Now that the hand of winter has settled on the land our hands get busy repairing & reconditioning our gear after a glorious summer afield. Though our hands are busy, our chins are free to wag.
First, my opinions are just those: opinions, based on a lifetime of personal experience. I’m sharing what has worked for me & my family, along with relevant observations. What’s going to work for you & your family is for you to say, based on your knowledge of your selves, tastes, and capabilities.
If I have a hope for this document it is that someone on the fence about backpacking will shed their worries and shoulder their pack. As a teacher, I understand the power of demystification. Safe, healthy, successful camping trips don’t require huge investments in gear or ninja training, even with a handful of pending Pig-Pens in tow.
What age is right to start your kids backpacking?
This answer will vary from family to family and is dependent on several factors, among which are the experience/confidence of the parents, the temperament of the kids, the weather, your gear, and the hike itself. In our case, my son Cal did his first overnight backpacking trip with me & his sister Addie when he was only 4. His sister was 6.
At the end of the day you’re the one who makes the decision. IMO there’s no such thing as ‘too early.’ I’ve heard of parents taking their infants backpacking, using inverted adult down jackets as baby sleeping bags.
How much should I ask them to carry?
The standard rule of thumb is to pack 1/4 your adult body weight; 1/3 if you’re a likely combination of fit/experienced. In recognition of their developing bodies (and to avoid induced grousing) I limit my kids to 1/6 or 1/8. I’d rather hump the extra gear than spoil a good walk. It’s important to weigh your kids backpacks if only to be realistic about how much you’re asking them to carry. Ask them to step on a bathroom scale wearing it, then ask them to step on the bathroom scale not wearing, then subtract to find the difference.
On our first trip Cal carried only some toys/binoculars/safety gear (about 2 lb. total), while his sister carried her own backpack, sleeping pad, sleeping bag, clothes, and water (about 8 lb. total). In fact, here’s a picture of them on their first backpacking trip. Not only is my four year old happily chugging along, he’s on point! This is along the PCT, just north of Chinook Pass on the way to Sheep Lake. Yes, his backpack was in fact a tiger.
What about gear?
Presuming the grown-ups have the basic kit handled (shelter, water, food, safety & the ‘Ten Essentials‘) each kid will need:
- his/her own sleeping bag
- a change of quick-dry clothing (e.g., nylon, polyester) including tops, bottoms, and underwear. Cotton clothing (e.g., jeans) once wet is hard to dry, which is at best uncomfortable and at worst increases the risk of hypothermia if temperatures drop. Allowing kids to become wet/uncomfortable in their clothes is a recipe for avoidable, induced grousing.
- a good waterproof jacket & fleece jacket (unless the forecast is brutally clear, soaking rain/mist is possible in the Cascades: omit this equipment advisedly)
- a pair of sturdy shoes and at least three pairs of fresh socks (until they learn where and where not to step). IMO thick-soled running-type shoes are OK if the pack load isn’t too great. Flat-soled shoes (e.g. Chuck Taylors) offer insufficient protection from the rough tread of mountain trails.
Some items I recommend, but which some might consider optional:
- a small, bright LED flashlight & a safety whistle. for signaling purposes. We keep ours clipped securely into an outside pocket of their backpack, and covered the recognition of signals delivered in threes (e.g., three sharp blasts on a whistle, three pistol shots et al.) as distress calls.
- a pair of sturdy Chaco- or Teva-style sandals or other light weight, synthetic footwear for your kids to change into once they reach camp.
If you DON’T have the basic adult backpacking gear or are a visitor, consider renting gear from a local source like REI. You can get everything you need, from boots to bags to backpacks. The main Seattle store has a substantial stock, as do some outlying stores in the area.
Consider investing in the following:
- a roll of para-cord, available at REI or any outdoor store; handy for slinging your food cache.
- some freeze-dried ice cream, also available at REI; because no kid can resist ‘astronaut ice cream’ and you’re going to need something to get them back to camp to wash up for dinner.
A few observations about camping with kids in the PNW:
Travel in the high country around here entails a certain enhanced risk of encountering other-than-dry weather. At times the weather you encounter is joyous. The clouds march downhill to an inversion: a warm, dry night in the making. At other times the clouds come in and just keep on coming.
A waterproof coat with a hood or a waterproof hat will go far to keeping individual kids warm and dry. In shoulder seasons or if any of your kids gets cold easily, adding a fleece under the waterproof layer transforms your kid into a Gibraltar of warmth. If the weather drives you into your tent for a spell a deck of cards or a pad of Mad Libs can wile away the odd stranded hour, or at least get kids still long enough to induce a storm-length afternoon nap. Don’t be shy about emerging from shelter after the worst of the rain has passed, though. Nature has a way of exhaling spicy, fragrant breath into freshly rain-washed air. Breathe deep and watch the world come back to life in its wake, from bees to birds to bugs.
The Pacific Northwest is bear country, which is not to say the trees are full of hungry bears. Rather, you’ll want to factor basic bear safety into your plans.
Don’t eat in your tent. Don’t store food in your tent. Use one of your kids’ small backpacks as a food cache. Tie a rock securely to one end of your para-cord, find a sturdy branch that’ll support the weight of your cache 15′ up and 3′ or so from the trunk of the tree, and make a game out of slinging the rock over the branch. Anything that smells like food –your dishes, your pet’s bowl, any snacks that might’ve ended up in random pockets, and of course your food supply– goes in the cache. Tie the cache securely to the free end, then hoist away. At this point you’ll undoubtedly be asked to cut the unneeded balance of your para-cord to give the kids so they can keep slinging rocks over branches. Cut away and watch them go.
Policing up & caching food also goes far to keeping chipmunks, squirrels, magpies, crows, and other opportunistic critters from raiding your camp.
Some ideas of places to go in the PNW for your first backpacking trip with kids.
- Sheep Lake – Central Cascades
- Summit Lake – Central Cascades
- Independence & North Lakes – North Cascades
- Lena Lake – Olympic Peninsula
Special Needs kids and backpacking
As an aside: my daughter Addie is a Type 1 (insulin-dependent) diabetic. We have always approached her condition fearlessly, and approach backwoods life the same way.
Careful meal planning is inherent both in long backpacking trips and diabetes. We prepare small 15g (CHO) packages of her favorite GORP for maintenance, keep her diabetes kit in an insulated lumbar bag (including a Glucagon pen for emergencies), and make sure she drinks a lot of water / tests her blood sugar (BG) at regular intervals. She burns so much BG in the process of schlepping her bag/self up the trail and then playing around the campsite we’ve noticed her insulin use decreases dramatically: a win-win for everyone.
Again, the choices you make for your family are yours, but we determined that Addie’s diagnosis was not going to get in the way of her love of nature & outdoor fun. Standing here as I type, she says she hopes this part of the post helps another kid make it into the backcountry who might not have otherwise. As a parent –knowing how much it has meant to my kids to have access to the mountaintops and secret lakes of the PNW–I cannot but concur.