Just Jeff's Hiking Page

"Going to the woods is going home, for I suppose
we came from the woods originally."

- John Muir

My kids love to hike! Well, my younger one loves it, my older boy just likes it a lot...but at least he goes with me and has a good time. The key to hiking with kids is to slow down and do things on their schedules. They have more fun when you're not pushing them, and you have more fun because you haven't imposed a schedule on them. More importantly, you both learn more when you can relax and have a good time.

Givhan's Ferry State Park, SC

Eventually I'm going to make a whole page devoted to cool stuff to do with kids in the woods, both on day hikes and overnighters. Until then, check out the TrailForums post about hiking with kids (see below).

Originally posted on this TrailForums thread on 11 Apr 04.
I hike/camp with 4 and 8 year old boys, and the biggest trick I came up with was to slow down and take more rest stops. I wanted to "get there", but they wanted to explore and touch everything along the way. Once I learned to hike like they do, I was less frustrated - and my lack of frustration resulted in less tension between them. That and the fact that I started looking for things along the way for them to do. Here's my list...

1 - Planned and unplanned snack breaks. Bring a big snack or lunch for about the midway point, but bring a few smaller snacks for random stops along the way. If they see a fallen tree they want to climb on, stop for 10 minutes and let them play while you snack. My kids still like to pretend so this works great for them...even if I have to give them a few ideas to fuel their imaginations. Last night, their hammock was a ship and they were battling pirates in a sea storm.

2 - Scavenger hunts are da bomb. They pay attention to what you put on the list, which gives you a chance to teach them about different plants, animals, tracks, whatever, when they find it. And you can make different lists for each child. First advantage, they're age-appropriate. Secondly, they both want to see what's on the other's list. Then you offer a prize when BOTH lists are completed - instant teamwork. Bonus - since you make the list, you have time to make sure you know interesting facts about several things on there. They think you're smarter than you really are that way!

3 - I spy. You can keep it interesting by naming facts instead of visible traits. Instead of "I spy something green," you could say, "I spy something that causes rashes." Poison Ivy leaves. Then teach them to identify it. Or, "I spy something that nests in trees," instead of, "I spy something fuzzy" for squirrels. Then teach them the difference between squirrels and chipmunks.

4 - Senses with verbs. Everyone sits and takes turns talking about senses, but make sure each observation has a verb in it. For example, you can't say, "I see something green." You have to say, "I see something swaying in the breeze." Or, "I smell something decaying" if you're in a swamp. It's too easy to fall back on listing visible traits, so encourage them to use their other senses. "I feel the temperature change of an approaching rainstorm." The coolest is when they begin to notice subtle details and say things like, "I smell the forest growing."

5 - Outside the box. Pick something in the forest during a break, or something in the distance that you'll be able to see for some time, and have each one list a few things it reminds them of. For example, my grandmother went on a hike with my aunt when she was younger. They found a rock, and my grandmother asked, "What do you see?" "A rock," she answered. "I see a piece of bread." And the rock did look like a piece of bread. So my grandmother took it home and painted it, and printed "Our daily bread" on it. My aunt just brought it to my grandmother's funeral last January and said she'd used that as inspiration for solving problems throughout her life. Learning to think outside the box during simple things like a hike will equip them to use those same skills when it really matters.

6 - Happy lists. Make them list 4 things they're grateful for. Five things they like about themselves. Or for a bigger challenge...five things they like about each other! Or three reasons they're glad you brought them on a hike. Top three things they like doing with you or with the family. The list goes on and on...but sometimes it's hard to keep them focused on happy things when they're grumpy. I often get, "I like it when my brother shuts up."

7 - Play trivia. It helps if you keep useless information in your noggin.

8 - Um...sometimes we make up diarrhea songs because they're at that age. Hey...it keeps them talking and let's them know I can communicate on their level instead of trying to bring them to mine. That's more fun, anyway. Bonus - they look up to me like a genius because I can make almost anything rhyme with some word for poop.

