How to Help Your Kids Love Backpacking

Teach your kids resilience, self-confidence and a lifelong love for the natural world.

Young people today have more sources of stress—things like social media, school, climate change, news media and marketing, to name a few—than any previous generation. I hope you’ll forgive the boldness of that claim if I follow it with the assertion that giving your children a strong connection to nature is one of the greatest gifts you can give them. Adventure-based experiences are far more than just sight-seeing trips. They offer learning opportunities for resilience, self-awareness and confidence that will stay with your children for as long as they live.

I’m speaking from personal experience. 

I’m writing this for any parents or youth leaders who are scratching their heads trying to figure out how to better engage their kids in outdoor experiences. I brainstormed with my mom to come up with ten ideas based on my own childhood growing up on trails and in canoes in Canada’s wild expanses.

Canoeing the French River, age 8.

1. Start small.

An important part of learning any skill is progression. Start small and work your way up, building positivity, skill and confidence from each experience to the next. This means you shouldn’t start with the Pacific Crest Trail, or even necessarily a backcountry trip at all. You could start with something as easy as sleeping in the tent in the living room. Then the backyard. Then the local provincial or state park. Then you can lead them towards bigger trips.

2. Give them choice.

Choice is a valuable way to give kids agency and ownership of their experience. Even choosing one of two prescribed options feels like leadership for a young person. It gives you a chance to honour their voice and their perspective, and it gives them a taste of the self-awareness and decision-making required for adventure-based leadership. When I was eleven, my family hiked the 60 km Pukaskwa Trail on the coast of Lake Superior. I remember a fork in the trail where we discussed whether to take the more-challenging-better-views route, or to take the inland shortcut. I don’t actually remember what we ended up doing. I remember having the choice. 

3. Give them appropriate responsibilities.

On that 60 km trail, my twin sister and I alternated between carrying a day pack and carrying a lighter-packed backpacking pack. We weren’t along for the ride, we were part of a team. Another example would be portaging during canoe trips. When we were too small to carry packs, we carried paddles and lifejackets. Appropriate levels of responsibility help kids feel a sense of belonging and value. They have something to contribute. 

As you scale to their ability, your children will inevitably gain the skills they need for outdoor travel. How to pack a bag. How to light a fire. How to purify water. How to do a bear hang. The list goes on. These skills will empower them to seek out more outdoor experiences. More importantly, the process of learning and mastering something new will influence all aspects of their lives.

4. Let them navigate.

Navigation is one of the best examples of ‘appropriate responsibility,’ because it has all the benefits that I just talked about and it also has a direct impact on your kids’ experience. Being in charge of—or just included in—navigating the trip gives kids the chance to know what’s coming. They know what topography to expect for the day, they know what waypoints are ahead. This offers a bit of ease. It’s the difference between saying, ‘we're going to hike some kind of terrain for some undetermined amount of time,’ and saying, ‘see this height of land, we’re going to hike four kilometres to it and then have a break where we’ll have a good view.’ 

When we backpacked the Long Range Traverse in Gros Morne National Park, for example, it helped to know that we were climbing onto a plateau—so the first day with 600 m of elevation in 2.5 km was a one-time ordeal. 

Hiking the Pukaskwa Trail, age 11.

5. Pack small comforts.

If you think carefully about your kids’ experience, you can anticipate small points of discomfort and make little adjustments to eliminate them. A good example is my parents always packing juice crystals on backcountry trips as a way to avoid strange-tasting water and dehydration, or carrying an extra bit of clothing in case their kids needed it. I remember crying on a rainy canoe trip because I had run out of dry clothing. I don’t think I’d ever felt something so warm in that moment as my mother’s socks.

6. Celebrate discomfort.

By ‘small comforts,’ I don’t mean you should tailor your children’s experience to be as cushy as possible. I have a hundred stories of being uncomfortable in the backcountry, and what each of those experiences offered was juxtaposition, and a focal point. On the Long Range Traverse, it rained for the entire ascent to the plateau—so heavily that my backpack wetted out and the plastic wrapping my sleeping bag leaked. The warm sunny wind the next afternoon was one of the best feelings of my life, but only in comparison to the cold experience of sleeping in a wet sleeping bag. It also rained on the last day of that trip. Poured. Again. And for the last several kilometres into the valley, my mom sang some cheerful song about Australia or something. As a young teenager, I couldn’t believe it. As an experienced backpacker, she knew we were nearly at the trailhead, and this feeling of discomfort was worth celebrating.

