Ideal age for first overnight backpacking trip?

Posted by: dylansdad77

Ideal age for first overnight backpacking trip? - 01/18/15 10:19 AM

My son is 6 years old and loves, I mean LOVES the outdoors. I have to admit that I hoped, prayed and cheated my way into making that happen (I bribed him a lot when he was really young!). We go fishing, hiking, geocaching and have already done 2 separate "car-camping" weekends which he also loved.

I got into backpacking again about 8 years ago and I now own all the necessary equipment and creature comforts to enjoy a few nights in the backcountry. So far, my trips have been with a core group of friends/family - all adults.

I am anxious to take my son on his first backpacking overnight but I was wondering when is a good age to try. If my wife had her way, he'd be 25 and in grad school...don't ask! So I am curious to hear some recommendations on a good age and perhaps hear some stories about your first experience with your child(ren). Tips and suggestions welcome!
Posted by: Pika

Re: Ideal age for first overnight backpacking trip? - 01/18/15 10:37 AM

I was about 7 when I went on my first backpacking trip in the Sierras. This was right after WW-II. Unfortunately, my dad had decided we were going to go over roughly 12,000' Kearsarge Pass for my first trip. I was only carrying a sleeping bag and clothes but got tired quickly and didn't have too much fun. Subsequent trips, which were easier, rekindled my love of getting out though, to the point where I did a solo thru hike of the JMT when I was just shy of 16.

If you keep the trips short, easy, non-buggy and non-boring you could start taking your son, I presume his name Is Dylan, this coming summer. Don't tell your wife I said this though smile.
Posted by: aimless

Re: Ideal age for first overnight backpacking trip? - 01/18/15 03:17 PM

A 6 or 7 year old has no intrinsic interest in making mileage. His interest will be in whatever is surrounding him from moment to moment that he can engage with. The ideal backpack would be an overnighter, fairly short hike, with lots of cool stuff to explore, like a lake shore or creek side, places to play in rocks or trees, and a campfire, which right there is hugely fascinating. The point about not many biting insects is important, too.

If you are 1:1 the whole time and keep your eye on him, not letting him wander out of view or earshot, he should be safe enough. But do not rely on him understanding how to keep himself safe, even if the rules for what NOT to do seem obvious to you and even if you've told him ten times already.
Posted by: OregonMouse

Re: Ideal age for first overnight backpacking trip? - 01/18/15 07:42 PM

I went on my first backpacking trip at age 6. I don't remember a lot about it, but I do remember that I was supposed to make a collection for school and that my parents almost immediately changed my collection from rocks to moss! My kids were older, because their father wasn't intererested in backpacking. I started taking my grandkids out at age 5.

I would suggest short overnighters to start with, to destinations that the kid would like. Lakes are always good! Keep the distances short and the kid's pack light. It's gotta be the kid's hike, not yours!

This excellent article on hiking with children will not only give you some good ideas, but may reduce Mom's fears a bit.

Taking a SPOT or one of those DeLorme things would let you send Mom an "OK" message daily. Sometimes the messages don't go through, so you'd have to point out that no message doesn't mean something is wrong with you, just with the SPOT reception.

Posted by: wandering_daisy

Re: Ideal age for first overnight backpacking trip? - 01/18/15 08:15 PM

I think the issue is not the kid but the parent. The right age is anytime the parent is willing to put in all the extra work it takes and make the trip a "kid" trip and you have means to carry the extra stuff. Nowadays with light gear this really is not a big problem. The baby backpacking stuff is harder, because you have to do the diaper thing.

I took my oldest daughter on her first backpack (actually 3-day wilderness canoe trip) at about 4 months old. Then a weeks backpack at 15 months. Two week trip at 16 months. My younger daughter (2 years younger) did her fist trip at 16 months, in fact, while I was in the process of weaning her. We did a family trip, horse packed in supplies, had kids age 16 mo. 4 yrs, 6 yrs, 10yrs 12 yrs. The major activity was fishing. Then I did a 5 day trip with my younger daughter when she was 5. She carried a pack with all the cook pots - loved to hear them clank as we went down the trail. We had a packer take us in and we walked out. Also did a solo weekend trip with both kids, age 2 and 4, while the younger was being potty trained. That I would not do again. I feel you minimally need one adult for each child.

