Backpacking with littles
Updated: Sep 12, 2019
This weekend I took my six-year-old and two other families on a one-night backpacking trip in Meramec State Park. The Wilderness Trail is an eight-mile loop in the northern part of the park that has eight designated campsites. We chose the one closest to the trailhead!
The youngest member of our group was four. He carried his sleeping bag and sleeping pad while his older sisters helped their parents carry two tents, stove, food, etc.
As with day hikes that involve kiddos, adjustments must be made. Don't expect to cover big miles or bag big peaks. Even if your six-year-old is a strong hiker, and you're an experienced backpacker, you need to bear in mind that you'll be carrying a lot more stuff than you would on a solo trip or with another strong hiker.
With that, here are my top tips:
1. Don't be afraid to plan for a short hike in. I've led many overnight trips where our campsite was less than a mile from the parking lot. It still felt remote enough that everyone felt like they got their dose of nature. But there was also the ability to bail out if someone got sick or ran out of an essential supply. It even meant people who don't have lightweight stoves and tents could participate; they would simply take a load of gear to the campsite, turn around and make the 20-minute walk to the car for another load. One family had a fullsize camping stove with eggs and bacon for breakfast using this method.
2. Make room for fun extras. On Saturday shortly after we got to our campsite, my daughter asked if I had brought her tablet. When I said no, she made her best sad face. But she and the other kids quickly found ways to have fun. One of the other families on our trip was nice enough to let the kids in the group use their hammock, and it was such a hit I'm thinking about getting one. Now, I'm not saying don't bring devices; they're great for kids who are reading to download books to read during downtime, or for a noise-machine app to help with falling asleep. And don't underestimate the playtime appeal of a creek and your camp cookset, or paper and pencil for drawing and journaling during down time.
3. Play the long game. When you're hoping your precious offspring will take to your favorite hobby like a duck to water, it can be hard to watch early failures. A few years ago I took my oldest on a trip to Johnson's Shut Ins and hoped to hike in four or five miles. He was tired and only wanted to do about two. Still, we both had a great time. Now he's 13 and I can't keep up with him. These early trips with my daughter lay the groundwork for longer trips in the future. I know that if she has fun now and carries a little bit more in her backpack each trip, we'll be enjoying stretches of the Ozark Trail before you know it.