hikingSo you want to start taking your kids backpacking? Here’s the first three lessons I learned when I started going into the woods with my four year olds.

Hooking your kids on backpacking is a lifelong endeavor. It doesn’t end after the first trip whether it goes well or not. Each time you step on the trail, even if it’s not for an overnight adventure, is an opportunity to further raise your littles to love backpacking.

Here are the first three lessons I’ve learned in the last 10 years of backpacking with my kids. They each first joined me when they were four years old and each year we push a little harder. That means each year I’m learning more and more about what works and what doesn’t. Start with these three and then check out the other 10 tips in the constantly updated Moosefish Guide to Raising Backpackers.

Show them how much you love being outside.

This doesn’t start when you tell them you’re going backpacking, but every day you have a chance to spend time with them. Put them in a carrying pack and hit the trail whenever you can. Hang out in the park. Tell them stories from your adventures they didn’t get to go on.

Your kids will naturally look up to you as a role model. Make sure they see the gleam in your eyes when you talk about the mountains or the forest or the desert. And since they’re your kids, your adventures don’t even have to be epic to impress!

When you’re planning your first trip, start small. Practice backpacking in your backyard or car-camping. Just the act of setting up a tent and sleeping in it is a big adventure when you’re two or three. You can even set up the tent inside if the weather’s no good. (Just don’t pound the stakes into the floor unless you’re renting.)

When each of the kids turned three their first backpacking adventure was in the backyard. We cooked, ate, and used the bathroom without going back into the house. Talk about roughing it!

The next year we set off on short, one-night trips. Emphasis on “short.” Each of their first trips was shorter than what they were used to on a day hike and none were longer than six miles round trip. Keeping it short ensures the kids feel confident on their inaugural trip and will help fuel their desire to go again.

Finally, bring friends, especially on that first trip. As much as they want to be just like you when they grow up, kids love other kids. Rather than going on an adventure with their parent, they’re just out playing with a friend on the trail. Bonus: You start another kid (and maybe a whole family) on the road to being backpackers.

There’s a practical reason to bring a friend, too. Unless you’re crazy, you’re bringing your child’s friend’s parent along with you. That means you have twice the resources should someone get hurt or, more likely, you forget the backpacking stove.

Once you’ve got your first trip under your belt you can start thinking about the next trip. That’s where you can involve them in planning, you can push a little harder (but still stay realistic), and teach them what a wonderful gift the outdoors can be.

About The Author:

John Soltys is a father, a husband, and adventurer. He grew up in the Pacific Northwest and never considers leaving, even when it rains for 100 days straight. You can find him where the highway climbs into the mountains, tucked against the river, at the end of a long dirt road. He and his family hike, snowshoe, backpack, climb mountains, and flyfish. John writes at Moosefish and hangs out on the internet: Twitter and Instagram as @moosefish, and Facebook.