A Beginner’s Guide For Backpacking With Teens

Most parents in America would agree that monitoring screen time for kids is a big challenge, especially because playing games and getting online is how many teenagers socialize and communicate with their friends. As hours are whittled away on electronic devices, teens (and many adults) are seemingly lost in a black hole of endless scrolling, gaming, and the like.

Getting outside then, becomes a stark contrast to this digital lifestyle, especially if you’re planning on a multi-day hiking adventure that will take a bit of endurance and strength. And, while this may be an arduous undertaking for parents to endure—listening to whines and putting up with apathy—it’s important to encourage a healthy lifestyle. You might find that your teens actually like the time spent in the outdoors, spotting wildflowers, observing wildlife, and getting dirt under their nails. The memories you’ll create and the bonds you’ll make will be well worth the planning and effort—even if you don’t hear a “thank you” from your brood until well into adulthood.

If you’re a novice to backpacking, an amalgamation of hiking and backcountry camping, you’ll likely have a lot of questions. How do I choose the right trail? What type of gear should I bring? What things should I be cognizant of in terms of safety? How do I keep my adolescents engaged? Keep reading for backpacking tips for beginners, as well as things to consider when coaxing teens into the outdoors.

An Outdoor Ethos: Any Time, Any Place

Kids see what their parents do and emulate them—if you want to encourage your kids to go outside more, you’ll need to spend more time there yourself. Whether you live in an urban environment or have direct access to wide open spaces and mountain trails, finding somewhere to wander is entirely possible—it might just take a bit of forethought and planning.

In Chicago, for example, you could make trips to the Morton Arboretum, where 16 miles of trails snake through forests, prairies, and wetlands. Or spend time walking at the Chicago Botanic Garden, where dozens of flower and plant-filled paths coil throughout the property. From well-maintained forest preserves to lakeshore paths to enormous parks, it’s not too hard to find a green space to explore in the outdoors. The time spent discovering nature in your own community can be used as training for your bigger backpacking trips.

ProTips: Create outdoor fun for your children by bringing a picnic with hot cocoa or come up with a game to play that will challenge them to learn about the flora and fauna and diverse ecosystems. And, because teenagers are especially social, allow them to bring along a friend or two to enjoy the trail as well. You might find that what they get out of the experience is entirely different from what you get out of it, or from what you were expecting them to get out of it.

Easy Steps for Planning

Now that you’ve created an outdoor culture for your family, it’s time to plan for the big ole backpacking trip. Whether you go for one or several nights, the process is the same: you’ll need a trail appropriate to your skill levels; food (freeze-dried meals are the lightest and easiest), water, and gear; and you’ll need to have the logistics (maps and permits) figured out.

Choosing a Trail

For beginners, choose a well-traveled trail that will be fun, short, and relatively simple. Look for a path that is close to home, considering the season and weather, with few miles to tackle. Be mindful of the elevation gain and loss, and know where the fresh water sources are.

If you find that hiking, with a weighty backpack, was easier than you thought, you can always hike around your camp or add additional miles. Instilling a love of backpacking can go terribly wrong if you bite off more than you can chew. For example, you don’t want to arrive at camp after dark for your first time nor hike on terrain that is much more difficult than you had anticipated. When in doubt, err on the side of easy for your first time.

Pro Tips: While your teens can likely go much further than you think they can, you want their first experience to be something that they’ll aim to repeat. In addition to planning for a shorter first-go, you may also want to lighten their pack load. In general, kids can carry about 15—20% of their body weight. If you can, try to get the weight of their packs as low as possible—only bring the absolute essentials. Really think about whether it’s worth schlepping that hammock or camp chair or other non-survival items.

Backpacking Gear and Clothing Essentials

The outdoor industry has a saying when it comes to gear that is strong, light, and cheap: you can only pick two. If it’s light and cheap, it won’t be strong. If it’s strong and light, it won’t be cheap. You’ll have to make the right decision for your family, depending on how much money you want to spend as well as whether you want your gear to be an investment for future backpacking trips. As we’re talking about first trips into the wild, you might not want to purchase expensive gear that you might not ever use again. Or maybe it’s worth the added cost to avoid the risk of your gear failing or being too heavy to carry.

REI Co-Op has a great backpacking check-list that walks you through everything that you might need on your family adventure, including: hiking boots or shoes, tent, headlamp (BioLite constructs superior headlamps), backpack (Osprey packs are top of the line and hard to beat), sleeping bag, sleeping pad, water bottles and treatment, stove and fuel, kitchen supplies, food, weather appropriate clothes (moisture-wicking fitness wear is your friend), toiletries (you’ll likely need to pack out what you pack in), hygiene supplies, repair kit, and first aid supplies.

Another option is to rent your gear (everything except your hiking boots, which need to fit your feet well) from a company like Arrive Outdoors—they’ll deliver first-rate backpacks, hiking poles, tents, and sleeping bags straight to your door .

Be aware of the Ten Essentials, created in the 1930’s by the Mountaineers to be prepared for emergency situations in the outdoors. The list of essentials has evolved to include: navigation, headlamp, sun protection, first aid, knife, fire, shelter, extra food, extra water, and extra clothes.

Pro Tips: For a one-stop-shop on quality equipment, look no further than Big Agnes for tents, sleeping bags and pads, and air pillows. This company has thought of everything when it comes to being comfortable in the wilderness with well-designed backpacking nitty-gritties.

Other Things to Consider

  • While you most certainly will want your kids to be off their devices to enjoy the great outdoors, perhaps you could load books and podcasts onto their phones so that they can have some edutainment along the way. Or consider giving them an old-school camera to take nature photos.
  • Teach your teens how to navigate and read a map, and then let them lead the way.
  • Bring along a celebratory candy bar or special treat to reward them for reaching the campsite.
  • Encourage your kids to take ownership of their adventure—let them help with the meal planning, camp set up and break down, water filtration and treatment, and photography.
  • Verbalize gratitude each night before bed.
  • Find a charity to raise money for and do pre-trip fundraising. Each mile your teen hikes, for example, could be sponsored for a good cause.
  • Don’t worry about spending lots of money on hiking-specific clothing for your first time. Wear whatever moisture-wicking, non-cotton fitness wear you have handy. If you’re a leggings fan, prAna has comfy styles that make moving in the outdoors easy.
  • Bring along lightweight camp journals so that your kids can write about what they are experiencing.
  • Sign up for wilderness and first-aid training courses prior to your trip so that you and your teen know what to do in case of an emergency.
  • Pack a variety of protein bars and fruit leathers, especially for longer trips. Powdered gatorade is also a treat. Honey Stinger makes delicious waffles, chews, and hydration powders.
  • To be safe, leave your trip itinerary/plan with a family member or friend and let them know when they should expect to hear from you post trip.

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