Brat Packing

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, Family Vacation Guide

Brat Packing
Hiking with kids doesn't have to be one big whine fest. All you need is the right trail, the right gear, and a few time-tested tactics.


One, Two, Three, Four ... Hike!
Ten great family backpacking trails

Gear to Go:
All the right stuff for family camping

A mountaineering friend of mine has bagged peaks on every continent except Antarctica, but claims his most grueling trek was a cinch compared to a long weekend spent backpacking with his kids. It's their unpredictability he can't stand. An unexpected storm is never as annoying as a kid who needs to stop every few minutes to scratch a nonexistent mosquito bite.

Backpacking appears kid-friendly because it's low-tech and deceptively easy — a few days spent walking and eating in a gorgeous natural setting, with some sleeping in a tent in between. But the problems begin before you even drag out the packs. Conventional wisdom dictates that school-age children can carry about 25 percent of their weight. Children are always delighted at the prospect of a camping trip, until they remember that they're going to be required to carry boring stuff called essentials, like clothes and cooking utensils and some icky-tasting food.

My own impressively stubborn six-year-old will stand on the front porch after everyone else is in the car and proclaim that some stuffed animal is essential and that furthermore she promises she'll carry it herself the whole time. I fell for this once, and wound up spending the better part of a hike through the northern Sierra carrying a stuffed sheepdog whose name says it all: Big Puppy.

In order to plan the itinerary that you'll abandon after a half mile on the first day out (someone will inevitably need to rest, snack, or throw a fit), it's good to know your children's individual backpacking styles.

Stephanie, my 13-year-old, put in a lot of hard time as a young child with her grandparents, avid hikers who consider anything less than a month on the Pacific Crest Trail hardly worth the effort. By the time she was three, Stephanie already had her own emergency kit, complete with space blanket, waterproof matches, and inedible peanuts. She's my silent trudger.

My seven-year-old stepson's natural mother, for whom an impulse buy is livestock, owns three llamas, so for him a hike isn't complete without a large ill-tempered animal that spits on his head. Fortunately, Kenny feels the same way about boulders. As long as there's a rock suitable for scrambling up when the urge strikes, he's happy.

Fiona, mistress of Big Puppy, is a compulsive commentator. Two yards down the trail on the first day she's already framing the story of the trip: "Hiking is fun. Look at all the nature. When do we get to eat those Hershey's bars?"

Once you're actually on the trail, things perk up for a bit, long enough to prevent your transformation from benevolent outdoors-loving parent to churlish child abuser. My kids need a hike that closely resembles Halloween trick-or-treating. As long as every hundred feet or so we come across some natural goody — a stream, a waterfall, a fallen tree with icky fungus, or banana slugs for chucking at each other — things will run smoothly. A rotting animal carcass along the way is an unexpected bonus, as long as it doesn't resemble anything sitting in a cage at home.

Be prepared to force your children to drink water, then stop every fifteen minutes for a potty break. In the same way you don't joke about bombs at the airport, resist the impulse to make a joke about the mythical Deadly Butt-Biting Snake as your daughter tiptoes into the underbrush.

Once you get to camp, there will be nothing to do. Setting up the tent and unpacking the food and cooking gear doesn't count. You will think you're clever for having brought an educational nature-themed activity book and crayons for the youngest children. They'll color happily until it's time to drop the crayons in the fire and watch them melt. The next evening at camp, there will really be nothing to do.

At some point during the trip, your child will refuse to continue unless he or she is carried. Her feet will hurt. She will have an itchy bite. So bored, so beset with ennui, the thought of hiking another step sends her into a despair deeper than that of a French existentialist. To prepare for this, insist that your children bring along something they can't live without, then force them to leave it in the car. "But, honey, what about Scuba Barbie? If you don't come back with us, then (fill in name of most detested sibling here) will get it."

It's important to have a nice squabble on the last day of the trip. My mountaineering friend says he excels at this. An hour before it's over he winds up shrieking, "All right! That's it! Perhaps you'd rather stay home the next time we go backpacking. Is that what you want?"

To which his kids say, "No, no, we want to go backpacking."

And the thing of it is, they do.
— Karen Karbo

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