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Originally published Wednesday, April 10, 2013 at 7:00 PM

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Backpacking baptism: Tips for a kid’s first campout

Nephew Zach, 5, had never been camping. A first backpack trip in Olympic National Park could make him love — or hate — nature.

Special to The Seattle Times

If you go

Second Beach


Second Beach is near the town of La Push, a short drive from Forks, on the Olympic Peninsula.

Permits and more

Obtain permits and bear canisters at the Wilderness Information Center in Port Angeles (360-565-3100) or at the Pacific Ranger District station on the south shore of Lake Quinault (360-288-2525).

More information

Olympic National Park:

First-hike strategies

• Have a backup plan. In case weather turns bad, it’s a good idea to be near a town where you can book a hotel room at the last minute.

• Keep it short. The real thrill of camping usually happens around camp. You want kids to enjoy their adventure, so don’t plan a leg burner.

• Don’t forget comfort items. A favorite blanket or stuffed animal can go a long way toward making a kid feel like a tent is home.

• Give her a backpack (even if it’s small). Part of the joy of camping is feeling like you’ve earned your S’mores.

• Shoot for sandbar or beach camping. Comfortable sand beds and the sound of water will help kids sleep.

• Give your kids a cheap digital camera. They are closer to the ground than you are, and it’s fun to see their perspective on the world.

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At age 5, my nephew Zach had never been camping. The responsibility my family bore in introducing him to backpacking was not something we took lightly.

We knew it would be important to get it right. A positive first-time experience could make him an outdoor-lover for life. A miserable first-time experience (think soaking-wet sleeping bag, aching legs and spooky wildlife) could cause a youngster like Zach to hate camping. Forever.

In our family, this was simply unacceptable.

So the challenge was on. We needed a slam-dunk location that would wow the little tyke and give us the highest probability of success.

For his backpacking baptism, we settled on Olympic National Park’s Second Beach, one of the coast’s most popular beaches, full of sea stacks and amazing sunsets. At a mere 0.7 miles from the road, it’s a day hike for most, but can also be a sweet overnighter for someone with short legs and an even shorter attention span.

Here are a few things we gleaned from Zach’s first campout.

Saturday, 3 p.m.:

Look everywhere

Minutes after leaving the parking lot, I knew it would be slow going. I learned that every pond, stump and stream had something to discover, if you took the time. And Zach did.

We followed him at a distance, noticing that he always managed to go the longest way around things. No spruce went unexplored, no fern untouched, no bug unpoked. Little things (“Omigosh a SLUG!”) became a reason to stop and stare.

Choosing a short trail was a great decision, because it allowed us to linger, and there was plenty of time for “I want to jump in that puddle!” Even so, before we knew it we began to hear the crashing surf.

4:45 p.m.: “Yes, Zach, now we throw rocks in the water.”

Throwing rocks into the water is a big deal if you’re a 5-year-old boy. Zach must think about it a lot, because he brought up the subject more than a dozen times during our hike.

Zach dropped his pack and set to work the moment we crossed a logjam obstacle course at the head of the trail.

We let him scratch his rock-throwing itch for a while, and then convinced him it was time to pick out our campsite. This is the part of the story where things grew a bit uncomfortable for the little guy.

5:30 p.m.:

“But ... but ... where’s my bed?”

When the tents were raised, the “sleeping outside” part of camping became a solid reality. I was worried he was about to have one of those “I want to go home” meltdowns, but my sister Tasha managed to remain nonchalant.

She reminded him that he had his stuffed dog to keep him company, and then distracted him with Matchbox cars. Soon they were building a sand-castle garage for them.

A little taste of home and something shiny sidetracked Zach and went a long way toward keeping his panicky feelings at bay. Before long, he’d forgotten all about his creeping unease.

6 p.m.: The beach is like glass

One of the cool things about camping at the ocean is that your playground constantly changes. When the tide went out, the ocean left behind a film of water, and we found ourselves dancing on a stage of unbroken sunset.

As evening wore on, we alternated between warming ourselves by the driftwood campfire and goofing off on acres of perfect sand. We scampered up stumps, stretched our arms and flew like airplanes and tried jumping over one another.

It dawned on me that if we were at home, there was a good chance I would be on my computer and Zach would be watching The Wiggles.

7:30 p.m.: Eating from a bag

Zach was about to experience two of camping’s greatest traditions: eating freeze-dried food and S’mores (made over a fire, not a propane grill).

With our backs against the hulls of ancient trees, we dipped spoons into bags of sticky lasagna and watched the sun dip between a sea arch and a stony island with a scalp made of evergreens.

The rhythmic surf put Zach to sleep soon after dinner. The white noise of the ocean a mere stone’s throw from his tent meant he had no trouble sleeping that night. That is, at least, until early morning.

Sunday, 7 a.m.: Disaster!

Rain, and lots of it. Apparently “red sky at night” means “monsoon in the morning” because we awakened to sodden tents and a dreary horizon. Thankfully we didn’t wake up in a pool of water because sand drains well (another plus!).

We didn’t bother with breakfast, stuffing everything into our backpacks and hitting the trail.

Less than an hour later we were zipping down the road on our way back to civilization. Our decision to take a short hike had paid off again, as our suffering was kept to a minimum. Once the car was warm, Zach — gripping his stuffed dog — conked out in the back seat.

The look on his face said: dirty, exhausted, happy. In other words, his first camping trip was a smashing success.

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