This article is not meant to be a substitute for common sense, or a treatise on child care. The purpose is to provide guidelines and suggestions as what has worked successfully for other parents who have ventured into the woods with their kids, before you. Many people have contributed to this, either with direct assistance in editing, or through posts to rec.backcountry.
Intro and General Considerations:
- Bottles vs/ breastfeeding
- Equipment for babies and toddlers
- Toddler safety
- Hiking with kids
- Kid's gear
- Boots? Packs? Sleeping bags?
- Predators?]dangers/ risks/personal safety
- Older kids./Teens
- First aid
- The payoff
- Final notes
You have kids, and now your hiking and backpacking life is over, correct? Wrong. While some people decide that taking kids out into the backcountry is going to be too much work, there are many of us that have had wonderful family times with a little altering of how we did it "BC". (before children)
The main thing to consider when hiking with babies and kids, is that you will have to modify your goals is whether it is in choice of destination, mileage, environment When you go hiking with a baby or a toddler, you will have lots of extra gear, plus be carrying the kid. That's when you pick a location that's easy to get to, kid friendly, and not too far in. There are certain trips you will want to do with your buddies or childless friends, to maintain your sense of what you want for "you", which will free you up to do more family oriented trips.
Kids will force you to alter your sense of accomplishment and to be flexible. For many children, it's the journey that's important, not how long the journey is. They are slower and closer to the ground, and by taking the time to look at the world from their perspective, with their sense of time, wonder and their short attention span, we learn lessons for ourselves and build real foundations of a love for the outdoors with our children. For all of us who have taken young children into the woods, it is the sense of wonder and altered time that seems to be recalled most fondly. Children don't seem to care about mileage, or destination. "Have fun. look at world through their eyes and it becomes new again" is how one dad put it so well. Get down to their level. spider webs, dew drops, a crawling bug, tossing pebbles. There is a real joy in re-discovering nature, on a kid's level. Older kids are going to enjoy the hike, the mileage and the view from the top more, but that is something that most families work up to.
One dad put it this way:
"Just change your goals. You won't be able to go as far/fast/high. If you want everything to be the same reconsider your plan. You won't be able to go
as far/high/ because you'll have a heavier pack and maybe a pair of less strong legs walking (when they are old enough to walk). You also may have to limit your winter trips-At least I didn't want to take my kids out in -20 weather until they were around 10 years old. You'll need a lot of patience.
Plan flexible trips. Be prepared to shorten a trip. Things like bad weather, heavy mosquitoes/black flies have more serious consequences."
Most of the these concepts can be applied to backpacking, car camping, and canoe camping.
BABIES & toddlers:
Many people take their babies. While it requires preparation and thought, remember, our ancestors were packing infants around with them for thousands of years, why not you?
Babies, while requiring special care and attention, are not fragile. With you, the parent, paying attention, There's no reason not to go.
First, be prepared to take extra gear. A large capacity pack is a must. One of you will be carrying the baby, and just some of the gear, the other of you will be carrying every thing else. This will be the pattern for the first five years or so. Other ideas for hauling the gear include having a dog who will carry items that if they get lost/damaged/wet aren't a critical loss, and recruiting a friend "Sherpa" who is willing to be a part of your family trips. More on sherpas later.
Safety note for little ones:
New parents can be unintentionally thoughtless, based only on inexperience. Precautions to keep in mind are watching for sunburn, rashes and hypothermia. Babies have no real way to communicate with you until it's too late for some things like sunburn or wind burn. They lose body heat quickly, especially through extremities, because they are not generating heat through activity. Be extra diligent, and educate your self to be aware of all the possibilities. One dad said: "I remember taking my 1st born camping when she was about 6 weeks old, through our thoughtlessness, she got a bad sun/wind burn and cried all night."
Carrying a kid:
There are lots of excellent kid carriers available. Look for one that has a good suspension, with padded waist belt, padded shoulder straps and adjustment points. Do not attempt to use a basic pack with only shoulder straps, older ("Gerry" type from yard sales) these are not designed with serious hiking in mind. Some carriers have places to strap thing on, and extra pockets. There are a lot of extra accessories too: sun and rain guards, stirrups, and so on. A smaller infant can be carried in a Snugli type front pack, which will balance out a backpack, and keep the infant close for warmth. On one trip, Dad carried out 11 month old on top on his pack, sitting on his shoulders, with the top pocket as a back rest and the baby pack was strapped to my pack for later use.
Diapers are one of the biggest issues when backpacking. Let, "pack it in,pack it out" be your guide, whether you use cloth or disposables. Under no circumstances bury or burn diapers. You MUST pack them out. Scrape the poop into a cat hole. What we did, is scrape the diapers clean, and then dry them in a rock in the sun. This is where a dog pack can be handy: what better item for your dog to pack out than dirty diapers in plastic bags. In terms of weight, cloth diapers will dry more efficiently than disposables. Good sanitation for the parents is a must. lots of hand washing, and antibacterial hand wipes might be a useful item to carry. Consider too that an infant in a pack will be sitting on his diapers all day long. be sure and maintain diligence for not getting too soaked, or diaper rash.
