Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Backpacking with Young Children: The Why, the How, and the When


My Backpacker's Field Manual includes only one reference to children under the "Leave No Trace" principle. It deals with packing diapers and baby wipes in and out. Helpful yes, but not for preschool and school-age children who can hike.

Sadly, backpacking is always assumed to be an adult-only activity because of the carrying part. But how about having the kids carry a small pack and you the rest? Since distance is greatly reduced because of the young ones' resistance, there's no need to carry the extra weight too long.

Backpacking with young children is a unique experience that's definitely doable and incredibly rewarding. Here is how we took our 4- and almost-6 year olds 3 miles in on the alpine trails of the Eastern Sierras.

Why? If you haven't read Richard Louv's eye-opening book Last Child In The Woods, our kids suffer from a a nature-deficit disorder. They need to go outside. Outside of the TV room, outside of the car, outside of their bedroom. Outside. Sure the neighborhood park is nice, but it's usually urban tamed nature that doesn't replace wild things. Children need to see what nature is if they are to become the future sentinels of the world.

What better place to show them local trees, babbling brooks and local birds than your local wilderness area, state parks or county parks? Camping is a step to get close to nature but if you don't want to wake up to your neighbor's RV engine, backpacking is the real deal. That's, unless you've signed up your child for an open-air classroom like the German Waldschule where kids learn the regular academic curriculum in forests year-round.

When? ... or how old is old enough? Let's go chronologically. Infants need to be carried all the way. While lightweight, they occupy one back and that's one less back to carry stuff. Toddlers can hike but neither far, nor consistently (hello, bugs?), nor in a straight line. Plus, they do like to be picked up. That opens up the backpacking candidacy to preschoolers and up. My choice on age weighed in two factors: (i) I wanted my children to be able to walk 4 miles at a leisurely pace on a regular hiking day so they'd be fine with 2 or 3 miles on backpacking day; (ii) I knew we parents would carry a lot (basically stuff for four) but I also wanted my older one to carry her own backpack to relieve us of a sleeping bag.

That set the age at 4 years for the non-backpack-carrying child, and almost 6 for the backpack-carrying child. However with only one child in tow (and maybe only two sleeping bags if you manage to zip them together and that's room enough for 2 adults and a small child), then go for it at a younger age.

How? Now the interesting question, how do you do it? It's a combination of getting the right gear, trip prep, and offering rewards. Possibly a little luck too.

The right gear My main investment consisted in a child-size backpack for my oldest. At San Francisco's REI store, I found only one backpack that fit children ages 6 to 10 years old, the REI Comet Pack. The torso was easily adjustable, as was the waistbelt with mesh zip pockets and chest strap. However the distance between shoulder straps cannot be adjusted and my girls' shoulders were narrower than the actual distance. I didn't realize it in the store as the backpack was empty. However loaded, the straps kept sliding down one shoulder. If you find a kids' backpack you like, make sure to measure the distance between shoulders or find a way to adjust it yourself.

As far as content, the pack fit: a sleeping bag and camping pillow in the main pocket, a chocolate bar and dining utensils (squishy bowl, sporks -or foons, spoon and fork combos- and 0.3 litre kid water bottle) inside the front mesh pocket, and lightweight flip-flops in the top pocket. All counted, it weighted in at about 8.5-9 lbs. My daughter weighs 48 lbs so that's a 18.75% pack weight to body weight ratio. Charles Lindsey known as The Lightweight Backpacker sets the ratio at 25% for adults and up to 33% for adults in shape. That's what I've always heard over the years but I think the ratio should be lower for childen since they're not used to carrying heavy loads.

Trip Prep A week or two before the expedition, I explained to my girls what we were going to do. "We are going to park the car, hike on mountain trails, carry the tent and our sleeping bags, and pitch the tent very far from the car." That seemed to be enough knowledge. Then I took them "shopping" with me at REI and they got to select their own dinner and breakfast menu. While I hate freeze-dried food, weight won over taste and we ended up with a Pasta with Chicken pack for 2 for dinner (that my girls gobbled up) and -no kidding- pre-cooked scrambled eggs with bacon for breakfast (that they ate even faster). Boil water, pour in bag, wait 8 minutes, serve. Hurray for mountain gastronomy!

As an extra incentive, they even got to select a camping pillow, the kind that can be rolled up to a fourth of its size. The small ThermaRest Compressible Pillow was as close as it gets to the snuggle feeling of a stuffed animal, and it was pretty darn comfy too. There, done. Now with packing. At home, we got together all the gear we needed and selected special treats to nibble on along the way. My girls call that "refueling on energy." They like to suck on tubes of honey, sweetened condensed milk or vanilla chestnut puree. Pick whatever your child likes that will be incentive enough.

