Nine tips for backpacking with a five year old

It’s been about six years since I last backpacked and it’s no coincidence that my oldest will turn six this summer. For about a year I have been wondering what it would be like to hit the trail for an overnight backpack trip with him. Well now I know….and it was a lot of fun. For us both!

On the trail to the campsite
Young legs on the trail to the campsite

So what did I learn? I am sure most of this seems obvious, but here you go….

1. Pick a short trail that gets you away from the car. We hiked up at Point Reyes National Seashore and camped at Coast Camp. It’s about a 2 mile trail — with a gentle incline up and over a ridge before you drop to the coast.  It was perfect.  Lots of interest along the way to keep a young lad engaged.

2. Select a campsite that has space to play in and around. We were lucky — we had miles of sandy quiet beach a hundred yards from our tent door. There’s nothing like a beach to provide endless hours of fascination from building sandcastles to exploring tidepools.

3. Kit out your young camper. Too often I see some dad stride past with the latest gear on, followed by a kid in uncomfortable boots carrying a bag that is way too big. Get real! If it’s uncomfortable for you, it will be uncomfortable for them. REI has some great equipment for smaller campers — a well sized pack meant my son actually carried his own clothes and snacks and enjoyed it! The emergency whistle on the pack was the added bonus.

4. Keep it simple and get organized. While I would have loved to carry in fresh food and made a gourmet meal, part of the fun was picking out our freeze-dried foods together. Not only did we spend less time cooking and cleaning up, but it was so different as to be interesting itself! I am sure some people do this anyway, but I made doubly sure that everything we took was well organized in countless ziplock bags so I could put my hands to anything we needed. We also cheated on our beach-fire s’mores — buy biscuits that have the chocolate coating all ready to go!

5. Go at their pace. At times this might mean dawdling over the umpteenth daisy, or having a snack on the trail when you know the perfect spot is a hundred yards ahead, or missing a vista you really wanted to see, or holding hands when its really too warm and your hand feels sweaty like its about to melt. But its all part of the joy and you’ll be rewarded as keen eyes closer to the ground will spot things you would otherwise miss. I will forever remember my son pointing out a small white butterfly with, “spots the color of the night sky.”

6. Remember that small bodies get cold quickly. I was reminded by a shivering boy when I was still warm. My down  jacket dwarfed him, but he warmed up quickly!

6. Don’t forget the toys. I don’t mean the plastic kind, but something to keep young minds amused. For us this meant a travel-sized Othello and our baseball mitts and a ball. (for me, it meant a flask of Highland Park 12 year old….but that’s another story.)

8. An iPhone is a great travel companion. While it was a game machine on the drive to the trailhead, not once did my son ask to play a game or watch a movie while on the trail or at camp. Instead it became our camera, plant guide, star chart, and timer for preparing freeze-dried foods.

9. Change the house rules. While at home we don’t play games while eating dinner: at camp its different! We had a great time playing Othello and enjoying our freeze-dried stroganoff. And we went to bed when he was exhausted from watching the stars rather than at “bed time.”

Making s'mores on the beach
Making s’mores on the beach

I had a blast. And more importably, so did my son. We’re already planning our next trip.  He’d like to take his three year old brother and go for two nights…..and I am starting to wonder whether I can carry an extra sleeping bag and bed roll! Anyone got pointers for backpacking with two under six?

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