I have seen plenty of 6-year olds backpacking and they do quite well. If your kid already enjoys the outdoors he will do just fine, as long as you keep in mind his interests and plan accordingly. Actually some kids will walk miles between point A and B, but most of that age get quite bored and do better at a few miles with plenty of in-camp activities.
Posted by: BZH

Re: Ideal age for first overnight backpacking trip? - 01/19/15 02:23 PM

We've been taking our kids car camping since they were infants. My parents did the same with me. I took my son on his first backpacking trip about a year ago when he was 5 1/2. You can read the trip report here:

I took him this last Sept up into the Sierra. He had a blast both trips. He didn't have fun the whole time, but overall a very positive experience for him. I agree with the above about keeping the mileage low. Both trips I chose because of the low mileage and minimal elevation gain. I knew I would have multiple places to stop and kept track of his attitude to determine how far to go. The first trip we got about a mile down the trail. The second trip he made it about 3.5 miles with a couple hundred feet of elevation gain. He was going downhill fast at the end of that hike.

Kids adapt very well to being outdoors, problems come up when the parents are unable to adapt to what the kid is capable of.
Posted by: finallyME

Re: Ideal age for first overnight backpacking trip? - 01/22/15 03:56 PM

I generally wait until they are 4. Granted, this is a 2 mile trip, 4 miles total. My two older sons both started at 4. The girls started later on. My younger son who is 4 now missed out this summer and will have to wait until he is 5. frown That is his dad's fault though. I was surprised how much my girls liked it though. I guess all the girls here are saying...duh...but anyways. My oldest daughter gets mad when we car camp at a busy campsite. She wants to get way out there with only nature and no people.

Anyways, expect to carry most of their stuff if they are young. And, make the mileage very low. Also, I try and get them food they really like. I don't worry too much about nutrition (to a point). It is only a day or two of not eating healthy. Plus they associate backpacking with good food.
Posted by: dylansdad77

Re: Ideal age for first overnight backpacking trip? - 01/23/15 09:57 AM

Thank you all for the advice. I took the plunge earlier today and notified the Mrs. that I intend to take our son for his first overnight backpacking trip (in truth, I did it via email to be safe). Needless to say, she will be less than pleased and her response will be something along the lines of "bring my son home, then you can STAY in the woods"...tempting...

now to find the right location for a short distance, fun/activity filled trip...
Posted by: EricAnderson

Re: Ideal age for first overnight backpacking trip? - 02/05/15 02:00 PM

Greetings! I have 3 kids ages 0-8. I frequently take them backpacking. In my experience, the earlier you start them, the better. But ease into it. Start with overnight camping trips including some hiking, then move into backpacking once you have the routine down. Kids need help with many of the routine tasks, so give yourself plenty of time.
Don't expect to crank out 18-mile-days, 6 miles is more realistic with little kids smile

I am in process of writing a series of articles about Backpacking with Kids (and other family outdoor activities), including hot-to guides, tips & tricks, etc. I'm posting the material here:

Good Luck!
Posted by: Steadman

Re: Ideal age for first overnight backpacking trip? - 03/27/15 09:46 PM

I've taken my oldest three out when they were 5-6 years old for their first trip.

The trip was chosen based on it being easy (3 mi in/3 mi out), interesting (waterfalls, water to play in, rocks to climb on) and was done on THEIR pace.

Examples: (went with friends. Less good than the other two) (this one was great and often repeated, despite the stinging nettles) (rocks, views, a boy scout troop and a bear)

They walked in front so that I could keep an eye on them, and they could see. We stopped for insects, bushes, trees, and anything else they were interested in. As more kids joined in, the youngest stayed in front and we walked in age order (youngest first) for the most part.

Food was chosen based on THEIR taste. I loathe mac&cheese, but I've sure eaten a lot of it because it made them happy. I brought extra. I brought candy.