The Right Clothing As obvious as it sounds, mountain weather is unpredictable and it can snow in August. You don't want a miserable cold child hours away from the nearest motel room. Since we were headed towards the sierras above 10,000 feet, I packed light long-sleeve shirts in case it was sunny, and snow coveralls and jackets in case it rained. The weather forecast gave a good chance a rain, thunderstorms and thunder lightning. Perfect backpacking weather! As it turned out, we got rained on and the temperatures dropped 20 degrees overnight so the snow garments were very much appreciated after the night.

The Official Backpacking Diploma
The ultimate reward came after the trip, thanks to the techie skills of my husband. Using one of the trip's photos as a background, he photoshopped a sample diploma, and crafted an Official Backpacking Diploma that certified that our girl had hiked so many miles at such age over such mountains carrying a full backpack. The little one got a Junior Hiking Diploma that congratulated her for "satisfactorily completing a hiking trip while displaying great courage and stamina." I printed them in color on cardboard paper and stuffed them in envelopes, mixing them with today's mail. Email me if you want more details on how to make your own. Stick there the semblance of a few US Forest Service and National Parks logos and you've got the happiest children on earth. They loved it!

And, they are so ready for another backpacking trip. "But not in the snow, no," objected the youngest one, "That would be too cold." Or... would it? Stephanie and Ryan Jordan have done it and judging by their photos and account of the experience, it looks like even more fun than the rain.

4 comments:

Lora said...

This is a great post. Got me in the mood, so I took my boys out for a practice hike. The little one, at 2.5, still wants to be carried part of the time, so I'm not sure backpacking is in the cards right now. Love the diploma idea, and the tips on gear are perfect. Did you know REI is having a huge sale right now? Sure wish summer was longer!

Laure said...

Wouldn't you know, we're just returning from REI! We got new hiking poles for our oldest and a day pack (with the built-in mushy water pouch and straw) for the youngest. More hikes in the future. And summmer is not the end of hiking days. I'll be starting a year-round hiking and/or backpacking group for families in the Bay Area very soon. Let me know if interested.

William said...

I want to take my kids but I need some help finding good spots that are no more than a 3 or 4 hour drive from San Francisco. Any good suggestions? I'd like to be able to go somewhere that has a lake or creek close by.

Laure said...

Good backpacking spots? There are some quite close, depending where you live and how many miles you can hike.
Bay Area:
- Monte Bello Open Space Preserve, Black Mountain Backpack Camp - roughly 1 mile hike in the Santa Cruz mountains http://www.openspace.org/activities/downloads/backpack_camp.pdf
- Pt Reyes, Coastal Camp - 1.8 mile from trailhead http://www.nps.gov/pore/planyourvisit/campgrounds.htm
- Pt Reyes - Wilcat Camp - 7 miles - moderate for a child although the distance is long, but great beach at the end and if it's not foggy, starry nights with the sound of ocean waves crashing on shore
http://www.nps.gov/pore/planyourvisit/campgrounds.htm
- Castle Rock State Park - 3 miles to Goat Rock - great views in Santa Cruz mountains
http://www.parks.ca.gov/default.asp?page_id=538
- Henry W Coe State Park - Frog Lake - 1.6 miles. Love the starry nights (rangers have special programs for that), the wildlife and the rolling hills.
http://www.coepark.org/sites-backpacking.html

Sierras:
- Little Lakes Valley - Inyo National Forest - simply the most scenic place in the Eastern Sierras - get your permit early http://www.fs.fed.us/r5/inyo/recreation/wild/otheravail.shtml
- Tamarack Lakes - that's wherre we went last year - 3 miles in - next to Little Lakes Valley
- West portion of Rae Lakes loop in Kings Canyon -shaded, large river (head more north than east/Charlotte Dome). It starts at 5500'. However, it is 6 miles to the first camp (and the first mile or so is on sand, with a waterfall 4 miles in). You should check the altitude gains as well.
- Yosemite/Tuolumne Meadows - Vogelsang - 7 miles - strenuous for a child but such beautiful views - you can also try the lottery for the high sierra camps and only carry a day pack http://www.localhikes.com/Hikes/Tuolumne_VogelSang_0000.asp

There are a lot of options. If you are more specific I can tery to guide you through a few more options.

Happy trails,

Laure