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Modern Families Outdoors with Kids

Our youth live in a world of digital distraction. When they are not busy completing increasing amounts of homework and being shuttled to and fro from various extracurricular activities, they are watching television, texting friends, gaming, or updating their social media accounts. Gone are the days when kids went outside after school and didn’t come home until sunset. YouTube, Facebook, Pinterest, and Reddit are the new – and exclusively indoor — ways to explore and connect. The parents of this new generation have little time to take their kids outside and away from it all. Late hours at work, second jobs, and household chores keep many a parent from spending that all-important quality time with their daughters and sons.

As important as electronic technology can be, and as prevalent as it is and will remain, connecting with the outdoors and with each other in a natural, electronics-free setting is vital to the health and sanity of our families. Children who spend a significant amount of time out-of-doors are less likely to become obese, they have reduced levels of psychological stress, they are more creative, they have longer attention spans, and they are in greater overall physical health than children who spend most of their time indoors.

backpacking with kids

This is one of the reasons why I make it a priority to spend at least half a day during the week, and a few uninterrupted weeks during the summer, outside with my daughters. Over the years, our outdoor wanderings have progressed from short local treks to day hikes of New Hampshire’s White Mountains, ascents of 44 state highpoints, and thru-hikes of Spain’s Camino de Santiago and California’s John Muir Trail. This time spent out-of-doors enables my daughters to appreciate nature and to connect with one another. It’s also a relatively inexpensive way to spend a vacation, since, once you have the gear and a way to get to the trailhead, there’s little on which to spend your money.

Backpacking trips can be as intense or as relaxed, and as close-to-home or as far away, as you and your kids prefer. That’s one of the beauties of backpacking – the trip can be tailored to your family’s desires. Do you have kids who aren’t sure about roughing it? Try a two-day excursion in your closest National Park or Forest. Are your kids always up for an adventure? Plan something for a week or more. Call the National Park or Forest of interest and ask what they’d recommend for a backpacking trip of a certain length, and let them know of your kids’ ages and level of hiking experience.

backpacking with kids

Alex, Trish, and Sage Atop Forester Pass- John Muir Trail

No matter where or how long the backpacking trip, there are essential pieces of gear you and your children must wear or carry. A tent, proper clothing (synthetic base layers, insulating fleece, and waterproof jackets/pants), hats and gloves, sunscreen, bug repellant, food (in a bear canister or bag), water, hiking water filters, sleeping bags, and sleeping pads are all necessary – and you, the adult, will need to shoulder most of the weight. Thankfully, many companies sell ultralight and durable versions of sleeping bags and tents, so your packs need not weigh a ton.

Pack choice is of utmost importance. My daughters and I switched to Gossamer Gear backpacks last summer for our John Muir Trail trek, and it was one of the best gear decisions I have ever made. I am a stickler about keeping each of my daughter’s backpack burden to no more than 10% of their weight, as I don’t want either of them to develop spinal problems as they grow. This used to mean I’d have to carry 25-35% of my own body weight, since most of their gear would have to go into my pack. Our switch to Gossamer Gear made it possible for both the girls to carry all their own belongings except food and our (ultralight) tent, and my pack, fully loaded with all my own gear, the tent, water, first aid kit, etc., and our full bear canister only weighed between 30 and 35 pounds. The girls used Quiksaks and carried no more than 8 pounds total, and I used a Gorilla. Those packs ensured an enjoyable trek through the High Sierras. I guarantee that if you are carrying too much weight and your back is hurting ‘round the clock, neither you (nor your kids) will enjoy your outdoor vacation. I’d therefore highly recommend the Gossamer Gear packs – thanks to them, we felt light on our feet while hiking the 216-mile John Muir Trail.

backpack for kids

Alex and Sage sport their Gossamer Gear Quicksaks on the John Muir Trail

Apart from gear and length of journey, details matter. My girls love playing cards each night in our tents, and, when local fire restrictions allow, they enjoy a campfire. My oldest daughter and I can go for weeks without hot food, but my younger daughter wants a cooked meal every night (we went without a camp stove on the JMT, and she therefore did not enjoy the trek as much as she would have otherwise). Views also matter. My girls love to be above treeline. They enjoy walking through the woods, as long as there’s a view payoff at some point. They prefer mountaintops to waterfalls, and they dislike overly buggy areas. If possible, choose an area/time of year where you can make your family’s ideal conditions come true. And bring a deck of cards.

