Advice for hiking with kids

Eric Christensen

Let the Wookie go hiking
Aug 9, 2013
Does anyone have advice for hiking with kids? I am coming off of a stint of camper camping and am getting back into backpacking and now want to take my two boys with me, 6 and 8 yrs old. We have done day hikes and they do great, but I am a little nervous about over nighters, esp. the bathroom fun and how they will handle it. Tents are no problem, but I am not sure about it all, any advice will be helpful, thanks!
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In regard to another thread about dehydrating your own meals, we will be attempting making our own dehydrated meals, wish us luck!
I've got nothing for you on the kids, but good luck on the DIY dehydrator stuff! I bet a lot of folks around here will have good advice on the kid thing though.
Thanks Nick. BTW, do you ever sleep? It seems like you are on here 24/7. Our tireless webmaster folks, one more reason we love him and the site.
I don't have kids, but we love hiking with kids and introducing them to the outdoors.

Are you looking to hike with them, or backpack with them?

The only advice I have is to start small. Start out with a few easy car-camping trips, where there aren't bathrooms nearby. Teach them how to do their business in the outdoors, and it shouldn't be a big deal at all when you're backpacking.

Then slowly go farther. Take a 1/4-1/2 mile hike in and stay there for the night. Then do a mile. Every backpacking trip I take gives me experience that helps me for the next one. And remember, kids don't need anything extreme to have fun. They may prefer car camping over backpacking.
Just have fun! The bathroom thing won't be a big deal to them if you don't make it into a big deal. Don't get set on some specific destination. Steve's idea of starting out small is smart. If that is half a mile, then so be it. They really will appreciate enjoying the journey and your company more than any destination you might really want to get to! If you love life as it comes, like they do, you will all have a blast!
My son has been on many car camping trips with me but no backpacks. However, I was about the age your kids are when my dad started taking me backpacking. Like @sixstringsteve mentioned, start small. An overnight trip where camp is only a short distance in is ideal. Give your kids packs, so they feel like they're helping, but make sure you don't pack too much weight in them. Do whatever you can to make things fun for them. Bring some cards or a game they enjoy. If you and your kids fish, bring your poles. Maybe a star chart so you can identify objects in the night sky. Also give them tasks to do in camp, like gathering firewood. Kids get bored a lot easier than adults do, so your goal is to keep them entertained. As for bathroom time, you should probably be prepared to help them out until they get the hang of it. Bring Wet Ones!
Let your kids bring friends. That is the very best advice I can give.
We always asked each kid to carry their own sleeping bag in a pack, for the reason Pixie gave.
Kids are great because they are seeing everything for the first time. But, remember, they don't have the stamina of adults, let alone teenagers. @Eric Christensen my advice would be this...give them a definite payoff at the end, and mini-wins during the hike if possible. What do I mean?

Payoffs - Waterfalls to jump in, lakes to throw stuff in, rivers to float stuff in. I know that's a lot of water stuff but the point is just somewhere that is memorable. Adults love grandiose views, large meadows, and amazing foliage but kiddos want something interactive. So, if the destination is something more grown up, make their version their size.

distance - one mile is great because it's just far enough to feel like they've gone 'forever' but not so long that they're exhausted. if going further break up the hike and have mini-things to do. multiple little breaks, depending on the age, is the best way to break up the distance as well. Fill each break with a snack and something to drink.

Food - always bring plenty of it. We adults have plenty of stores to get a little hungry before we eat, but most kids don't. That's why so many trips turn into 'hangry' monster mishaps. Frequently give the little ones something to fill the tank and don't be shy with the water.

Toilet - your boys are at perfect ages to poop in a hole. It is different. It is not what they're used to. They will think that is the greatest part of the hike! The biggest part is teaching them to do it at the appropriate distances from water, camps, and trails. It's also the perfect opportunity to teach LNT. we always (at least try to) carry out our TP or burn it in the fire. As gross as it sounds it's the perfect way to LNT. I'm sure if they love peeing on a tree they'll be fine with the hole.

Tents - they provide a lot of 'critter comforts.' the noises can be explained but the illusion that a tent will protect is great. BTW, if in black or grizz country, please keep everything that smells out of the tent, i.e. food, chapstick, deodorant, etc.

Fire - One of the best things about camping is the fire. It is comforting, entertaining, and soothing. Overnighters are much easier to do when there is the comfort of the fire.

Backpacking - don't have them carry too much! That is the hardest part because that means you have to carry that much more. The 6 year old can probably carry his sleeping bag, pillow, and a little something else. The 8 year old a little more. Then all the other things above really make it fun.

I am really excited for you to backpack with your little ones. And, just so you know, all this info is stuff I've learned over the years from camping, reading, and passing stories around the camp fire. Have fun and give us a trip report when you're done.

I started taking both my daughter and son into the Yellowstone backcountry when they were four years old. I think the key, when they are young, is not to hike too far, and limit you time to one or two nights in the backcountry. My kids sure had a great time on their initial trips and we have continued to go each year. They could always find things to do around the campsite, and we would take day hikes to different areas from camp. They also have never had an issue with going to the bathroom while camping.

My kids (daughters first backpacking trip) on the way to Ribbon Lake in Yellowstone for a two night stay.

Throwing rocks (they never got tired of doing this) into Clear lake on the way to Ribbon Lake.

