Posts Tagged ‘backcountry’

The Smaller the Better – When to Introduce Kids to the Backcountry

I was just having a conversation with a friend about when the best time to start backcountry camping with the kids is.  I’ve sort of touched on this before, but the conversation has inspired me to address it again.  In my opinion, the younger the better.  I haven’t read any studies on this topic, but based on my experience with my boys, this is why I think they have taken to it so readily.  Keep in mind that getting your kids out whatever their age is important and beneficial, so don’t be discouraged if you’ve waited to do it!  Also…safety first.  Don’t get yourself and the kids in over your heads.  Start slowly and build to epic…don’t just jump right in 😉

Camping in the snow with uncle Scott…age 6.

1) They don’t know any different (suckers).

When my guys think of fun and recreational activities, their minds don’t (often) wander to movies or theme parks.  They don’t lust after luxury rooms in fancy hotels or exotic foods from exotic places (except sushi of course, but who doesn’t?).  They dream of the backcountry because that is what they equate with fun and family.  Before they could even talk, they could trip.

2) They measure themselves with a tripping yardstick.

When they were little, they were told that they were too small to do some things like paddle the canoe or carry the portage pack.  As

Setting up the tent…ages 2 and 5

they have grown, they have taken on greater responsibilities and challenges and it makes them feel grown up.  They keep wanting to go back to prove to themselves and to us just how far they’ve come.

3) They still think you’re the coolest (because I am).

You think the backcountry is awesome and they think you are awesome.  When they are little, the sun rises and sets with you so they love what you love.  It’s a great big love fest.

4) Exercise.

This one is self-explanatory.  Active youngin’s turn into active teens who become active adults. No arm twisting necessary.

5) It impresses their friends.

When the boys are well versed in first aid, how to do boat rescues, get to start fires, when they’ve learned how to fight off bears and they get knives for their birthdays, they are the talk of the schoolyard…in a good way.

6) It’s hard to get them down.

Little ones put far less pressure on themselves to get things right the first time (relative to angsty teens who take a “who cares” stance when they don’t master something on the first try).  Sure they can get discouraged.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve certainly seen backcountry tantrums and tears.  The older the kid though, the quicker they are to give up on a task that makes them feel weak or slow or is difficult and seen as not being fun.

7) Everything is fun.

Teenagers think everything is boring and beneath them.  Little ones think everything is fun.  Plain and simple.  A two-year old will collect rocks and dig in the dirt with a stick for hours.  They will happily gather firewood, or peg tents or fetch water because everything is a game.  Teenagers will sit on a log staring off into space and occasionally grunt that “this sucks”.

8) Dirt.

Little guys naturally want to play in the dirt.  Give them a chance and they won’t get all squeamish about getting their hands or clothes

Swimming in Algonquin ages 2 and 5

dirty.  Sitting on the ground, wiping their hands on their pants and picking bugs out of their food before chowing down are all things best taught early. Exposure to dirty stuff helps build a strong immunity and keeps your kids healthier in the long run.

9) Community.

The outdoor community is an awesome one.  Friendly like-minded folks hanging out and going on trips together or simply sharing tips and ideas.  But nobody likes being the new kid in class, I mean where are am I going to sit?  I won’t know anybody!  Start them young and they will make life-long friends and tripping buddies.  It’s harder to break into a group that’s already got history and a couple of trips under their belts.

10) Never too much of a good thing.

Getting your kids outside for exercise and fresh air is good for them.  Nurturing a connection to the environment and a sense of empathy for nature and its creatures is good for them.  Spending time as a family without the distractions and trappings of the city is good for them.  Nurturing a family bond that will hold up under the pressure of daily quibbles and bigger squabbles is good for them (and you).  If all of this is good for them, then the longer they get to do it, the better!

There you have it.  When should you introduce your kids to the backcountry?  RIGHT NOW!  Don’t wait, no excuses, take them out and take them often.  By the time they’re “big” they’ll be superstars of the outdoors and happy, healthy, well-rounded nature-lovers.  Who wouldn’t want that for their kids?

What Age Is The Right Age For Backcountry Camping With Kids?

So let’s start at the beginning.

getting a lift from daddy

What age is the perfect age to start backcountry camping with the kids?  Of course there is no right answer here.  Every kid is different and so is every parent.  But I do know that kids take their cues from you.  If you are nervous about going on the trip, so are they!  Plan to start with a one nighter, keep it fairly close to where you’ve parked in case you need to bail, and make sure there are at least two adults to wrangle the kiddies.  Fraser and I decided that single parent trips would have to wait until Luke was old enough and responsible enough to handle an emergency if something were to happen, but I’ll address this further in another post.  When you have done your research, planned your menu, bought or borrowed your gear and feel that you are sufficiently confident to meet the challenge, grab your backpack and the baby wipes…it’s time to hit the trail!

