Backpacking – Family Style

I awoke to the sound of youthful chatter.  As was later noted, Matthew had set his watch alarm for 5:37 AM (for reasons only a 10-year-old can understand), ushering in a twilight awakening on the northeast corner of the campground.  Ten kids (three of which we inherited during the night) and two adults gradually emerged from four tents, and set about rekindling the previous night’s fire from lingering embers.  The previous day, we had undertaken a new backpacking adventure with our entire family.  Although we had involved the older members out the fall before, it was the first time we packed it all into the woods with 9 strong, and supplies we hoped would sustain us for the next 18 hours.

It had been a lingering winter, but as the 5-day forecast on the previous Tuesday finally promised a balmy, sunny weekend, Amy and I decided that the opportunity to backpack with the entire family was one that we had to seize before the bugs and busy calendar became serious obstacles.  With 7 kids from ages 11 to 1, the first challenge was to consider just how we could organize a family outing that was rugged and yet reasonable.  Quickly I set my sights on the German Ridge section of the Hoosier National Forest, which offered familiar trails, a beautiful, hilly landscape, and a walk-in campground with good (albeit primitive) amenities that would reward a hike well done.  The plan was to do about a 5.5 mile route from the car to the campground, and then a roughly 2.5 mile hike back to the car the next morning.

Beyond route finding, the other significant challenge was figuring out how to get supplies for a family of 9 to the campground without a motorized vehicle.  Fortunately, after years of gradually acquiring backpacking equipment, the oldest four were largely responsible for their gear (minus the tents).  Our 6-year-old, Will, got to take off with a modified school backpack (later carried by us at various times) and Big Lou (Louis), our 4-year-old, entered the forest with a pocketful of granola bars and (smashed) peanut butter crackers.  That left Amy to carry our 1-year-old and me with a full pack of what was left.

Admittedly, sighting the first tick even before we hit the trail made for a little unsettled beginning.  And as Big Lou hung back with Amy during the first few hundred yards, I wondered if getting to camp might require a lot of bribery, repeated carrying, and a few extra prayers.  But suddenly, after we freed Lou of the snacks spilling from his pockets, he took off down the trail like a hyena after the herd.  And the inaugural family backpack was on.

As we went deeper into the forest, only to see one person before reaching camp, the beauty of the rolling hills and carved valleys began to emerge.  The pink, blooming redbuds framed the varied green sprouts contrasted by the brown, crackly leaves that coated the land.  Small brooks met up with larger streams that promised a summer swimming hole, but for now were just an exercise in footwork to avoid (at times unsuccessfully) submerging the many different sizes of shoes that crossed their paths.

Up and down we went, the conversations as free flowing as the landscape seemed to be, interspersed with silence and goofy exclamations of a childish (and adult) kind.  At one point, the question was posed, “Would you rather be a small fish in a big pond, or a big fish in a small one?”  Being a big family in a big forest, it didn’t seem to matter as the demands of a busy week and a busy life gradually dissipated away.  As I found myself at various places along the “human wagon train”, I was moved by the beauty and simplicity of it all.  We had left our “civilized” life back home, and in the process we found that each step gave way to a new curiosity, a new bend in the trail.  What had started out as excited uncertainty soon gave way to contented joy, and a deep gratitude for transcendent gifts of family, nature, movement, and communion.

As we approached the campground, and I worked to motivate two little boys to finish strong on their own legs as they had done all day, I already looked forward to the next backpacking adventure that would come.  Later that night, joined by the Parmer family of ten, the campfire featured a lively retelling of all sorts, capped with creative rendition of Hans and Franz that left our youthful visitors rolling their eyes.  The stars shown brightly around a half moon that framed campsite #4.  For a time, life was not about scheduled activities, academic demands, or household responsibilities, but rather about slightly burned marshmallows and perfectly seared polish sausage—smoked on a maple branch.

The next morning, camp broke around 7:30 for about an hour hike out that eventually led us through an old homestead near where we had parked.  As the ridgeline vistas and limestone creek beds gave way to the tall grasses of an ancient farm, it suddenly dawned on Big Lou that we were approaching the road where we came in.  With that, he turned to Amy with a confused look on his face, and remarked, “Why didn’t we just drive to our camping site?”  An astute question from a 4-year-old that had just trudged seven hilly miles.  But one that I hoped he would answer for himself in the years to come.

For those interested in taking on the beautiful adventure of backpacking with their kids, here are a few considerations:

  • Make sure to plan a route that is both reasonable and mildly challenging based on the ages and fitness level of the family members. Contacting local ranger stations can provide both ideas regarding possible routes and also information related to passes/regulations that are applicable.  The goal is to teach our kids how to appreciate nature and develop some grit, not to force them into a miserable experience.
  • Consider the challenges of the season and terrain. Although backpacking in warm seasons largely removes concerns (and packing challenges) related to cold conditions, it introduces the difficulties related to bugs, and also greater hydration needs.  Fall and spring generally offer the fewest barriers and the most comfortable hikes (and even sleeping conditions), but demand a close eye on the weather at all times.
  • Many people cite the cost/variety of gear needed, and packing demands (related to the weight of the gear) as the biggest challenge to family backpacking. However, given how much most families spend on luxuries (e.g., eating out, tech bills/supplies), hardy, lightweight gear for youth and adults can be acquired new and used rather easily and with reasonable expense (especially if other luxuries are temporarily given up).  Consider giving gifts of backpacking supplies for birthdays and Christmases that will last way longer, and ultimately mean much more, than the trendiest clothes and toys.
  • It is important to start with a small period of time, and work up, when it comes to planning the adventure. Eighteen hour trips that begin in the early afternoon and end during the following morning minimize the need for packing food and water, and also are much easier to manage on busy schedules.  They also assure that one wet night will not lead into another one, and that even if conditions get bad, there is a clear plan that is available for a quicker departure from the forest, if needed.
  • Finally, as with any quest, it is important that the family (and all its members) understand that there will be ups and downs (not just in the terrain), but that the absolute expectation is to remain positive and accept challenges that may come. This may sound like a pipe dream for a 4-year-old, but if you have ever seen Big Lou running up the hill to join hands with his brother, Zachary, who is coaching him along, you will come to know that all things are possible during a walk in the woods, even if at home they seem rather unlikely.

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