My friend and I clinked our tequila loaded mugs together on the last night of a multi-day backpacking trip in the Sierras. It was a success on many levels. Our kids, both four-soon-to-be-five-year-olds, not only survived the 2-night/3-day adventure but by all accounts had a great time.
We started out at Kennedy Meadows. Located in the South Sierra Wilderness, a day's travel north will take you (along the Pacific Crest Trail) right into Inyo National Forest. The South Fork of the Kern River runs nearby, and beyond all that it happens to be the first place that I went backpacking myself in 6th grade.
What was really amazing to me is that the first place we set up camp, north of the first stock bridge, was the exact same location that I had gone to as a child. Perhaps quite literally my tent was in the same location as I slept decades before. Being there with my own child, and being able to share the whole experience with another family, was another one of those torch bearer moments that make the whole mortality thing a little less depressing.
We kept it to a simple out and back course (caltopo details, for anyone super interested). I had some big dreams about a loop but the problem with loops is that if you don't make the distance you need to early on then you have to make up for it in the end. Essentially if you screw up the mileage plans on your loop, you're going to have a death march.
A note on death marches: there's a knife edge on backpacking with kids, and you need to play with "pushing it" vs "at-the-moment-enjoyment". Indeed, these two factors are at work with adults as well, but adults can communicate better, train harder, and (typically, but certainly not always) complain a lot less than small children. Walking up mountains is tough, there's no way around it. That's part of what you're doing and it's important that children understand that it's perfectly fine to not feel comfortable all the time.
Seneca warned that the optimal position of our lives should be general stress and discomfort. The idea being that comfort and excess stressors are equally toxic for us. One could effectively argue that he spotted the problems of a sedentary lifestyle roughly two millenia before it fully plagued the western world.
This might sound weird, but I want my kids to be uncomfortable. It's good for them to have a hard time. And not in some t-ball-bullshit-hard-time sense where everyone gets a trophy at the end before the pizza party.
When we walked back to the trailhead, after spending three days in the backcountry, I looked Cora in the eye and said something to the effect of:
Who did you see out there on the trails? Adults. Adults in good shape. People walking the PCT from Mexico to Canada. A generally hardcore group of people that are way higher up the bad-ass totem pole than your average Joe. And you, you do it too. You walked for miles and lived in the wilderness. And you did it well. You did what few people can do, and you can own that now because you earned it.
We don't get better by having an easy go of it. Our lives shouldn't be about exposing ourselves to the least amount of discomfort and danger before we drop dead. Stealing from Nassim Taleb:
This is the tragedy of modernity: as with neurotically overprotective parents, those trying to help are often hurting us the most.
But have no fear, gentle hearted souls. In addition to a healthy dose of stoicism a few fun items were entered into the mix. Every night the kids got dessert, we made stick bread, I retold all the wilderness spooky stories I knew, and they literally spent over ten hours simply throwing rocks and sticks into the river.
Aside from the desire for a nice shower, I walked away from this trip with even more desire to get our family back to the sea. Back to a place where, like it or not, the wilderness is right up in your grill. Every day, all day. Reflecting between wilderness backpacking and sailing, I think the biggest distinction is that all backpacking trips end eventually. But with sailing, you can literally do it for your entire life. Years and decades can tick by where you are typically inches from the sea.
Still, it's nice to be in the mountains and for as long as we have access to the beautiful wilderness in the United States we'll use up every minute of it that we can.