1. Wait for the Right Age
Make no mistakes about it, the BNT is a HUGE challenge, even for adults. The trail has been designed for self-sufficent travel and as such, is not a carefully manicured, meticulously marked trail. Many of the campsites are simply a paddock beside a river or dam. Huts or water tanks are the exception rather than the rule, and there are large stretches of the trail which cannot be accessed by vehicle. You also have the added complication of caring for and providing for your animals needs. However, all of the above can provide a valuable learning / growth experience for children, provided that they are at an age where they have built up a degree of resiliance and are able to rise to such a challenge, rather than be overwhelmed by it and simply stressed out. Every child is different, but I would really encourage anyone considering a lengthy BNT trek to wait until their child is at least ten years old. My own daughter was ten when we started our trek, and I know there is no way she would have handled or enjoyed it, had she been any younger.
2. Start Small
Given the above, I really believe the BNT is no place to try one’s hand at trekking for the first time, especially with children. Even if your child will be riding an animal during his or her BNT journey, don’t underestimate the value of going for lots and LOTS of long walks beforehand, without the animals. This will help your child to really become familiar with how those big distances feel (and a day on the trail IS a big distance for those unaccustomed to it). Sure, most children have a rough idea of how far 20km is, but have they ever travelled 20km, or even 10km, at a walking pace?
Distances like this can drag on for hours, and while we tend to get excited at the thought of all those breathtaking vistas we are bound to see on the way, it can also be monotonous, dull and physically exhausting, even if your child is not doing the walking. Doing a few practise hikes will help your child get familiar with long days in the elements, as well as helping them learn to pace themselves, giving them the confidence to know when they can indeed push on that bit further.
Keep in mind that your child should also be able to walk at least 15km in an emergency (ie an animal goes lame or goes missing). If not, you may have to carry the child. Z usually walks a few kilometers every day, just to give her horse a little rest and to stretch her legs. However, when Fly injured his leg and we were in an awkward spot with no feed and therefore forced to move on, she had to walk 20km to the next camp, where Fly soon recovered. Luckily, she has only had to do this once (so far!)
We had also done a lot of multi-day hikes in New Zealand and on the Bibbulman Track in WA, and it was from these that Z became familiar with camping out in the dark, setting up tents, camp food, etc. But a few months before we set off for the BNT, I decided that we would walk the Camino de Santiago pilgrim trail in order to train for the BNT. A strange decision, some may say, but for me it was really about seeing whether we would both be able to cover the distance without the added complications of bush camping and looking after animals. We also got pretty fit for our forthcoming BNT trek! So all in all, I would definitely recommend hiking and camping in all sorts of places before the BNT. (Which, I might add, makes the Camino look like a Sunday afternoon stroll in the park in comparison.)
3. Choose Your Animals Wisely
Once you’ve established that your child is capable of embarking on a long distance trek and they have tested their mettle on a few challenging bushwalks, it is probably time to start thinking about animals. That is, unless your child has agreed to walk the BNT on foot, in which case I take my hat off to you! (I was unabel to convince mine that it would be fun to walk)… So we looked at ponies, eventually settling on a little Welsh gelding- small and stocky, although a little green and flightly. After months of working with him, he was still quite anxious and unpredictable in the bush. A few people said he would probably calm down once he got used to the routine of life on the trail, but in the end we decided it wasn’t worth the risk of taking him. We needed a horse that was okay ALL the time, so Zaydee ended up switching to my 16hh thoroughbred. Yes, she is definitely overhorsed, but I guess the moral of the story is that when trekking with children on the BNT, the temperament of your animals is more important than anything else.
I may be a little biased, but I would also encourage anyone who is considering trekking with children on the bNt to think about donkeys as opposed to horses. On the whole, they are much more predictable and steady than their equine cousins, and when frightened, will usually stop dead in their tracks, rather than suddenly take off, making them a safer alternative for younger or inexperienced riders. While their stoic nature has earned them a (well-deserved) reputation for stubbornness and they can be intensely frustrating to talk into something they don’t want to do, it is probably a small price to pay for the sake of safety. Donkeys love children fawning al over them just as much, or perhaps more than horses and will provide many laughs and entertainment around camp in the afternoon.
