For Rosie and Ben Platt of Portland, Ore., the keys to a successful backpacking trip with kids are “trail treats” and short distances. For Michael Lanza and Penny Beach of Boise, Idaho, plenty of breaks, candy bars and word games are crucial.
And for Richard Louv, author of “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder,” it doesn’t matter what parents bust out to motivate kids on the trail — just that they get outside together.
“What better way to connect with your kid than to get away from the electronic distractions and peer pressure, and just go for a walk in the woods,” Louv said.
Many parents have felt the joy and rewards of day hiking with wee ones, but far fewer have backpacked overnight into the wilderness, kids in tow (or in-pack, as the case may be).
With the right gear, planning and attitude, parents and kids alike can reap the benefits of backcountry adventures.
On June 2 – the 20th anniversary of National Trails Day — families have another incentive to hit the trails: dozens of (mostly free) outdoor workshops, trail maintenance projects and guided hikes will be offered in just about every state. To find out what’s happening near you, check out American Hiking Society and click on your state.
Another resource for trail tips and tricks is through classes and workshops atREI, which has stores in 31 states. The Washington Trails Association‘s website has a great section on hiking with kids, as well as car-camping tips and a free “Families Go Hiking” newsletter.
Michael Lanza is Northwest editor of Backpacker magazine and author of “Before They’re Gone: A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks.” He and wife, Penny, have hiked with their kids, now 9 and 11, since they were babies, and began family backpacking trips when the kids turned 6.
“When you get out for a few days or more of backpacking,” Lanza said, “you shake off the stresses and distractions of civilization and enjoy plenty of time for conversation with your companions, which is incredibly energizing and a pleasure we enjoy too rarely in normal life.”
Some family backpacking tips from Lanza, who also runs the websiteTheBigOutside.com:
- Buy modern, lightweight gear: light backpacks, tents and cookware can shave at least 10 pounds from a family of four’s gear weight.
- Make sure gear for kids fits them well. (Lanza includes reviews of kids and adults outdoor gear at TheBigOutside.com.)
- Until age 9 or 10, kids should wear only a daypack, according to Lanza, with a liter of water, a few snacks and a stuffed animal. “Better to let them get a bit stronger and have some trail experience before having them carry much more than that,” he said. “Even 10 pounds feels like a bag of lead to a kid who weighs only 50 pounds.”
- Take only what you need on a trip: one or two changes of all-weather clothes, only the amount of food needed plus a bit extra for ravenous kids, and the amount of water needed to reach the next water source.
- Let kids take their favorite stuffed animals and favorite candy bars to eat when they’re halfway through each day’s mileage.
- Remember a small first-aid kit.
- Make sure the trip includes a river, creek, lake or wilderness beach because water “has never failed to entertain kids endlessly.”
Lanza tells parents not to be discouraged by the amount of work involved in backpacking with kids.
“Don’t wait,” he said. “Start car camping and day hiking when your children are small, and backpacking once they’re ready for that. Nurture in your kids an enthusiasm for hiking and camping beginning when they’re very young, and you will turn them into outdoors rock stars.”
Rosie and Ben Platt, who have backpacked with their now 4- and 6-year-old since they were babies, offer these tips:
- Invest in ultralight gear, including small kids’ packs that can be strapped to adults’ packs if they get tired of carrying them.
- No toys! “We made a pact from the start to not bring a single toy on the trail,” Rosie Platt said. “I was reluctant at first but it was the best move. Immediately, they found a favorite stick or rock.”
- Bring plenty of trail treats such as M&Ms, gummy bears and Goldfish crackers. And seek out “treat trees” or count out 100 steps until the next goody stop.
- Flexibility keeps it fun, she said. “Even if we hike in one mile to a mediocre campsite, it is still a memorable trip. Most of all, pack lightly, stick together and learn the flowers.”
What’s next for the adventurous Lanza and Platt families?
The Lanzas head to Norway in July to trek hut-to-hut for nine days through Jotunheimen National Park, through the highest mountains in northern Europe.
Louv, who has written eight books and co-founded the Children & Nature Network, continues to fish and hike with his now grown sons. But he spends most of his time running down research about nature deficit in children.
He rattles off some unnerving statistics: American children spend 70-80 percent of their time in childcare being sedentary, not counting napping or eating; just 2-3 percent of their day is spent in vigorous activity. Only 17 percent of 15-year-olds get even an hour a day of vigorous activity. The result, partially at least: skyrocketing rates of asthma, obesity, vitamin D deficiency, anxiety and depression.
“Without direct physical contact with the natural world, children’s knowledge about the environment is abstract, for the most part, and they tend to see a world with problems that are overwhelming,” Louv said. “Being outside just for the joy of it is an antidote. In innumerable ways, it helps our children’s health and ability to think and create, and our own as well.”
