Few moments in life compare emotionally to what occurs when someone holds a first grandchild. A friend who joined the ranks wrote, “He was only thirty minutes old, but I’d already taken him fishing six times!” I knew exactly how he felt because his statement brought back the flood of thoughts that coursed through my mind when my newborn grandson was first placed in my arms. As my brain raced along all that I would teach him, the things we would do together, the places we would go and hike and camp, I repeated over and over and over to myself, “I have a grandson! I have a grandson! I have a grandson!” Many can relate to those feelings.
I was determined that my little friend would become my backpacking buddy and my wife and I started taking him car camping when he wasn’t yet three and at that age, he joined me on walks and day hikes of up to three miles (5 km). When he turned four, I took him to Yosemite for a few days of camping and exploration. On a trip to Big Bend National Park in west Texas a month later, I decided he was ready to backpack, that I’d load up my pack and the two of us would hike off into the sunset that we’d watch from a mountain campsite up on South Rim. Was I in for an education!
Our first overnighter was to be a three-mile (5 km) round trip “shakedown cruise” with 500 foot (150 m) elevation gain to Boulder Meadows to get him used to backpacking and still keep us close enough to my wife in the RV at the Basin Campground, just in case this experiment had to be aborted. I had bought him his very own high-quality ultralight Marmot Helium down sleeping bag (grandparents are like that) and provided him with a short Thermarest pad. Grandson wanted to copy Grandpa and carry a load on his back, so he had a very small backpack that contained his sleeping bag and pad along with a few toys, weighing about 5 lb. (2.25 kg).
I thought his energy level would allow him to keep up on the trail, however, I quickly learned that the incredible resources of energy possessed by a four-year-old are limited to five-minute spurts. Roar up the trail for five minutes and then play with a bug for five minutes, roar up the trail for five minutes and then climb a tree for five minutes, roar up the trail for five minutes and then gripe for five minutes, roar up the trail for five minutes, then roar like a dinosaur for five minutes, and so on… and on… and on… Progress was S*L*O*W.
Our first night had its share of adventure. While grandson climbed rocks and swung from trees, I fixed dinner and a nice batch of hot chocolate. I put some in a sippy cup and before I could finish the words, “Be careful, it’s hot!”, he took a giant swallow, searing not only his tongue but his memories for life because he vividly recalls that moment over eleven years later. I think I cried as much as he did that night. The rest of the evening did go better and we crawled into the tent where I also learned not to give a kid a drink container that doesn’t have a leak-proof top because he quickly drenched his brand new Marmot down bag with chocolate milk.
In the morning, since it was 17ºF (-8ºC), we got to enjoy the childish things Grandpas do with their charges, such as whacking the walls of the tent to make it “snow” inside. The guidebook at the Ranger station said our campsite was “well shaded”. I didn’t realize that meant the sun wouldn’t rise on us until 11 AM. Our supper bowls had frozen together and had to be pried apart and when I opened a water bottle to try to fix something warm to drink, the water instantly froze. I tried to rinse a bowl and the water I splashed in it immediately turned into ice cubes the size of small marshmallows and rattled around the bowl. I ended up squirting the slush from the water bottle into the JetBoil, melting that and then cramming the bottle itself into the warm liquid in the JetBoil to melt the remaining ice. In all the packing and repacking I did to try to fit all our sundries into my small GoLite Speed pack, I somehow left our cold weather gear and much of our food behind so we stayed late in our frozen playhouse, finally venturing forth when the sun did the same.
I put his clothes over his footie sleeper pajamas and we walked another quarter mile (.4 km) or so up the trail to see how he’d manage the hike and then returned to the RV, where Grandma had been basking in warm sunshine since early morning. For a few years thereafter, he referred to backpacking as “sleeping on the big mountain”.
Two days later, I decided we’d try for South Rim, a 17 mile (27 km) loop hike and spend two nights on the trail. My tiny GoLite Speed pack was ready to explode since it carried over thirty pounds (14 kg) and was designed for twenty (9 kg). Once we got a half mile (.8 km) or so past the previous hike’s turnaround point, the big time griping started. The progress was slow and I realized we weren’t going to make our designated campsite so I decided we’d turn back at a wide level spot where the trail has a nice view on both sides of a rock outcrop. Then the crying started. We were only a couple switchbacks from the viewpoint but the little guy was completely miserable. I wanted to press on to the level place, fix lunch there and turn around, however, he was so unhappy I decided we needed to quit right there at the present switchback because I didn’t want him to develop a hatred for backpacking from the very start. We stopped, fixed lunch, and returned. The following day, I solo hiked to South Rim and got to use the second half of my two-night campsite permit.
