Photo by the author.

Backpacking With Kids Doesn’t Have to Suck

Argentina Hiking Family Travel
by Cathy Brown Jun 7, 2016

WHEN I BECAME A SINGLE MOM, I quickly realized how many things the kids’ dad had effortlessly done with them that I now felt completely incompetent doing. My soccer skills were lacking, to say the least. My tree forts sucked. And the idea of doing any serious backpacking with three young kids intimidated the hell out of me.

We live in the Andes of Patagonia, and I wanted the kiddos to not just look at the mountains every day out the window, but to get out in them, almost feel engulfed by them. To feel empowered by them. And that meant we probably had to backpack.

My first mommy-daughter backpacking trip was an absolute disaster. I took just my daughter Ava, for her eighth birthday. It was supposed to be an ‘easy four-hour trek.’ I forgot to factor in the additional four hours it took to hike to the trailhead. We got to our camp at nightfall. I also somehow seemed to forget it was the middle of winter and was caught completely off-guard when we got totally dumped on by a snowstorm and had to battle with every step against high winds. Ava cried most of the way and screamed at me at the top of her lungs “I could’ve seen these same stupid mountains and same stupid trees from the living room window!” She may have had a point. We spent the night freezing our asses off, questioning why either of us thought it was a great idea. We still don’t talk about that trip.

Good thing I’m stubborn and didn’t give up there. Here’s what I learned since then:

Give them flexibility to bring their personality to the trip

My 11-year-old son Noah digs maps. Before every trek, he carefully studies topographical maps and draws his own intricately detailed ones based on the hike we are doing, which he then refers to often. He likes to take charge and guide, so he is in front every step of the way — that part is non-negotiable and everyone in the family respects that. When we get to camp, he loves nothing more than to set up the tent all on his own, collect wood, start a fire, and make everyone a hot cup of tea while we relax. I wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up guiding at some point in his life, because he’s a natural. A successful trip with him is me staying out of his way and letting him do his thing.

Stella, who is 14, is all about chocolate-fueled introspective breaks. They are long and they are many. As long as she has chocolate, she could walk 1000 miles (probably stopping once every 100 feet to look at leaves, but whatever). She enjoys her time on the mountain fully and does not miss one birdsong, any cool tree bark, or a single animal track. Hiking with her is excruciatingly, painfully slow, but she does make me notice things I wouldn’t have noticed otherwise.

Ava, who is almost 16, is all about Instagram. If she can’t Instagram it, it’s not worth doing. So I begrudgingly let her take her iPhone along and I try to contain my judgmental groans as she selfies her way up the mountain. Honestly, she does not get on the trail much these days, so if she ever does, I take what I can get.

Find out what part about trekking your kid would most enjoy, and let them rock that.

Play it cool

I’ve found that a casual “Oh, hey, we’re going on a sweet hike this weekend” works better than “OMG aren’t you psyched? We’re going hiking! You’re going to love it! The fresh air, the exercise, the time together, we can play cards at camp and sing songs!.” If you try to oversell it, they will most likely hate the idea before you begin.

Let them choose the hike

You can give them a few options, then let them get online and check out photos and do some research. Some kids will be more attracted by hiking through dark, dense forest, others geeked by the idea of showering in a waterfall, others by swimming in a turquoise glacial lake, others will want to see broad, sweeping views. Let them feel that this is their special hike.

Make them carry something

I’m not your mule, I’m not your sherpa. My kids are expected to carry their own pack which will have at bare minimum their clothes, their sleeping bag, and their flashlight. They have to help with some of the food, although they can get the lighter things like tea bags and sandwiches. I think that it’s important to start them out understanding that carrying a backpack is, well, kind of a big part of backpacking. You want to take that rock home? Great. Carry it. I don’t want to raise a lazy, entitled 17-year-old who is still expecting me to carry their share. I’ve seen my kids become more empowered knowing that they can hold their own on a hike.

Go with other kids who are stronger hikers than your kids

Okay, so this is slightly manipulative, but smooth manipulation is basically a fundamental parenting skill. Offer to take a friend along, maybe their outdoorsy older cousin. But know that this could backfire and that you need to vet carefully. If you bring a tag-along who is a complete wuss, it probably won’t be long before your kids start down that path with whining, too. If you bring a kid who charges ahead, pumped about seeing what lies over every ascent, your kids will most likely, by peer pressure, keep their complaining to themselves and run ahead. So find a strong hiker and watch your kid (hopefully) step up his game.

Make your base camp fun

While I have no problem getting to camp and doing nothing, there’s only so long before I start hearing “I’m bored” from the kiddos. No matter how young they are, give your kids the responsibility of setting up the tent. This can keep some busy for a long time and helps them work on problem-solving skills. Send them off to collect firewood. Make silly sculptures out of said firewood. Play Uno. Sing songs. Play I Spy. Do a scavenger hunt. Make S’mores a special treat that only comes out when you hit camp. Tell scary stories. My opinion? Camp is not the place for Gameboys. Kick it old school. They’ll thank you later.

Not every hike has to be epic

If they are completely wiped out, it’s okay to set up camp before where you thought you might. You don’t need to plan for 6 months to do a 65-mike trek together — there’s nothing wrong with going on a 2-hour easy walk to have a picnic in a pretty wildflower field, only to come home to watch the stars from a blanket set out on your roof. Throw your expectations out the window. You don’t need to try to keep up with the adventure Joneses. As long as you’re getting to spend time with your kid outside enjoying nature, and they aren’t completely checked out in front of a video game, consider it a parenting win.

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