Nurturing the Little Backpacker Within

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When I was young and invincible and knew it all, I declared to my Boy Scout leader that backpacking sucked. He had gathered six or seven of us 12-year-old boys at his house to show us his stash of backpacking gear and teach us a thing or two about the equipment and how to pack it. In a few weeks we were going to be backpacking a seven miler in the Sonoran Desert, and I'd be backpacking for the first time in my short life. So when he lifted his external frame pack to show us the ins and outs, I made my declaration. Everyone looked at me, and I turned red.

The Scout leader launched a lecture, a well-grounded one now that I look back on it, about the stupidity of saying "backpacking sucks" without having so much as a minute of experience with the activity. Embarrassed and properly put in my place, I went on that backpacking trip. Then I went on another. And another. Eventually I parted ways with Boys Scouts of America somewhere around 15 years old, but I kept backpacking. Lugged my pack to Washington and Montana, a bit in British Columbia, then throughout Arizona and down Grand Canyon a time or two of course, and even lived out it for three weeks in Mexico after I graduated from college. And, like millions of others, I humped a pack on the classic Inca Trail down in Peru some years ago.

In short, I've learned about the rewards of backpacking, despite my initial assumption that it must suck.

Now that I'm raising children, with a fresh one on the way, it's time for me to pay. I can tell every time we go for a hike.

Oh how I long for a solid backpacking partner in my child, one day I want to take her down to Havasu Falls and other places only accessible by foot. That's partly why we do short wilderness hikes. Solid doesn't mean hard-core, no way. Solid means one thing: one who so enjoys the rewards of hoofing it that summoning the commitment to make it happen comes with some amperage. All other things fall into place from there. I think. For example, said partner might be open to learning some important things on how to maximize those rewards. Like, oh, don't spend all of your energy at once. Save a little, you're going to need it on the turn-around leg. But this is a lesson few preschoolers can understand, I suspect.

So on this near-perfect spring Saturday, we shot for a late afternoon hike on a scenic, quite flat, and pretty remote trail. You bet our daughter was amped up about this. She hit the trail running . . . and then tripping. She shook it off just fine, and said she wanted to be the leader and set the pace.

No problem. And so cute.

So my wife and I agreed. We'll just go until we think she's at her personal halfway point and then turn around — the usual plan.

That's also easier said than done. Preschoolers haven't quite learned to pace themselves, at least my preschooler hasn't yet, so she's all throttle right up to the very moment she's done and let's it rip with toe dragging and a classic whine, "I'm tired. I need someone to carry me."

We were about 45 minutes down the trail. We have our tactics, though. Brooke's are better than mine because I usually just make promises of a cookie or something tasty (or something abrupt and painful . . . depends). Sure enough, when we turned back trailhead way, Chloe kept her speed up and spirits high on this day. She found a lady bug on a brittlebush bloom and that made her happy. I dashed ahead to have a few moments with blossoming prickly pear cactus and my camera. When my girls approached, I asked Chloe if she'd hold still for a picture. To my surprise she said, "Sure!" and got a little extra close to the flower and took a peek.

Her smile has stuck with me for days now.

No, I'm not going to fall into the idea that she's sold or that she's ready for the 11 miles down to Havasu. But who knows what she'll be like when she's 6 or 10 or 16. I don't know. But I'm trying like hell. I think some of it is sticking with her, too.



+3 / 0
# Kate 2012-04-23 11:24
This post totally made me smile this morning. "Like!" Love the picture too.

My parents used to tell us you should never hike more miles than the age of your kid divided by two. So, the limit for a 4 year old is 2 miles. And by that logic, you're unlikely to get to Havasu until your daughter is 22 or so. Hopefully, that rule breaks down somewhere. :)
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Mark Stephens
0 / 0
# Mark Stephens 2012-04-23 16:56
You're too kind, Kate. Thank you.

I've read that same rule of thumb before, too. It's gotta break down at some point!
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+2 / 0
# jenniferjhoffman@yah 2012-04-23 19:40
Love this post! I've been hiking with my two year old son on the Ice Age Trail and I am always surprised by what a good companion he is for the trip. We'll hike out with him in a hiking backpack but at some point in the trip he'll insist on hoofing it himself, and he really does a great job. I'm hoping that it will foster a lifetime love of hiking.
Great post - glad you changed your mind about backpacking!
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Mark Stephens
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# Mark Stephens 2012-04-25 09:13
Thanks for checking in Jennifer!
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