Every year I’m blessed with the opportunity to spend a couple of nights in the backcountry with my kids. On these trips I get time without the distractions of our usual lives. There’s no TV, no radio, no ballet or ice skating or tae kwon do. It’s just them and me and it’s magical.
While every trip has been fun and a joy, it hasn’t always been easy. Over the last 10 years I’ve learned a lot of lessons that have helped me transform my kids from day hikers into experienced backpackers that can accompany me on epic adventures.
Show Them Your Love
The reason I want to take my kids backpacking is to share my love for the wilderness with them. From very, very early ages they’ve seen my passion for the outdoors on display. It’s inescapable. There are pictures in the house, stickers on the cars, and if that wasn’t enough each of them is named after a lake or river!
Kids naturally look up to their parents as their first role models. I try to model all kinds of good behavior (sometimes more successfully than others) and loving and respecting our natural world is part of that.
Before they were ready to accompany me, they saw the pictures and heard the stories from trips like section hikes of the PCT and snow camps in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. Each adventure they didn’t get to go on only whetted their appetite.
For us, small meant car camping. The kids got used to sleeping in tents in their first few months of life so it became second nature. It became a special treat to set up a tent inside so they could play “camping.”
At three years old, we simulate a backpacking trip by sleeping in the backyard with backpacking gear. It’s significantly less luxurious than car camping and I make the kids go to the bathroom outside instead of cheating and heading into the house.
At four years old, each of my kids went on a short, one-night trip. How “short” is short? My kids were hiking three to five miles on day hikes so that’s what I targeted for the two-day round-trip. Scout Lake was 3.5 miles with 1,200 feet of gain. Esmerelda Basin was a little longer at 5.6 miles, but still about 1,200 feet of climbing. Sheep Lake was four miles and 700 feet of gain.
If you look at the trip reports for those initial trips you’ll see they brought friends along. This is absolutely critical for the first couple of years. As much as I value one-on-one time with my kids having a friend there improves the experience for both them and me.
For them: It’s not hiking and camping with Daddy. It’s playing with a friend in the woods. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one.
For me: With a friend came a friend’s parent. I’ve done a lot of crazy things with my kids over the years, but heading out on their first overnight with just me to rely on isn’t one of them. I’m unwilling to accept the risk, or make any of my kids accept the risk, of taking charge of survival at four should I get hurt no matter how unlikely it is. Having another adult along provides that backup should the worst happen.
Involve Them In Planning
As the kids have gotten older I’ve included them more and more in the planning stages of our trips. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not slapping down a map of the the state in front a five year old and asking them to pick our destination or giving them veto power. I am using the crafty parent’s trick of presenting them with multiple options that are all acceptable to me.
“Would you rather camp by a lake, a river, or in the snow?”
“Do you want to go to Olympic National Park or Mount Rainier National Park?”
“Do you want to eat Macaroni and Cheese for all your meals or just one?”
(The answers are generally, “snow,” “Mount Rainier,” and “all the meals!”)
I expect that the kids will continue to develop their own preferences and may one day actually suggest novel ideas for trips I’d never considered. In fact, I’m looking forward to the day they challenge me with a trip that pushes our abilities.
Until then, I’m staying realistic about my expectations. On those first trips, when they were four years old, the distances and climbs were ones I knew the kids could handle. They could probably have done more, but I wanted them to be well within their comfort zone.
Sleeping in a tent in the wilderness for the first time can be traumatic. I expected that neither the kids nor I would get much sleep (and I was right) so day two was usually a slow, laid back affair. On each of the three “first trips” there were ways we could extend for more adventure. I had these routes in my back pocket in case we needed them, but they never emerged.
Instead, we swam, took naps, or just played. By not pushing them beyond what they could do we had a great time and were able to make memories that will last.
I know I just wrote that I don’t push the kids, but that was just on the early trips and not pushing them beyond what they are capable of doing.
One of the problems with society today is we often don’t expect enough of our kids. We’re content to let them coast through life without challenging them. I have a pretty good idea of the limits of my kids and how to get the best out of them so as they’ve grown I’ve pushed them to reach higher and accomplish more. The look on their face when they succeed is priceless.
