my first backpacking trip with a four year old
Sunday, May 10, 2015 at 16:53
Eric in backpacking, post rescue, wildlife

It's not a sailboat, but backpacking is actually where I got my first taste of adventure. And it has a lot in common with sailing: 

 

My pack, Cora's pack, and all of our junk (a.k.a. expensive equipment).I was lucky enough to go on my first backpacking trip with a friend in 6th grade. His dad extended the invitation, and I really had no idea how fortunate I was to learn such a cool activity. 

Now that we're back on land, we're saving up for a boat, and letting the girls get a few more years of growing up. I'm committed to maximizing that time, and showing my girls how to spend days at a time in the wilderness is squarely on the list. 

So, I scouted out a location and settled on the San Gorgonio Wilderness. Jointly managed by the BLM and Forest Service, it's not my perfect locale but for the purposes of a first-time backpacking trip it would do just fine. Mountain terrain, starting at 6,000 feet, and although in spitting distance of Los Angeles it's legitimate wilderness. 

Guess who's pack is who's.The first thing to realize about backpacking with a small child is that it's literally all on you. I managed to get a sleeping bag in her pack and a couple of colored pencils. Other than that, every item (including the water, since we'd be without a reliable water source), is on my back. I'm not complaining, and honestly the influx of ultralight backpacking has made a huge difference. My water+two-people's gear pack weighs as much as my first solo load out back in the late 90's. 

It's a fine line because unlike an ultralight purist, you don't have the option of telling your small child, "Relax, champ, if you get cold at night just do some crunches." (That really is a common piece of ultralight advice). 

But also, because you're going to be carrying so much crap, if you don't pay ridiculous attention to weight then you'll either be under far too much load or simply unable to do the trip. You basically need to care as much about weight as an ultralight fanatic but you don't get the payoff of a light pack. Such is parenting.

A friend and coworker of mine has correctly drilled into my head that the last thing you want kids to do is have a bad time with something that you want them to engage on. Especially with something like trekking around for days in the wilderness. You can't control all the variables, so I was constantly scanning for problems in advance and trying to think up ways to make things fun. I even had to change the dates to skip a storm that came through during our original departure window. I learned that lesson from sailing: skip as much bad weather as you can. Garbage conditions are eventually inevitable, but avoid as much of it as possible. No one's handing out trophies because you got the shit kicked out of you on a mountaintop somewhere, and they're certainly not handing awards if you drag your children with you on the escapade. 

I'm quite proud of this kid. For other parents out there, I'd recommend a few things. Initially, go car camping with them first to evaluate. This is the classic campground environment where you have your car, a bunch of heavy stuff, a campfire, bathrooms, etc. The main thing I was looking for here was discipline. Can she stay away from the stove when I ask? Can she keep herself (safely) entertained for a few minutes while I do something else? 

I know there is a current generation of parenting that doesn't put an emphasis on discipline, but a lack of self control limits what you can do as an adult and likewise as a child. 

Then there's the whole hiking-with-a-pack thing. Cora's pack weighed in around 5 pounds (including the pack), and consisted of the biggest and lightest thing we had: her sleeping bag. 

To be honest, I don't really think there's a material difference between a kid with a lightweight pack and no pack. It's not like you're going to get an extra mile out of them without the pack, so I personally wanted to know in advance that she could walk comfortably for an hour with no breaks. 

Plus, you're not a race car driver without a race car and you're not a backpacker without a backpack. My philosophy, to each their own.

The speed translated to an hour on the trail with breaks every ~10 minutes that lasted a couple of minutes, coupled with some bathroom stops, checking out wildlife, and general poking about. 

I think we managed maybe 1.5 mph, and we had a decent gradient

One thing I learned Cora can't carry is her own water. Water is heavy, and with the amount of breaks it was easier for me to just keep a small canteen clipped to my belt and keep offering it up to her. 

One of the deals that I made to myself is I would greet all bathroom breaks with cheer (so I got a chance to be quite cheerful), and that I would be getting her to drink up like a wino who just got dumped.

Breakfast with a cup of hot apple cider. Tents and packs in the background, kitchen in the foreground.

Another tip I would give a fellow parent (remembering that advice is free and you get what you pay for), and that I'll remember myself, is that at this age it really is about them. I think about my friend's dad who took us out in 6th grade, and I can only imagine the patience he had. I still remember him walking around silently picking up trash I had dropped: I'm still embarrassed by it. I realize he could have plowed through miles and gone onto routes that would have been much more rewarding for him personally. But the real reward he got was in transferring a tradition and set of skills to the next generation. He put up with our constant complaining, our constant rambling, and our foul breath and armpits. 

Cora at the trailhead, ready to take off.

Every time I go out into the wilderness, be it sea or land, I feel a little smaller and a little bigger at the same time. I feel smaller knowing that I'm nothing more than an evolved life form living on a turbulent planet in between ice ages, with most all of my (and your) accomplishments and cares being forgotten rather quickly in the march of time. 

But I feel bigger knowing that although I'm just a small link in a rather large chain, I am at least a link. I can connect the things that I've learned down to the next torch bearers. I have the opportunity to filter out the bullshit the best I can, and focus on passing down the better aspects of our world as I know them. A sense of adventure, the courage to do what you think is right, and a warm heart in a world that can often seem capricious at best and malevolent at worst. 

Back at the trailhead, our first official backpacking trip a resounding success. With that, dear reader, I thank you for your attention and will stop being long in the tooth. I'm doing the John Muir Trail in the fall with some friends, and have several daddy-kiddo backpacking trips lined up this summer. If you're interested in heading out with us or me at any point, please drop me a line. If we bump into you on the trail please feel free to go around us, we'll be walking slow and looking at the flowers. 

Article originally appeared on Rebel Heart (http://www.therebelheart.com/).
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