How To Go Backpacking With A 4 Year Old


This past weekend I took my son (4) to Shenandoah National Park. This was a last minute trip for us and my preferred car camping sites were all booked by the time the plan came together. So I packed up stuff for 2, took a calculated risk based on what I though he could handle, and we hiked up the Overall Run Trail.

It was about 3 miles to our campsite and another half mile to the waterfall at the top. The next day there was to be a swimming hole on the way back to the car. We parked at 1 pm and started hiking. I had two friends joining us that were a few hours behind. My son and I went slow, but there was no rush. He talked nonstop. I kept him well fed with snacks he likes. (Honey Stinger waffles will motivate him to go anywhere!) And I won’t lie, I was his packhorse and carried him on my shoulders part way.

By about 3 pm he was dragging and we were still a long uphill half-mile from camp. We stopped for a long rest and took out his monster trucks to wait for our friends. Then my son screamed — he had grazed his hand along a small funny-looking caterpillar (later identified as a saddleback) and said his finger was burning. After some hugs and an alcohol pad and band aid, he was all right. Our friends showed up just in time.

As I packed up the backpack again, he caught his second wind and hiked full steam ahead uphill to the campsite. After a brief rest and tent setup period, we were off to the waterfall. It was a letdown — running much drier than I anticipated — but we filled our water bladders in the stream and headed back in time to catch the sunset over the Masanutten ridge. Dinner was sandwiches and roasted marshmallows. My son led the fireside story-telling about Mr Booty the Bad Guy who was a duck.

Sunday we took our time packing up and went a much easier three miles downhill to the swimming hole. By the time we got to the car at 1 pm, he said he wanted to skip lunch and just close his eyes.

With patience, waffles, and extra hands, we had a great time. By the time we got home, the caterpillar was a highlight!

Gear list:

I had a lot of gear rented out this weekend, so this isn’t exactly what I would have chosen in every category:

• EMS Long Trail 70L backpack
• Sunhiker 12L backpack
• GoLite Shangri-La 2 person tent with mismatched footprint and rainfly
• 2 sleeping pads
• 1 adult sleeping bag and a double size wool blanket
• MSR Trailshot band pump water filter
• ThermaCell mosquito burner
• Osprey and Camelbak 3L water bladders
• Stuffed monkey
• 4 monster trucks