Rise to the challenge, backpacking with young children is 100% worth it!

“This just isn't worth it,” I said to my wife as I stood in a shady spot on the side of a washed-out forest road with my Deuter AirContact 75+10 loaded with all the gear for our family of four. We were 20 minutes into our first backpacking trip since we had our second child last fall and I could still see  our parked car. We had been prepping our 3 year old son with several day hikes over the last month or two, with his longest hike being 5 miles round-trip with a 1200 foot elevation gain to the nearly 9,000 foot summit of Mount Scott at Crater Lake National Park.



can never tell what combination of factors will contribute to the dreaded meltdown. It was 1pm and it had taken us all morning to get packed and to the trailhead. We had eaten lunch at the trailhead but Cedar didn't eat much, the first sign that there might be trouble ahead. It was hot in the mid-day sun and the first half mile of walking was on a washed-out forest road until we could reach the trail. A meltdown was in full effect.

With our longer day hikes this year, I had been honing my distraction and motivation skills to keep Cedar entertained and hiking. In previous seasons we had let Cedar hike as long as he wanted on backpacking trips and then my wife would carry him in our Deuter Kid Comfort 3  when he began to tire. With our 11-month old daughter needing to ride full-      time, this was no longer an option. Now we were hostages to the capriciousness of a three year old who could no longer be carried. I took a deep breath and started to negotiate our release.
jessecunninghambackpacking-002-1024x682With some Jedi distraction techniques, I managed to get Cedar to the beginning of the forested trail and  as soon as we entered the cool, shady forest everything changed. Soon he was picking salmonberries and huckleberries and running ahead to find more. At our first snack break he was scaling boulders and pointing out the nearby cedar trees. We arrived at the beautiful alpine Mirror Lake and we all took some time to splash in the cool water. The evening was beautiful and the mosquitoes were notably absent. It was worth it.

jessecunninghambackpacking-003-682x1024With the confidence of our first successful overnight, we began to plan for our next adventure-- a multi-day trip to the rugged coast of the Olympic peninsula. In a previous life, I had led multi-day backpacking trips in this area and knew that the beach hiking could be challenging with sections that are only passable when the tide is low, but requires a lot of walking on wet slippery rocks, or by overland trails that often require ladders or ropes to exit from and return to the beach. Maybe these were not the easiest hiking conditions for a 3 year old, but we reasoned that the different habitats and beach and sea life would keep him interested and entertained. jessecunninghambackpacking-005-1024x682

jessecunninghambackpacking-004Our itinerary along the “Ozette Triangle” included a 3 mile hike on boardwalks and raised trails through verdant coastal rainforest and bog habitats, followed by a 3 mile hike up the coast and another 3 mile return trail through the forest. We hiked the first night to Sand Point and pitched our tent on the beach. Both kids had a great time crawling around in the sand until it got too dark to see. We started the next morning in the light drizzle and fog that often characterizes the weather on the coast and our spirits lifted and our raincoats came off as the fog and clouds drifted away in the afternoon breezes. We traced the lines of ancient petroglyphs at Wedding Rocks and were treated to a colorful sunset and the songs of an offshore seal colony at our campsite at Camp Alava.


The following morning we explored the beach one more time before packing up and hiking our return trail back through the rainforest. Cedar hiked all 9 miles (3 miles each day) by himself and both kids swam, played in the sand and dirt, and ate oatmeal straight from the cooking pot while watching the tide come in. It was a success by all measures. And just like every other backcountry trip I have ever done, even the struggles become fond memories when the trip is done. In that regard, it is really not much different than parenting. And what better way to teach your children about the world than by being out in the backcountry where they can explore the wonders of the outdoors with all of their senses?


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