8 things we learned taking four small(ish) children on a 30 mile backpacking trip

When my husband proposed we take our boys on a backpacking trip over Labor Day weekend, I was all in. Our kids are experienced hikers and campers, and we had done a couple little backpacking trips earlier that summer. Over this last year we discovered that we have reached a magical stage in our boys’ lives where we are no longer encumbered with diapers, baby carriers, nursing, or other baby needs (for the first time in 11 years!! Woohoo!), and we are loving it. A backpacking trip? Why not?? The plan was three miles in, three miles out, a couple days in between to play.

My husband grew up backpacking, canoeing, and exploring the Wind Rivers in Wyoming with his dad, so that’s where we planned to go. Maps stretched over our table like a tablecloth, we finally decided on Shoshone Lake near Lander. A couple weeks later we packed up our car, picked up grandpa, and we were off!

We arrived at (almost) the trail head around 1am, and after a rather hurried night sleep (and patching up a flat tire) we loaded back up in the car. My husband and father-in-law had fond memories of hiking near Shoshone Lake 25 years ago and had vague memories of driving up a bumpy road, parking the car when it narrowed into a trail, and hiking the remainder to a lookout over the lake. After being thrown around the rocks for ten minutes, we realized that 25 years had done a number on what they remembered as a rather disastrous but passable road. With ten miles left to go, we parked the car, slipped into our backpacks and, with smiling, cheery faces, started our ascent into the mountains. What’s seven more miles than we had planned?

Appearently a lot to someone who has only been on this planet for four short years. Even with the essential responsibility of carrying the Snickers bars in his super-awesome, camo fanny-pack, Ty was miserable. Mis-er-a-ble! By four steep miles in he had asked to be carried no less than 143 times. Of course that would have been impossible because between the steep incline and my 40 pound pack, I also thought I might die.

At 6:00 that evening we summited our mountain, and down in the valley we could see the lake. It was incredible! In an instant all of our aches and pains seemed to melt away. Ok, that’s definitely a gross exaggeration. Everything hurt. Period. Absolutely nothing was doing any sort of melting as the temperature had suddenly plunged to what felt like thirty degrees and the wind just about swept us back down the mountain. But now that we could finally see our destination, everyone had a renewed determination. And that’s all we needed. Two more miles (finally downhill!) to go, and we would be to the lake!

The sun was just going down as we found a spot to camp. The lake was beautiful, the stars were numbering in the trillions, and after ten exhausting miles we had all made it alive!

We spent the next two days at and around the lake fishing, kayaking in an inflatable kayak grandpa had brought, exploring the rivers all around, and relaxing. By the next morning all of the kids (Ty included) had forgotten all about the arduous journey we had taken to get there.

Ten miles in, ten miles exploring over two days, then ten miles out. The trip out always proves to be quicker. Though it was no less difficult, our packs were lighter (or at least the boys’ — we ate all of Ty’s snickers in addition to the food the other boys had carried) and the prospect of getting to rest in the car carried us forward. Nine hours after we started, we finally spotted the car. Now that was a welcome sight!

For weeks after we returned home, all the boys could talk about was Shoshone Lake, the fish they caught, the treasures they found, and how THEY had hiked ten miles in, ten miles out, and ten miles in between. Now the talk is how they might be able to do 70 miles across the entire Wind Rivers next summer…what???

In our family we tease that there are three types of fun. Type 1: Disneyland. Pure pleasure. Type 2: Experiencing fun through someone else’s eyes. I.E. Watching your kids at the park. Type 3: Torture that somehow ends up being satisfying in a, “That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done!” kind of way, say a marathon. Around here we prefer the type three, torturous, “that was so fun, my legs feel like rubber!” type, and I suppose our trip to Shoshone Lake had all the elements of “fun” that we love. While it certainly was a challenge, the satisfaction of doing something difficult and getting a little fishing in while we were at it proved to make it one of our most memorable trips yet.

Backpacking as a family definitely has it’s challenges. Because this was our first experience backpacking more than a few miles with our entire family of six, plus Grandpa, we learned quite a bit along the way. Here are a few tricks we learned:

  1. Have a cool destination you’re working for. I’m convinced if it weren’t for the awesome lake at the end of our hike, my kids would have turned back miles before. That hike was pretty darn hard, but because we had shown them pictures from my husband and father-in-law’s previous trip and talked it up, they were motivated to keep moving forward.
  2. Let them carry the food, and drink their water first. If the kids carry the food, their pack can only get lighter. And, as long as you don’t mind sharing the germs, drinking their water first helps a ton too!
  3. Have some travel games in mind to play as you hike. We played 20 questions the last two miles of our hike, and I have to admit, (even though by the 59th time guessing a giraffe I might have been going a little crazy!) it made the last little push go so much faster even for me.
  4. Bring good snacks. We don’t typically chow down on Snickers, gummy bears, Sweedish Fish, or M&M’s around the house, but having something yummy to snack on as you hike up a steep incline for three miles really helps when you’re nine. Or seven. or four. or 36. We also love the Mountain House freeze-dried dinners and would simply supplement them with naan or mashed potatoes or stuffing. You just add boiling water. So easy, and best yet: hardly any clean-up!!
  5. Just let the kids play. We spent almost the entire day after we got to the lake just…playing. It was totally up to the kids. The youngest two and I played hide the bungee cord they found and built a rock fort for hours. It was one of the highlights of the trip, and it was so nice to not feel uptight that we weren’t doing something we’d planned, getting somewhere, or accomplishing some feat.
  6. Kids are way tougher than you think. Have you ever read Hank the Cowdog? Sometimes we call Ty “Drover” because any time doing something unpleasant comes up, he’s automatically grabbing at his leg and claiming his leg hurts, just like Hank’s sidekick. So for him to hike 30 miles without being carried? Completely shocking, and totally inspiring. I never would have known he had it in him if we hadn’t tried! Best of all, I could see his confidence bursting at the seams when he told everyone about the hike when we got home.
  7. Kids will probably remember the good stuff, not the miserable parts. One of my worries was that our kids would never want to touch a sleeping bag again by the time we finally reached the car. Not two minutes after we loaded up and got on the road, the kids were dreaming of the next time they would go backpacking.
  8. And finally, Splurge a little when you’re all done! We have a tradition that after a backpacking trip we stop on the way home at a restaurant to eat. After days of tuna fish in pita bread, bagels, and trail mix, a big, warm meal is a welcome sight!

What tricks do you have up your sleeve when you take your little ones on adventures? I’d love to hear!

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