9 - Have a class. Without the lecturing, but teach them something. If it starts to rain, teach them gravity, the water cycle, pollution and acid raid, how to collect rainwater if you're surviving, etc. Kids like to touch and do, so bring along a poncho and teach them to build a shelter with it. Bring along a stove (pepsi cans rock!) and have them boil their drinking water, or make a warm lunch, or just hot chocolate on a cold day. Or pick three edible plants, teach them, then collect them along the way and have a buffet during your lunch break. You can work wonders with dandelions...search the web for recipes!

10 - Trick them. Here's one I did this morning on the way back from our camping trip. I "found" a pile of poop next to Amicalola Creek while they were playing in it. I called them over and explained how the animals come to drink, how you can find water by following game trails, etc. Then I asked what kind of poop they thought it was. Deer, rabbit...just guesses. So I said that you can tell what an animal has been eating by how the poop smells and tastes, then I picked up a piece and ate it...confirming that it was deer poop. My 8yr old screamed and ran away! Then I gave him his own pack of Raisinettes and he knew I just tricked him. The scary thing? My 4yr old actually tasted it before I showed him it was candy. Now THAT'S trust! If you know of other tricks, maybe we should start a new thread about how to trick kids in the woods.

11 - Just listen to them. Ask questions and don't offer your own answers...just listen to theirs. In "real life" it's easy to get too busy to really listen to your kids. Sometimes when we hike, I just let my 8 year old talk and talk. At times I'm listening and actively engaged...you rarely get a chance to have a conversation with your kids where there are almost no distractions and you can really communicate. That's where the deeper questions of life, like the birds and the bees, are asked and answered. Sometimes I'm all-but-ignoring him and watching the wilderness, but asking a few questions now and then so he knows I'm still there. But at least he appreciates the fact that he gets all the time in the world to just talk about whatever he wants, and most importantly, that I'm not trying to teach him something or lecture him or show him "the right way." And sometimes it's hard NOT to tell him what I'm thinking, but it boosts his self-esteem and makes him more open to me, and therefore more likely to come to me when he has a problem, and more likely to look on his walks in the woods as fond memories. Bonus - when they run out of things to talk about and you get that comfortable silence when you just enjoy being together without a purpose. These moments are few and far between at younger ages, so they're all the more special. But then, at those ages pretty much ANY silence is special.

Ok...closing the novel now. One of my favorite parts of hiking is what I can do with my kids and remembering when my dad took me camping, so I like to share it with everybody!

Jeff

Kids' Gear

Gear for kids can be tricky. The stuff they like is usually made for quick hikes and is either not sturdy enough or too heavy. For example, try finding a sleeping bag sized for a kid, rated to 20 F, that weighs less than 4-5 lbs. There are a few but you have to be willing to spend money. If your child really likes to hike and carry his own gear, that bag and his pack may be all he can carry! That's why I started making some of the gear for my kids. They're still at the age where they can be proud of something they made themselves (or helped to make) and don't always need all the fancy labels. (Hopefully it'll last...) So be sure to check out the Homemade Gear page for some ideas.

First of all, how much should kids carry? Adults generally use 1/4 of body weight as a guideline, but I think this is too much for kids. I like my pack to weigh about 25 lbs and I weigh 185 lbs, so I can't imagine a 100 pound kid enjoying a 25 pound pack. I'm sure those kids are out there, but my kids find it much more enjoyable carrying a 10 pound pack. They can get most of the stuff in at 10 lbs, and I end up carrying almost all of the food. Fair trade.

Some links for kids gear:

If you know of other good sources, please email me and I'll post them here.

Pack

Backpacking packs for kids are almost always overbuilt and too heavy. Before I knew better, my older son got an Outdoor Products Dragonfly (2780 ci, 3 lbs 10 oz) for Christmas, and it can probably hold 50 lbs safely (if not comfortably)...no way could my son hike with that!

Also, try finding a kids backpack under 4 lbs...there are a few, but not many. Try the Deuter Fox 30 (1800 ci, 2 lbs 7 oz) or the Kelty Jr Tioga (2050 ci, 3 lbs 3 oz).

