Last weekend we went backpacking…with our kids. While most people think of camping as some variation of sleeping outdoors in a tent or camper, with civilization close if needed but charmingly far away, my husband, aka Mountain Man, views camping as decidedly more rustic. And because what I hate about camping is the amount of stuff that one must pack and unpack, backpacking is our preferred method. Backpacking is beautiful because you can only take what you can carry. It automatically eliminates the supersize camping that can easily occur when you get carried away loading the comforts of home into your vehicle.
We were feeling a wee bit overconfident, as we had successfully taken our kids on a one-night backpacking trip last summer. We hiked in one mile and pitched our tent, then pumped water from a stream, cooked dehydrated meals, and gazed at the stars and wildflowers without ever encountering another human being. The next morning we hiked out and went home. So this year, Mountain Man (to be called M.M. henceforth) upped the ante. He decided on a 6-mile round trip backpacking excursion, which would mean we would hike in 3 miles, camp for the night, then hike out 3 miles. It seemed daring, romantic even, the idea of leaving civilization behind and hiking into the woods with our children. We were real-life rebels, part Bonnie and Clyde, part Johnny and June, confidently bucking the constraints of society.
It was when we stood outside our car, loading our backpacks in a wet drizzle, that I felt less like a rebel and more like a fool. We studied the sky, which was covered with storm clouds. “It’s got to break,” said M.M., but he looked worried. “It was only supposed to be a 20% chance of rain.” By the time we locked the car and hit the trail, it wasn’t just drizzling, it was raining. We walked at an agonizingly slow pace as we adjusted to the 9000 foot altitude and to the heaviness of roughly ⅓ of our body weight on our backs. Each of our backpacks contained a change of clothes, a sleeping mat, a sleeping bag, and water. I also carried food and medicine. My son carried the camp stove. My husband carried the tent and cooking pots.
We trudged on in the rain. Soon the complaining began. “I’m never going backpacking ever again,” my son shouted as we wound up and down endless switchbacks. At one point he tripped and fell face forward on the trail, a wet mess of hot tears. My daughter stared at the ground, her tiny body unbalanced with the weight of her pack. “I think they must have measured this in linear feet, not walking distance,” M.M. said, an edge of desperation in his voice. We were wet and the temperature was dropping. I had to watch the ground because there were so many rocks. If I took my eyes off the trail, I’d risk a fall or a twisted ankle. An injury could send our problems from bad to worse. Every few minutes, I’d look at the sky, desperate for a glimpse of sun. It was gray in all directions.
What exactly were we doing out here? It was miserable and borderline dangerous. We stopped for a moment and thought about turning back, but all of us decided to push on. Despite being uncomfortable and afraid, I felt it was crucially important that I take my children into the woods, away from the dangers of technology and the flatness of a life without trees and stars. When I think back on my childhood, many of my best memories took place outside. I loved Girl Scout camp. It was a thrill to explore the woods by my childhood home.
After hours of hiking, the lake we were supposed to find was nowhere in sight. We came across a flat spot and I threw my stuff down. “We’re stopping right here,” I insisted. We had hiked for 2 hours and 47 minutes. M.M. dropped his backpack and did a quick scan of the area to determine if it was safe. There are massive amounts of dead trees all over Colorado killed by an epidemic of pine beetles, and he was concerned that a windstorm could kick up and knock one over. “I feel bad for dad,” said my son. He could see the weight of responsibility on his father’s shoulders. Even the kids can sense I’m mostly a liability during camping. We knew it was up to M.M. to get us out of there alive.
We set up our tent right away. The temperature had dropped to nearly 40 degrees, and everything was damp. But the rain had stopped. M.M. was able to get a fire started, and we spent the next two hours heating up our dehydrated meals and drying out damp clothes and sleeping bags by the fire. The kids were in the tent playing games they had invented. We heated water and used our 4 precious tea bags to make mugs of hot tea. It was damp and chilly, but we were safe in the woods. “Thanks for bringing us out here, mom and dad,” my son said unexpectedly.
We crawled into the tent and the kids went to sleep. I lay there and shivered for what seemed like hours. I couldn’t get warm. M.M. lay beside me, not sleeping either. We were both dreading the hike back out. It had been a much longer, more advanced hike than we had expected. The weather hadn’t helped. And we had to do it again the next day.
Our campsite in the woods. Notice the dead trees everywhere.
Finally, the sun came up. I couldn’t say if I slept. Still, everything seemed brighter, more hopeful. Leaving our stuff at our campsite, we found the elusive mountain lake that M.M. had been determined to locate. We skimmed rocks for a while, but it was hard to ignore that the sky was turning gray. We had just packed up camp when it began to drizzle again. The first mile hiking out seemed so much better than the day before. Both M.M. and I had aching hips from our packs, but we were able to (mostly) focus on the path. The kids perked up. The thought of a warm bed and a hot meal put everything in perspective.
The hike out took us 2 hours and 5 minutes. We had survived. And what I felt was a mix of foolishness, pride, and awe. It amazes me that humans did and do survive in the most uncomfortable of conditions.
“Now you’ll have something to talk about at school when they ask you what you did over the summer,” I said to my kids. We loaded everything into the car and headed back to civilization.
The elusive hidden mountain lake. We finally found it.