Home / For Beginners / How I Introduced My Son (and Myself) to Backpacking by Tom Murphy

How I Introduced My Son (and Myself) to Backpacking by Tom Murphy

Whitewall from Zeacliff
Whitewall from Zeacliff

This is a guest post from Tom Murphy, a regular reader and commenter on Sectionhiker. I asked Tom if he’d be willing to write a post about how parents (moms and dads) can introduce their kids to backpacking, after he left a long comment about this topic on one of my posts last week, and many other parents commented on the topic. Tom and his son are now in training to section hike The Long Trail in Vermont together.


Start out each year gradually, have a progression of hikes over the course of the season, and have a  “goal hike” for the end of the season

Also have a progression from year to year, so that the season’s end hike is more challenging each year

Remember that elevation gain & pack weight add to a hike’s difficulty as much as distance does, maybe more

Every hike doesn’t need to set a new record; some of our best hikes were when we did a hike that we knew would be shorter and easier than what we had been used to at the time

Know your child.  There is a delicate line between a hike that is fun and a hike that causes them to not want to go again. Been there, done that.

We try to stick with a hike for the first 30 minutes or so; he never enjoys the very start of a hike, if he was not having fun after that initial push, we stop and turn around.

We have aborted plenty of hikes very early into it and some right at the trailhead!

I had to learn to start slow to match his slow starts.  I also try to find trails that start with a nice level walk in the woods.

Enjoy the ride back and forth to the trailhead as much as the hike!  I can’t emphasize this enough.  Mostly we talk about his XBOX games or his sports or Boston sport teams.  On long trips, we listen to audio books for books on his summer reading list (most times, after he has read them)

Kids need the appropriate hiking gear too but it does not need to be a crazy expense; I always buy him “hiking sneakers” that had a vibram sole at the start of each hiking season, that has been the single biggest expense and most important item in my mind, a $2 poncho worked as his rain gear for a number of years, I always bought his fleece layer a size too big so it would fit him for a couple of years; he hikes in swim trunks or nylon track pants so those weren’t special buys for hiking I always have a change of clothes, including socks and underwear, ready in the car for him

up the Twinway
up the Twinway

As a Young Child

We went to Purgatory Chasm in Sutton, MA, a couple of times a year. Purgatory Chasm is a State Park has a one-mile loop in the woods with very minimal elevation gain but it also has some fun rock scrambles. Here are some good links:


From 7 –11 years

The first year we started going to Purgatory Chasm more often; one or two times every month in the late spring and early summer.  We built up to a season’s end hike of Mt Wachusett.  That last hike was a bit too much for him.

The second year we started with a few Purgatory Chasm hikes in the late spring, moved on to a few hikes of Mt Wachusett in July and August, and ended with a season’s end hike to Bald Rock on Mt Monadnock.   From Bald Rock we could see the summit which we would set as our goal for the following year

The third year we started with a few Purgatory Chasm hikes, I think that was the year we attempted a night hike of Mt Wachusett, we did a progression of hikes on Monadnock with at least a weekend between each one:  to Bald Rock & back once, next time to the first ridge on White Dot & back, another time hiked to Monte Rosa & back, the fourth or fifth time we went to the summit.

Might be time for a break
Might be time for a break

The third year (10 years old) was the first year he started carrying his own backpack with his water, snacks, and his 10 essentials; we both made a lot of progress the third year

The fourth year we started working on red-lining Mt Monadnock that we haven’t finished.  We did a short bushwack on Monadnock.

The season’s end hike was in the Whites – we hiked from Joe Dodge to Headwall of Tuckerman’s Ravine; which was followed by ride up the Mt Washington auto road to the summit.

