspired bars are great motivation to keep going. 
  • Dried Fruit. It’s nature’s candy, am I right? Fruity deliciousness without worries of bruising or any awkward busted banana encounters. Dried apples are my very favorite and donations are always accepted for my stash. 

First Aid Kit and More, Oh My!

The wilderness is well, wild. Things break, adults get hurt and the weather is always in for a good freak storm. Having a first aid kit that includes more than the usual bandages is helpful to make sure you can weather it all. Like what I did there? Anyways here are some helpful items to carry on your long distance backpacking adventure: 

  • Layers. When backpacking, evenings and mornings can be quite chilly. The more layers, the more adaptability for the various degrees you may expect to encounter. Base layers are extremely helpful in colder months and you will never hate a good, lightweight windbreaker. 
  • Headlamps and batteries. Middle of the night ‘mom I need to pee’ trips will thank you when you bust out a headlamp instead of busting a hip stumbling in the dark. Headlamps also serve as fun night tent game playing and finding that lovely star gazing spot. 
  • Hot hands. Even in hot summer camp season, if you are on mountains the evenings and early mornings can be quite chilly. Shove a hot hand near your kids feet in their sleeping bags to make sure they stay toasty. 
  • First aid kit. A traditional first aid kit is a must. My personal one includes: Band-Aids, gauze, wet wipes, antibacterial cream, pain killers, tweezers, needle and thread, and bear spray. 

Short Legs and Short Packs Training

It is true that this family can log long miles and steep elevation increases. But we did not start that way six years ago – none of us had any outdoor experience at all! So how did we go from a mile seems rough to average 20 mile days? Training. Here are ways to train up your littles and your old ones to hike those backpacking jaunts:

  • Start small. Find your local bike track, nature center, favorite suburb neighborhood and just get out every day. One mile increasing to two and maybe even three. These daily walks are really just about walking everyday. 
  • Give them a goal. We told the four year old monkey he needed to climb his first major peak, with no one carrying him, before he could get his very own hydration bladder. With a glimmer in his eyes he set out to summit the 9,406 feet in elevation Mount Baden-Powell. After the infamous 40 switchbacks and 9 miles, 2,788 foot elevation gain – little monkey got to pick out his own new gear. 
  • Slow weight gain. Having the kids carry packs is a great way to help bring supplies while backpacking. But it can be daunting to add weight to such small humans. Start with an empty backpack. After a few hikes try having them carry their own water. Each hike, add just a wee bit more – even things like their favorite stuffed animal or toy car. This method is a way to strengthen without too much effort. 

Laugh at Yourself 

At the end of the day, no matter what you do meltdowns may just be the theme of that adventure. Things go wrong, kids just get cranky, and you may scream off a mountainside more than once. That is perfectly normal. Try to laugh at yourself, and every misadventure is an opportunity to learn from or simply file under scary campfire stories. The important thing is to get outdoors, get to know your children, and get dirty! 

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Kaitlin Musser
Kaitlin is a former ballerina who now travels around the country in an 18-foot converted school bus. Her and her tall-one husband have welcomed 34 sweet children into their home the past eleven years. Although they wouldn’t be a forever home for all of them they were able to adopt their daughter buckets and are legal guardians of their son monkey.