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Kids with Backpacks

An interview with backpacking parents Ken Woolley and Dana Geldon See.
By Laura Kimberly

“If people in general could be got into the woods, even for once, to hear the trees speak for themselves, all difficulties in the way of forest preservation would vanish.” John Muir.

To children, not only will the trees speak, but also the flowers, bugs, and rocks. 

This month, Compass editor and Outings Corner contributor Laura Kimberly interviews two families who have hit the trail to share the wonder of wilderness with their kids. Jake was five years old on his first three-day, six-mile roundtrip backpack. At age eight, Hunter’s first overnight was a two-day, eighteen-mile roundtrip with almost 2,500 feet in elevation gain. Noah, Emily, Anna, and Elizabeth ranged from ages six to ten on their first overnight trip. Elizabeth, Jake, and Hunter have even been on Dallas Group bus trips. Dana Geldon See and Ken Woolley tell their families’ stories and give advice.

Editor: How did you know the kids were ready? (How did you know you were ready?)

DGS: We knew Hunter was ready physically because he had completed several long day-hikes including a five-mile trek with a 1,500-feet elevation gain. As for mental readiness, he had heard many stories from his Dad and me about our adventures and expressed interest in going along. 

KW: It was easy to know I was ready. I like to backpack. I have kids. It is easier to take them with me than to figure out where they go while I am gone. Besides, they want to go with me.

Editor: How did you choose location, distance, and days, and go about planning the trip?

Both families choose a trail with an interesting destination: close enough for the kids to reach, trail not too steep or technical, interesting enough to prevent boredom for kids or adults.

KW: The proper planning up front takes some effort to match kid’s abilities to mileage, elevation gain, and difficulty level. If you have a good destination with an appropriate difficulty level, everyone will have fun. Err on the side of easy. Our early trips were low mileage and included a rest day.

Editor: How do you manage the gear? What do the kids carry?

KW: When they are very young, the kids carry emergency gear that will get them through a night if they were to get lost: stuffed animal, flash light, space blanket, some food, water, and a whistle. As they get older, they add more gear to their pack. It’s harder on the adults when the kids are younger, because the parents have to carry more gear, including more bulky things like sleeping bags.

DGS: On his first outing, Hunter carried his pad, sleeping bag, and clothes, a snack, raingear, water in hydration system with a sipper tube, and an emergency kit. His pack weighed 18 pounds. We carried everything else, which was our normal load, but with a three-person tent and food for one extra person.

Editor: How many tents do you take? Do the kids share with adults or each other?

KW: We have two- and three-person tents. The kids stay together in their own tents. We pitch them in close proximity, but not door to door. One night, Noah had a bad dream and came over to tell us about it. Amazingly he walked across the camp without a flash light. That was when we realized a night light near our tents would help the kids navigate after dark.

Editor: What do you do when the kids get scared, bored (does that happen?), tired?

DGS: Memories of bee stings and fire ants bites are the fear factors. We always take an antihistamine as well as a pain reliever in our first aid kit and make sure we know the dosage for a child of his weight. Now, we keep an eye out for stinging creatures.  To combat boredom, we carry cards and an activity book, or find a natural solution. During one rainy spell, we thought were stuck in the tent, but Hunter put on his rain gear and played outside. Singing can keep a sluggish child going for a while. Our favorite tune is “The Ants Go Marching One by One” with our family names and backpacking lyrics. 

KW: The kids may get tired on longer, steeper, or back-back days. They will express boredom, when really they are tired. I bring lots of candy to bribe them to go a little farther down the trail.  We take more, but shorter breaks—we don’t want to sit too long and get cold; we do want to make camp before dark.

Editor: How do you teach them about safety, security, and hygiene?

KW: The biggest concern is that they will get lost, especially when they go off to the bathroom. We convince them to go behind a tree close by. If we are in an area with grizzly bears or other predators, we emphasize it is important to stay close by so they won't become a snack for another animal.

DGS: Hunter has always loved to dig; so “cat holes” were a natural for him! He learned the trowel, hole, and baggie system when he was 5. We still remind him about the proper distance from camp and from water sources and explain why. If we are in bear or cougar country an adult goes with him. Otherwise I watch the direction he goes. 

Editor: What rules do you have?  Do you start going over those at home or at the trail-head?

DGS: We talk about safety before the trip and remind Hunter at the trailhead. The safety talk includes:

  • Don’t run too far ahead.
  • “STOP” means STOP, no questions, just do it.
  • Drink water, stay hydrated.
  • If you get lost, stay put, get comfortable using your emergency gear, and blow your whistle.
  • Let Mom and Dad know if you are uncomfortable, whether with gear, surroundings, or your feelings (physical or mental).
  • Specific dangers of a particular trail (cliffs, cougars, poison ivy, bees, etc.)

The rules emphasize non destructive behavior like no cutting switchbacks, no digging, breaking, kicking, or throwing—but we do skip stones and catch and release bugs and reptiles.

KW: We focus on safety and staying within sight. On one of our earliest day hikes, I let Elizabeth get out ahead of me in an area with mountain lions. When I realized my mistake, it seemed to take forever to catch up with her. Not a good plan! I go over the trip itinerary. The kids get a map. They have their own emergency gear. We remind them to stop if they become lost.

Editor: What hints and advice do you have for parents that may want to backpack with their kids?

DGS: Keep it simple. One destination. No side trips. Include your kid in everything from the trip planning and packing to setting up and breaking down camp to meals. Plan simple meals and bring food your kids will like.

You will have to take more breaks—at a moment’s notice you will be called upon to look at bugs, plants, or rocks; you probably will need to attend to mosquito bites, stickers, or pebbles in boots; and you will at least once help your kid repack his pack because of something poking him.

I always have Hunter wear a brightly colored shirt - red, orange, lime green or yellow. He is easy to spot and the color makes for good pictures.

KW: Just go do it. Be age appropriate. Let them bring some kid things like a stuffed animal. Don't be surprised if they want to put rocks in their packs. They operate on a micro level, while we operate on the macro level. But if you slow down to their pace, you see more flowers, grasses, rocks, and bugs. It can be fun to see things at the micro level again.

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