- How Beacon Editors Plan Their Vacations – Beacon Broadside (beaconbroadside.com)
- How to Backpack (answers.com)
- Before They Are Gone – A Look at Our Endangered National Parks (naturemoms.com)
- Monday Media Roundup: National Parks, Food Deserts and Swamps, M&Ms for Breakfast – Beacon Broadside (beaconbroadside.com)
- What to Bring When You Have Only a Backpack (uloop.com)
- Do the Trails Day two-step: Get outside, get a patch (scoutingmagazine.org)
- An Overview of Hiking Trails in the Hocking Hills (trekohio.com)
- Advice on hiking trails near Escalante, Utah? (ask.metafilter.com)
- The End of the Story With a Plot Twist, Ethan’s 4 Day Backpack (nh48.wordpress.com)
- Take a hike (mysanantonio.com)
From Scientific America…
Ten families hiked into Davidson College Ecological Preserve on a bright Saturday morning to get a glimpse of the kudzu-eating goats, usually off-limits to the public. The outing was part of an environmental education program, World of Wonder (WOW!), a partnership of the Davidson Lands Conservancy (DLC) and Woodland Discovery, a non-profit nature program in Cornelius, NC.
The goats were no doubt the initial attraction for families that signed up for the free program, but children were greeted by WOW! Volunteers with recipes for Kudzu salsa, candy, and jellies, along with bags to collect their fill of Kudzu leaves along the way. Immediately darting from vine to vine, choosing only the smallest, most flavorful leaves, one six-year-old girl exclaimed, “this is like free salsa!”
Happily, the kids were receiving a hands-on lesson in invasive plant identification, as the guide pointed out other invasive species like English ivy, wisteria, and Japanese privet, whose seeds are spread primarily by birds. “The reason that these open spaces have a lot of invasives,” explained Irvin Brawley, who worked as Director of Grounds for Davidson College for 40 years before retiring, “is because it’s a great flyway for birds.”
Once they reached the goats rented by Davidson College to graze on five acres of out of control kudzu, the kids saw the sheer growing power of the vine (one foot per day) verses the eating power of the goats (15-20 lbs of kudzu per day). “This is just the start of Davidson College trying to control kudzu sustainably,” said Brawley.
Like the goats, the kids quickly found new uses for kudzu. Several boys began to swing like young Tarzans from a lush, robust vine. Others pulled down dried kudzu vines to weave into small wreaths with the help of their parents. One boy was determined to fill his bag for that night’s dinner, while exclaiming “it smells like asparagus!”
The effect of the outing was different from most educational tours I’ve experienced – the children were encouraged to not only see and listen, but to touch, smell, and eventually taste nature in all its wonder. In just one hour, I watched children interact with peers and family in the outdoors without fear of the unknown, and they learned naturally and in the best way possible – without even realizing it.
Part of the success of the program is groups are kept small, 15-20 people, to allow for a more intimate learning experience and connection with nature. The idea is working, as there is usually a wait-list for families eager to participate in the program.
“Everybody gains,” explains Pam Dykstra, DLC President. “Parents are empowered because they’re learning with their children, and it becomes a bonding experience because they’re sharing the natural world with their children.”
A Childhood Reality: Nature Deficit Disorder
The concept that people, specifically today’s children, are increasingly suffering from “nature-deficit disorder” stems from Richard Louv, the author of “Last Child in the Woods.” Louv explains that the term was not meant to be a formal diagnosis in his 2009 blog post in Psychology Today. “Nature-deficit disorder is not a formal diagnosis, but a way to describe the psychological, physical and cognitive costs of human alienation from nature, particularly for children in their vulnerable developing years,” he writes.
The problem stems from the increasingly indoor, controlled and/or sanitized lifestyles that modern families lead. The environments where children live, learn, and play all have an effect on mood, growth, and overall health and well-being. With the rising rates of childhood obesity and attention deficit disorder, two problems linked to sedentary lifestyle and increased use of electronics, now is the time for parents to get their kids out of the house.
Moreover, a recent study shows the stakes are even higher. Researchers at Sydney University reported that excessive TV watching causes retinal damage in children and leads to increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes in adulthood. The study also found such effects could be reversed through increased physical activity – like playing outside.
A Natural Partnership
Understanding that not all people are nature buffs able to travel for miles to nature preserves or state parks, DLC identified the need to not only preserve natural areas and make them accessible to people, but to educate families about the value of natural areas in their hometowns and backyards. The partnership with Woodland Discovery was a natural one, as they were already providing outdoor summer camps and nature programs to preschoolers and homeschoolers.
Carolyn Walker, Director of Woodland Discovery, organizes the WOW! educational booth at the Davidson Farmer’s Market, which stays busy with families participating in the latest environmental craft, activity, or concept – from solar ovens to flower printing. Last Saturday there was a line of children waiting to see a cloud of tadpoles and take some home, but only if they promised to release the frogs back into their original habitat.
Overall, Walker has seen an increase in families bringing their children to the market this year. “We have a hardcore following of families that come every weekend, and then others are pleasantly surprised there is something for kids to be interested in,” she said.
The idea that nature has an amazing potential to inspire and motivate people, specifically children, is not a new one. What stayed with me as the WOW! outing ended is the belief that similar outdoor experiences can and must be shared with children, so that future generations will care enough to save the little wild places that fondly remind us of our own childhoods.
Photos by: Patti McKinnon.
About the Author: Lilly Vicens is a freelance writer, nature enthusiast, and volunteer with the Davidson Lands Conservancy and Lake Norman Wildlife Conservationists. Her science writing has been published by Coastwatch Magazine, StormwaterMagazine, and the Watershed Education Network. Vicens holds a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Natural Resources, Ecosystems Assessment from North Carolina State University.
The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those ofScientific American.