The consensus is that backpacking babies are breastfed babies. No bottles to wash, no formula to pack. Breast milk is the perfect food for backpacking. When they get to the solid stage, just do like you would do at home. If you are the type that just feeds mushy versions of what the adults are having, that will be much simpler than carrying jars of prepared food. Many pack will "stand" making a great high chair substitute.
Sleeping with babies:
On this, let your personal style guide you. Many people do a double sleeping bag with the infant in between them. The problem with a baby in it's own bag is that they tend to wiggle out. If you are going to put baby it it's own bag, make sure they are dressed warmly enough to be comfortable in the night when they do wiggle out. Synthetic bags are washable.
Toddlers & crawlers:
Oh boy, this is the most exciting stage, and one of the most difficult to deal with. They are little children that are mobile with no sense. Everything is interesting to them. to look, touch, feel and even put in mouth. For most families, it works best to have one adult completely committed to the task of watching the kid, while the other one does camp chores. Good communication is a must, so that all parties know who is watching the kid.
Give up. Outside dirt is clean dirt A dirty face is usually a happy face. Seriously, one can waste a whole lot of time and energy trying to keep them clean. Clothing? Forget it, just change it when it's truly soiled, and not just dirty. One caution about eating dirt: one of my sons ended up with a really nasty fungal diaper rash, presumably from something that was in the dirt.
Now, they are big enough for walks, hikes and sleeping in their own bag. This is such a special time. slow down to their pace and enjoy it. A hike may consist of a ½ mile that takes an hour or two, in the beginning. Let them set the pace; this is crucial - and be prepared to carry them when they get tired. Give them their own pack, and give a minimum of things to carry.
There are no real rules about hiking with kids. there are too many variables. As a parent, our job is to be sensitive and aware of their energy and attitude, and be ready to make alternate plans at a moments notice. Make hiking goals reasonable. Keep them fed and hydrated. Some kids love to travel on foot, some will dawdle. Some will set a faster pace than their older siblings, in order to not let them get ahead. Some families have done multi-day loop hikes, and other content themselves with hikes that only go one or two miles into the woods.
I used to think camelbaks were another gizmo. but they have become a valuable part of our hiking gear. Specifically, kids seem to love to drink form them. I always had trouble getting my kids to drink enough water while hiking until we bought them each their own water bag type pack.
The campsite by the lake, a fire, or the camp spot on the ledge with the great view may now be a safety issue. In areas where mountain lions and other stalking predators are a concern, simple rules are good. For example, "no running, have a whistle at the ready and always keep in sight of me" might be a good place to start. Other areas to consider are altitude, sunburns, bee stings. just be aware and prepared. Especially for new parents: the built-in awareness that the baby in your backpack is getting sunburned/cold/ bit by bugs may take time to develop, so you need to be extra aware and diligent.
At this stage of the game, you may end up with three of you in a two man tent. Or you may buy a larger three man tent. If you have more than one kid, you might use two two-man tents, with an adult and a kid in each one. I would not expect a small child to sleep in a tent alone. For many years, we did the one adult in each tent thing. It was great trip when they graduated into their own tent!! Again, synthetic bags are best because they are washable, and if they are a wiggler, make sure they are dressed warm enough.
Sleeping bags: ( under gear)
FUN (for ALL AGES)
In case you need ideas for how to have fun.(in no particular order)
- Looking at nature (insects, flowers, trees, rocks and minerals, birds.)
- S'mores or marshmallows, hot chocolate
- Stories around a campfire ( Native American takes, folk tales, Jack London
- Amateur astronomy
- Bouldering & rock scrambling
- Skipping stones
- Build a swing
Even the smallest child can help with keeping a clean camp, and be taught minimum impact camping skills. Teach trash pickup, and minimizing damage to your surroundings. Kids are naturals at taking care of things.
Ah, gear. You can never have enough. Adding kids to your program will push your gear acquisition skills. Most of us become very good at sale shopping, hand me downs, and multiple use items. REI, Campmor, and MEC ( in Canada) all stock kid's basics at fairly reasonable prices. You can also find things at K-mart like stores, garage sales, and from family and friends, internet sale boards, clubs. While the kids may not need state of the art gear, do consider their comfort and safety. For example, if it's damp out, you might dress them in fleece, instead of cotton. Consider their comfort, don't make the mistake of assuming that because they are kids they can tough it out. Many of us use handing things down to the kids as an excuse to replace our old well used gear. This is fine, just be sure the things you are giving your kids aren't so old and worn as to be unusable.
Tents: see discussion in "younger children"
Feet: The challenge of foot wear is one of the greatest. Feet are always growing, and there is a balance between perceived need, true need and budget. Some folks feel that sneakers are just fine; some kids will not wear boots, and sometimes you buy a great pair of boots only to find out they outgrew them since the last trip. Does a pair of cheap hikers differ greatly from a $60 pair of hikers? Only you can decide that.
