The do's and don'ts of tramping with kids

NZ Herald
By Greg Roughan
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Planning can avoid the 'I just give up' nightmare on an overnight hike, writes Greg Roughan

Six and a half. That was when big sister got to go on an overnight hike with Dad – so that's when little sister gets to go too.

Big sister is a classic oldest child – thoughtful and careful, basically the perfect demeanour for a trip into the wilds. Little sister is theatrical and impulsive – basically a search-and-rescue mission waiting to happen. But a deal's a deal, so we pull out the calendar and start making plans.

How to plan a hike with your kids

Plan carefully. Because tramping with children in New Zealand is a nightmare. I mean, it's wonderful. It gets them off screens, lets them blow off steam, challenges them just enough to build their confidence and opens a window on a world where the hyper-speed stresses of tweenage life simply don't exist. But yeah, it is a potential nightmare. When your kids are small enough to pop into a backpack you can carry them anywhere. But when they become too big to carry, venturing further than an hour from a trailhead puts you one tantrum away – one "I can't do this Dad, I just give up" – from a cold wet night in the forest. Followed by a cold fortnight on the couch . . .

Greg Roughan believes getting your child prepped and excited early on makes the trip all the easier. Photo / Supplied
Greg Roughan believes getting your child prepped and excited early on makes the trip all the easier. Photo / Supplied

So I'm very careful when I plan a trip with the kids. The deal is, they get to come away with me one-on-one, which makes it kind of special. And I reckon 6 1/2 is about the right age. You want to get them into it young so they catch the bug – and hopefully develop a passion for healthy outdoors stuff that will serve them well into their teenage years and beyond. But if you start them too young you risk it being hard, having to carry them (which would be a nightmare) and putting both you and them off for life.

So I start prepping Zoe – daughter No 2 – by talking up the trip early. When shall we go? What shoes will she wear? What lollies will she carry in her bag? Honestly, at least three months before we're set to leave (for what is really a very modest one-night-away tramp) we're talking the trip up so much that, by the time the chosen weekend rolls around, she's totally psychologically primed.

Is Zoe super excited? Yes!

Is Daddy going to piggyback her 5km down a mountain because hiking sucks? Absolutely no way.

So we get psyched, we get our gear prepped, and we get dropped off at the start of the track by Mum, who sets us on our way with a kiss and a cute photo.

Hitting the trail

But crikey we're carrying a lot of stuff. Well, I am. I figure Zoe will be happiest travelling light, so I plod behind her as she skips up the track with just a water bottle and lollies in her bag, talking non-stop.

Everything is novel for kids in the bush, and once I explain how the trail markers work she spends an hour chiming out "orange triangle!" every time she spots one, until I have to ask her to stop.

Eventually we both need a break, so I crack open the pack and start the gas cooker. She has a hot chocolate and wolfs a roll, while I have an instant coffee – and I can't believe how much better we both feel for the stop.

Zoe was suitably fussed over in the DoC hut overnight. Photo / Supplied
Zoe was suitably fussed over in the DoC hut overnight. Photo / Supplied

We set off again and another hour later it's clear that she's going to make it to the top with ease – that tent I lugged here wasn't needed after all, though I appreciated having the option. Then suddenly after what feels like hours of walking and snacking we break out on to the tops of the Kaimai ranges.

The wind up here makes your eyes water, but the view is incredible – Ruapehu on one horizon, Whaikaari/White Island smoking on the other, and the whole glittering curve of the Bay of Plenty stretched out before us. We sit and point and explore a little – but really it's getting pretty cold, so we drop down to the hut to bags our bunk, make some dinner, and get to know the others who'll be staying the night.

This is maybe the best part of the whole trip. As the youngest in the hut, Zoe gets a fuss made out of her, and has fun trading chocolate and playing cards by candlelight. We even find a random patch of cellphone coverage and exchange texts with a proud mum back home, before I catch her yawning, bundle her into her sleeping bag, and sit with her until she falls asleep. It's early – but she's exhausted – and we know we have a long walk ahead of us in the morning.

Where to go when you're hiking with kids

If you're overnighting with kids, the ideal destination is two to four hours each way and not too steep, remembering that you'll take longer than the suggested walking times on the signs.

The Department of Conservation has a great list of family-friendly Easy Access Huts on its website, with options up and down the country. See and check out the site for all the details on fees, booking (generally you can't and it's first come, first served) and all detailed maps and information.

What to pack for an overnight hike with kids

If you've not done much hiking yourself, it's a good idea to team up with someone who has. But really, you shouldn't let inexperience put you off. If you're vaguely sensible and you remember at least a few things from school camp, then don't be scared to borrow a few things and get back into it.

Here's what I think you should take for an overnight trip, in order of importance.

