We have a newly turned six-year old, a three-and-a-half-year-old, and I’m expecting! How old were your kids when you started doing “big” trips with them? By big I mean hiking and camping for multiple nights, etc.
I love this question.
Since my kids were born, I’ve been a big believer in making outdoor activity just a normal part of our lifestyle for them. I’ve also been a big believer in the idea that, while I knew doing anything with little kids was always going to be a lot of work, we should make it as enjoyable and as easy as possible for all of us by doing trips that were feasible for their ages.
We took long car trips and car-camped with our kids (in places like Idaho’s Craters of the Moon National Monument, shown in the lead photo, above) from the time they were infants. They very quickly got accustomed to spending hours in a car, sleeping in a tent, and just being outside. We also flew with them from a young age, and my wife and I have both had the unenviable experience of flying alone with two little kids!
The summer before our son turned one, we spent several weeks driving around the West, car-camping and dayhiking mostly. We backpacked a bit with him as an infant, but we encountered the rule of diminishing returns in the sense that it was hard to get very far with a baby when we’re carrying him and so much infant-related stuff (including clean and used diapers) and have to frequently stop to attend to his needs. Once our daughter came along, two-and-a-half years after our son, my wife and I put backpacking as a family on hold for a few years. I still backpacked for my work, and my wife would get out occasionally with friends (while I stayed home with the kids).
Dayhiking is very accessible with young kids. Before they’re walking, you can carry them and are only limited by how far you can walk. When they were toddlers, I believed strongly in letting them walk as much as they wanted, to instill in them the understanding that they will hike and not be carried unless necessary; this requires some patience, because little kids are very slow and stop to check out every stick, rock, bug, flower, etc. But you want them to be eager hikers by the time they’re four and five, when you certainly can’t carry a kid.
I found that with both of our kids, age six was a turning point where they had the stamina for hiking enough distance to start backpacking with them. Until they were nine or 10 years old, they would carry only a small daypack with some water and a few small, stuffed animals inside (my kids were relatively small; some bigger kids might start younger). I don’t know whether you’ve already found my “10 Tips For Raising Outdoors-Loving Kids,” but one of those tips is to wait until your child asks to carry more weight before giving him or her a heavier backpack.
I guess the shorter answer is that I suggest you begin taking your kids out on trips when they’re very young, but plan trips that are realistic, given how much work is involved in caring for young kids every day. And don’t do everything for your kids; train them to handle age-appropriate tasks (helping pitch the tents, carry gear from the car, etc.), so that as they get older, they understand that this is a family effort and they eventually help make every trip a little easier than the last one.
You might also be interested in my stories “Boy Trip, Girl Trip: Why I Take Father-Son and Father-Daughter Adventures,” my “10 Tips For Keeping Kids Happy and Safe Outdoors,” “My Top 10 Family Adventures,” and all of my stories about family adventures at The Big Outside.
If you’re planning to backpack with young kids, take a look at the bigger packs in my “Gear Review: The 10 Best Packs For Backpacking.”
And before you know it, you’ll be reading my “10 Tips For Getting Your Teenager Outdoors With You.”
Thanks for writing. Keep in touch, let me know how it goes for you.
Thanks for the response. I have read the tips online and I also purchased your book a while back.
I’ve realized part of my mistake has been avoiding fairly active outdoor activities, like hiking, up until this point. So now I feel like I have to do even more encouraging in order for them to get out and about and even halfway enjoy it. I think I avoided it with my kids when they were very little because we live in Alabama where the heat and humidity are almost murderous for an adult, much less an adult with a baby strapped to his or her chest! However, now I have young kids who growl at the idea of a one-mile walk on asphalt. I have a lot of makeup work to do!
I like your point about age-appropriate tasks. Even my three-year-old loves to feel included in that way and likes being a “big kid.”
You’re still starting them young enough to nurture a real love for getting outside. I’ve found that my kids have good days and bad days, like adults do. Some days I ease up on them, others I urge them on and use a little soft bribery, like the promise of chocolate bars halfway through the hike. (For many years when our kids were younger, that halfway point was a goal they looked forward to for the chocolate reward.) See my “5 Tricks For Getting Tired Kids Through a Hike.”
You’re welcome. Thanks for buying my book, I hope you enjoy it.
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