If at First, You Don’t Succeed
The following year, when he was five, we tried again but I made some adjustments based on the previous year’s experiences. He was a bit bigger and I’d gotten him a 2 lb. (.9 kg) North Face Tigger synthetic sleeping bag, rated for 20ºF (-7ºC) and perhaps more able to handle hot chocolate spills. This time, in addition to his very lightweight backpack load, I provided him with a waist pack that he could use to carry toys and snacks. The previous year, he thought my hydration bladder/hose was the coolest thing ever made and constantly wanted to imbibe from the giant straw as Grandpa did. I provided him his own and also flavored his drink with Crystal Light to make sure he drank more fluid. He wanted to help carry the bulk water which I knew was too heavy for him. I finally let him carry some in his pack for a bit and he quickly tired of it and didn’t ask again. My brand new GoLite Pinnacle pack weighed upwards of 30 pounds (14 kg) starting out because I still had to carry much of his gear as well as my gear and enough water to get to Boot Spring, the only source of water in the upper reaches of the Chisos Mountains, which is accessed after four and a half miles (7.25 km) of trail and over fifteen hundred feet (460 m) of climbing.
This time we made it to the overlook on the Pinnacles Trail where we took a break and he roasted mini marshmallows on the JetBoil.
Although faster than the previous year, we were still way slower than I wished and the sun set on us a mile (1.6 km) from our campsite at Southeast Rim. He started getting panicky because of the dark and I managed to get a cell signal on top of that mountain so I had the brilliant idea of calling his Mom to calm him down. Talking to Mom only made it worse–he wanted Mommy and he wanted her now! Never mind that she was over 600 miles (1000 km) away. He settled down the last half mile (.8 km) to camp. We had a good time in my brand new Tarptent Double Rainbow and got up to watch a glorious sunrise over the mountains of Mexico that brought in the New Year.
During Spring Break three months later, we were back at South Rim, the second time he’d made that hike at age five. He wasn’t the only child on the Rim that day, although he was the only one to make it under his own power. We met a couple who had their 18-month-old in a child carrier backpack—they were training their young one properly!
I inquired what was the most fun on the hike, expecting some comment on deer by the trail, the blindingly fast peregrine falcons, the gorgeous vistas or beautiful sunrise. He replied, “Throwing ouchies!” A little context: “Throwing ouchies” refers to finding broken off prickly pear pads by the trail, spearing them with a hiking pole and seeing how far they can be catapulted. To a five-year-old, that was awesome fun, especially when “ouchies” flung off South Rim’s five hundred foot (150 m) cliff were returned by the wind so that they could be found and flung again. OK, true confession time: Grandpa started the “throwing ouchies” game and he enjoyed it too.
From the beginning of our hiking together, my grandson and I have picked up the trash we’ve found along the trail, to the point that we returned from one backpacking trip in Arkansas carrying more weight than we started. On the Spring Break trip to South Rim, he was picking up trash on the trail when we encountered a trail crew on their way back to a patrol cabin at Boot Spring. They invited us in for a quick look around. Someone there offered my grandson a brownie, whereupon another person at the cabin objected, stating, “Those are for workers only!” The trail crew informed the cabin crew that he was a worker because he had been picking up trash along the trail. The decision was unanimous-he got a brownie! As a matter of fact, he scored two and shared one with Grandpa.
Our South Rim hike the next year got canceled because the RV broke down the night before, leaving us with a $738 towing bill just to get to the nearest town, which was still a long way from any parts. I really missed getting to go on that hike because there were several inches of fresh snow on the ground, a full moon, no wind, moderate temperatures and we had the best campsite on the Rim reserved for two nights. It would have been awesome!
Grandpa is Starting to Get the Hang of This
My mother used to tell her five children, “It’s a sign of intelligence to learn from your mistakes but it’s a double sign to learn from somebody else’s!” Guess who never manifested the double sign? I’m too busy fashioning creatively original blunders of my own to be encumbered with avoiding such goof-ups by taking lessons from the errors of others. Perhaps a few readers can impress my late mother in ways I didn’t by learning from my flubs. I finally began to figure a few things out, and of course, it was by personal experience.
