6 Reasons Your Kids will Love Backpacking more than Disney
When we travel as a family, we always backpack. Backpacking is typically associated with hippies and pre-career single twenty-somethings, not families with young children.
In this post, I hope to change your mind about that.
I refer to Disneyland as a proxy for the type of travel that involves large suitcases, expensive tickets, all-inclusive packages, and child-centric marketing. I have never taken my family to Disneyland nor do I plan to ever do so. I did go several times as a kid though. I’m not complaining. But as you will see, I have my reasons for doing things differently.
Friends, family, and coworkers sometimes express surprise at the way we travel. Their impression is that it is difficult, dangerous and not “family-friendly”. As if we are pulling Indiana Jones type stunts with our pre-school aged children; barely surviving snake pits and jumping out of sabotaged aircraft with inflatable rafts.
I assure you that none of the places we travel are actually like that. And it might surprise you that Colombia ranks first in our children’s minds as the ideal vacation spot.
So here it is: six reasons I think backpacking is an great way to travel for a family with kids.
1. Other Cultures Love Kids and Show It
Sorry to say it, America is not the most kid friendly culture in the world. We American parents get a sixths sense for where not to take our kids.
Children cry when they are uncomfortable and rage when they don’t get their way. They touch things with their grubby hands. They are impulsive and break rules; most of the time they don’t even know what the rules are.
No fancy restaurants; no movie theaters; no nice stores. And when we must take them places, we are on edge, ready for the worst. That is why an American parent finds a place like Disneyland so alluring; kids are welcome.
It is also why an American parent might wince at at the thought of having to learn from scratch what is off limits for kids in a foreign country.
So you might be surprised to learn that in many cultures kids are welcome everywhere. They are not merely tolerated, but cherished no matter where you go.
In Colombia, pregnant woman and families with kids get royal treatment. People will almost always usher you to the front of any line.
In Indonesia, it’s hard to find a situation where kids aren’t welcome. Upon arriving at the Bali airport, the security agents playfully helped our kids pass through the routine checks. “Playful security agent” sounds like an oxymoron.
Another time at a restaurant, the cooks invited our restless three-year-old to join them and help chop garlic. I’m pretty sure that’s a felony in the States.
At our homestay, staff members befriended our son Oliver, let him try the pool vacuum, and drew pictures with him. The same staff watched our kids while we had a date night, refusing our offer to pay for the service. To them, they were just hanging out with their little friends, not working for us.
Yet another time, our colicky, four-month-old bundle of fuss would not stop wailing while we tried to eat our dinner. The wife of the owner offered to hold him while we ate. Whether by ancient technique or witchcraft I do not know, but she got him to calm down within seconds and slept soundly in her arms for the duration of our dinner.
To allow your kids to be kids and to be met with understanding and playfulness by society at large is to experience some deep stress relief. Now that’s a vacation!
2. Kids Enjoy Simple Pleasures
Destinations like Disneyland target the desires of children like a heat-seeking missile. I would argue, though, that they promise more reward than they deliver. Sure, the ride is fun while you’re on it. But it ends too soon, it leaves you wanting more, and you spend a long time waiting in line to get that next high.
Sounds like the perfect recipe for a meltdown to me.
I think kids are in many ways like small adults. Like adults, kids are lured by the promise of reward. Yet what actually makes you feel good as you lie in bed and think about your day is flow. Flow is where you get wrapped up in something engaging for hour on end.
My two-year old can spend hours throwing rocks into a stream. My older kids, seven and four, can entertain each other with endless play acting and games they make up as they go.
Hiking through nature is a perfect medium for this type of activity. So are natural destinations like a waterfalls, hot springs, or big rocks that lend themselves to being used as a playground.
Just being able to run around at will, rest, or zone out watching hundreds of ants carrying leaves and bits of your lunch is kid nirvana.
Believe it or not, what makes a kid happy is not that complicated (or expensive).
3. Do without the Lines
One of the most important strategies for avoiding child discomfort (and blowouts) is eliminating lines and waits. Adults hate waiting too but we’ve grown numb to it. Kids, on the other hand, experience the full cost of those precious morsels of life, measured in minutes and seconds, being flushed away with meaningless waiting.
One way we achieve this is avoiding the big city and tourist traps. Yes, that means we might skip Venice, the Eiffel Tower, or, God forbid, a picture with Micky Mouse. But it means we get to spend more of our time seizing the day.
4. Treat Your Kids, Because You Haven’t Spent that Much Anyway
You would think that spending your hard earned savings on a dream vacation would earn you the respect and gratitude you so crave from your kids. But you and I both know it doesn’t work that way. You could spend the day assenting to their every desire, but your kiddo will go code red when you refuse to buy that life-sized Elsa doll.
It’s not like kids start with an empty fun tank, and the more you fill it with good times the less they want. It works pretty much the opposite. Each new high raises the bar until you have no choice but to reset the bar and face the consequences.
Of course, there is a big difference between having spent $800 for the day in lodging, entry fees, and food and having spent $60 on the same (i.e. backpacking). Some of our most exotic vacations have been some of the least expensive. Sometimes it costs less than it would have to stay home.
Imagine your family, after that long hike through the forest. The kids had fun, but their tired and getting a little whiney. Upon finishing the hike you serendipitously cross paths with a smoothie vendor. I’ll bet you have no problem saying yes to that unplanned expense (for the sake of the kids, of course).
5. Learn from the Real World, Not just a Replica
Backpacking is not all waterfalls and rainbows, of course. There really are (mostly minor) hardships in the places we choose to visit that American theme parks shield you from.
In Disneyland’s “World Showcase”, you will not have to force your child to use a squat toilet. You will not witness, as my oldest son did at the tender age of three, the brutal slaying of a moth by a gekko on the bathroom wall, or the frequent power outages which plunge you into pitch darkness while brushing your teeth.
But are you really teaching your kids about the world by touring exotically decorated buildings and perusing kitschy “ethnic” souvenirs? I’m afraid not. And for parents that value an education that goes beyond stereotyping people and cultures, experiencing the real thing is critical.
Having to overcome some fears and hang-ups isn’t the worst thing in the world either. I remember my oldest son refusing to use the public toilet at O’Hare airport as we waited for our trans-Pacific flight. Upon returning to that same airport after a month in Indonesia and China, he instantly hopped onto that toilet without even realizing his standards had changed.
6. Quiet Space to Just Be a Family
Ask yourself, why do you travel? Why go through the trouble of packing and planning? Why use up precious savings?
For most it’s about the memories. The bonding. Maybe making up for lost time with the kids after a busy streak.
Our fondest travel memories happened in a small town named Salento in Colombia’s coffee-growing region. While there are several activities and day trips available, it is also a great place to do nothing.
Rather than fill our evenings with entertainment, we quickly settled on a routine of walking the quarter mile stretch between our room and the hostel’s main office, taking in the starlight and the fields dancing with fireflies. We’d purchase a slice of cake at the front desk. Then we’d walk back, lie in hammocks, each parent snuggling with a child (or two), and just chat while looking at the stars until everyone got drowsy and wanted to go to bed.
About nine months after that trip, our oldest son, five at the time, commented, “You don’t have to go to Colombia, you just have to enjoy to be in Colombia.” That’s pretty Zen for a five-year-old!