On the BNT, your animals will have to deal with all sorts of crazy things- walking under wind turbines, crossing all manner of rivers and creeks, walking alongside busy highways, close encounters with mining machinery, forklifts, harvesters, groups of cyclists; the list goes on. Because your child’s safety is literally in the hands of the animal he or she is riding, don’t set off until you have one that you can trust 100%. You’ll know in your heart when you have the right one 🙂
4. Dont stress too much about school work
Unless you are trekking a short section of the BNT over the school holidays, chances are you will have taken your child out of school and be commited to home-schooling for a year or so.
Home schooling conventionally on the trail can be difficult. Because you are limited by how much weight you and your animals can carry, this makes it impossible to carry a plethora of books or worksheets. It is also impossible to reply on the internet or electronic devices for educational resources, due to the challenge of minimal phone reception or power sources. In addition, trekking the BNT with animals doesn’t leave a lot of spare time, and often once camp has been set up at the end of a long day, small ones do not have the energy for pages of maths sums! After experimenting with a few different resources and schooling routines, We now have only two school books- one for Maths and one for English. We work on a little of each every day, as well as a journal entry, usually illustrated with something we saw on the trail that day. Finally, we read a LOT on the Kindle, as we cannot afford the added weight of books.
But in all honesty, the real learning Z has done on the trail has been via the people she has met or places we have been- experiences that cannot be planned, structured or measured. A trek on the BNT will without doubt help your child develop resilience, confidence, stamina, a deep respect and affinity for nature and the environment, a sense of responsibility and discipline that comes from caring for animals and setting up and breaking camp daily, among countless other skills and qualities that will aid him/her down the track in later life.
5. Assign individual responsibilities
Life on the trail and at camp will run more smoothly if everyone knows what they are responsible for and the expectations around each job. It may take a while to work at a system that runs smoothly for your family, but Z has certain jobs on the trail which are always hers- that way I don’t have to explain a different task every day and she knows exactly what she needs to do before she can relax and have some free time. I think having set responsibilities also helps children realise that they are an important part of the equation, and that their assistance is required for the whole outfit to run smoothly.
For example, in the morning, Z is responsible for getting the donkeys in and tied up, brushing donkeys, picking out the donkeys’ feet. Personally I think it is important for an adult to saddle up or at least check saddling, as it is all too easy for animals to quickly acquire rubs or galls after long days on the trail. The beginnings of these can often go unnoticed by a child’s eye. In the afternoon, I take panniers off (they can be a little heavy for a child to manage), while Z takes off the pack saddles and prepares tethers/ hobbles etc. Then, while I sort out some food, Z sets up the tent and sleeping bags. It doesn’t really matter who does what, as long as it works for you and the routine remains fairly consistent.
6. Get off the trail now and again
Life on the BNT can be a bit grueling for little ones, so when you have a chance to get away from it now and then, take the opportunity to do so. If this means a trip to a shopping centre for hot chips, or an extra rest day to swim in the pool, go for it. They have earned it after all! While we were in town in Glenn Innes, we got to watch the Jungle Book at the cinemas, which was pretty cool. When we get to Toowoomba, we may take a couple of days off to do a few touristy things for Z’s birthday. You may find that a few town treats and surprises are necessary when spirits are beginning to wane.
7. Prioritise Nutrition
It is one thing to live off oatmeal for a fortnight on the trail, but when you have kids in tow, it is probably not the best idea. Firstly they seem to suffer from trail food fatigue much sooner than adults and hence are likely to just undereat, but also because you will likely be out the on BNT for quite a while.. As youngsters, they have a lot of growing an development to do during that year, and hence really do need access to a wide range of foods, just like at home. Not really the best news when you need to be responsible for carrying food for up to two weeks at a time!
I recommend spending a lot of time preparing and dehydrating your own meals at home- when vacuum packaged, these can last months. Although there a lot of freeze dried or dehydrated meals on the market, a lot of these are fairly pricey and contain strange ingredients and additives that you may want to avoid.
