Last weekend I did something I hadn’t done for ten years. I packed up my sleeping bag, a small camping stove, a lightweight tent, food, water and some other essentials, and ventured into the forest on a local, 11-mile backpacking trail. With me, I had my 7-year-old daughter who, although she has plenty of experience hiking and camping, had never gone on an overnight backcountry trip before.
Some people called me brave, others wished me luck. And even though they would never say so to my face, a few people probably thought I was crazy.
As we started out my daughter was as excited as I was. This was going to be our special trip, a rite of passage that her 4-year-old little sister was not old enough to participate in. But half a mile into the hike, as my daughter was already repeatedly asking “Mommy, is that our camp?” and pointing to random spots along the trail, I was starting to wonder if the skeptics had been right and I had bit off more than my daughter could chew. “No, we still have a little ways to go, honey,” I responded, secretly doubting that we’d even make it there.
I knew I had made some mistakes that could easily turn this mommy-daughter adventure into an epic fail:
- The first leg of the trip was eight miles, by far the longest distance my daughter had ever hiked. Although I knew she was fit enough and physically capable of doing it, I really wasn’t sure how she would handle the distance mentally.
- I’d never hiked the trail myself before and didn’t know the level of difficulty. It turned out to be mostly moderate, but some sections were also rather rough and steep.
- I had optimistically calculated that it would take us three hours to reach camp. I was way off.
We started out at 1 pm local time, giving us about six hours to hike before nightfall. The first mile of the hike took nearly an hour, as my daughter in her usual fashion stopped to study every mole hole, rock and daddy longleg spider that we came across. At this rate, it would be nine o’clock before we could pitch our tent and eat dinner.
I didn’t want to rush her, but at the same time we needed to keep moving, so I showed her the map and where we were going. “Our camp is all the way over there?” she said in disbelief, then added matter-of-factly, “We need to pick up the pace!” From that moment on, she was in charge of reading the map and tracking our progress.
Around 3 pm we reached a group campground at the 3.5-mile marker. I asked my daughter if she wanted to change the plan and stop there instead of continuing to the second camp at 8 miles as planned. But she insisted that we press on. And it finally seemed possible.
We were a mother-daughter team with no distractions and nowhere else to be, fully engaged with nature. When the going got rough, I carried her backpack and offered her Snickers bars. Anything to keep her going.
Sure, there were times of doubt, times of slight despair, and a lot of “We’re never going to get there!” But we also had some amazingly close encounters with four deer, three chipmunks, two turkeys and numerous birds and butterflies. I reminded her that we wouldn’t have seen most of them if we had driven our car to the camp.
As we were closing in on our goal, her steps got lighter and her voice more excited. After five hours of hiking we reached camp at 6 pm, with plenty of time to spare to cook dinner and set up the tent before dark. She had rose to the challenge and pulled it off.
Once we’d settled in around the fire we talked at length about the mysterious lives of toads and how to make the perfect S’mores. She was happy. I was happy. At least until it was time to sleep on the packed dirt and I sorely regretted my decision not to bring any foam pads. But that’s another story.
The next day, after we made the three mile hike back to the car, I asked my daughter what the best part of the trip was. “Everything!” she responded. Then she added, “Well, next time I don’t want to walk that far.”
I’ll take that. As long as there will be a next time.
Are you considering taking your kids backpacking? Here’s more great reading from some of my fellow outdoor family bloggers:
10 Tips for Keeping Kids Happy and Safe Outdoors – The Big Outside
Are You Ready for That New Outdoors Adventure? 5 Questions to Ask Yourself – The Big Outside
The Essentials of Being a Sherpamom – Rockieschick’s Adventures
What’s in Our Backpacks? – Rockieschick’s Adventures
Family Camping Made Easy – Family Adventures in the Canadian Rockies
Five Years of Family Backpacking Trips – Family Adventures in the Canadian Rockies
Raising Backpackers – Moosefish
Backpacking Project Series – The Kid Project
Family Meals and Packing, Backpacking Style – Hiking Along
14 thoughts on “The Truth About Backpacking Solo with Kids”
We have been taking our kids backpacking since they were 3. Your trip sounds like a ton of fun.