I kept their load LIGHT. No more than 10% of body weight. When starting out, this meant that they had a kid sized camelbak, rain gear, a whistle, trail mix, and a small stuffed toy of their choice (kept in a plastic bag).

I learned to carry crocs in my pack for the kids when they were around water. Painfully. A kid got wet, and then cut their bare feet on my watch. Thank God my wife is forgiving. Just carry the little crocs and you'll be thankful you did if playing around a watersource might be on the agenda.

We also tended to go when it was WARM. Spring, Summer, and Fall in Virginia. 45 degree bags were usually overkill, which was good.

Oh... all of mine had car camped with my wife and I a couple of times before they tried backpacking.

Every child had fun learning to pee and poop in the woods. Definite highlight of the trips. Also, if you are a man taking daughters you can't spend too much time on this. I got distracted when my 3rd child started coming and she ended up WET. It wasn't a big deal in July in Virginia, especially with a creek to play in later.

Oh... the camelbak was a great idea too because they'd suck on it absently and stay hydrated. Of course, this made for more pee breaks but that isn't a problem.

BTW, everyone who spoke first on this issue REALLY helped me out when I started to take my kids about 4 years ago. I joined this site at least in part because of the "backpacking with kids" article on the main page.

Have fun!!!
Posted by: topshot

Re: Ideal age for first overnight backpacking trip? - 03/28/15 09:07 PM

Originally Posted By dylansdad77
Thank you all for the advice. I took the plunge earlier today and notified the Mrs. that I intend to take our son for his first overnight backpacking trip

So where did you go and how did he like it?

My middle son was already fairly old by the time I finally got into backpacking but his younger brother started at 4.5. This past summer (just before turning 8 YO ), he and I did 39 miles in the Wind River Range. I'm OK with that. smile
Posted by: dylansdad77

Re: Ideal age for first overnight backpacking trip? - 03/29/15 08:40 AM

Haven't taken the trip yet...planning on going June/July timeframe. In NJ, there is a park called Round Valley Reservation Area which has a huge reservoir and holds many state records for freshwater fishing. The reservoir is relatively round with 1 parking lot and trails covering 2/3 the perimeter of the reservoir. With the parking lot on one side, there is a "backcountry" campground on the exact opposite side. Only 2 ways to get there: backpacking or paddling. The hike is about 2.5 - 3 miles from the PL. I figure this is a good distance for his first trip AND it will help control the typical camping riff raff. Very much looking forward to it and I will be sure to post pics and a report when we get back.
Posted by: topshot

Re: Ideal age for first overnight backpacking trip? - 03/29/15 01:31 PM

His first was just a 2.5 mile on somewhat challenging terrain (for Indiana) followed immediately by an 11 mile one with about the same daily mileage. Following year we did a 21 mile (2 nights) and then a couple low to mid 20s trips in the Appalachians.

Just make sure he has fun and you'll be fine.
Posted by: OregonMouse

Re: Ideal age for first overnight backpacking trip? - 03/29/15 05:57 PM

That sounds like a perfect first backpacking trip! Have fun!
Posted by: 41253

Re: Ideal age for first overnight backpacking trip? - 04/05/15 06:53 PM

I took my kids on 2-night trips from when they were in diapers. We rarely made more than 7 miles in a day, mostly because I was carrying most of the stuff in an old aluminum-frame pack that was packed about like Cheryl Strayed's in "Wild." I also had the younger one on my shoulders for part of the time. We had a huge 7-pound dome tent. The key to all of us enjoying it was to not be in a hurry or to worry about making a specific distance. It was great seeing things again for the first time through their eyes.

I remember once in the primitive camping section of a state park when a bunch of scouts hiked by our site just a few miles up hill from the parking area complaining about how how tough it was. They were a little embarrassed when then saw my tiny daughter in a diaper with her little Mermaid pack having a great time playing with sticks and pine cones.
Posted by: SurvivalDad

Re: Ideal age for first overnight backpacking trip? - 04/28/15 12:47 PM

We started out my son at 7 yrs old. It was very smooth and enjoyable. I probably wouldn't go too much earlier than that because of endurance though. IMO