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Camping and Hiking with Kids

Camping and hiking with our kids has been a part of our family fabric since day one. Kids love to play outside given the opportunity. They have a natural sense of curiosity and wonder. They can make a stick into a sword or magic wand. A downed tree or large rock can become a fort.

I was asked once what do you do with your kids in the woods? Do you hire a guide to take them fishing or backpacking? You can, but it’s not always necessary. You can just as easily spend three hours in a small creek skipping stones and hunting lizards. By age three and a half, my youngest had climbed a 14er in the San Juan’s and backpacked into the Wind River Range to the Cirque of the Towers and climbed up a 4th class peak. My point is kids are ready; the question for parents is, are you?

A Few To-Do’s for a Successful Trip

Playing with action figures in the Winds.
Playing with action figures in the Winds.


Before we get started though: Dirt is your friend, and for kids it can be a badge of honor. You don’t have to get the wet-wipes out every time they get dirty. Let them get dirty. And wearing clothes that can be ruined never hurts.

1. Engage your children in the planning process. Show them pictures and maps. Let them help in on the packing process and the selecting of what goes on the trip and what stays at home. When they’re young, let them take a favorite blanket “small” or stuffed animal if they want to. This isn’t boot camp.

2. As parents, you have to ensure basic levels of safety. Start by teaching your children some of the basic things you can and cannot touch. Snakes, poison ivy, spiders, and bees usually are no-goes and to that end selecting the right forest and the right time of year can make a big difference. Camping next to a bluff might not be the best idea.

3. Share the details of the trip and teach them to understand the map and the features that you can see. They can have fun by following your hiking progress on a map as you advance down the trail. “We were here and now we are where? What is that blue line on the map? Oh, that’s water? Correct! And we can play there, and get something to drink when we arrive.”

4. Don’t expect your kids to eat beans out of a can for 3 days. Food is important to supply energy but for kids make it tasty and have a good selection. This is where a few well-planned treats can be a game changer. A warm bowl of steaming oatmeal in the morning is a tasty option. Sausage and cheese, bagels with peanut butter, and homemade trail mix are good midday options. And for dinner, campfire jambalaya or upside down nachos are nice treats.

5. No electronics, which includes you, mom and dad. Put the phone away or put it on airplane mode so you can take pictures but that’s all.

Scouting out the view.
Scouting out the view.

6. Teach them outdoor ethics, which includes Leave No Trace principles…. Frankly, they understand it better than adults most of the time.

7. Don’t set a rigid schedule and time out every activity to move to the next one.

8. Let your children lead and set the pace. It’s up to you to plan a hike or overnight that isn’t a death march. There is no need to be in a hurry. Let the day unfold, and use the whole day to enjoy the journey.

9. If backpacking, make them carry their own packs. Maybe this sounds harsh, but sometimes helping in the moment is not helping in the future. Remember carrying 25% of your body weight is a general pack weight goal, so mom and dad, you’ll likely still be carrying a heavier pack to ensure the kids are walking with the correct weight. But even if you fill their packs with the lighter items, it will still be a good growing opportunity for them to carry their own weight, so to speak.

10. If camping and hiking is new to your family, ask questions to friends and families who you know have experience. Consult the experts at Rock/Creek and when doing so ask for staff members if possible that have children of their own, so they can speak from experience.

Where to Go and for How Long?

Gotta make sure that the rope sherpa's pack fits right!
Gotta make sure that the rope sherpa’s pack fits correctly!

My number one goal was to always “leave a little meat on the bone.” I always wanted to load my children back into the car and hear “let’s do it again.” So, start small and build success. This is certainly easy to do locally in your city and county parks and expand from there. Our family used our backyard and before that indoor camping in the playroom.

But really, where do I go?