Another trick to try on the trail is sprouting. You may be unable to provide your child with as many fresh fruits and vegetables as you would normally do at home, but luckily you can make up for this to a degree by sprouting your own seeds and grains while on the trail. All you need is a stocking and once you get into the habit, its pretty easy to do. Sprouts are nutritional powerhouses that contain large amounts of protein and vitamin C.
In addition to dehydrating our own fruits, vegetables and meals before leaving, as well as sprouting greens while on the trail, I also try to take about 5kg of fresh fruit and vegetables each time we leave a town to get back on the trail. Just enough for Z to have a piece of fruit or two a day. I suppose its a bit of trekkers ‘no-no’ as they are so weighty, but there is no real substitute for fresh fruit and veg! I would rather skimp on other gear like cameras to allow ourselves this small luxury.
Days on the trail can be long and tiring and young ones will start to flag before long. We usually carry a muesli bar, nuts and fruit leather to snack on while we get through our kilometres for the day.
8. Put Safety First
Trekking the BNT with or without children is a calculated risk. There is a lot of potential for unexpected accidents or incidents to occur, especially when animals are involved. When travelling the BNT with kids, obviously you are responsible not only for the safety and wellbeing of yourself and your animals, but most importantly for your children. This is a heavy burden to bear, therefore it is worth taking a few safety precautions. These might include packing a comprehensive first aid kit, taking out premium ambulance cover, attending a first aid course with your child, discussing and roleplaying with your child what they should do in an emergency, instructing them on how to operate a spot device or satellite phone (or whichever emergency device you choose to use- and definitely bring one if you’re travelling with kids), and making sure they have memorised important phone numbers and addresses.
Spend a lot of time before leaving drilling your child on behaving responsibly around the animals ie- no sudden movements, never wrapping the lead ropes around their hands, tying up safely ALL the time, how to gauge when to get out of the way etc. I would say that for a BNT trek, this groundwork stuff is even more important than your child’s riding abilities.
Camp safety is also an important one and I believe it is important to have firm boundaries around things like not running around in the dark, wearing shoes in unfamiliar territory, and treating fire with respect.
And lastly, remember that you’re not on the BNT to prove anything. You owe it to your child to always put their well-being first, and if that means skipping or detouring around a challenging part, then so be it. Putting safety first may take the form of having an extra rest day or two while waiting for bad weather to pass. Who cares if you’ve only covered 30km this week? It’s not meant to be a race. We detoured around the Guy Fawkes river section of the trail, choosing instead to travel on the ridge. I was worried about our safety going through the river crossings. Our detour added 25kms to our journey and we missed out on seeing brumbies, but at the end of the day, you need to do what feels right and manageable for your and your child when out on the trail.
9. Give It Time
If your journey is anything like ours, it is going to take time to fall in love with the trail. To be perfectly honest, in the first few weeks, it feels like on big hard slog where everything is a challenge. Everyone’s’ bodies will be sore and still adjusting to the new physical demands, and the routine of setting up and breaking camp will take a while to refine (In the meantime, be prepared for lots of packing, repacking, lost tent pegs, and frazzled tempers!). The animals will also take a while to adjust, needing extra supervision and energy to keep them on task and ‘in camp’! During this challenging readjustment period, Don’s be surprised if the comforts of home start looking like a better alternative. More than once you will question yourself about what you were thinking! Even worse is that your child may just tell you they are hating it and want to go home (just as mine did two weeks into our trip!) My advice would be to give it three weeks. If your family is still hankering for home, then perhaps reevaluate your plans. Incidentally, you may have the opposite problem. We have now been on the trail for five months and I don’t think I could drag my daughter home if I tried now!
10. Be Realistic
I feel it is important that your child knows what he or she is in for before heading out on the BNT. It is easy for them to conjure up fantastic visions of blissfully riding ponies out in the sunshine all day, but of course, it’s not always like this. Before you leave home, head out on a few trail rides or walks that really ‘knock the wind out of you’. Maybe in the midday heat, perhaps in a downpour or up a rough gully, where your child may have to walk on slippery footing. During the experience, perhaps you can gently explain to your child that ‘sometimes it will be like this when we go out on the trail’.
In conclusion, I hope all of this doesn’t put anyone off! When tackled with the right amount of common sense and preparation, a trek on the BNT with kids can be the most amazing, life-changing experience. Happy trails!