M Lightweight Backpacking Gear for Kids

by Jay Ham

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Article Summary:

I have backpacked with my two daughters for 11 years, taking them from the diaper years up into their pre-teen years. The early years were definitely the hardest, when they couldn't carry their own gear. At around age 4, they were able to carry a lightweight pack containing a sleeping bag and foam pad (kept around 4 pounds). Ivy (11 years old) and Elly (9 years old) are currently carrying around 7 pounds of gear. The gear selection presented in this article focuses on gear suited for ages 6 to 13 or so, but the rationale behind our gear selection might apply to other ages as well.

I have a simple recipe for making our trips in the backcountry fun. First, throw out all notions of mileage. Kids don't care how far you go, unless it's too far, and "too far" is different for every trip. If you can sell them on the end point (a water source or great bug catching area perhaps), you might get a few more miles out of them, but the goal has to be reachable and rewarding once you arrive, and a "great view" doesn't make the cut for most kids.

Second, bring a tent-like structure. By tent-like, I mean a shelter with low sides that go nearly to the ground creating an enclosed feeling. We have done many tarp trips, but kids really like being in a "tent." With my girls, it doesn't have anything to do with security. I think it may be a tent's resemblance to a playhouse, something tarps can't compete with.

Kids like to be seen on the trail. They like to hike where they will see and be seen by other hikers. I can't count the number of times someone on the trail has commented on what "great little hikers" they are. As my girls gleam with pride and start to pick up their dragging pace, I know I just got another half-mile or more from our friendly passer bys.

Finally, keep their packs light. There are medical reasons for keeping a child's pack light. A heavy pack can cause serious future back problems for your child's developing spine. Most doctors and physical therapists recommend a child carry no more than 10% to 15% of their body weight in a backpack. Look at it another way, I weight 165 pounds and prefer to carry a max weight of 20 pounds (1st day weight) when lightweight backpacking. Keeping the weight relative, this would be equivalent to my 58 pound daughter carrying 7 pounds (20/165*58=7) or around 12 percent of their body weight.

In truth, I tend to carry something closer to 30 pounds when backpacking with my girls, thanks to the larger shelter and extra food. I know if I overload their packs, I'll end up strapping their packs to mine before the end of the trip. I carry more weight than I like and they carry their 6 to 7 pound loads without complaint, usually. Getting their packs down to an appropriate weight and some example gear is what this article is about.

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