Dry Clothes make Adam Happy
Dry Clothes make Adam Happy

12 years old

Mt Wachusett hike to start the year, 3 or 4 hikes on Monadnock, not always going to the summit

Season’s end hike of the Southern Presidentials via LOC hut and Mitzpah Hut

This was the year we bought real backpacks; before this we had used hydration packs that had enough room for snacks and layers

My pack had all of the heavy items

13 years old

Mt Wachusett hike to start the year, 3 or 4 hikes on Monadnock, not always going to the summit

Season’s end hike – Galehead Hut to Zealand Hut to Highland Center

I tried to given him some heavy item but I ended up with all the heavy items from his pack

Gale River Trailhead
Gale River Trailhead

This year (14 years old)

Bought the final items we needed for camping – tent, sleeping bags & pads, stove & cook ware

3 day/2 night – Alander Mt., 2 miles with pack / 5 mile day hike / 2 miles with pack; we learned that it is easy to knock over a pot of ramen noodles

3 day/2 night – Mt Greylock, MA – 4 miles, 6 miles, 3 miles Greylock was easier for him than for me, so we have turned a corner there

Our next big goal was section hiking The Long Trail (how I found this blog) but after Greylock we realized that we both need to improve our stamina for the 2 to 4 consecutive days of hiking 10-15 miles with packs that the LT sections will require

After writing this post, I think I am going to ask Adam about doing Purgatory Chasm, Mt Wachusett, and Mt Monadnock in a single day.  That would be a cool way to realize how far we have come.


  1. Bravo! Ford has been hiking with me since he was a baby :-) And there is nothing like having him with me.

    Love the photos of your son in the rain at age 14 :-D

  2. As a father of a 12 year old your advice will be very valuable. Your pictures are great.

    I have found that the time spent planning the hike/camping trip has been a lot of fun. We are planning a one night trek from the Kancamangus Highway up to Sawyer Pond – should be about 3 to 4 hr hike up. We have a collapsible rod for fishing…does anyone have any fishing experience at Sawyer Pond?

    It has been fun getting my son involved in the decisions around what we should bring up?, how much food we need?, looking up the weather and planning clothing/pack list accordingly. He gets to use his math and reasoning skills – we even pack the backpacks together..I carry the heavy stuf

    We have also been trying different menus on our portable stove cooking in the backyard to find meals we will both like. This has been fun and he has even started eating foods he otherwise would not have tried. And he is now a pro using a flint

    I have been trying to put together hiking trips with one, two and three night stays. At his age I am trying to find 4 to 5 mile hikes between camp sites (ideal camp sites would be ponds, rivers, waterfalls) any ideas anyone??

    I will check out Alander Mt.

  3. I too am looking for a way to get my kids into hiking but looking at 4 people wife included with the 2 boys 6 & 8. Looking to get a pack a few tents and hike a mile or two along Lake Mi my bark yard to get the kids used to it. Anybody have some more tips pass them along.

  4. I think one of the best things my parents ever did was introduce us to hiking early. There were 5 of us, and I think we started when the youngest was 5 and the oldest 11. I love to go back and read my hiking journals from when I was little, and to still be climbing with my dad who is now 73. My sister, husband and their 4.5 and 1.5 year old climbed up to Bald Peak on Kinsman last month. Their first hike, hopefully of many.

  5. Thanks for the post, I love the idea of hiking with kids and your method. A few weeks ago I hiked the Bonds on an AMC trip and we had a dad with his 13-y.o. in the group. The kid definitely had more stamina than the rest of us, though I think his dad was carrying more of their heavy stuff. I was impressed with him, nonetheless. I hope your son continues to enjoy hiking with you and hiking in general.

  6. My 12 year old son and I began hiking together five years ago (he was 7 when we began). Our first trip was a 3-day hike through NH’s southern presidentials, staying at the huts (Mizpah & Lakes). Instead of hiking down from Lakes on the last day, we went up Washington and took the Cog down to the parking lot. I highly recommend the route to parents who want to try out the Whites, but aren’t ready for backcountry camping. Each day is reasonable in length, and the trip avoids long downhills, which my kids always hated the most. Most importantly: the kids have a destination they need to reach by end their day, rather than doing a day hike that circles back to the beginning. I find with the latter, it’s too easy for kids to give up prematurely. Staying at a new place each night forces them a bit out of their comfort zone and also gives such a great sense of accomplishment.

    Since our first hut trip, we’ve made an annual tradition of it, taking on longer hikes and more challenging terrain. My oldest son is now 12 and a very strong hiker. He absolutely loves it, and we’ve introduced many of his friends to hiking as well. I’ve also begun to take my younger boys out for beginning hikes (4yo twins).

    If you have multiple children, the huts can get pricey. Another option: using huts in off-season. You have to carry a bit more, but still less than the normal backcountry camping gear. Both Lakes & Zealand are great options for kids.

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