Two Children Laying In A Tree.

Backpacking with Kids: How to Turn Challenges into Triumphs

If I could freeze this season of life, I would. My kids, now ages ten and seven, are pure magic. They are still innocent, without the weight of a job or juggling priorities. And yet, they are also independent- able to tie their shoes, grab a snack, or ride bikes with their peers.

As their own interests grow and change, one thing remains the same- their love for hiking. 

It hasn’t always been easy to convince them to go outside- we all know kids love to take a break from the heat of summer and read a book by the air conditioner. But, the outdoors is important to me, and what I have found in my years of parenting is this- I have to show them the wonder of the wild for them to appreciate it.

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Views Of The Sunset From Nordhouse Dunes.
Watching the sunset from camp at Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness. | photo via Kristi Murphy

Teaching the Benefits of the Outdoors

From the time they were little, I began teaching them the importance of seeing nature for the glory and peace it offers. Not only does it quickly dispel sibling fights and bad moods, but it is also a sure way to connect with your children on a deeper level.

As my kids grow, I want them to have the foundation that gives them these tools- to notice small miracles, to make room for imagination, and to have a place to go that expects nothing from them but their curiosity.

My husband and I lived in Colorado for eight years- which is where my love for backpacking began. The solitude found alone in my tent created a deep respect for nature- and planted a seed that continues to grow.

After we had kids, we quickly introduced them to car camping in our little pop-up camper. We were able to teach them the basics of camping, providing them with the opportunity to learn about the skills they need in the forest.

As they grew, we knew it was time to take things to the next level- it was time for backpacking.

Kids And Dad Pause High Above The River.
Ryan and the kids on our first-ever backpacking trip at the Manistee River Trail. | photo via Kristi Murphy

Adjusting Expectations

The first year we went, our daughter was three, and our son was six. We weren’t sure what to expect- they could hike a fair distance- but carrying little backpacks would be new to them.

I prepared our family as best I could; I read reviews about a nearby backpacking trail, the Manistee River Trail, and I planned our route. My husband laid out all we would need for the weekend, inviting the kids to help in loading things into their own packs.

As we looked at our supply list, we quickly realized this trip would be very different than the ones we used to take. We used to pride ourselves on how intentionally we packed our bags- challenging ourselves with how lightweight we could make them.

But, with kids? We had to throw that expectation out of the window. How many snacks would the kids need? What happens if one of them had an accident? Would we have enough to keep them warm? Could we all fit into one tent?  And who would be carrying all of this anyways?

We accepted maybe we needed to pack extra, just in case- we didn’t want to put ourselves in a pickle and end up making our first trip a disaster, forever staining the chance we had at implementing this love of backpacking.

My daughter was too small for a real pack- so we simply had her carry a mini backpack stuffed with some toys and her clothes. My son used one of my daypacks, rigged with a rope around his waist since he was too short for the real hip belt.

My husband and I packed most everything between our bags, feeling like camels carting the majority of the load.

Kids And Mom Sitting On A Log At Camp.
Spending a day at camp, full of simple joy and laughter! | photo via Kristi Murphy

Finding the Rhythm of Camp

We may have looked like a motley crew, but we made it out the door with excitement in our step. The trail was a quick half-hour drive from home, and we had mapped out a spot along the trail close to a small waterfall, about three miles in. I had done enough research ahead of time to know the trail was mainly flat, easy to access, and with views to entertain the kids. 

After several snack stops, water breaks, and endless rounds of “I Spy”, we arrived at our destination, just as the evening dusk settled around us. We found a gorgeous spot along the river, where the kids could explore and we could have space.

We employed their help with the tent and made their sleeping quarters cozy and warm. Our son helped start the fire, while my daughter and I dipped our toes in the river. 

A Dad Teaching Kids How To Cut Firewood.
Ryan teaching the kids survival skills in the forest! | photo via Kristi Murphy

Now, I know this sounds idyllic, but let’s be honest- this first day of the trip was full of challenges. Whining along the trail, kids with tired legs, our daughter begging for “uppies” on our shoulders in addition to our heavy packs.

We had to keep the kids safe around the fire, remind them not to knock over the small cookstove, and hold their attention while we got settled. 

But, in the end, it was worth it. We woke and read in the tent, settling in for some card games around the fire while breakfast was cooked. We filled our second day with explorations in the forest, a long day hike, wading in the river, napping, and creating art with nature’s resources.

The kids romped around fallen logs, and we had nothing to do, except to be together- which is exactly why we came.

Family Gathered With Backpacks.
The start of our journey to camp at Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness! | photo via Kristi Murphy

Learning from Our First Trip

After one more night, we packed up and headed home. Overall, our first time out was a success! We learned we could never have enough special “camp” food, and that all we needed for entertainment was a deck of cards and a book or two.

We also realized the kids needed bags that suited their size- rigging up our old gear didn’t really work and created more discomfort than necessary.

Fast forward to the next summer- this time we tackled Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness. Our son, now tall enough for his own pack, carried a little more weight this time, and we fitted our daughter with a properly sized camelback pack. This time, we brought two smaller tents, leaving our heavier one at home.