Getting ready to board the boat for the 1st time

Car camping started when Zach and Luke were one and four respectively, but we put off our first backcountry canoe trip until one year later.  From personal experience, I can tell you that toddlers are tricky and take an extra amount of patience on your part. Think carefully about what it’s like at HOME with your toddlers.  Do they do what you ask of them as soon as you ask? Can you imagine situations in the backcountry when you’d need your kids to do what they are told as soon as they are told?  How about “don’t go near the edge” or “don’t put that in your mouth”, “don’t touch that plant”, “don’t leave your cereal on the ground!”.  What if it’s raining?  Will they happily play outside in the mud or play quietly in a small space (like the tent)?

Toddlers are natural explorers but aren’t quite capable yet of following directions or understanding consequences.  Again, this is a tricky time for the backcountry.  I’m not trying to discourage you from trying but rather preparing you for a somewhat less relaxing trip than you may be used to. You must keep your eye on them at all times (two adults definitely come in handy here). It only takes a second to fall in a lake or gather up a poison ivy bouquet for mommy. Yikes!  Take note that I ended up leaving PDFs on the kids throughout MOST of that first toddler canoe trip. In the boat AND in camp!  What I remember most about that first “real” backcountry trip was picking up Zach off the ground constantly.  He wasn’t quite coordinated enough to manage the terrain and was constantly tripping over rocks and sticks and roots, or just plain falling down because of the slopey nature of the site. He cried a lot on that trip, but he loved it all the same.  While the memories are priceless,  I have to admit that we opted out of any more backcountry trips with the boys for a full year after that.  It gave them a chance to mature and us a chance to recover!

Common sense must prevail when tripping with little ones.  You can’t expect too much of them.  They are out of their element and their routines will suffer as a result.  Expect no naps (unless they collapse from exhaustion!) and a later bedtime than usual.  They are all hyped up and you will presumably be camping in the summer, so the sun will still be shining far past bedtime.  I’ll address camping in shoulder seasons (spring and fall) and in the winter in later posts, but needless to say, these are not ideal seasons for little ones.  The challenges of unpredictable weather and a toddlers inability to regulate body temperature adequately,  make it inadvisable to start them off too young.  In the cold weather, consider day trips instead.  Or maybe plan a stay in a yurt!

Enjoying tent time

The beauty of a tent is that it acts like an over-sized playpen.  You may be able to convince junior to sleep if you lay down beside him, and goodness knows you’re gonna need the rest too!  Plenty of times I’ve laid down to coax a nap or bedtime and woken up hours later, or even the next morning!  You might not normally co-sleep or lie down with your little one as they fall asleep, but your presence will reassure them.  If you have more than one child with you, it also discourages “fooling around” when they should be getting to bed.  One piece of advice though… make sure that you tell kids that you are only lying down with them until they fall asleep.  Be sure they understand that you will be leaving the tent for some grown-up time and that if they wake up and you’re not there, you are just a stones throw away.  Don’t let them wake up thinking that a forest creature has stolen you away and they’ve been left alone to fend for themselves!  Of course you will be spending the night in the same tent.  You are going to need to be able to watch over them and make sure they are not too hot or too cold.  If your babes are out of diapers, you are going to need to be able to unzip the door so that they can go to the bathroom.  Keep a flashlight or a headlamp and some slip on shoes easily accessible for late night bathroom trips.

Check out Zach’s ear…yes that is cereal

I will make a list in a later post about fundamental campsite rules, but two of them are so important that I’ll post them here as well.  ABSOLUTELY NO FOOD IN THE TENT!  and ABSOLUTELY NO FOOD LEFT LYING AROUND YOUR SITE!  This is a particularly difficult one with snacks and messy toddlers.  Food attracts animals and you don’t want that.  Animals as tiny as chipmunks can cause a lot of damage and scare the pants off you in the middle of the night.  They sound HUGE in the dark! Consequences can range from stolen food and damaged gear to far more serious results like bears in camp.  Do not take a chance on this.  When my boys were little, I passed on the oat ring cereal that they normally ate for snacks and breakfast,  and opted for the fruit ring cereal.  There were two reasons for this. One, the anticipation of having a normally forbidden snack was thrilling to them.  Two, we could SEE the cereal when it fell on the ground, it’s unnaturally fluorescent colours glowing like little warning beacons.

Packed full of sugary goodness


While we’re on the subject of food.  Including other normally taboo food in the menu really gets the kids excited about going camping.  Go ahead indulge them in fatty sugary food (if you’re worried about nutrition, this could include dried fruits and nuts which are loaded with healthy fats and natural sugars) and provide lots and lots and lots of snacks.  They are going to need the calories and energy to fuel paddling, swimming, hiking and tree climbing!  We always visit the bulk food store and load up on bags and bags of snacks!  Why not include all of those old-school camp meals like mac and cheese and hot dogs.  We have traditional trip meals that we rarely skip.  It just wouldn’t be the same if we didn’t have spider dogs!  Don’t worry, I’ll do a full post on menu planning  🙂

I guess what I’m saying is, I’m glad that we started our boys out tripping as early as we did.  While it was a lot of work in the beginning, they can’t remember a time when we weren’t planning or participating in a trip.  They have grown into confident and competent campers and are always thrilled with idea of a new adventure on the horizon.  They couldn’t wait to be old enough for longer and more ambitious expeditions.  They couldn’t wait to be strong enough to carry full packs on portages and hikes…and neither could I.

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