That’s awesome! Yes, we had a great time and honestly I can’t wait to do it again:o)
Great, honest post Linda & I’m so glad your daughter wants to go hiking again.
Thank you Kierna, and thanks for sharing my post. Yes, she’s definitely turned into a tough little hiker – now we just have to get her little sister on board too:o) She was a little upset that she didn’t get to go, so I’m hoping that will motivate her to up her hiking game…
Such an inspiring post. My 5 year old daughter has done a backpacking trip with myself, two other adults and their 5 and 7 year old daughters. We walked 14 miles across the two days. It was fantastic and the girls were amazing. But I’ve never tried taking my daughter on my own. Did you have any concerns about what might happen if you got hurt? I tend not to worry about such things, but I also don’t want to be the idiot who goes into the forest unprepared!
That sounds wonderful, Fiona! I’d like to do this with friends sometime too, I think it would make it even more fun for the kids. About safety: I honestly didn’t see a whole lot of things that could go seriously wrong, and since the preserve is small we were never that far from civilization. Like you I tend not to worry too much about things going wrong (especially since we don’t have any bears or other wildlife dangers that are more prevalent in other places) but I did have my cell phone with me. Most of the time I didn’t have reception but if something were to happen to me, and I got seriously hurt, I would give my daughter the phone and instruct her to go back and call for help. If something happened to her she’s still light enough that I could’ve carried her out.
I love that you persevered through the doubts of your friends and passed that perseverance on to your daughter to accomplish your goal! Thanks for the inspiration, I cannot wait for my first long distance hiking trip with my son!
Thank you, Shannon:o) I think resilience is a really important life skill to have, and long-distance hiking is definitely a good way for kids to practice it! Hope you get to take your son soon!
Well done for giving your daughter such an exciting adventure, it soounds wonderful and lovely to hear she enjoyed it. A little bit of risk is never a bad thing and gives her such confidence to deal with things that life may throw her in the future. My daughter would love to do this.
I agree completely about the risk part – I think it’s an essential ingredient of childhood! Thanks for reading:o)
Loved this post! Your daughter is quite a trooper!
We did our first family backpacking trip this year with a 5-year old and an 8-year old, and it was a great time despite rain storms and steep inclines and a bloody knee. We’re already planning our next trip for next month. Here’s a short description if you’re interested: http://desertsurvivor.blogspot.com/2015/08/our-first-family-backpack.html
That’s awesome – thanks for sharing! I haven’t spent much time in deserts at all, so your blog is intriguing to me. Love the marmot that you saw; I’ve never seen one of those in the wild. Thanks for stopping by!
I am recently a single mom. By surprise I ended up single and had planned a cross country trip already so I kept to plans ad traveled the country with my 3 kids (7,4,2) alone last summer. Mostly car camping and friends, cabins, and some hotels. My oldest, 8, wants to start doing some more challenging hiking this summer. We live near the mountains and lakes. and love the outdoors. We take advantage when we can. I have done extensive long distance backpacking and kayaking before kids so I’m excited to add some miles and overnights with them. My 5yo is also interested but as a single mom I would like to do one kiddo at a time, for now, on the longer stuff. We are however, planning our fist 4Kfooter the three of us in a couple of weeks. 3 miles round trip. I’m so excited. It’s so nice to read about other single moms getting out there with their kids.
I’m so glad you’re not letting single life stop you from getting out there with the kiddos. It’s challenging at times for sure, but so worth it! And taking them one by one sometimes is a great idea – outdoor adventures are a wonderful way to bond and make memories together. My kids are 8 and 11 now, so taking them both isn’t an issue, but I’ve made a point to take them on separate backpacking trips sometimes, so that they can both get some one on one time with me.