About 10 minutes into our four-day, three-night camping trip, tears started streaming down my 6-year-old son’s face. This did not bode well.
He had already had a bowl of cereal, an orange, and an egg-and-sausage breakfast sandwich that morning, but now he plopped down on the trail and declared he was hungry.
On an ordinary hike, I would have just fed my grumpy child, but all the snacks were packed away in bear canisters deep in our packs. Also, did I mention we were 10 minutes from the car on a hike to a campsite a mile and a half away? Tip one: Always have a snack accessible.
Turns out, after cajoling him along for another half a mile, hunger hadn’t been the problem at all. His hiking boots hurt. Boots that he’d worn regularly for months without any problems. He hobbled into camp with one boot half off. Luckily we had extra shoes in the car and the trip after that was (mostly) tear-free. Tip two: Bring extra shoes on every hike.
For two summers in a row, my husband, Andrew, 3-year-old daughter, 6-year-old son and I have reserved wilderness campsites at Rocky Mountain National Park. We are not elite backpackers with all the latest gear and years of experience, but we try to spend six nights over two separate trips in the wilderness and have a lot of fun in the process.
Much of our knowledge and even some of our gear were gifts from Andrew’s uncle, Tom Adams, but since not everyone is blessed with a retired flyfishing guide and outdoors columnist for an uncle, here’s a beginner’s guide to getting your young kids into the backcountry at a national park or wilderness area.
Step 1: Buy a topographical trail and recreation map for your destination and research the descriptions of backcountry sites on the national park’s website to select the perfect site for your group. For kids younger than 6, I’d recommend sticking to campsites no more than 2 miles from the trailhead with little elevation gain. Older kids may be able to handle 5 or 6 miles a day, steeper terrain, and can even carry a light backpack, which opens up much more of the park and even through hikes that stop at several different campsites along the way.
Step 2: Win the campsite lottery. It’s usually held on March 1 but the process has been evolving so get your plans ready in February and watch the wilderness website for instructions. Even in August, however, some campsites are available on weekday nights, so check the website and you might get lucky. You have to pick up permits in person during office hours, which we do several days in advance with a separate day trip to the national park.
Step 3: Learn how to not leave a trace. This is harder than it sounds, especially with kids who spill food, but we do the best we can by reading advice from experts. I would argue the worst part is doing the dishes. The national park requests that backpackers strain out any remaining food particles and carry them out with their trash, but Andrew takes the less time-consuming method of rinsing the dishes with fresh water and drinking the remaining food particles — gross — before we wash them with biodegradable soap.
Step 4: Buy used gear, or even rent or borrow from a friend. Until this year, we had been using hand-me-down, space-age-silver sleeping pads from the 1970s but we upgraded to a double-wide inflatable mat (and the amount of sleep we all got drastically increased). The basics are in the gear list offered below with brand names specified if we’ve had something for years that we love.
If your site doesn’t have a privy, you’ll also need a plastic trowel for digging catholes or special poop sealing bags if hiking out your own feces is required (we avoid these sites). Last year, we had to pack diapers and wet wipes and also a bag and rope to put them in a tree away from animals. I’m not sure if this is technically within the rules, but it worked, and carrying out three-day-old diapers was not as unpleasant as one might expect with an airtight bag.
The luxury items we typically bring are inflatable pillows, pajamas, a hammock, kids’ binoculars and fishing gear (a fly rod to share and two kids’ rods). I download books on my phone to read out loud. This year we enjoyed “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and most of “Julie of the Wolves” (I’m not sure if I want to read the sad ending to the kids yet). But we don’t bring chairs. We also don’t bring clean changes of clothes.
We fit it all in three packs that we carry in two trips to the campsite: Mine is about 35 pounds, Andrew’s is 50 pounds, and we have an Osprey kid-carry backpack that — with our 3-year-old daughter in it, rain gear and water for the hike — is probably another 40 pounds. We also put extra clothes and things like a thermometer and children’s Tylenol in the car. If we need them, it’s only about an hour’s trip to the car and back.
