Backpacking with kids is immensely rewarding. For me and for them. I encourage anyone with kids to try it. Start them young, start them slow. And know their limitations.
But don’t be scared. They can do so much more than you think. So can you.
I have backpacked with my kids more than a dozen times, and never once with another adult, or a man, or a gun, or cell service. Sure things go wrong. But no one is going to get eaten by a bear or fall off a cliff. Overcoming the inevitable mishaps is part of the journey. And the confidence gained by accomplishing, conquering, and persevering is lifelong.
My most frequented backpacking trail is the Little Missouri Trail in Arkansas. Deep in the Ouachita National Forest, it is remote, beautiful, long, and follows the Little Missouri River. Following a river is huge for me because besides the beauty and the sounds of white water…it means I don’t have to carry as much water. Since I am usually carrying for myself and a kid or two, that’s pretty major. If I drink 4 liters a day hiking, that’s 8 pounds each day. Double or triple that with kids and forget about it. And water is fun…not just for kids. Being able to stop and play in the rapids makes backpacking a lot more enjoyable.
In May 2014 my daughter Hailey, then 11, and I backpacked the Winding Stairs part of the LMT. It was our first hike without her brother. Hailey probably weighed about 60 pounds, but was strong enough to carry a lot of her own food and water. I have always had the kids carry their own sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and clothes even when they were small. The LMT has several wet river crossings no matter what section you hike, so we carry water shoes too. Of course I get to carry the tent and cooking gear.
Here is Hailey at the outset. Not sure what’s up with her ensemble, but she’s pretty cute. We parked at the Winding Stairs trailhead, west of the Albert Pike recreation area. It was late afternoon, so we hiked a couple miles and made camp. I love that my kids help look for a good campsite. Is it flat? Close to water, but not in danger of flash flooding? They help with tent set up, making the fire, and getting dinner ready. My son could start a campfire by eight, and they both will pour the river water through a bandanna before putting it on to boil for dinner. Here is Hailey making breakfast.
One thing about the Little Missouri Trail, is that the river is big and deep and river crossings can be dangerous. I always check the river level at Langley before going. If it is above 4 ft it is said to be too dangerous. It was 4.25 feet the day we started, and crossing the river just before the Winding Stair area was difficult. We crossed up stream from the rapids, but the river was still probably 30 yards across and 3 feet deep at parts. The current was strong.
Hailey didn’t want to do it, but I talked her into it. I am all about be bold and just go for it. Within reason of course…but I try to instill that self confidence in my kids. We inched our way slowly and carefully through the cold, rushing water. She was SO proud of herself after we got across.
That feeling of accomplishment is one of the greatest things about backpacking for anyone, in my opinion, and especially for a child.
It’s a great way to develop confidence and independence. I don’t have a picture of the river crossing of course, but here is Hailey afterwards showing how deep the water was. Unfortunately her lack of body fat doesn’t really help with cold water crossings.
This trip was mostly about seeing the Winding Stair area, having fun, spending the weekend with Hailey. So we spent the day playing in the river and didn’t rack up many miles.
We finish every backpacking trip by stopping at some small town local burger or BBQ joint. Food makes everything better.
“For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” Robert Louis Stevenson