Backpacking with Kids Doesn’t Have to Suck
A family of backcountry maximalists learns to love going fast and light
It’s a rite of passage for new parents to make a list of goals you vow to achieve and things you swear you’ll never do, now that you have kids. Before our two daughters were born, I promised myself I’d never drive a minivan. I vowed to take our girls on international trips once a year, starting from year one. At the time, this didn’t seem like a totally lunatic notion. I hadn’t realized that traveling overseas with babies is not a relaxing vacation. It’s an adventure—usually with a hefty price tag. What we did instead was commit to raising our girls as close to nature as possible—and nearer to home—and to keep doing what we love outside: river rafting when they were babies, backcountry skiing hut trips once they could toddle, day hikes as soon as they squawked about being carried.
The one thing I never promised myself was that we’d take our girls backpacking. That seemed too daunting. Schlepping all the gear and food on our backs, cajoling their little legs along the trail, dealing with outbursts and tantrums—that headache is for parents hardier than us, I thought.
Then one day last spring, our four-and-a-half-year-old surprised us by trekking six miles into a 1,000-foot deep wilderness canyon and back, without complaint. The place was laced with trails and clear-water springs, rife with bucolic campsites beneath ponderosas, and utterly devoid of people. My husband and I looked at each other and words we’d never thought we’d say came to our lips: Next time we should backpack in.
And so a hair-brained lark became concrete plan. We dug through our carport foraging for lightweight gear left over from our pre-kids days (scant to nil). We took the girls on practice hikes to 11,000 feet in the mountains above Santa Fe, their small packs filled with hydration bladders, snacks, and rain gear. Each time they were able to rally longer and farther, with minimal fussing.
Packing was fast and easy. If we couldn’t wedge it into one of our four backpacks, it wasn’t coming. Compared to the extravagance of river trips, where we load our boats with coolers full of food and beer, thick sleeping pads, tables, chairs, I loved the ruthless economy (though we did allow a few concessions: Uno cards; a small Nalgene of wine; one fly rod.) As we pulled out of the driveway, I kept eyeballing the near-empty bed of the pickup, thinking we’d forgotten something.
After a month of practice runs this summer, we decided it was time for an overnight. We took the girls in August to the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, one of the country’s newest national monuments: 240,000 acres of canyons and high desert in northern New Mexico, set aside for protection in 2013. Because of its remote location an hour north of Taos, it sees shockingly few visitors, so nabbing a riverfront campsite ($7 per night) on a prime late-summer weekend would be no biggie. And our route—a one-mile, 600-foot descent into the Rio Grande Gorge to Big Arsenic Springs, a scattering of a half dozen tent sites with picnic tables and metal shelters—was all downhill. It would be over before the girls could start fussing.
The trail descends steeply right out of the gate, switch-backing over the rim with gaping views of the river twisting far below. Hiking such a pitch in sneakers and under the weight of a pack takes some getting used to. At age seven, Pippa hauled her own sleeping bag, pad, and rain gear. She weighs 52 pounds, and her pack probably tipped the scales at 15. Five-year-old Maisy started out with her sleeping bag crammed into her daypack, but foisted it onto Steve by the sixth switchback, complaining it was too heavy. Pete, our two-year-old lab, carried his weight, too, his saddle bag filled with kibble and stray gear. Even I felt wobbly-kneed under my 30-pound pack but I tried my best to hold my tongue.
The one thing I never promised myself was that we’d take our girls backpacking. Schlepping all the gear and food on our backs, cajoling their little legs along the trail, dealing with outbursts and tantrums—that headache is for parents hardier than us.
I understood now that it would be insane to think we could power through such a burly descent without any whining, just as it would be crazy to let our fear of said whining stop us from going in the first place. If we did, we’d never go anywhere. All I had to do was look around to realize that the very fact of being outside amidst such natural beauty automatically trumped the girls’ occasional irritating commentary. The trail wound through ponderosas to sagebrush flats, the river glittered below, and their intermittent sniffling drifted away on the wind.
When we finally reached Big Arsenic, an hour later, the only pack Steve wasn't carrying was mine. The place was deserted, as expected, so we had our pick of sites, some more overgrown than others. Even with the wilderness’s new designation, it clearly doesn’t get much action, and we settled in at the best one, right above a big eddy into which Steve was soon casting his line.
In all our planning, there was one thing I forgot to factor in: snakes. If ever there was prime rattlesnake habitat, it was here, deep inside the desert river canyon snarled with sagebrush, boulders, and thick grasses, in late summer. Two months earlier, Pete had been bitten above the eye by a rattlesnake while swimming in the Rio Chama, necessitating our first-ever emergency getaway—a three-hour evac to the 24-hour vet where he was injected with anti-venom. When we picked him up the next morning, his face was so fat and swollen that he looked like a Shar Pei on steroids.
Not surprisingly, we were all a little jumpy. Within ten minutes of setting up camp, Pippa ran back to the lean-to, shouting “Snake!” I never got a glimpse of it, but after that I kept the girls and Pete closer to me. We sat together on the rocks as the sun sank below the rim and watched the current fall over itself on its way downstream, and Steve work the eddies upriver, fishing for rainbows.
Fear in the wilderness can be healthy. The late BASE jumper Dean Potter once told me that he judged fear by how it felt inside his body: If it was a physical sensation of danger rather than the thought of it, he listened to it and backed off. I knew my fear of rattlers was rational and justified, but I also knew that I hadn’t come into this gorgeous canyon to feel afraid. I’d come for the same reasons we always go to the river—to find solace and peace in wild places, to put a long, quiet pause in our family life, and to wake up to the wonder of the world.
Unlike river trips, backpacking is less about what you bring and more about what you leave behind. It takes surprisingly little to make a home in the wilderness. A snug, well-lit tent, a couple pouches of dehydrated food, the ones you love curled up beside you in the silent, star-filled evening. As darkness settled over the river, we were all beginning to settle more deeply into the canyon.
In the morning, everything was bright, the gorge just waking up, and my fear had lifted. Pete and I ran along the River Trail, winding three miles south to La Junta, the confluence of the Red River and the Rio Grande, with one eye on the trail for snakes, the other on the river, moving sure and fast beside us. Steve and the girls fished the eddies and checked out petroglyphs etched into a jumble of boulders. On the mile-long hike back out, the girls played musical packs again. At least Pete wore his the whole way.
On backcountry adventures, the ratio of prep work to fun can make or break a trip. One night on a family river trip would be insane. Two nights is never enough, and three just barely satisfies. But backpacking is so minimalist and required so little prep that a single night was all we needed to give us our wilderness fix and leave us hungry for more. And when we got home, I discovered the best thing of all about going light and not-so-fast with kids: There’s almost nothing to unpack.