Family at Ribbon Lake campsite

Playing at the bear pole.
I have two kids and take them out a lot. This week will be Zion NP. I have them do the Jr. Ranger program at each NP so they can get a badge or a patch. We have collected @ 25 badges and patches from around the country. My wife puts the coolest patches on their backpacks they use on hikes with the water bladder. I also have them carry a packable rain jacket and pants on hikes rather than just a poncho as they tend to be more vulnerable to wind and cold. I also make sure they have a good hat. Heat was issue in southern Colorado and Arches NP last year. My 7 year old girl started to shut down at times but it worked out fine. If the youngest gets tired I pull out the candy and give her a little every few minutes or after she hikes up part of a hill. Jelly Bellies are perfect for that.
Going with kids is fun. Pretty much what @TannerT said.
A few more ideas- just do it. Get them used to being in the tent. Camp in your backyard, car camp with them, camp on trips, etc. Just do it. It takes a little of the novelty off of it and makes going to bed easier for them. All those nights in the bag night challenge- yeah they're with a tentful of kids for me.

Make them carry some of the gear- if only a sleeping bag and water and snacks.

Nalgene bottles filled with hot water at the foot of the sleeping bag helps keep them warmer.

Carefully pick your hike- somewhere that's fun the whole way. Water hikes are great. A destination at the end helps. My Aravaipa Canyon backpacking trip (TR somewhere on here) was with 2 kids under the age of 4.

Have snacks on the hike (special not every day snacks). Push them a little bit, then reward them with a snack and a break.

Play games along the way. ie jump off of all the rocks or "I'm the fox and you're the rabbit, I'm going to eat you when I catch you", then let them be the fox trying to catch you. etc.

Let them help plan it. Get they buy in and have them make some decisions a few weeks beforehand. Then talk about it lots to get them excited.

One final tip- nothing ruins a backpacking trip like carrying something in your hands/arms. Only exceptions to this are kids hands, walking sticks, and fishing poles.
Lot of really good ideas here, good thread! I'm not great at getting our kids out but have done pretty well. We've tried to do at least one backpack a summer since they were about 5. They got used to pooping in the woods on day hikes very young, wasn't any big deal at all.

@Nick linked the thread where I got it derailed about my kid philosophy, haha. It really is fun to try to see it as they see it.

The first backpack I did with our oldest at 5, we went in 2 miles, pretty flat, mostly along a creek that was fun to watch. Next day we went up the trail to a fire lookout. I had no idea how far we'd make it. Distraction was the best, like the games @uintahiker mentioned. Here's what I did. Ever read Green Eggs and Ham? I'd say "I would not, could not in a tree" and he'd have to find a rhyme, like " I would not, could not, with a bee." And vice versa. It lasted a LONG time. And we made all the way, 3 miles and about 3000ft. up. The lookout was there, and we stayed a while because of a storm. She made him hot chocolate, and told him she thought he was the first 5 yr. old to make it up. Couldn't have been more perfect start. Payoff as @TannerT said. He never complained the whole way down in the rain, and we had to pack up and hike out too. But it won't always be that perfect!
Wow, thanks to everyone, this is a lot of great information! Too much to reply to everyone, but thanks to all! We have a large family tent that the boys love when we have been car camping, so I think they should be ok in the tent, we have used it and a trailer as well, so I know they like camping. I also have picked a lake that we have went to on a day hike with them, so I know they can make it. That day hike, I had them carry their own small hydration pack with their lunch, so the advice about let them feel important by carrying some of their own gear is great, and I know they can as long as I keep it light. One of my boys had to poop in a hole on that day hike, and did ok, a little apprehensive, but ok, I just hope the other one does well. I like the idea of being able to teach them about leaving no trace with it and I think I will throw in a few paper sacks to put the tp in and burn, that will make it fun for them to know they can burn something after. Again, wow, thanks for the advice, I think it will be great to get out with them and keep them busy with little things like was suggested, we will have a blast! Thanks! I am going to download the constellation app to watch star with. I am also stopping at the ranger station before, I like the Jr. Ranger program, and have done it once in Escalante but did not get a badge, so we will try that again. Like @Riggs said, this is a great thread and a lot of good information, thanks everyone! I LOVE THIS SITE!
I think it's hit and miss whether they will really take to it, even if you do everything right. But the best approach is to start early (and with yours being 6 and 8 you got that covered).

Boys especially are geeks and into gear. Motivate them at home with a couple of new gadgets, talks about pros and cons, short trips to 'test' stuff.

We realized early on with our son that fitness is less an issue as opposed to motivation. At seven during a slight backcountry emergency (washed out bridge) he effortlessly put down two unexpected 15 mile days at the tail end of a backpacking trip; on another occasion he barely made it out of sight of the car before endless complaints and alleged weariness because of some issue with the choice of trail.
Motivate them at home with a couple of new gadgets, talks about pros and cons, short trips to 'test' stuff.
I got a low cost waterproof camera for the kids from so they could take pictures. It has worked out well so far. My little girl really likes it. My son likes to play with the GPS app. on the phone.
My kids got their first Backpacking adventures last spring & summer. Mine range from 12 up to 18, so maybe this wont apply to little kids.

We did a 3 month build up to the trip. As we bought our gear we tested it together, we got lots of pictures online & researched the areas we were going, we tested different Mountain House meals, using our Jet Boil stove. We also did some skill training: basic first aid, how to build a fire, how to pack your pack, everyone being comfortable using the stove, what will we do if we get lost, what will we do if we encounter wildlife, etc I find my kids get excited about the things I get excited about and so during our lead up time I always kept it in our conversations and let them see how excited I was. Come the morning of our departure it was like Christmas morning.

I love anticipating a trip as much as I love taking the trip.
My 4 year old can set up my tent. Maybe I should get a camera for her. Scratch that. We'd never get anywhere if she had a camera and we were hiking! Maybe it would be motivation to get to camp.
Another thing we enjoy is headlamp frisbee. We have a Nerf frisbee with reflective strips. We turn on the red light on the headlamps and it looks cool as we play games with it.