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20 Tips for Backpacking with a Toddler or Pre-Schooler: A Practice of Patience and Flexibility

One of my favorite things to do before I had my son was backpacking, and sometimes when I was pregnant I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to do it anymore. And it is true, when Sam was between the ages of 0-2, we were not capable of backpacking with him, and had to content ourselves with hikes and car camping. But I didn’t give up the idea of doing it when he got older, and I was encouraged by a few articles I saw on Pinterest: “5 Tips for Backpacking with Kids,” and “Hiking with Kids.” This summer Sam was 2 ½ and able to walk longer distances and I was ready to try backpacking with a toddler for myself . But although the articles I read about backpacking with a small child on Pinterest were inspirational, they were not as exhaustive as they could be, and there were a lot of things I wish I would have known before we started our adventures. We ended up needing to do it multiple times before we got the hang of it.

A break with a killer view

A break with a killer view

Tips for Backpacking with a Toddler

  1. First and Foremost when Backpacking with a toddler make sure to Choose age-appropriate distances, taking into consideration the steepness of the trail and the individual quirks of your kid. We found that for a backpacking trip on steep terrain, 2 miles to the camping location (4 miles round trip) was ideal. Sam also did well with 3 miles one way on flat terrain. One hike that we were expecting to be 2 ½ miles ended up being 4 fairly steep miles, and even though he made it, he struggled. That was our last trip, so throughout the summer he had gained a lot of experience and had built up his hiking muscles. I don’t think he would have made it at the beginning of summer.
  2. Don’t assume shorter distances will be less rewarding. One of our trips was ½ a mile downhill to the camping location and we had enough energy to swim for a few hours in the lake after that short hike.

    The calm waters before Sam started pounding them with rocks

    The calm waters before Sam started pounding them with rocks

  3. Be prepared to change your plans. Numerous times this summer, we had to switch our backpacking location the day before we left because the forecast called for storms. In the spring, we planned ten trips for the summer, so when we noticed storms in the forecast we had other appropriate alternative locations ready to go.
  4. If you hike in bear country, bear encounters are a risk you must be willing to take. Bring bear mace. Don’t keep it in your bag. Keep it out and on hand. We have seen both grizzlies and black bears out on the trail. Every time they were totally uninterested in us, but we had our mace out and ready to use if they had been aggressive. Some people make fun of us for bringing mace rather than a gun, but unlike a gun, the pepper spray doesn’t pose the same lethal risks for my family. I have also heard that when you miss vital organs on a bear, being shot can just enrage them more; we aren’t marksmen. We have worked out a plan for a bear encounter and practice it. We also try to prevent encounters by singing and clapping and talking loudly on the trail. In grizzly country, Sam is in charge of the bear bell. Check out this video of a man using bear mace on a bear.

    close encounter, Ponderosa State Park, McCall ID

    close encounter, Ponderosa State Park, McCall ID

  5. Don’t skimp out on safety gear. We thankfully never had to bust out the first aid kit, but we nevertheless bring a hefty one, and we know the basics of first aid. Sometimes it feels like dead-weight, but it isn’t worth the reduced weight if you end up needing a band-aid or a splint and don’t have the tools.
  6. Your pack will be heavy. “Ultra-light” backpacking is unreasonable and unsafe with a very young child. One person in your party won’t be carrying much, if any, weight, so the two grownups will have to manage it. You can handle it because you will be going shorter distances and because of #7.
  7. When backpacking with a toddler plan for lots of breaks. We stopped for approximately 5 minutes every 15 or 20 minutes. This took me some getting used to. Sam will plop down on the trail the very second he is feeling tired, often in inconvenient places and in direct sun. We usually tried to prod him into a shady area, but we respected his need for frequent breaks because we wanted to make the experience fun for him. Develop patience, enjoy the beauty of the natural surroundings, bust out some delicious trail mix, sing some camp songs, and use it as an opportunity to practice A, B, Cs and counting.

    Sam likes to sit ON the trail when he takes a break

    Sam likes to sit ON the trail when he takes a break

  8. Expect the length of time you spend on the trail backpacking with a toddler to be much longer than when you hike with adults only. Between the breaks, the short little legs, and the distracted curiosity of a hiking child, our times were usually about double what they would have been when it was just Chris and me. Account for that in your plans.

    Big rocks are the best toys

    Big rocks are the best toys

  9. You may, nevertheless, have to do some trail running. Sam’s two speeds on the trail tend to be running and stopped.

    Always running ahead of us!

    Always running ahead of us!

  10. Be willing to stop, stake a tent, and camp anywhere on the trail. We never had to do this, but we contemplated it when Sam was struggling to make it to the Bench Lakes in the Sawtooths. Don’t ruin the fun by turning a happy hike into a death march.

    A bit of a Rip Van Winkle moment

    A bit of a Rip Van Winkle moment

  11. Choose locations with water rather than sublime views (although sometimes you can manage to get both). Hiking along a creek, is ideal. Your little hiker will love it. Plus it makes breaks a lot more fun – we took every opportunity we could of dipping in our feet and splashing around in the water. If you can manage a camping location with a lake, that is even better. Sam spent countless hours throwing rocks into lakes while camping this summer.

