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How to go backpacking with young children

  • Jerry Weatherhogg hikes through Spray Park near Mount Rainier with daughter Hazel. The hike was a shorter day hike as part of an overnight trip.

    Jessi Loerch / The Herald

    Jerry Weatherhogg hikes through Spray Park near Mount Rainier with daughter Hazel. The hike was a shorter day hike as part of an overnight trip.

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By Jessi Loerch
Herald Writer
  • Jerry Weatherhogg hikes through Spray Park near Mount Rainier with daughter Hazel. The hike was a shorter day hike as part of an overnight trip.

    Jessi Loerch / The Herald

    Jerry Weatherhogg hikes through Spray Park near Mount Rainier with daughter Hazel. The hike was a shorter day hike as part of an overnight trip.

Last year, I sat in Enchanted Valley in the Olympics while my 2-year-old spun circles in the dirt of our campsite.
She giggled constantly until collapsing in a heap, puffs of dirt billowing all around her. I needed to set up the tent on her dance pad, but I just waited and watched.
After the 13 miles in from the trailhead with her and my share of our gear on my back, I was slumped against a log.
Hazel, however, had plenty of energy. She used it to get as dirty as possible while dancing, looking for bugs and throwing rocks in the river.
Before my daughter was born, hiking and backpacking were my favorite activities. After she was born, I worked to bring her outside as much as possible. She went tent camping when she was 6 weeks old. She has been hiking and camping countless times and on multiday backpacking trips twice: once to Enchanted Valley and once to a short section of the Wonderland Trail on Mount Rainier.
Kids are brilliantly adaptable. I've read amazing accounts of families trekking the Pacific Crest Trail or kayaking in Alaska with toddlers. While I'm not that adventurous, I am determined to share my love of nature with my daughter.
I've put together some of the tips and tricks that have worked well for us over several years of backpacking and hiking with a small child (my daughter will be 3 soon).
I'm mostly focusing on ideas that will allow you to go outside with very small children, but many will also work for older kids.
Find a baby carrier that you like and use it. Use it a lot. You want your kid and yourself to both be comfortable.
There are many options out there. Once your child is old enough, usually about the time they can sit up, find a carrier that allows your baby to ride on your back. You'll have much better balance and your hands will be free.
I love my Ergo carrier because it allows you to carry your child on your front or your back. If my daughter was really fussy, bringing her around to the front usually solved the problem.
Once my daughter was older and heavier, we bought an actual backpack that distributed her weight more easily and allowed me to carry the tent and some extra gear, too.
Get out regularly. If you use your carrier often enough, your child will learn to sleep in it. This makes longer trips a snap.
Kiddo sleeps while you hike and gets down to play when you stop.
Bring easy to prepare food. Make sure you have lots of snacks that don't require heating. Tuna packets and tortillas were a winner for my daughter.
For hot meals, we love Thai noodles. They cook fast, are lightweight, and Hazel will always eat them.
If your baby is breastfeeding that will be easy enough, just make sure you drink a lot of water. If you feed formula, powdered will be lighter. Make sure you have a reliable water filter.
Bring special treats. Once my daughter was old enough to walk well, she would often object to getting back in the carrier after our stops. She wanted to walk on her own.
In these instances, I dropped my objections to bribing and enticed her with a piece of candy. It worked like a charm.
If your kid likes books, consider bringing an e-reader. We have one of the older, black and white Kindles. For the weight of a single book, you can bring as many books as you like. And you're not stuck reading "Curious George Goes to the Zoo" 800 times.
Pack many layers for your child. Invariably, something is going to get wet and you'll want backup. Things are also going to get dirty.
But really, blueberry stains on a shirt don't matter when you're backpacking. Make your peace with dirt. Your kid is going to be a mess. Don't fret about it.
Get creative about sleeping arrangements. My husband and I have mummy bags that zip together. We leave the top zipper mostly unzipped and cover the gap with a small blanket and dress my daughter warmly on cold nights. Our body heat helps keep my daughter warm, and we don't have to carry a separate bag for her.
Make a plan for diapers. For my trips, we have packed disposable diapers in and out. Deal with solid waste as you would your own, using wilderness toilets or properly burying it.
If you leave wet diapers in the sun, some of the moisture will evaporate making them lighter to carry out. Be sure to bring a heavy-duty plastic bag for this job.
Cloth diapers are also an option, mostly for longer trips. Be sure you have a plan to wash them without contaminating water sources. Check online for ideas.
Also, check out We followed its suggestions loosely, and my daughter was out of diapers by the time she was 2. That makes outdoor trips loads easier.
Bring baby pain killers. You may not need them, but if teething pain hits, you'll be glad you have the Tylenol.
Learn more
Check these books for more ideas:
  • "Babes in the Woods" by Jennifer Aist
  • "Best Hikes with Kids -- Western Washington and the Cascades" by Joan Burton
Story tags » Outdoor RecreationCampingHiking

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