The year following, I got him a Junior Ranger vest, sort of a child size fishing vest. It was handy for storing snacks and various items for him to access quickly. He used one of my daypacks for a backpack. We lost time when my hydration bladder sprung a leak, drenching some of my gear and forcing me to panhandle some water bottles from backpackers headed back down to the Basin from the top of Pinnacles Pass.
We spent two nights in the High Chisos, including one on windswept Pinnacles Pass, dealing with 60+ MPH (100 kph) winds during the night. At our Pinnacles Pass campsite, I managed to burn some mac ‘n cheese into an unrecognizable charred mass at the bottom of my Caldera Cone stove. Even a seven year old who thought mac ‘n cheese was the gourmet base of the food pyramid wouldn’t touch that petrified mess.
He was starting to keep up with Grandpa better on the trail but we were still struggling to stay on schedule for our designated campsites. The next day, I found the secret: Hold his hand! When we held hands, we hiked at a steady and faster rate and I could then impart all my grandfatherly wisdom as we strolled along with hand in hand. Of course, in narrow spots on the trail, single file was necessary. After that trip, I asked him what he liked most about our hikes and he replied, “The amazing views!” That’s certainly a step up from throwing ouchies!
He built his skills and before too long could set up the tent, filter water, and operate the stove. Around that time, I took him to a backpacking seminar at REI and he was one of the more knowledgeable hikers there.
Getting a Granddaughter Involved in Backpacking
My granddaughter had been camping and day hiking with us from a young age and when I felt she might be ready to backpack, I took the kiddos on a car camping trip and then tried a day hike/test hike with backpacks loaded for an overnight trip. Although we stayed within the boundaries of Beavers Bend State Park in Oklahoma, I also put blaze orange on them since it was hunting season. She did well and seemed to enjoy the novelty of it all.
There were things that were a little more awkward to teach her, such as proper use of a “lonely tree”, which certainly would have been easier for an adult female to explain. I wanted to respect her privacy but still instruct her in that necessary art so I demonstrated methods of leaning up against a tree and squatting in ways I thought would be appropriate for her when she needed to go potty. I later noticed that sometimes some of her clothing had gotten wet so I suggested she take one leg out of her undergarments so she could swing her pants out of the way when the “need” arose. She later said, “Grandpa, that worked!”
I thought she was ready for her first overnighter on the trail so I took the grandkiddos on an overnight backpacking trip from the top of White Rock Mountain in Arkansas to Shores Lake, a 1700 foot (520 m) descent. The hike is a loop but I didn’t want her first backpacking trip to end with an uphill slog (although she probably would have done it better than me) so I arranged for my wife to pick us up the next afternoon at the lake.
I provided my granddaughter with an REI Flash 18 day pack which was perfect for her size and age. We camped by a stream with small waterfalls and the kids had a blast playing in the water and “helping” with camp chores. We all stayed in my TarpTent Double Rainbow, although it was quite cramped for three.
Fast Forward a Few Years
While young, our daughter got subjected to her Dad’s backpacking illness and she decided she wanted her daughter to share in a South Rim expedition like the ones she had to put up with as a child. I think it’s an extended part of the Parent’s Curse—I had to endure this and so will you! I also suspect a memorable canoe camping/accidental swimming foray down Boquillas Canyon a couple of years before played a part in their deciding to experience travel and camping by foot rather than water! I had enough backpacks, tents, sleeping bags and pads in my camping gear to outfit our crew and also to give my grandson’s best friend his very own [mis]adventure on his first ever camping trip.
Now that my grandson’s halfway to thirty, he’s taller than me. He can not only keep up but can help Grandpa with his load when necessary–the repayment for those years I was carrying his!
Lessons Learned About Backpacking with Children
- Kids grow fast. Don’t worry about buying expensive backpacking gear that may only last a season. Make do with what you and they already have, if possible.
- Even though they are full of energy and will run rings around you, they have the attention span of a gnat and your progress will be slow. Holding hands with them will help you maintain a steadier pace.
- They go barefoot so much their feet are much tougher than that of the average adult. Normal day to day sneakers should be sufficient rather than buying hiking boots. If conditions are wet, you may need to also use bread bags on their feet to keep them dry.
- They will want a backpack. Their school backpack may be sufficient for the loads they will carry. The REI Flash 18 is a nice inexpensive kid-size backpack.