Our 6-year-old carried a backpack with his favorite blanket, my daughter’s stuffed elephant and Uno cards. It was no more than 5 pounds.
Step 5: Enjoy your adventure. I live by the motto of “pick your battle.” The kids track dirt and mud into the tent. It’s inevitable. But I am a stickler about keeping absolutely all food and food-smelling things like toothpaste and granola bar wrappers out of and away from the tent. Dirt won’t hurt the kids, but a bear sniffing around at 3 a.m. would traumatize the kids … and if I’m being honest, me too. Andrew would be fine.
When our daughter was 2, we carried her for most of the hike, but this year, she surprised us and hiked most of the way herself. Maybe next year we won’t need to bring the carry-pack and can make it to camp in one trip, but this year Andrew ran back to the car for his pack while I set up the tents with the kids.
Afternoon rain is common in the Colorado mountains, so having the tent up and gear stashed before 11 a.m. is a good goal. If significant rain is forecast, bring a tarp and rope to set up a shelter over your dinner site — away from tents — and also bring a dry bag for critical items like warm layers of clothing.
Step 6: Don’t expect too much. Take your fitness level and your kids’ enthusiasm for hiking into account when making plans. Maybe next year I’ll plan a multi-stage trip that is more like actual backpacking, but for now I plan day trips from one campsite. One day we hiked to a waterfall. Another day we all caught fish and had a shore lunch of trout cooked with our camp stove (make sure you know the special fishing rules in Rocky).
The kids also spent time completing junior ranger books to get badges from the visitor’s center on the way home. By keeping our expectations low, we were pleasantly surprised. We saw a bull moose, had a yearling deer walk through our campsite, and watched a turkey with two poults roost in a tree for the night a few feet from our tent.
Kids have a hard time expressing themselves, so keep a close eye out for signs of dehydration or elevation sickness. I bring Tang, Gatorade and hot chocolate powder to trick the kids into hydrating. A child might not want to keep hiking and blame it on hunger when really he has a headache from the elevation … or a sore foot from a boot rubbing him wrong.
- Three-man or four-man backpacking tent (we squeeze into a two-plus tent)
- Small two-man tent for gear or for older kids (not necessary with a larger tent or a large vestibule)
- A doublewide 15-degree sleeping bag (we sleep three in one large bag)
- A four-season doublewide sleeping pad
- A 15-degree kid-size sleeping bag
- A four-season kid-size sleeping pad
- SteriPEN water purifier and filter with four Nalgene water bottles
- Jetboil camping stove with cooking cup, 1.5L pot, and 8.1-ounce fuel canister
- Four reusable plastic cups and four reusable plastic spoon/forks
- Four snap-fold bowls (like Fozzils)
- A sharp knife (we bring a multi-tool and a pocketnife)
- Two internal frame packs with rain flies
- Osprey Poco AG Plus child carrier with rain fly and sunshade
- A warm layer of clothes and rain jackets for everyone
- Dinner 1: Cheesy beans, rice and Fritos. This single-pot meal is so good that we have eaten it at home. Use dehydrated beans, seasoning of your choice, instant rice and cheese powder. Add water and cook over camp stove.
- Lunch: powdered peanut butter mixed with chocolate protein powder (just add water in a cup) spread over dehydrated strawberries on a flour tortilla
- Snack: dried apricots, cherries, cranberries, figs and bananas
- Dessert: instant chocolate pudding with crumbled graham crackers
- Dinner 2: Powdered egg burritos with taco seasoning and cheese powder served on a flour tortilla.
- Lunch: Fresh caught trout cooked on camp stove using oil from a can of anchovies and a truffle, parmesan and black garlic seasoning mix. Side of instant rice with seasoning.
- Snack: Trail mix, granola bars, and Oreos
- Dessert: Lemon instant pudding with cake crumbles or vanilla wafers
- Dinner 3: powdered mashed potatoes (any flavor you’d like) and a summer sausage or beef jerkey stew with dehydrated mushrooms
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