Fall Sunday: Backpacking With Kids In The Weminuche

The start of the trail

The start of the trail

When you have kids, you give up a few things. Sleep. Money. Time. You accept the trade-off: deprivation for family. Andy and I were down with all of that. But one thing we weren’t okay with giving up was backpacking.

Backpacking was our foundation. We’d met backpacking on the backside of the San Juans in the Weminuche 20 years ago. It was what defined us. Something transformative happened to our relationship every time we packed a few of our belongings into a pack and hoisted those packs onto backs. Going deeper into the wilderness—where the only sounds we could hear were the sounds of the trail, the river, and our own voices— allowed us to go deeper with each other. Before having kids, we’d taken backpacking trips all over the West: into the Rocky Mountains, the Cascades, into the canyons of Utah.

But backpacking with children was hard, bordering on impossible. We’d taken our older daughter Siri when she was one and my legs had nearly buckled with the weight. Andy had all of gear in one back. I had Siri and all our clothes in a baby pack. We barely made it 3 miles, set up camp, and turned around the following day, grateful for the cold celebratory ale we found in Durango.

Quincy prepares kindling

Quincy prepares kindling

After that trip, we gave up backpacking, preferring to car camp, rather than suffer such weight again. We had another child and our thoughts of backpacking trips moved even farther away. We would wait until they were old enough; wait until it was fun again.

Yet, as the anniversary of weekend we’d met 20 years ago approached, Andy and I both found ourselves pining for a backpacking trip. We wanted to go in the woods and feel the solace we knew we could only find away from the din of modern life. We wanted to fall asleep beneath a sea of stars and awake with dew on our bags. And we wanted to share such an experience with our children, to have them know such freedom. Such peace. Such beauty.

They were ready; both of them could hike, or could if we provided ample motivation in the form of candy. But we knew we’d still have our work cut out for us. Somehow, we had to shave some weight from our packs, a lot of weight. We wanted the girls (8 and 5) to just carry daypacks, and we were both hoping that our packs could be a little lighter this time, or at least light enough so that we could look around rather than studying the ground like pack mules. So we took some shortcuts: we brought a tarp instead of a tent; we brought an instant cheesy broccoli rice combo instead of cooking a meal from scratch; and we insisted the girls only bring one small stuffed animal (probably the hardest task). The end result was miraculous: all the girls’ clothes fit into their school bags and our packs were light, disturbingly light.

“Do we have everything?” I kept asking.
“Everything we need,” Andy would reply.

Girls snuggling in the morning

Girls snuggling in the morning

I was worried. In the name of lightness, I’d ditched my big down puffy, figuring if I got cold, I could bury myself in my sleeping bag. But I hated being cold. The sacrifice was worth it though, I reminded myself; I could look around; the kids could hike freely; and most importantly, we were doing it: backpacking as a family at last.

We took the kids to the Elk Meadows trail near Vallecito Reservoir in Durango. While the trail is populated with horsepackers, we knew from trying to hike it years ago with Siri that the grade was very mellow, almost flat: perfect for an entry-level backpacking trip. After stopping several times (our pace was barely 2 miles an hour), navigating a few severe whining sessions, we arrived in camp. We got to work building a fire, setting up our tarp, and making our instant dinner. The sun started to set and Andy reached into his pack for something. He put his arms around me and placed something into my hands: my big puffy! “You brought it,” I said.

“Of course,” he said. Our kids looked at us. The start of school had been stressful. But here we were. One happy family in the woods.

“This is really fun,” one of them said.

“Exactly,” we said, adding more wood to the fire, the sparks springing in the night sky. Our own tiny meteor shower.

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