Two Kids Play Cards In A Tent.
My children playing a competitive game of war in their tent! | photo via Kristi Murphy

This wilderness area was incredible- our route took us along the shores of Lake Michigan, and we simply hiked until we found shelter in the forest with easy access to the beach. My daughter decided that the purple dune flowers were her favorite, and my son played a game pretending to be Bear Grylls.

We jumped in the waves, sang silly songs, and climbed trees, pretending to be birds. I will never forget the sunsets, or the silly laughter of our kids as they explored the dunes right next to our campsite.

Two Children Laying In A Tree.
Jackson and Layla pretend to be birds, perched in the trees. | photo via Kristi Murphy

Hard Work Pays Off

Last summer, we discovered a rustic, pack-in campsite located right in Sleeping Bear Dunes. It was a perfect distance, two miles in, with spur trails leading to the big lake. The trail was hillier than the ones we had backpacked in years past, but our kids were older too.

There were six sites spaced out but with shared access to bonus amenities like vault toilets, bear-proof bins, and established fire pits. We picked our weekend, got our necessary permit, and off we went.

Kids Gather Around Campground Sign.
Ryan, Jackson, and Layla celebrate arriving at camp! | photo via Kristi Murphy

The beauty of going backpacking year after year was apparent on this trip. Both of our kids had learned how to start a fire and work the water purifier pump. They understood the logistics of the tent and were able to contribute their ideas to our supply list.

Jackson wanted pizza wraps again, and Layla wanted to make a “cinnamon bear” over the fire for dessert. They packed their own games and books, remembered their raincoats, and were excited to try their new sleeping pads and lighter sleeping bags. 

Kids Play On Dunes At Sunset
My children dune jumping during twilight. | photo via Kristi Murphy

Our days were full of skinny-dipping, late night walks through the forest, one on one time with each child. Reading around the campfire, snuggling in the early morning hours, and looking for objects of beauty on our walks made for some of the best times of my life.

These memories fill my cup, year after year, reminding me of why I became a parent.

Kids Gathered By Fire Reading Books.
Jackson and Layla reading by an early morning fire. | photo via Kristi Murphy

Top Tips for Your First Trip

The truth is- and you can guess this- backpacking with your kids is a challenge. It can be a disheartening fight to make it out the door, discouraging many of us from even trying. But here’s the thing- the sooner you start, the more your kids will learn, and the easier it will be each year.

And let’s be honest- in today’s culture of hurrying, of tacking “just one more” thing into the schedule- backpacking together puts what’s really important into startling perspective. Make time for these moments as a family- for building a foundation of togetherness that will be an anchor for years to come.

Kids Wrapped In Towels On The Beach.
Snuggled up after a skinny dip! | photo via Kristi Murphy

What can make this process easier? Here are my top tips to remember as you prepare to embark!

  • Bring snacks! As we all know, kids can be bribed by anything delicious. Have your kids help you make energy balls, pick out some dried fruit, or their own bag of trail mix for the kids.
  • Look for gear that suits their size. Don’t go out and buy a new pack that they will outgrow the next summer- instead use small backpacks to begin, and then find one that can grow with them as they grow. Here are two of our favorite packs, that will grow with your child, and fit them from about ages 6-11- Osprey and REI. Remember to get kids their own water bladders!
  • Have your kids choose a few backpacking recipes and camp activities! There is plenty of inspiration found in books at the library or on Pinterest.
  • Don’t forget kids’ raincoats and layers for chilly nights. There is nothing worse than being cold!
  • Get your kids involved in the logistics of the trip- let them help with putting up the tent, gathering firewood, or rolling out their sleeping bags. The more they contribute, the more invested they will be.
  • Find a lightweight sleeping pad for the kids- sleeping on the ground can be tough on their bones and tired muscles. Everyone wants a good night’s sleep! There are many options out there- we found our kids’ pads on Amazon for around $35. They weigh almost nothing and pack down considerably.
  • Research popular backpacking trails in your area, and make sure you have options for hiking distance depending on your kid’s ability. It’s always nice to have a plan A and B!
  • Remember it doesn’t take a lot to entertain kids! Beyond keeping them fed and warm, you will be surprised at what they will come up with given the chance to explore and imagine.
  • Beyond anything else, give your kids and yourself grace! Things will not always go as expected, and that’s ok! A few frustrating moments don’t make the trip a failure.

The Gift of Connectedness

You know, there is a lot I will regret in my years of parenting- not having enough patience, failing to calmly communicate, doing too much or not enough. But the experiences I am giving my kids? I will never regret those. It has given our family so much life!

Our ability to get away from it all and do nothing but explore creates calmness, stability, and connectedness. As I watch my kids notice the gifts of nature, it assures me I am doing something right.

A Girl Holds A Pinecone.
Pausing to look at nature’s beauty during our walk. | photo via Kristi Murphy

And so, I circle back to why I made backpacking a priority in the first place- to instill gratitude, to tune my kids into the way nature is a safe place to unwind and express yourself.

To make them aware that sometimes you must work hard and carry a heavy load to get to where you want to go. To show them how strong and capable they are- and that I am right alongside them every step of the way.

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