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Backpacking with Kids and Dogs

Backpacking with Kids and Dogs

For a couple years now I’ve been itching to get my now 6-year-old son out backpacking with me. It’s something I’ve loved to do for the past 20 years and couldn’t wait to share the experiences with him.

This summer he and I took a road trip around Utah and northern Arizona, visiting national parks and a ton of federal lands. In a weird coincidence, we learned through some Facebook posts that we’d be crossing paths with a good college buddy and his family during their vacation in Moab. We got together and the conversation took a turn to getting his 8-year-old son out backpacking for the first time too.

I’ve never shied away from adventures. I’ve backpacked in remote Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, I’ve camped solo for a week in the Black Hills, I’ve backpacked solo in the High Uintas Wilderness in Utah, but when it came to backpacking with my son, I’ve been hesitant. I’ve worried about logistics and fret over the weather.

Running into my friend and hearing him mimic my desire to get our kids to share this activity we’ve enjoyed for years was the final push I needed.

Fast forward 6 weeks and we were on our way from Milwaukee to The Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The Porkies, as they are known, are one of just a handful of places in the midwest where you can get out and feel truly remote. The park borders Lake Superior for miles and contains huge swaths of old growth forests. We’d identified a short, 3-mile hike into a small lake where we could make camp for 2 nights with a down day to fish, swim and relax.

After one trip I’m not here to present myself as an expert at backpacking with kids but after a little reflection, it occurred to me how similar bringing my son was to bringing my dog. I wanted to title this post “Things I learned backpacking with my dogs that made backpacking with kids a little easier” but that’s a tad long. But, I digress. What follows are my takeaways from what turned out to be a great trip.

Kids and dogs are pretty adaptable

It’s true and it really makes the trip easier. So, relax. They’ll sleep on the ground with very little complaint and they don’t mind being filthy dirty. Chances are, they both look up to you. So, set a good example in terms of actions and attitude and you’ll most likely have a great time.

Good gear is important

Bad gear leads to misery. Start with a good, properly fitting pack. In our case, it was an REI Tarn 18 pack for the boy and a Ruffwear Palisades for the dog – her go-to pack. In each case, they were able to be more self-sufficient and have a real job to contribute toward the overall trip. Neither was just along for the ride.

Next up, a good sleeping arrangement. Despite the adaptability, everyone needs a warm, comfortable night’s sleep. If not, especially for the kids, crabbiness runs wild. From a previous camping trip in the Black Hills, my son had a good mummy sleeping bag that he knew how to operate and had some experience sleeping in. Under that, I carried a Big Agnes pad for him. For my Lab, the Ruffwear Highlands Sleeping Bag and Highlands Foam Pad cannot be beaten! She used the foam pad separately by the fire and sleep system kept her warm and comfortable all night. Everyone slept as well as you can on the uneven ground.

You’re probably going to forget something

You most likely will forget something. Whether you just didn’t think to bring it, or like my buddy, you left all your headlamps in the car, you’ll probably forget something. Don’t freak out. Unless it’s all your food or your tent, you’ll probably be just fine. Kids and dog’s alike will be looking to you for direction – both in how are we going to fix this situation and emotionally, how are we going to handle it. Keep it together and they will too. Everyone will come out a little stronger, with a positive experience.

Do you notice a lack of photography for this post? Yeah, I forgot the memory card for my DSLR camera and was left with an old, mostly out of focus point and shoot.

Focus on fun

Your mileage will definitely vary with this one but focus on fun. Chances are your kids, and definitely, your dogs, care less about how many miles were hiked that day or if that peak was bagged. They’re going to remember taking that swim and checking out the cool rocks and sticks (and smells for the 4 legged). Make time for fun.

Staying fueled and hydrated

Kids and dogs won’t easily recognize dehydration. They may be completely happy skipping a meal if they aren’t hungry. This is where you have to watch and keep tabs on it, just like you would your own intake. Like at home, maybe more depending on weather and environment, keep them properly hydrated and fueled.

The straight poop

To be honest, this is where kids and dogs were the least alike. The dog will poop and pee anywhere. My son, however, despite going over it at home, couldn’t bring himself to poop in the woods. We dug holes, we tried, it wouldn’t happen. It’s the one area we need to figure out, especially before we try a longer trip.

Final Thought

Overall, the trip was a rousing win. Everyone had fun and talked about “next time”; music to my ears.