You might already know this, but there are three types of fun. Type 1 fun is fun while you’re doing it. Type 2 sucks while you’re doing it, but is fun when you look back on it and makes for a good story. Type 3 is not fun and never fun, usually a life-threatening experience. Celebrating discomfort is about recognizing type 2 fun while it’s happening and giving it what it’s worth. 

Celebration, for the record, doesn’t always mean smiling or singing. Sometimes it means sitting down and acknowledging how much things suck, and then offering your kids a bit of resilience or encouragement that they will get through it, and that the discomfort won’t last forever.

7. Be ready to role model.

My mom was only able to sing on that trail because she was a veteran in the backcountry. As a facilitator of your kids’ experience, you should be ready to role model a good attitude in the backcountry. Patience. Positivity. Confidence. We lost the trail for a short period of time on the Lake Superior Coastal Trail, and I remember relying heavily on my parents’ calmness to manage my own anxiousness about getting lost.

In contrast, I remember canoeing towards a whitewater set with my dad when I was quite young. He started repeating, “I don’t like this, I don’t like this,” under his breath. I found out later that he had seen some sort of discontinuity in the water but wasn’t sure what it was. We ended up going over a small waterfall. I don’t really remember the waterfall, though. What I remember is how much his uncertainty unsettled me.

The point is, take your kids on trips that you’re capable of leading with steadiness and positivity. Your role modelling will have an incredibly important effect on their experience. 

8. Create traditions. 

Another thing that I remember quite clearly is the different traditions my family had during backcountry trips. We always brought a book to read aloud, usually a John Grisham novel. We always went out to a fast food restaurant when we made it back to civilization. Traditions give a sense of identity and reinforce a shared experience. 

9. Follow their passions.

Your kids will show interest in all kinds of things. I’m not a parent but I think you should watch carefully for the most deeply felt of these interests, and do what you can to support them. My siblings and I are all young adults now. I’m a photographer. My sister is an extremely talented cook, especially over a single-burner stove or campfire. My brother is one of the best storytellers I know. These are all passions that started in the backcountry, and passions that were nurtured by our parents. I started calling myself a photographer, for example, when I broke my parents’ compact digital camera and was encouraged to save up for a DSLR.

Specific loves and interests are part of what bring people back to the wilderness again and again. Star gazing. Rock climbing. Whitewater paddling. And so on. Following your kids’ passions also celebrates their identity in a really impactful way. Even at a young age, I identified as ‘the’ photographer on trips, and being able to contribute that meant a lot to me. It still does.

10. Manage your fears.

My last piece of advice is to watch your own fears really carefully. I know a mother who as a young adult was in multiple life-threatening situations, and she told me once that she has never felt afraid like she’s felt afraid for her own children. Like I said, I’m not a parent, so I haven’t really felt this, but I can imagine how deeply you can fear something happening to your child. 

Put simply, you need to manage risk. Not erase it. You can’t keep your kids safe by keeping them in a cushioned bubble. In fact the sooner you start letting them independently experiment with their own limits and their own bodies, the safer they will become. If you can allow a child to test their limits when they’re climbing a tree, for example, that means they won’t have to test themselves when they’re behind the wheel of a car, or drinking alcohol for the first time. I pull some physical stunts that people often think are quite dangerous, for example, but the risk is quite low for me because I know with a high degree of clarity what I’m capable of and what I’m not.

Being safe is a long game, and it starts by allowing your kids room for mistakes and risk management—and that starts with you managing your own fears.

With all honesty, I’ve written far more than I thought I would. As an outdoor educator, I have a high amount of passion for kids’ experiences in the backcountry, and if you’re a parent who loves the outdoors, I hope you do too. I hope this was useful to you and you got some new ideas about how to help your kids love the trail.

I’ll conclude with a shoutout to the parents who raised us. My parents. Your parents. And anyone who was willing to take the time and effort to introduce us to this great wild world that we love so well. We owe them so much. Let’s pass it on.

Published: May 14, 2018

Please respect the places you find on The Outbound Collective.

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph. Learn More

Jonathon ReedExplorer

Canada

Adventure-based photographer and videographer. Sunriser.