That’s not to say I haven’t misjudged a challenge and wound up pushing them too far. On day three of the High Divide trip the girls (9 and 11) were at the breaking point after hiking all day, covering 11 miles.
However, the fatigue and sore muscles they felt after that long day were nothing compared to the looks on their faces when we had “summited” Panhandle Gap two years before. Or the look on my son’s face when he summited Alta Mountain on day two of his first multi-day trip at age seven.
Let Them Show Off
Except online, we’re generally a low-profile family. I am teaching my kids to listen to others and ask questions rather than tout our accomplishments. We don’t rely on anyone else to give value what we do. This lets us build confidence in ourselves and remember that we don’t adventure for anyone but us.
The exception to this is when we’re on a hard trip. No matter how many times I tell the kids they’re doing really well it doesn’t sink in. After all, I’m just Dad. I have to say that. But get a complete stranger to say something as innocuous as, “Way to go!” and they light up and gain strength.
If you doubt the value of this, tell a kid that’s flagging on a trail that she’s doing great and watch her perk up. It works every time.
Surprises are magical things. They shatter your kid’s expectations and help them realize that anything is possible. Kids that get surprised become more flexible and adaptable.
Surprises come in two flavors: Planned and unplanned. Planned surprises are the ones you put together. Like bringing JiffyPop or a tiny bottle of Coke. Keep them secret and pull them out when your kids least expect it or most need it.
Then there are the unplanned surprises. Finding ripe blueberries near camp. Crossing a river of flowers flowing across the trail. Seeing a bear! Some of these are purely joyful no matter when they happen. Some, like seeing a bear, can be scary. But if your kids are ok with surprises and able to adapt to changes on the trip they’ll see the bear and realize how lucky they are.
Don’t Think What Worked Last Year Will Work This Year
On previous trips, kids have done great on the flats, but when it came to climbing with a pack they’ve slowed and lost motivation. On at least one trip, though, four miles of mostly flat trail through the woods was more than one junior hiker could take. He wanted to call it quits and either camp in the middle of the trail or head home. However, when we started the steep climb on what barely passed for a trail he perked up and was charging up the hill. Why? Beats me. But you can bet I’m not going to expect that experience again.
Let Them Hike Their Own Hike
Kids want to do what kids want to do. That means if you don’t do what they want to do they won’t have as much fun. The trick is empowering them to make good decisions. For us, this has meant choosing camp sites, additional adventures, and how we spend our down time. Be sure you’re happy with the options and then let them direct their time. They’ll have more fun and you might be surprised by what they choose to do.
The final step in the evolution of my kids is going solo in the backcountry. And by “solo” I mean with me. And maybe the dog.
We started with friends and sometimes with siblings. On a couple of trips I’ve had the pleasure of hiking with just one of my kids and it’s been magical. The first was an accident when my oldest daughter’s friend couldn’t make the trip. We spent more time holding hands and talking than on any of the other trips.
Whenever possible, I’m planning individual trips with each of the kids so I can have that quality one-on-one time with them. Maybe we’ll go back to multi-kid trips in the future, but not for a while.
What Comes Next
For us, the trips will get bigger and more ambitious. I expect our backpacking season will extend beyond just the summer and there will be some higher peaks when the kids are ready, assuming their interest holds up. Their love of the outdoors requires constant nurturing, but we’re off to a good start. I just need to make sure it remains fun for them and they’ll make sure to find time for it no matter what comes next in their lives.
And if all else fails, there’s always grandkids.
About John Soltys
I’m a father, a husband, and adventurer. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest and I never consider leaving, even when it rains for 100 days straight. I dream of days when I can turn off my computer and explore our amazing world with my family.
Until then, you can find us where the highway climbs into the mountains, tucked against the river, at the end of a long dirt road. We hike, snowshoe, backpack, climb mountains, and flyfish. Whenever we go adventuring our priorities are to stay safe, have fun, and maybe get where we’re going.
I write at moosefish.com and you can find us being social on the internet: Twitter and Instagram as @moosefish and Facebook as moosefishdotcom.Visit Their Website