For families that love to camp, hike, and backpack, getting kids outdoors at an early age is critical. Not only does it open up everyone to new shared adventures, getting kids outside helps them to develop a healthy relationship with nature while teaching valuable life skills. As you’re introducing kids to the outdoors, a well-planned backpacking trip can forge memories that will inspire a lifelong passion for nature and adventure.
But, like any effort to introduce a kid to a new environment or activity, you need to keep it simple. If your itinerary is too complicated or ambitious, your little one’s most memorable moment from their first backpacking adventure may be a negative one: running out of food or getting lost on the trail. Prepare and plan thoroughly, keep it short and sweet, and follow these other expert tips to ensure you’re on the right path to many more adventures in the future.
Take Baby Steps
An overnight trip of any kind can intimidate kids, let alone one in the great outdoors—especially if they have limited experience with hiking and camping. If your kids are unfamiliar with the outdoors, start taking them on day hikes well in advance of your trip. Work in a few trial campouts in the backyard or at local parks if you can, which will go a long way in getting them used to sleeping outside.
And, as your kids are getting the hang of day hikes, avoid difficult terrain and long distances, and don’t have them wear a pack. Nothing will end a hike faster than an overly tired kid. After a few outings, then introduce a day pack. Make it fun and appealing by tucking in some snacks and fun gear to enjoy along the trail. As they become comfortable with the pack, you can try varying terrain and longer distances to build up strength and stamina and prepare them for their first overnight excursion.
Involve Them in the Planning
Involve your kids during all steps of the planning process to get them invested and excited about the adventure to come. Pull out a paper map if you have one, and point out where you’ll be hiking and sleeping. Give them an idea of what they’ll see along the way and activities they might enjoy when you camp. In addition, be sure to communicate clearly about when you’re leaving and returning. If kids have a good notion of what to look forward to, they’ll be more eager to get on board with the plan.
When you drive to the trailhead, make sure you know where you’re going and how to get there (and, if you don’t, fake it!). Kids are incredibly perceptive, and if they sense that you’re unsure of yourself, they might question the situation themselves—and call it quits.
Keep it Short and Simple
A kid’s first backpacking trip should be short: no more than a couple of hours of hiking at the most. A child will hike slower while shouldering a pack and will need to stop far more often than an adult, so you won’t cover great distances. For a first trip, it’s a good idea to get an early start and enjoy the afternoon at your campsite, allowing plenty of time for kids to explore the area, help you set up the tent, and maybe even do a short day hike. Then, you can settle into cooking dinner and enjoying the campfire. The next day, enjoy a relaxing morning before packing up camp and hiking back before lunch.
As you’re hiking, take time to observe the different plants or animals you come across. There are quite a few rare species to be found in Alabama if you know where to look. If your child sees something along the trail that piques their interest, stop and look with them. These little breaks will keep kids entertained and distract them from feeling tired.
Cook Easy Meals
Kids’ appetites can be very demanding, very quickly: It’s not unusual for them to go from not hungry to starving in minutes. Ward off meltdowns by keeping your meal plan quick and easy. There are plenty of freezer-bag cooking recipes that can be prepared quickly, and freeze-dried meals have come a long way over the years.
But this isn’t the time to introduce wildly different types of cuisine than what they’re used to at home; familiar food will be a comfort in an unfamiliar environment. And whenever possible, get those little hands involved in meal planning at home, which will not only get them excited about eating at the campsite but will also build a sense of accomplishment. Hobo packs filled with ingredients they know and love—chicken, veggies, sausage—are a cinch to toss into the campfire, and kid-friendly favorites like hot dogs are a campsite classic. Don’t forget the s’mores, either!
Kids love snacks, and they’ll burn plenty of calories on the trail. Stash plenty of convenient sources of energy like gummies, trail mix, or easy-to-eat fruit like apples into backpack pockets. A favorite treat is also excellent motivation for little legs to reach the next hilltop or another milestone along the route.
Make a Game of It
There’s a good chance you will hear the dreaded phrase “I’m bored” at some point on the trip. Since most kids spend a decent amount of time looking at a screen, going without one for an extended period can be a challenge. But you’ll be amazed at how entertaining you can make the trail.
A simple game of “I spy” will keep everyone alert, and that creek or stream is the perfect place to sit and hold an impromptu leaf or pine cone race in the flowing water. You can also do a scavenger hunt for natural objects like leaves, twigs, and rocks of specific sizes. And bring a deck of cards to help pass the time around the campfire.
Don’t Worry So Much About Gear
While you may be an outdoors gear junkie, if your little hiking buddies prefer to wear their favorite superhero jacket, hat, or backpack, that’s just fine—it will help them feel a sense of comfort in new surroundings. Same goes with stuffed animals or toys: let them pick one or two favorites to bring. It will be much easier for them to fall asleep in the unfamiliar setting of the great outdoors with a furry friend nearby.
To make the trip a positive experience for kids, it’s essential for adults to exude good vibes and excitement for the trip. Kids will mirror that attitude. If you grouse about your sore feet or the mosquitoes, guess who else will start complaining?
Keep things light by pointing out things for them to look for and express how awesome it is when you come across a salamander or mountain overlook. Talk about how beautiful the sunset is, and how good dinner tastes cooked over a campfire. Focus on all the simple joys of being outdoors, and your kids will start to do the same. And before long, they’ll start to utter those five words you really want to hear: “When can we go backpacking again?”
Written by Hap Pruitt for Matcha in partnership with BCBS of AL and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.