Packs: Any day pack will do for a small child just carrying a few items. Once they start carrying gear, there are a number of options for packs.Small youth frame packs are made, quite suitable for 5-6-7 year olds. There are adjustable frame packs too. We've had good success with small ( for adults) capacity internal frame pack for an old child, 9-12. For the adult, this may be a good time to dig out that old 7000 cubic inch capacity ( I can hear the ultralighters groan...) pack that you haven't used in ages. Somewhere around 3 or 4 (or earlier) they will want their own backpack. A small day pack may do the trick at first, stuff it with sweater, snack and a few waterproof/light toys. Be prepared to hoist it yourself. When the kids are older, religiously watch what goes into their packs to keep the weight down and the fun up. My understanding is that young bones may be damaged by carrying too heavy a load 25% max.
Sleeping bags: There are many kid sized options available. Adult bags work fine, but may be heavier. Synthetics are best because they are washable. ( pee, barf, etc) For colder weather remember that if a sleeping bag is too big extra heat is required to heat all the unused space. Fold under a big bag or get one that fits. Some cool ones have a zipper or other arrangement to shorten bag. Your old bags may not be warm enough, be sure to check out the old gear before giving it to the kids.
Other gear: This will be the time to get larger cooking pot; mini
flashlights for the kids, talkabouts (???)
A few notes on canoe camping:
Where possible let kid paddle, with proper sized paddle. Shorter trips at first, or stop after an hour or so for a break. Lego keeps them amused for hours and is waterproof. Teach rescue techniques, have fun doing it. Everyone always wears a proper fitting approved PFD. I'm almost sure someone on rbp will be happy to help.
Considering all the extra gear that goes along with kids, this may be time to enlist a "sherpa". This could be an aunt or uncle, or a family friend, who enjoys both the outdoors and the kids. Their job will be to help carry as much extra gear as possible, and to be part of the whole experience. There is incredible value in watching your kids develop relationships with other adults. You may owe them pizza and beer afterwards, though!!
Depending on the ages of the kids, some suggestions on what to add to a first aid kit:
Older Kids and Teens:
- Baby or junior Tylenol
- Teething ointment,
- Diaper rash treatment
As the kids get bigger, their strength and interests grow and change. For a reluctant kid, consider bringing a friend along, or hooking up with another family that has kids too. Let them help in the trip and menu planning. Involve them in the process, packing , setting up camp. you are teaching them skills. The moment when you can ask them to set up the tent while you "rest" is a real treat. Give them a chance to focus on something they want to do: climbing, fishing for example, even if it's not your choice. Many older kids love to learn and use real skills such as whittling, map and compass; rope work. My boys love cross country hiking.
Without getting into politics, Scouting can be an excellent way to keep your kids involved in the outdoors as their social needs move away from the family. The right outdoors focused troops can be an extension of fostering a love for the outdoors.
Every so often, dump the kids and go off on your own and rediscover each other. Make time for you and your partner as friends, lovers, and wilderness partners. You will be better parents and partners because of it. What follows is a great quote, original attribution lost, written with much joy and wisdom from a loving Dad.
"In my experience babies are wonderful companions camping. After all, they did it for the last million years plus. It's adults who have become maladapted to wilderness. First thing: take the mom! A breast-fed baby needs virtually no other equipment except diapers. Use a front-carrier. If you put a Snugli on first, it balances the backpack nicely and you can keep a close eye on the occupant. Watch out for overheating. That's the main danger when you keep an infant skin to skin. Otherwise, you basically wear the infant inside your clothes (this works fine around camp) and sleeping bag, keeping it so close that you automatically monitor its safety.
(Check out books on hunter-gatherers to study from the experts!) Watch out for babies near campfires, though! They don't have the instincts to brush sparks off, and they will roll right into a fire. Fire avoidance is not in the genetic repertoire, somehow. I began taking my daughter camping at age six weeks.The sandy bottoms of desert canyons in Spring were very successful, before the bugs hatch. When you are at the bottom there is nowhere to fall. I camped with other people who had infants, so our expectations were all adjusted to the experience. We could load all the babies in one tent with a single person watching while the rest went off on short hikes. In general, plan around the baby from the very start. A mile is about as far as we ever set up basecamp from the trailhead (there's lots of wilderness within a mile from trailheads, but you have to find it). And everything was camp centered after that. But that first year, when she was just seven pounds, was by far the easiest and most rewarding backpacking with my daughter, who's five and forty pounds now. And don't think the baby doesn't know where it is! All developmental psychology stresses how primed for later life children are by their very earliest experiences. My daughter is totally at ease out of doors now. Wilderness isn't some unnatural experience she'll have when she's ten. Personally as well as genetically it is where she started from. "
BOOKS - Hiking & Backpacking with Children
ARCHIVED FEATURE ARTICLES:
- BEAR ATTACK & the VALUE of PEPPER SPRAY, by Scott
- WEEKEND WINTER HIKING, by John Macri
- GEAR WEIGHT CALCULATOR, by Chris Ibbeson
- HIKING WITH CHILDREN, by Penny Schwyn
- LIGHTENING THE LOAD, by Greg Cope
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