Backpacking Essentials:Taking Children

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Not to take your children backpacking could be called a cruel and unusual punishment, for certainly children love to camp out. Equally, that parent is deprived who never has the chance to watch their fascinated children watching a ground squirrel scurry around in the grass of an alpine meadow.

Although I don’t think children are miniature adults or any other modification of adults—adults are unfortunate modifications of children—it will simplify the discussion of taking children if we add to the topics that already make up sections of this guide certain advice that pertains to taking children.

Getting Started

How old should the child be? That depends on how you feel about the matter. A month-old child, lovingly and patiently cared for, can thrive in the wilderness. How much the child enjoys it the child doesn’t say, but loving parents enjoy having the child. For most people, however, a child still in diapers presents slightly too many problems. Some people who are not big, strong or dedicated would rather wait until the children are old enough to carry their own equipment. When you have read this guide you will be better able to decide when to take your child, especially if you have actually taken a trip.


If you are wealthy, you can buy all-new equipment for your children. Otherwise, you will have to give them a few makeshifts and hand-me-downs. In fact, hand me down is the only way most families can afford to furnish their children with down-filled sleeping bags and jackets. One of each will last for several years of use by each child, as he or she in turn grows into it. The same is true of the pack. But children should have real packs by the time they are 10 if you expect them to carry very much load—say, one quarter of their body weight—very far—say 5 miles. Until then, a day pack is sufficient. For loads of more than 10 pounds, you can get an expensive day pack with aluminum stays to fit the back’s curves.

Small children carrying light loads don’t need boots. Tennis shoes will do, so long as they fit well. Considering children’s ability to get their feet wet, an extra pair of shoes is probably worth carrying, along with several extra pairs of socks. When your child begins to demand mountaineering boots like your own, a fair stopgap at one third the price is a pair of high work shoes from a retail clothing chain. These can be pretty well waterproofed (see Section 12). “Insulated” socks with a thick, spongy bottom avoid a lot of foot problems with children.


Children’s clothing should be in good condition when you start out, because it is going to get much hard use. For the same reason, try to avoid fashionable but flimsy garments. Be generous in the amount of warm clothing you bring for the child. The child who is usually a “heat machine” may get so exhausted that the machine is temporarily out of order.

Food and Cooking

It is even more important for the child than for the adult to snack often. Fill pockets in the children’s packs with foods which they like and which provide quick energy, so they can snack whenever they want. You should make good, nutritious food al ways available, while never urging your child to “eat something.” Since you have simplified your menu, perhaps as far as one-pot meals, formal meals in camp will be the same for everyone. There is no room in the pack, or in the nutritional handbook, for those foods whose only attraction is their TV commercials.

Eating utensils for a child are the same as for anyone else. The oversize, heavy, interlocking knife-fork-and-spoon set is best re served for car-camping. However, any child who will properly use and care for a small pocket knife should have one.

Planning Trips

Unless you are a leisurely, unambitious or infirm backpacker, a trip on which you take children should be shorter in days, shorter in miles, lower in elevation, and less steep in gradient than one you would plan for yourself. Decide on a trip that fits these requirements, then let the children in on the rest of the decisions. Let them help repackage the food. Have them make their own checklists of their own personal gear, and then have them pack it. Look over their packed packs. Make them justify anything in the pack that you think is unnecessary—but try to see their side of it.

Don’t let the child carry too heavy a load. If they are under 10, they should carry less than one fourth of their body weight. If they are 10 or over, they can carry one fourth of their weight.

For the family that has never been on a backpack together, a “shakedown” weekend hike somewhere near home is very worth while. It will help you avoid bad things and multiply good things on the big trip.

If you feel you’d like to have a babysitter along, you can easily have one. Many young people are willing to go along and help out in return for free meals and the chance to spend some time in the wilds. An alternative to a babysitter is some other children for yours to play with. You may want to invite the other children’s parents as companions for yourselves.

