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Camping with children is an outstanding way to share a love for the outdoors without breaking the budget. While family backpacking or camping does take a great deal of planning and loads of patience, it is a rewarding activity for both you and your children.

If you have gone camping before, you will quickly realize that to go camping with children requires added responsibility and alertness on a parent's part. Common sense and good judgment are the rule. Not surprisingly, the crucial point to a successful camping trip with parents and children is often rooted in their first experiences outdoors together.

A question commonly posed is, "When is my child old enough to begin hiking and camping?" The answer depends on your child. No two personalities are the same; no two children the same. What may work for one family may not work for another.

The following guidelines can help you decide when and where to introduce your child to the great outdoors, but please remember that the only firm guide is each child's particular personality and physical condition. Whatever the activity, you must let them pace themselves.

  • Infant: Pediatricians recommend that parents wait until the child is 5 months old before venturing into the wilderness. This is when a child can easily sit up and support their own weight and has fallen into a fairly regular sleep pattern. Use a sturdy child carrier that is safe and secure for the child and comfortable for you.
  • Toddler: Between the ages of 2 and 4, children are still getting used to the idea of being on two points of balance and not four. Short hikes between half a mile and 2 miles are ideal as long as the terrain is flat and secure to walk on. Take regular walks in a neighborhood park to get a feel for your child's attention span. Expect a focused attention span of around 10 minutes for younger children and up to 30 minutes for older children.
  • Ages 5-9: Longer hikes at an easy pace over easy terrain are now possible. Children are beginning to develop more physical and mental durability. This is an ideal age to begin allowing your child to become involved in most aspects of the trip, from planning and packing to helping lead. The older your child is in this age group, the more likely moderate goal setting will be effective. Just make sure that the goals are shared and not an unrealistic attempt on the parent's part to "motivate" the child up an impossible hill or over a 10-mile endurance test.
  • Ages 10-13: Children in this age range are becoming increasingly conditioned physically. Emotionally, they are more likely to be able to handle moderately challenging situations, but they are also more likely to question the worth of anything extremely difficult. Hikes up to 10 miles are possible as long as the terrain is not too hilly or mountainous. Children in this age group thrive on being the leader — diplomatic and judicious support from parents is key. Menu planning, route finding, cooking, and camp setup are reasonable tasks to assign to kids at this age, but be careful that they do not take on too much and begin to feel like all they are doing is working.
  • Ages 14-18: Distances up to 12 miles become reasonable in this age group. Terrain choices and goal setting can become more challenging, but the axiom remains the same: Any choice must be a group choice, or the parent risks making the children feel dragged along.
    Children are encountering growth spurts during this period and are definitely vulnerable to stress and overuse injuries. Use caution and listen to your children — they may need to back off a hike.

Be prepared to get down and dirty with your children. Experience the outdoors with them — don't just watch them. Parents shouldn't scold their children for getting up close and personal with a mud puddle, dirt, a bug, or more. Become childlike in your pursuit of the outdoors and your children will appreciate even more the time you spend together in the wilds.

This is not to say that you have to get filthy to appreciate being in the outdoors. However, a little dirt should not hold you back — whether you're a grown-up or a child.

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