Not just children can be whiny on long backpacking trips. I am interested in learning how to boost morale with both, adult groups, or when hiking with children.
On canoeing trips, especially with a lot of people, I schedule at least one "stay put" day for every two or three moving days. This allows different people to do different things:
- hike up to a hilltop, lookout, waterfall etc - the stop is strategically positioned to put this side trip in reach, and the hikers will carry only a day pack rather than all the camping stuff, which is set up in camp for the day
- swim and sunbathe
- lie in the tent and read / listen to music
- cook something that requires being in camp, such as hot soup for lunch instead of trail food all the time
In a large group, this also lets people who've been rubbing each other the wrong way get some time apart. But in any size of group it lets you appreciate WHY you came on this trip - to spend some time in beautiful places doing pleasant things. It is also a good way to get blisters, sunburn, sore knees or other minor irritants a little bit healed, so someone isn't trudging along the trail in pain. And knowing that tomorrow is a rest day can help you get through today. Similarly, remembering yesterday's great views, or delicious lunch, or blissful peace, can give you a little more oomph today.
You can also take this approach in the small. Just stop - maybe don't even take off your pack - and look around you for a minute. Or call a rest break for everyone at a lake edge or a lookout or just a nice rock or log. Enjoy where you are, have a swig of water, maybe eat something, and then carry on.
Backpacking trips force people to live at a radically different pace than what most people are used to. There's a lot less stimulus that we get in a city. Most outdoorsy people find it wonderful, but there are people out there that just don't. Some people are just wired to need more stimulus. That's OK, not everybody is the same.
When I've gone on trips out West in recent years (to Colorado, or the Eastern Sierras), I'll treat the trips more as vacations than as pure backpacking trips. My friends and I will go on day or overnight hikes, but also plan on spending some time in town (staying in hostels or hotels), and also doing general touristy activities (going to local restaurants, driving to touristy areas like the tourist loop in Yellowstone, or visiting breweries if I'm in Colorado). I find that interacting with the locals is often the most fun part of travel. And having a break for a day in the middle of a week long trip goes a long way towards keeping everyone's spirits up.
You could make some checklists of the local common flora & fauna and try to turn it into some kind of friendly competition to see as many as possible.
I know this is at least a great motivator for myself, to get up early in the mornings, to keep my disturbance to a minimum and to always have moments of excitement when you see a new species.
And, always a reason to return for the species you didn't get to see :-)
When on long backpacking trips, what I do is to take a day at a time. I have seen many lose morale when they start to think about the number of days left in front of them. For me, taking a day at a time keeps it simple and easy to manage.
Sometimes even a day gets pretty sapping(has happened to me a few times). And during those times, the one-step-at-a-time rule seems to work for me. Forget about where you need to get by the end of the day. Concentrate on the next step instead.
As Don mentioned, singing does help. But then, if you are in a group, not all might be comfortable with it. Hence sometimes I prefer to sit down and think about my friends who would be working their asses off in the sorry world which I would have left behind(call me a sadist :P). Also, thinking about what a cool story the backpacking would make can lift up your spirits up by a huge margin. (Imagine telling, "I almost gave up due the the rains and snow, but something made me to push forward" :P Sounds pretty cool. Doesn't it?)
I've been going backpacking for several years. The things that always keep me positive are the views and appreciating the little things.
Additionally, a pack of cards to play games, sometimes I bring a little speaker to play music at night and bring a small piece of rope to practice tying different knots. Most of all, campfires. I've never sat next to a campfire and not been happy. All of these are lightweight and easy to do.
Lastly, I always like to look at the map and see what I've accomplished. It gives meaning to what I'm doing and how far I've traveled.
Onward and Upward!
This goes for kids and adults:
Make sure they have enough food. Have them eat trail mix and fruit before they get hungry (same with water and thirst).
Don't over-do it. Take what you think a reasonable hike would be, then multiply it by the ratio of their height to your height (or, for adults, by the number of years they have been doing backcountry travel by your years). Then multiply it again by 50%. Now you have a reasonable goal...or, you get the idea.