Trailhead Tips

When packing the luxuries that you will use while with your car, ask your children what things they want included. Along with, your cold beer, pack their favorite thirst-quencher.


When hiking with children, forget all my advice about a steady pace. They aren’t buying it. Children want to dawdle, dally and delay. At least, those are the names an adult gives to what the child does. If the children are naming their activities at all, they think of them as pleasurable, and probably even necessary. Their negative words are reserved for any adult who enforces a schedule of so many miles by lunchtime, and so many more before dinner. Taking enough rest stops, then, is not a problem when kids are along.

Realizing this, you will try to keep yourself amused whenever your child stops to scrutinize a butterfly or climb onto a big log. And you will have alternative, nearer campsites in mind for the night.

The child who is too young to walk, or too young to walk all the way, must be carried. A kiddie carrier has some room for things besides the child—but someone else will have to carry a very large load.

Camping Techniques

When young children are along, the trip goes much better if you make camp by noon. In choosing a campsite, remember that water is very important to children. It doesn’t seem to matter much what kind—lake, stream, pond or puddle—as long as there is some water for them to play in. The temperature of the water is not terribly important either. A snow bank near camp is another favorite play place.

If any of the children is only one or two years old, the camp should not be so close to water or to steep drop-offs that the little child can get into trouble. You must watch children that age like a hawk anyway. If they wander out of sight in the wilderness, they’re lost. For this reason, a tent you can zip closed is desirable for the young one to sleep in.

Except for such a young one, let children pick their own bedsite—with gentle guidance if necessary. Have them set up their bed and then gather wood before they start to play. That is the rule for everyone arriving in camp.

Safety and Well-Being

On backpacking trips, children may become too tired, for any of several reasons. Being excited, they may not sleep well before the trip or on it. They are likely to be hyperactive. They don’t sit still long enough to eat enough. To some extent, children will have to learn for themselves to slow down. You can help by being calm yourself, before and during the trip. In addition, don’t get so immersed in your own activities that you fail to anticipate your children’s needs. For instance, you know they will need sunburn protection and mosquito protection, whereas they wouldn’t think of it by themselves until it was too late.

Although children have a large amount of energy, and great powers of recuperation, remember that their bodies are much smaller and legs are much shorter than yours. A boulder you can step over is a major obstacle to five-year-olds, and they will expend much more energy than you will in getting across a field of boulders.

A preschool child may be upset by the lack of the accustomed home environment. You can prevent at least some of the upset by bringing along part of that home environment—a favorite toy, for instance.

In the first-aid kit, write children’s dosages of pills on the labels. Young children have sensitive skins, so bring something to prevent chapping. Desitin, a diaper-rash ointment, is also good for hands and face.

If your child is a toddler, put a harness with “leash” on the child while the group is walking places that would be dangerous. Before you leave home, tell children what to do if lost. Review it with them until they understand it all. Every child should have a whistle on a string around their neck at all times and should understand they are to blow it only if lost—and then repeatedly. A child may wander too far simply because they got so engrossed following an animal’s tracks or looking at the wildflowers that they forgot to look around now and then to make sure they could still locate the camp or the trail. They may not realize they’re lost until they’ve been lost for a while. Be sure they know, therefore, that the minute they aren’t sure they can find their way back, they should sit down in one spot and not move from it.

The greatest threat to children in the wilds is water. The number of drownings per year is staggering. Teach your children to respect the water—and even then, watch them like a hawk.

Map and Compass

Being inexhaustibly curious, children are ready at an early age to start learning about maps and compasses. As you walk along the trail with children, ask them every little while which way they think is north. If they’re right, compliment them. If wrong, let them try again. At night, show them the North Star and explain how it’s related to north on the compass and on the map. (Maybe you’ll have to find out first.) As soon as your children can use a topographic map at all, give them their own to carry. Get them an inexpensive compass too.

Equipment Care

Until your children are well into their teens, you should check over their equipment with them and help them repair it if necessary.

Fig 13-1: Daddy long legs and sonny short legs

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