Backpacking has become one of the most popular outdoor activities for Americans, according to the Outdoor Foundation’s 2016 Outdoor Participation Report. In 2015, 40 million Americans participated in backpacking, backyard camping and car and RV camping, for a total of 587.2 million total outings, making this the fourth most popular category of outdoor activity. 10.9 million youth between the ages of 6 and 17, equivalent to 21 percent of the youth population, participated in 121.3 million of these outings, an average of 11 outings per person, making this the second most popular activity category for outdoor enthusiasts in this age bracket. If you’re thinking of introducing your kids to backpacking, here are four ways to make this popular activity more fun.
Bring the Right Gear
For a fun backpacking experience, it’s essential to bring the right equipment. Essentials include navigational items such as maps, food, water, insulating clothes such as jackets, a tent or other emergency shelter, sunscreen, a first aid kit, a flashlight with extra batteries, matches and other fire-lighting equipment, a repair kit and tools such as a multi-knife and, of course, a backpack. Depending on what you plan to do, where you’ll be staying and how long you plan to stay, other equipment you may need include sleeping bags, pillows, cooking equipment, utensils, cups, seasonal clothing and footwear, towels, toilet paper, personal toiletry items such as hand sanitizer, rope and garbage bags.
Keep packs light for younger children. Older children may feel a sense of pride in carrying some equipment, but don’t overload them. Bring lots of snacks that will fit in your backpacks and won’t spoil, such as trail mix, granola bars and snack crackers, along with lots to drink. Having a smartphone with Wi-Fi calling will enable you to keep in touch with the outside world, which can be vital in an emergency. Don’t forget recreational equipment such as balls, fishing poles, swimwear, cards and games.
Pick the Right Spot
Picking a good hiking spot will make your backpacking expedition more enjoyable. When going on your first backpacking trip, especially with smaller children, it’s important not to overdo it. Hiking all day to a camping spot in the middle of nowhere will be more exhausting than exhilarating. Bear in mind that with smaller children, you may end up having to carry them. Practice hiking short distances with your kids at spots such as local parks to build up endurance before taking them out for a longer hike, and practice camping in your own backyard before venturing into the woods.
For your first backpacking hike in the backcountry, choose a campsite within a mile or two of a trailhead, just in case you need to backtrack, Recreational Equipment, Inc. recommends. As your kids get old enough, you can gradually work up to hiking for half a day if you wish. Online resources such as AllTrails.com can help you identify backpacking trails near you.
Plan Activities Ahead of Time
Careful trip planning will help you get the most out of your backpacking journey, and can also be part of the fun. Show your children a map of your destination so they can help you pick out activities for spots you’ll be going. Toddlers like to look at sticks, rocks, water and bugs. Older children may enjoy using field identification guides to classify leafs, rocks and insects they find. Bodies of water provide opportunities for nature watching as well as recreational swimming, boating and fishing.
In order to fit in these types of activities, you should limit your time on the trail. Realistically, you probably won’t want to hike more than two to four miles a day. Schedule no more than four or five hours of hiking per day so that you have time and energy for other activities.
Plan for Downtime
Your schedule should include planning for downtime. You will need time to rest and eat. If you plan on putting up a tent or cooking, you’ll also need time for these activities.
In addition, you should plan recreational breaks between backpacking legs. Plan on some sporting activities or games your family can participate in during breaks. If you’ll be staying overnight, you might want to bring some marshmallows to roast and brush up on some campfire songs and ghost stories.