Family backpacking: Lessons from our first overnighter with a preschooler (By Kelly Bastone)

For two years, a parade of excuses stymied our plans to take Simone backpacking. We bowed to the threat of high-country mosquitoes, and reconsidered in the face of stormy weather (Simone relishes rain, but I dreaded being holed up in a tent with Miss Antsy Pants).

Kelly-BackpackingSmlGrampie’s recent visit from Maine put another backpacking trip on the calendar just as repeated rains were making Steamboat seem like Seattle, so it seemed as if that hike would get nixed like all the rest. But for some reason, I felt a new determination to scratch this milestone off the list no matter what. Clearly, we weren’t going to get the idyllic conditions we’d envisioned for her first backpacking adventure. It was time to just make it happen.

Lake Dinosaur was our destination. It’s a long drive (a good hour and 20 minutes from town via the degraded Summit Lake road) but a short hike (less than a mile over flat terrain). We’d amassed a great crew: Grampie’s cousin Jeff Russell joined us from Winter Park. But the scene at the trailhead seemed inauspicious. With the five of us huddling inside Jeff’s truck, waiting out a lightning storm before attempting to hike across open meadows at 10,000 feet, I secretly wondered if I was being mulish. “You really think this is a good idea?” Ben asked aloud as rain sheeted across the windshield.

But within 20 minutes, the skies had cleared. We tromped over the puddle-ridden path to Lake Dinosaur, set up a picture-perfect camp amidst the spruces bordering the water, and savored one of the most beautiful evenings I’ve ever enjoyed in the high country. Rain-soaked grasses glittered in the evening sun. Simone, Grampie, Jeff and I scaled the cliffs lining the lake while Ben cast for brook trout. Mist rose over water that reflected the sky’s transformation from blue, to pink, to orange. To have cancelled this date with nature would’ve been a crime.

Kelly-Backpacking2SmlThe rain returned shortly after I discovered that I’d packed an empty fuel canister, so instead of sipping hot tea, we snuggled into the tent and ate the peanut butter sandwiches we’d packed for breakfast. Somehow, the rainy weather and bungled meals didn’t detract much from our enjoyment of that spectacular setting. Card games beneath a nylon roof proved more memorable than the boil-and-eat dinners would’ve been. And the experience taught me a few lessons that I hope to apply to future family adventures:

–Keep meal prep simple. The empty fuel canister did put the kibosh on hot, tasty food, but because I wasn’t laboring over a stove, I was free to join my daughter on fun explorations around the lake. I’d say I traded up.
–Choose uber-short hikes. Three-quarters of a mile was all Simone needed to experience the satisfaction that comes from carrying your camp on your back.
–Keep outings brief. You can handle any weather—enjoy it, even—when you’re only out for one night. I’m glad we didn’t stay home when rain threatened. I’m equally glad we hadn’t attempted a four-night epic.
–Keep kids comfortable. I wish I’d thought to pack Simone’s rain boots (as I’ll do on all future camping trips) but she did have quick-dry nylon hiking pants and a great rain shell that let her enjoy herself through showers and sunshine.
–Don’t wait for perfect. The stars rarely align to guarantee ideal conditions for backpacking, paddling, camping or anything else. Go anyway. An imperfect reality is always better than unrealized ideals.

Posted in: Camping, How To, Outreach

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