Backing comes with a feeling of freedom and spontaneity – one can, after all, stop at whatever camping spot one desires, eat meals when one wishes, and sleep whenever the yawns overtake you. There are, however, two rules that must not be broken. One – camp only where allowed as dictated by park/forest rules and regulations (and never, if possible, on vegetation). Two – keep all food, lotions, and toothpaste away from your tent. We eat, outside, in our hiking clothes, then we change into sleep-only clothes for the evening. As the parent, you must make sure your child does not have chocolate-smears, etc. on his or her face before changing into the pjs – no one wants a bear sticking their fuzzy face into the tent at midnight. Don’t cook anywhere near your sleeping quarters, either. Your tent and sleeping area should smell like nothing but dirty, sweaty humans.

backpacking with kids

One last word of advice – embrace that dirt and sweat. It’ll be almost impossible to stay clean if you’re out there for more than a couple of days. Besides having hand sanitizer for before meals and after using the bathroom, don’t worry too much about cleanliness. For my girls, that’s part of the fun. They love going days without a shower (when we camp…at home, they like to be clean). They find it interesting to see just how dirty they can get without even trying.

If you haven’t yet tried backpacking with your kids, then give it a whirl this summer. Choose a destination you think everyone will enjoy, with a variety of trails and plenty of camping opportunities. Surf the internet for deals on ultralight gear, or ask your hiker friends if you can borrow a few items. Definitely invest in lightweight kids backpacks – they’re affordable, durable, and they’ll keep your back happy during your entire trip. Most importantly – have fun, and don’t be afraid to let your kids get dirty. Hopefully, your family will want to repeat the experience. At the very least, you’ll create memories with your children that will last their entire lifetimes.

backpacking with kids

This post was contributed by Gossamer Gear customer Patricia Ellis Herr

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11 Responses to Modern Families Outdoors with Kids

  1. JerryW March 9, 2015 at 8:30 am #

    When I started walking in the Pyrenees, the first 3,000m peak I summited was not an easy climb, in a fairly remote area, and I was very surprised to find a family of four on the top, when I finally got there. But coming down, it became clear that they were far, far better than I was at scrambling over the rocks etc. The older child was 8, the younger about 6, and they were careful and cautious but loving every minute… my whole view of taking children into the mountains changed then forever. Watching the wonderful Kallin family triumphantly complete the Appalachian Trail last year has only reinforced my view that with proper parental support and encouragement, there is absolutely no limit to what children can achieve.

  2. Dan March 11, 2015 at 8:05 am #

    Wow Patricia, what an awesome Mom! What kind of tent did you carry and how many days did it take to complete the JMT.

    There are ways to keep shower, wash clothes, and get into your sleeping bag clean at night. Of course you would have to

    do all the work with your crew.

  3. Moira March 11, 2015 at 8:44 pm #

    Trish — I was so excited to read this article as I met you and your girls on the last couple of miles of your journey down from Mt. Whitney and into the Portal. I stopped to chat with you and asked your girls their ages, as we departed, I believe you rang out”…and I’m 39!” I hope you had that Cheeseburger and Ice Cream they were dreaming about. I confess that when I encountered you all, I was faltering and getting fatigued. Seeing the joy of your family as they were in the last mile of the JMT and seeing their strength and courage really encouraged me when I needed it most! I When I wanted to give up, my mind wandered to the sight of your little girls trucking alongWhat an amazing trip and group of ladies you all are! So wonderful to see your photos too.