- Your load will be much heavier than what you’d take for a solo hike because you’ll have much of their gear as well.
- Kids love to play with hiking poles and may want to use yours for a while. Just let them. Don’t make the mistake of bringing a pair for them to have so that you can keep yours. They’ll soon tire of the novelty and you’ll be carrying an extra set of hiking poles your whole trip. Guess how I learned that?
- They are full of energy, part two. They may be really hyper but will often crash as soon as you quit hiking. Try to fix a meal quickly so they’ll eat before they run out of gas. A fast stove that heats a fairly large quantity of water in a short time, such as a JetBoil, might get you ahead of the “crash curve”. I found that a slower stove, such as a Caldera Cone, takes too long to heat water for fixing hot drinks and food when tired young children are involved. Once they have conked out by the campfire or wherever they crash, it’s also hard to get them ready for bed.
- Kids grow fast, part two. Make the memories while you can! Their interests will change when they get older and they might not be as enthralled with being your backpacking partner later. Not having wifi available might become a deal breaker.
- Be prepared for spills. Leak-proof caps should be standard gear. Synthetic sleeping bags should be considered as an option. Although the North Face Tigger is no longer made, there are many used ones available online for under $60. The Tigger weighs 2 lb. (.9 kg), is rated to 20ºF (-7ºC), and sized for children up to 5 ft. (1.52 m).
- As with most backpacking, synthetic clothing should be used. Although my grandson’s everyday pants were synthetic, I had to shop at thrift stores to find shirts for him. I didn’t always have synthetic for my granddaughter when she was younger.
- They won’t want to put on sunscreen or insect repellent. You’ll have to stand firm on this. You may decide to pretreat their clothing with Sawyer Permethrin (there are several good discussions on that subject on SectionHiker).
- A hydration bladder has a “coolness” factor and might increase the child’s fluid intake. Make sure it has a cut-off valve, another “learned the hard way” lesson.
- What goes in eventually comes out. Teach your child how to use a “lonely tree” for both #1 and #2. Young girls sometimes end up getting their underwear a little wet while trying to do so and may have to be told to take one foot out of them to swing their pants out of the way while communing with nature. A female adult versed in the fine art of using the great outdoors would be a good teacher for girls. It’s awkward for Grandpas to do this.
- Age appropriate camp chores they can safely do will help them feel they are being useful. Teach them how to find a good campsite, unpack and fluff sleeping gear, filter water, pitch the shelter, use the stove, etc.
- A one-person tent will suffice for a grown up and child for a while. We slept in a Tarptent Sublite for several years, although we sure can’t do it now! If you use the Tarptent StratoSpire series tent, you can add a Sidecar to it which will add enough room for a child.
- Start small, perhaps in the backyard or a local park to get them used to camp.
- If they’re lonely or afraid of the dark, phoning Mommy may backfire on you.
- Cowboy camping is likely not an option until they are older. We tried it one time with another friend and grandson felt much safer in the middle between us. Children are often afraid of the dark and a tent gives them a more secure feeling than sleeping under the stars or a tarp.
- A headlight that has an ultra-low setting or collapsible solar lantern set up in the tent also reassures kiddos who are afraid of the dark. One night when backpacking with the grandkids, the reassurance light they had set up in the tent helped me find my way back after I got lost in the fog while checking out a lonely tree in the middle of the night.
- Children usually prefer using a flashlight over a headlight. Fortunately, there are plenty of cheap, lightweight options out there.
- I asked my granddaughter for any suggestions she had for this article and her instant reply was, “Don’t hike with Grandpa, he’ll get you lost!” When I put the same question to my grandson, his quick response was, “Don’t get lost!” I’m beginning to suspect there may be a long story in there somewhere, the details of which have obviously been misremembered by the grandkids, but… DON’T GET LOST!
These are some of my observations and suggestions on backpacking with young children. What are yours? What have you found that works?
About the AuthorDavid “Grandpa” Harding, a “stuck in the city all his life”/country boy/mountain freak has been camping since the ‘50s, backpacking since the ‘60s, gramping since the ‘00s, and will eventually get some of it figured out. His mother said he never fell on anything but his head, which probably explains a bunch of things, including his off-kilter thought process and how long it takes him to finally “get” something. He likes flying, reading, music, campfires, long walks on the trail, and just LOVES his grandkiddos.
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