Backpacking as a family can be one of the most rewarding experiences, both for the child and the parent. As a child and through my teenage years, I have many fond (and intense) memories of backpacking with my father, uncle and siblings, covering mile after mile of wild terrain through the states of California, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming. I can confidently say now that those experiences as a young boy has significantly shaped who I am today in an overwhelmingly positive way. 

However, as children can be extremely impressionable at this young age, it is important to make proper preparations and be cognizant of what the experience will be like from their perspective. Are they ready for the rigors and responsibilities of backpacking? Do they have prior outdoor experience? Have they shown interest in the outdoors before? These are all necessary questions to ask yourself before you embark on this rewarding family adventure. Here are some helpful tips for you to consider before taking your child on their first backpacking trip.

Find an Interactive Environment

Once you’ve decided that your child is ready to join you on this adventure, now begins the preparations phase. This begins with choosing the right environment and season to hike in. Unfortunately, some environments like the snowy mountains in the winter can be challenging to hike in. And even though you may find it peaceful, other areas, like the desert, may bore the child with the lack of stimuli. 

I suggest finding a national or state park that has interactive features like large trees, hot springs or a waterfall. This will this give them a chance to refresh themselves and create fond memories of the trip. Finding an area with some rocks to climb can also be enjoyable for children (just make sure it is relatively safe and you are supervising them).

Pick a Short Trail

This next tip may seem obvious, but it really can make or break a trip. Make sure that the trail you are attempting to hike is not too long. I have found that when hiking with children for the first time, they tend to get mentally and physically fatigued around mile five or six. Planning your days so that you are taking it nice and easy can really help create a more enjoyable experience for your kids. Plus, you’ll find that by hiking slower, you will be able to observe and interact with your surroundings better. After all, hiking shouldn’t be about covering as many miles as possible.

Test Their Gear Beforehand

I have found that this next step is too often skipped by many hikers. And when it comes to children, making sure they are comfortable can be a difference maker. Ensure that they’ve broken into their hiking boots, tested their backpack at full weight and have breathable and appropriate clothing for the trip. The last thing you want is to find out that your daughter’s hiking boots are too tight halfway through mile one. 

Bring Their Favorite Snacks

This part can, and should, be done together! Go to the store with them and let them help you plan out the snacks for the adventure. Turn this into a teachable moment about which food groups are more important than others and what healthy snacking looks like. By allowing them to take part in the food planning process, it’ll also give them something to look forward to when you say, “Alright, we’ll stop for snacks at the next stream.”

Roleplay an Adventure

The effectiveness of this next tip is very dependent on your child’s age. I have found that roleplaying an adventure with young hikers can very effective at taking their minds of the blisters and aching shoulders! For example, the first time I took my youngest brother on a hike, we pretended that he and I were Frodo and Sam from the Lord of the Rings, on our way to Mount Doom to destroy the One Ring. Yes, this may seem silly, but it’s actually quite effective, depending on the age of the child. And let’s be honest, how often do you get to pretend to be a kid again nowadays?

End with a Rewarding Treat

So, you’re back at the trailhead, the hike is over and you’re loading all your dirty gear into the trunk of the car. Before heading home, make it a ritual to stop for a local treat, whether it be an ice cream, a juicy burger and shake, etc. No matter how the trip went, ending it with a delicious treat can leave a lasting impression on your child’s memory. Plus, we could all use a yummy snack after eating freeze-dried food for days. 

As you’ll soon find, hiking with your child can be a memorable and exciting adventure for the both of you. Above all, make sure to ask your child how they enjoyed the trip at the end. If they didn’t enjoy it as much as you thought they would, well hey, at least you gave it your best shot with proper planning. But if they thought the experience as a blast, then you’ll have found the best hiking partner a parent could ask for!