  4. Patricia Ellis Herr March 12, 2015 at 4:59 pm #

    Hi Jerry, I agree — there’s no limit to what a kid can do. We’ve met many amazing kids and families over the years who love to hike! They’re a joy to speak with. The girls and I did the Camino de Santiago in 2013, by the way, though we had to go through Valcarlos because of the snow on the main route that first day. The girls loved it and want to do it again. If I had tons of money, we would. If only we had tons of money and all the time in the world! There are so many beautiful trails on this planet, and so many cool people to meet!

    Dan, hi, thanks for the kind words! The answers to your specific questions above are — we hiked the JMT from Yosemite Valley to Whitney Portal in 17 hiking days with 6 rest days scattered throughout. Our tent was a Rainshadow 2 Tarpent (ultralight, loved it). As for showering, the girls actually prefer not to when we hike. They like to get as dirty as possible.

    Hi Moira! I remember meeting you! Thanks for making a comment here on this page. We did indeed get those cheeseburgers at the grill in Whitney Portal, and we were able to get a room at the Whitney Hostel in Lone Pine. In my opinion, you had a much more difficult day than we did — we were coming down, and we’d been well acclimated to high altitude for at least a week by that point. I can’t imagine trying to go up to the summit of Whitney from the valley in one day, without acclimating. That would wipe anyone out! All we had to do at that point was head straight for the food at the trailhead. I hope you had an enjoyable hike.

  5. Sonja March 13, 2015 at 1:29 pm #

    Mom’s who backpack with their kids are such an inspiration, thank you for your post! I still get my kids out, but it’s harder and harder as they get older. Please keep inspiring us with posts!

  6. Joel Masson March 13, 2015 at 5:11 pm #

    Great article! The pics of your girls with their stuffed animals reminds me of my two girls who have to take their favorite animals with them everywhere. On hikes “Donk” the donkey, and “Rose” the horse, can be seen sticking their head out of the top of each of my daughters daypacks.

  7. Granny March 14, 2015 at 5:36 pm #

    And grannies who backpack with their grands are rockin’ awesome too! Of course, I’m one of those grannies!

  8. Brooks Clay August 31, 2015 at 11:41 am #

    What a great adventure! My wife and I have been backpacking with our three children since our oldest was 5, and youngest was 3. Now at ages 9, 7, and 6, they have logged hundreds of miles in the backcountry and relish the time we spend as a family away from busy schedules and the everyday chaos of life. As UL trekkers, we have always adopted ultralight principles with our children, and it is great to see you found a pack that works for your girls. This has always been the most challenging piece of gear to source… they all use kid’s quilts, but packs are tricky. When we started our adventures as a family, we could comfortably fit underneath a 10×10 tarp, but have since added a TT Squall 2 to the mix for our girls.

    Hope to pass your crew on the trail someday! Keep up the adventures!

  9. Jeremy Lauck June 10, 2016 at 9:31 am #

    What sleep system are you guys using or the kids?

  10. Nathan June 10, 2016 at 12:04 pm #

    Great article! Each year, once the weather in WA gets nice, my 11 year old son is usually the first one to start asking when we are going hiking again. We invite his 80+ year old grandfather and make them three generational hikes. What will he remember more, the time playing a game or the days/weeks spent hiking with his dad and papa?

    I’m switching to a Mariposa this year, and getting a Gorilla for my son. We also use a Rainshadow II, which cuts down on weight as well! It’s perfect with just the two of us, extra room if we want, and when my 14 year old daughter joins us, there’s still enough room!

  11. Karen June 10, 2016 at 12:06 pm #

    Between MTR and Whitney, did you carry all the food for all three of you or did you resupply? You don’t mention any complaining, did that really not happen? That alone stopped my husband from wanting to camp with our kids, so I had to go it alone or not at all, or, most often, go with other moms/kids. Yours look pretty happy!

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