Go to a state park, national park, or national forest that you have some experience with. Utilize campgrounds as your base as a starting point, and do day hikes out and back to your basecamp. This gives you a little wiggle room on bringing a few extras. If you live within driving distance of the Smokies, the Cades Cove Campground and the Cades Cove Loop afford a bounty of fun for everyone. There are hikes next to streams and up into the mountains. There are old settlements to explore. There’s wildlife to see, and at certain times, the Cades Cove Loop is closed to motorized traffic, and you can take a family bike ride. There are also great fields to view the sky at night.

Finally, remember that nature and our natural world is the best classroom ever. The learning and play opportunities are everywhere. Your excitement as a parent will drive the experience.

A Quick Story

Clingman's Dome, Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Clingman’s Dome, Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Patrick Mueller

Years ago when my kids were 4 and 6, I planned a backpacking trip with two other fathers and their sons. So, we had six kids ages 3 to 7 and three fathers in total. One of the fathers was a close friend who had plenty of outdoor/camping experience; the other father and family had no experience at all. During the planning process there were a million questions from the inexperienced father and concerns of “what will we do everyday on this 5 day trip. I answered every question and ensured him that he and his boys would have fun.

Our plan was to go to the Smoky Mountains, depart from Clingman’s Dome, and hike off the mountain all the way to Fontana Lake. What I didn’t tell the kids was that once we got to the lake, I had arranged a boat pick up to take us to the other side of the lake where our shuttle would pick us up.

We began the trip with everyone having a pack and did out best to show our kids on the map where we were going as well as standing at the top of the mountain pointing and saying see way down there that’s where we will be in 5 days. We put the boys in charge of leading our group down the trail. At times, when progress slowed, we played games like hide and seek to keep us moving, saying things like: “why don’t you boys hike down the trail around the bend and hide and try to scare us when we walk past.”

This worked well, and each day we hiked, played in creeks, and ate snacks. At every trail junction we would get the map out and would lead the boys to discover where we are and were we needed to go. And once again under their “leadership” we marched on at their pace.

Arriving at the campsite on the lake, I put a twist into the trip. I told the boys that Dad had made a mistake and we had to get across the lake in order to get picked up by our shuttle. I placed the planning onto the boys and empowered them to figure out how we could get across this big lake. That afternoon they began to experiment will ideas.

Josh, my oldest, said we could use our air mattresses and float across. I said, “That’s a great idea. Why don’t you boys get your mattresses and give it a go?” This was a spring break trip, and the air temperatures were cool and the water cold. Nonetheless, I let it happen and down to the lake they went and quickly they jumped in and immediately back out in just a few seconds.

“Dad, it’s too cold, we’ll freeze. This won’t work!”

Ok, I said, we would have to find another way. As the kids talked, they saw a boat driving by on the lake. They ran to the water’s edge and yelled at the boat, but it was too far away, and the noise of the motor was too loud for them to be noticed.

But the idea was taking shape that we needed to flag down a boat and get a ride across the lake. The following day, at 11:am, our boat shuttle would arrive, so I began to ask questions: “How do you think we could get a boat to notice us as we stood next to our campfire?”

That’s when one of the boys said it: “We could build a signal fire on the shore?” Perfect, I thought. So, the boys began collecting wood and building a signal fire that we would light the following morning. They now have an afternoon project, and they are on a rescue mission for the whole day.

After breakfast the next morning, we packed up camp and then the boys lit the fire. Knowing our ride would arrive at 11:00am, I kept them on task to get a big fire going, and just as planned at 11:00am, here comes a boat down the lake. The boys screamed and waved their arms next to our signal fire and sure enough the boat turned toward us and we were “saved.” The boat captain was an older man, and when the boys screamed, “Can you give us a ride?”, he played right into their request. It worked perfectly, and when the boys thought they’d saved us, they were on top of the world.

From that day until the day my oldest graduated high school I never told them that the boat ride was arranged in advance. I let them believe that they had solved our problem of getting across the lake. What this one trip did for all the boys was magical and empowering. Just one of a million teachable moments that are offered to you in the natural world. It was also a great laugh to tell your then 18-year-old the tale.

Featured image provided by Shawn Lehman

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