Fortunately, many cheap-o school backpacks from stores like Walmart are more than adequate for a kid's hiking pack. For example, my sons used to both leave the "real packs" at home and takes a cheap pack we won at a community center party because it was lighter and more comfortable. It weighs about 18 oz and only holds about 1000 ci, but that was enough for rain gear, quilt, water and snacks, and the pad straps to the back with a shockcord daisy chain.

Checking the Compass
Bottcher's Gap, Los Padres National Forest, CA

Trail to Little Sur River Camp
Los Padres National Forest, CA

Moral of the story? Don't go all out on a $40-100 kid's pack unless you need to. Start out with a $10-20 school pack that weighs 1-2 lbs, and keep EVERYTHING in it lightweight. Take it on a day trip and see if it works - if not, you still have a daypack and you've only spent a few bucks. If it works (like it does for my kids), you just saved yourself a lot of money, and your kids get a pack that's half the weight of the fancy ones!

The biggest issue is to make sure they're comfortable, so you don't need an overbuilt pack. School packs are fine, and you can still find the bright colors if that's what your kids like. Others will like the fancy overbuilt packs - if that's what it takes to get them into the woods, go for it! Just find out what works for your kids and get them on the trail.

Eventually, my kids grew out of the cheap school packs and wanted a real pack. Since they're both carrying more weight now, we got the Deuter Fox 30. It fits my 11yo very well. The waist belt is a bit big for my 7yo, but the shoulder straps are cushy and comfortable enough that he still likes it better than the others. When they both go, the big brother gets the Dragonfly and the little brother gets the Fox 30.

More on kids packs:

Bag and Pad

As I said above, sleeping bags for kids are usually made for spend-the-night-parties (not warm enough for outdoor camping) or are really heavy and bulky. That's why I made them quilts...it's a very simple project, and it's probably cheaper than buying them a decent bag, too. (Directions here.)

If you can't sew, you can always take an older bag to a seamstress and have it cut down and re-hemmed. Otherwise, here are a few options:

  • Mountain Laurel Designs Devotion Bag - 45 F, 800+ fp down, X Small Size: 10.25 oz. for up to 5' and 100lbs, $160. 2 oz overstuff available to extend temp range.
  • Coleman Explorer Mummy bag - $32, 25 F, no total weight listed but it has 28 oz of insulation.
  • Kelty K.I.D.S. Voyager - $60, 40 F, 2 lbs 11 0z (MY 30 F quilt weighs less than half that!)
  • Outdoor Kids has several The North Face bags, like the Tigger ($69, 20 F, 2 lbs).
  • Integral Designs makes two 25 F models of the Assiniboine: the small is 1 lbs 7 oz and $125, and the large is 1 lbs 12 oz and $137.

Sleeping pads are simple - just cut down a standard closed-cell foam pad. I bought a .5" egg crate pad from Walmart and cut it into two torso pads for me, which double as their pads - one is 19" x 38" and 6.9 oz, and the other is 24" x 38" and 8.4 oz. If you want to go crazy and your kids are careful with their gear, you could also get a torso-length inflatable for them. Bozeman Mountain Works makes the TorsoLite for 10 oz and $70 ($58 member price) that's 32" long, and 17" tapering to 12" wide.

Shelter

Most kids tents aren't really made for camping. They're not built to last and aren't waterproof. However, I once heard of an AT thru-hiker who carried a kids tent the whole way - he waterproofed it and slept diagonally inside - so it can be done (carefully).

Other than that, shelter issues for kids are the same as for adults, only they take up less space so it's easier to share. Also, until kids get comfortable in the outdoors they often feel safer sleeping with a parent. My kids sleep in a homemade Kids Hammock that I hang near mine.

Little Sur River Camp
Los Padres National Forest, CA

Clothing

Rain Gear

Emergency Gear

Fun Stuff

Other Links

Lightweight Backpacking with Young Kids at Backpackinglight.com has a lot of great info.

Here's a detailed link about hiking with kids:
http://www.backpacking.net/featured4.html

And the Yahoo Backpackingwithkids group has about a thousand members talking about...um...backpacking with kids.

Here's a TrailJournals link about a family hiking the AT with their 10 year old son. I haven't read the whole thing yet, but it looks like there's some good stuff in here.
Anchor, Chief, and Oblivion's AT Journal

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