    Catching frogs at Aldous Lake

    Catching frogs at Aldous Lake

  12. Dress your little hiker in long-sleeved shirts and pants. We learned this the hard way. Our hike to Fourth of July Lake in the White Clouds was warm, perfect shorts and t-shirts weather, but it turns out that Sam likes to RUN on the trail, and he ended up falling numerous times. His knees were really banged up. Now he hikes in jeans. On that same trip, we were eaten up by mosquitoes, to the point where Sam had a bad dream about them. Now we keep his arms covered up, and haven’t had trouble since.

    Sam does a lot of "falling down" accidentally on purpose

    Sam does a lot of “falling down” accidentally on purpose

  13. Allow your child to help with the camp “work.” Sam especially enjoys helping to pump water, to prepare food, to set-up the tent, and to move all of our stuff in an out of the tent. He has gotten good at listening to directions, and it has helped to improve his vocabulary. Plus it keeps him busy in camp, where there are many dangers!

    Cooking together

    Cooking together

  14. Don’t worry about the five food groups or special diets at meal-time. When I first started planning our meals for backpacking, I would try to make sure we got at least three servings of vegetables and two servings of fruit on the trail. I drove myself insane trying to find lightweight, healthy, yet calorie dense options. I gave up, saved myself a lot of stress, and came up with some really excellent meals anyway. I usually packed sugar snap peas in a cooler which we would eat as a snack on the way to the trailhead and in the car-ride home, and that helped to supplement a couple days that were lighter on the veggies than I like.
  15. Don’t attract animals to your campsite. We use the freezer bag method of cooking to cut down on cooking smells and reduce the need for washing dishes. We always string up our food and other smelly items in a tree and never prepare or eat food near our tent.

    Reccommendations from bearinfo.org

    Reccommendations from bearinfo.org

  16. Accept that you might not get to romantically bask in star light after dark, especially if you are in the Northern states. After a hike Sam is ready for bed around the time that the sun is setting and a dull gray light settles on camp, between 8:30 and 9. I usually go to the bathroom after it is completely dark and Sam has fallen asleep and use that as an opportunity to enjoy the stars.

    What I saw on one of my "late night" bathroom breaks

    What I saw on one of my “late night” bathroom breaks

  17. Make a homey environment inside the tent. I love cuddling up in the tent with my boys! We hike with three Thermarest self-inflating sleeping pads and three inflatable camp pillows to make the camping experience as comfortable as possible. Even though we did some car camping with Sam to get him used to the tent and his sleep gear, there is something about sleeping in the wild that put him on edge. Allowing him to watch his favorite movie on the iPhone (we bring 2 devices that provide extra charges for the phone) helps to make him feel more comfortable. We also let him play with our headlamp flashlight and glow-sticks. By the end of the summer, he didn’t need the movie anymore.
    Glowstick

    Glowstick

    Fun with the headlamp

    Fun with the headlamp

  18. Accept a lower quality of sleep. It can be hard to sleep on a backpacking trip anyway, and it is even more difficult when backpacking with a toddler in tow. We were able to make up in quantity what we missed in quality. Chris and Sam usually slept much later in the morning on the trail than they ever do at home. The boys would often stay in bed until 9, meaning that they were at least resting, if not fully sleeping, for 12 hours.
    Early to bed

    Early to bed

    Late to rise

    Late to rise

  19. When backpacking with a Toddler Allow extra space in your pack for heat, whether that is hand warmers, extra blankets, or an actual heater, especially if you are camping in the mountains. We hiked with a Little Buddy catalytic heater. There is a lot of debate about whether or not these are safe to use for a short period of time (i.e. less than 10 minutes) in a tent. After looking at the chemistry of propane on a pre-heated platinum catalyst, I’ve decided that FOR ME, the risk is minimal, especially in our well-ventilated tent. The by-products are water and carbon dioxide (more water than carbon dioxide), and the heat generated in just a few minutes is more than enough to keep a toddler happy and comfy. We always sit up after we turn on the heater and don’t lie down until we turn it off. You will need to decide what is the appropriate amount of risk for you and your family. Either way, I recommend checking out this website on how to sleep warm in a sleeping bag.
  20. Backpacking with a Toddler attracts attention, and more people will want to talk to you. This is one of the most fun aspects of hiking with a child. We met some really interesting people this summer and Sam got really good at turning on the charm for fellow hikers. I’ll never forget a conversation he had with a family we met, when he told them all about the horse poop he almost stepped in, the berries he ate, and the deer print he saw. He also told them that he and dad have brown eyes, and mom has blue eyes.
Talking to the flowers

Talking to the flowers

Backpacking with a Toddler is exhausting . I wore myself ragged planning and packing for all of our adventures, but I gained so much from the experience of backpacking with Sam this summer. Taking a chance Backpacking with a toddler helped me to be a better person. It helped me to be more patient, more flexible, and to stop worrying about things I can’t control. It changed the way I look at nature. Parents like grand vistas, children like immediacy; seeing the trail through Sam’s eyes helped me to pay deeper attention to the details surrounding me. It helped me to slow down and really breathe, to feel powerfully connected with nature in a way that I haven’t experienced since I was a child myself.

 

Learning together

Backpacking with a toddler Learning together

 

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