Zoe, who is a little sister, is 'theatrical and impulsive - basically a search and rescue mission waiting to happen'. Photo / Supplied.
Zoe, who is a little sister, is 'theatrical and impulsive - basically a search and rescue mission waiting to happen'. Photo / Supplied.

A pack
Sounds obvious, but you're going to be carrying gear for two people, so you'll need a big one and your regular backpack won't do. You need a frame pack – that means it has a stiff aluminium frame inside the material – and it needs to have a proper waistband so that 90 per cent of the weight sits on your hips. If your bag has most of the weight dragging down on your shoulders you'll have a horrible time. Other than that, your pack doesn't need to be fancy – I take an 80-litre Macpac that's been going strong for at least 20 years.

Water bottle
Don't take a pump bottle if you can avoid it – you'll drop it and it will get a puncture. Take a decent sized (1 litre-plus) tough plastic bottle each. I think the ideal is something called a camelback, which goes inside your pack and has a tube that you can sip from without stopping, so that you stay more hydrated. And it lets you carry up to 3 litres, which is a lot of extra weight, but comes in handy if you decide to camp (or are forced to camp) and can't find water for cooking.

A headtorch (each)
My outdoors motto is "'I wish I didn't bring a head torch' said nobody, ever". Head torches are essential safety equipment – and fun too. Although don't get your kids the novelty toy kind – opt for something that casts some decent light. And if you want to treat yourself to something with real power, order a rechargeable lithium battery head torch from somewhere like (yes, it's a New Zealand site and yes, they're dedicated to torches). Mine puts out about 1000 lumens and it's saved my bacon many times. I love it.

Okay, this is where your pack weight starts to really blow out, but if you can get hold of a light (say, less than 3kg) tent, it's a big reassurance if you have younger kids. Basically, it means you can fail to reach the hut and still be okay. You just find a flat spot, have some food, turn in and head back home in the morning. Unfortunately, that means carrying a bedroll each too, so try to find light, inflatable ones.

Two sets of warm clothing
Generally, you walk in gym clothes or the like – quick-dry shorts and a T-shirt – but you should buy or borrow proper polypropylene thermal long johns and undershirts to bring. I pack mine in a waterproof "dry-bag" with my sleeping bag, woolly hat (this is non-negotiable in New Zealand) and spare socks. That way you can have a horrible experience getting rained on all the way to the hut, and still have warm, dry gear to change into when you arrive. This is a really important safety point for overnight trips.

And always take a raincoat, no matter the forecast.

Tramping with kids means being prepared, but it can be well worth the effort. Photo / Supplied.
Tramping with kids means being prepared, but it can be well worth the effort. Photo / Supplied.

A sleeping bag each
Yes, you are carrying all this stuff.

Gas cooker, gas, pots, lighter
With a little screw-in cooker, plus a gas canister and pot, you're set for hot meals in the evening – and hot chocolates and coffees during the day. Thank God for coffee.

I'm lazy so I take freeze-dried Back Country meals for my dinners. Most adults will eat in one go a two-serving packet, which cost about $12 each. All you do is boil a cup or so of water, pour it into the foil bag, and leave it for 10 minutes. You then eat straight out of the bag, which saves taking plates.

My lunch formula is two to three bread rolls, a little wheel of brie and a squirt of Kewpie mayonnaise for interest, per person per day.

And on a one-night trip, I fry bacon with rolls and coffee for breakfast, which is torture for everyone else in the hut.

Scroggin, aka Trailmix
The traditional energy snack for tramping in New Zealand was always a mixture of nuts, seeds, dried fruit and chocolate, which has all the good bits picked out in the first half-hour and is reduced by day two to a miserable blend of pumpkin and sunflower seeds. This, in my opinion, is a mug's game, and I now take a bag of lolly snakes, plus a couple of peanut slabs to get my tired legs up hills. Sugary snacks are critical to kids having a good time on a long hike.

Extras for experts

Personal Locator Beacon
These are expensive, but if you join a hiking club you can sometimes hire these cheaply. They're not a crucial piece of equipment on popular trails, but for me a PLB is the ultimate back-up when you're taking your children into the wilds (and out of phone reception). If you injure an ankle and can't walk out – or if something more serious happens – you can push a button and have a rescue helicopter turn up in a matter of minutes. At the start of a hike I show my kids how to set it off in case I can't, because frankly the amount of gear I carry for them on these walks will surely kill me one day.

No Doz
This sounds ridiculous, but I reckon caffeine pills are a good addition to your emergency kit. A good jolt of energy can help you out of a sticky situation – and for someone as dependent on morning coffee as I am, they're a quick way to get going in the mornings.

Ear plugs
There's always someone who snores in the hut. Always.

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