EMPHASIZE THE JOURNEY NOT THE DESTINATION. This goes for the parents and the kids. Stop along the way to marvel at the things you see on the trail, big and small. Encourage the uninitiated to lead the way and explore a bit. If your hike ends up being 1 mile and you learn a lot about that strip of land it is better than going 4 miles and needing to crack the whip the whole way.
When you're backpacking meals can be an important highlight of the day so if you find that morale is an issue it may be that having better food helps. This may involve carrying a bit of extra weight but even simple tings like sauces and spices can help a lot. It can also be that people aren't used to eating and drinking enough when they are walking and so get tired and hungry during the day. Here adding extra food meals to the day and packing easy to east snack can help.
It may be worth weighing packs and distributing the load according to ability, fitness and experience. Inexperienced hikers will tend to both pack more and be less used to carrying weight so sharing out individual pack weight may make everybody happier and help to even out pace.
Try to get a sense of what individuals want to get out of a trip, some like walking for its own sake, some enjoy being in a natural environment and others want a physical challenge. If you have mixed motivation in your group try to reconcile the differences
Severe up and down hill routes can be difficult even for reasonably fit people who are unused to walking
Give people responsibilities to think about. Playing follow the leader is always less interesting than being an active part of an expedition. Eg if you are leading an inexperienced group let them take turns to navigate (even let them make small mistakes) and get the whole group involved in route planning and decision making.
A bit late to the party, but there are some basics that need emphasising. This is all common-sense, but it's surprising how often these points are neglected.
CHOOSE A SUITABLE ROUTE
Most importantly, ensure that your route is within your experience, technical ability and fitness-level. Being scared, exhausted, lost, over-heated or cold is deadly for morale.
MEET YOUR NEEDS FOR REST AND SUSTENANCE
For starters, make sure you have a warm and comfortable sleeping setup.
Second, take food that is tasty, filling and easy to prepare. Understand your calorie requirements and make sure you carry enough - this may be more than you expect if you are not experienced. Understand how to select foods with good calorie to weight properties to keep your pack-size reasonable, and be sure you'll have access to water.
Third, understand how to keep pack-weights as low as practical.
If you're unrested, underfed, thirsty and aching under a huge pack morale is going to slide whatever else you do!
MEET YOUR NEEDS FOR ENTERTAINMENT
Beyond that, understand how much entertainment you need to carry with you to keep you happy in camp. Some prefer to be at one with nature. Others might need a music player and/or a Kindle, especially on a long thru-hike.
As others have said, a fire is always comforting (though only where leave-no-trace rules aren't being violated!)
CHOOSE COMPANIONS WITH CARE!
As for company, that is a very personal matter. The right companion can make a trip, the wrong person can be a nightmare. If you do go with company, be very sure you have the same expectations of pace, distance, talking vs silence, rest days and the like. When you're tired and stressed, small differences can quickly build into burning resentments. If you're happy with your own company, life can be a lot simpler on the trail!
Things I use with our scouts:
- Singing + a special game: because we already know each other, the children/youth are not having a problem singing in front of the others. I introduced a game called "Give me a word"; once you have the word, the group's task would be to collect 5 (or in "hardcore" version 10+) songs which contain the given word somewhere in their lyrics. Let's say the word is "water", then you can have: Bridge over troubled water, Come away to the water etc. The one who gives the 5th song can choose the next word. They may be narrowed to nature elements, or customized in any way.
- Reminding them of harder things they "survived". This often brings up a whole load of stories and funny memories, so while remembering these (+ laughing a lot) they usually carry on without noticing how tired they are.
Things I use when I am alone:
- Singing a tune in my head: I have a problem with uphill walking, unfortunately I walk/climb much slower, often at the far edge of the group, delayed with 15-20 minutes. In order to keep myself motivated to make the next step, I sing. Not aloud, as that makes me much more tired, but in my head: I choose a song with an easy text and I set the goal to walk as long as that song keeps "playing" in my head. This helps me stay motivated + helps me regulate my breath to my steps.
- Setting myself a smaller goal: I would set a visible spot as the short-term goal, and when I get there I would choose a new one until I reach the final destination