In an effort to share our national parks with his children before they’re changed forever by climate change, Michael Lanza spent a year exploring the most threatened places with his family and chronicled their adventures in Before They’re Gone, which was released in paperback last month. Also the Northwest Editor for Backpacker Magazine, we asked Lanza for his advice on backpacking with the tiniest tots. —BBL Editor
The first thought on my mind as we hiked up a trail into Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains was: Oh, god, this pack is heavy. My wife, Penny, and I were backpacking for three days into these peaks that rise to over 13,000 feet with our son, Nate. Just 11 months old, he rode in a child-carrier pack on Penny’s back. I carried most of our gear, clothes, food and extra diapers for three days in a very large and grossly overstuffed pack. It felt like a sack full of rocks.
My second thought was that Nate appeared to be having more fun than I’ve ever seen anyone have hiking. Every time I stole a glance at him, he beamed at me, laughing and bouncing in his backpack pouch. His enthusiasm buoyed me, rather than the other way around.
We found a campsite by some backcountry lakes at nearly 10,000 feet in elevation. Penny and I were discovering how backpacking with a young child resembles backpacking childless about as much as skiing uphill resembles skiing downhill: beyond some similarities of appearance, the two activities might as well go by different names.
We had already learned that our son’s definition of wild edibles ranged broadly enough to include rocks and dirt. So one of us stood sentry over him as he played in dirt and climbed onto boulders, while the other pitched our tent, treated water, cooked dinner and managed the myriad other camping tasks.
The next morning, we hiked to a rocky summit high above our campsite. To this day, I like the numerical symmetry of telling friends that my son stood on an 11,000-foot summit when he was 11 months old.
Nate is now 12 and our daughter, Alex, is 10. Their many adventures include backpacking in Grand Canyon, Glacier, Grand Teton (twice), Mt. Rainier and Olympic national parks, rock climbing, cross-country skiing in Yellowstone, sea kayaking in Alaska’s Glacier Bay, and canoeing the Everglades. They always eagerly anticipate our next adventure.
You want to raise a kid who loves the outdoors? I’ve long believed the best way is to start her before she’s old enough to complain or remember anything. Then that child’s oldest memories will include good times with family outside.
A few things I’ve learned over the years about backpacking with young kids:
1. Be Realistic. Go into those first trips with realistic expectations and you are more likely to consider it a success and do it again. It’s a lot of work. On the other hand, getting outdoors with an infant or toddler will make later trips always seem easier.
2. Get the gear. Get a comfortable kid-carrier backpack with a sturdy sun/rain shade. Deuter, Osprey and Kelty make excellent models.
3. Have an exit strategy. Hike short distances, even just two or three miles to a nice lake or stream, and set up a base camp for a couple of nights. Then you’ll have a free day for a hike, playing in the water and just hanging out—and you’ll be able to get out quickly if necessary.
4. Find your limit. With all you have to carry, you may find that four days is the outer limit of how long a trip you can take and fit everything into one large backpack and a kid-carrier pack’s cargo space.
5. Let ‘em hike. You’ll have to carry your child at times, but let him walk as much as possible. Teach your kid to be a hiker.
While it often seemed like a lot of work back then, I laugh now over memories of those first trips with our kids. And when you see how excited your child is out there, you’ll know it’s worth the effort.
Lanza blogs about his family’s outdoor adventures at The Big Outside.