By Michael Lanza
“I’m dying!” my son, Nate, bellowed to the entire forest in the Wild Basin of Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park. “This pack is too heavy!” We were just 30 minutes up the trail at the outset of a three-day backpacking trip. It was a trip that seemed like an unmitigated disaster for the first two days—then morphed into an adventure my kids remember fondly, and that helped expand their outdoor interests.
For me, those three days in Rocky serve as a reminder about the many ways you can do it wrong when taking kids outdoors, but how simple it is to make it right.
Nate had just turned 10 and was carrying his own backpack, containing his clothes, sleeping bag, pad, a liter of water, and a few snacks and small, personal items like stuffed animals. My daughter, Alex, was seven and still carrying just a daypack. My wife, Penny, couldn’t make that trip. An old friend who lives in the Denver area, Bill, had joined us on this hike in the southeast corner of Rocky Mountain National Park, on the east side of the Continental Divide and south of the park’s tallest and most famous mountain, 14,259-foot Longs Peak. Bill carried our cooking kit for me. But I still had most of my family’s gear and food. My pack weighed about 60 pounds.
But because I’ve long believed that the relative happiness level of our family backcountry trips always depended more on how much my kids were enjoying it than on how much I was suffering, we stopped and dropped our packs so I could lighten Nate’s load. I somehow shoehorned his sleeping bag inside my already bloated pack. This made him happier—but it did not put an end to the litany of complaints raining on me on that trip.
“When are we going to stop? When are we going to find some shade?”
An hour into our second morning, Alex began bombarding me with questions in a tone intended to convey her general displeasure. We had only three easy miles to hike from our campsite the first night (which had also been just three miles from the trailhead) to our next campsite at Ouzel Lake. My kids had hiked three times as far on multiple occasions. That day, they were having none of it.
We were on a trail with no shade, under a hot, alpine sun. During a brief lull in Alex’s diatribe, Nate told me, “We’d better stop soon or I’m going to die of heatstroke.”
Finally, I parked them in the minimal shadow of a burned-out snag and piled snacks in front of them. After several minutes of quiet consumption, their moods shifted 180 degrees. Reaching Ouzel Lake an hour later—which sits in ponderosa pine forest below a wall of 12,000- and 13,000-foot peaks—almost completed their metamorphosis back into laughing children who enjoy being out in the woods. But the real win came when Bill’s girlfriend, Jenna, showed up with a fly-fishing rod and gave the kids a patient lesson.
However big your load, get the right pack. See my “Gear Review: The 10 Best Backpacking Packs.”
Raising Outdoors-Loving Kids
I violated five of my own 10 Tips For Raising Outdoors-Loving Kids on that backpacking trip in Rocky:
No. 3 Take Baby Steps
Even though we hiked fairly short distances each day, I was pushing them harder than they wanted to work on that occasion.
No. 4—Employ Bribery Strategically
Despite having witnessed child meltdowns in the backcountry many times, it took me a surprisingly long time on that second day to recognize that both of my kids just needed a short break for some food; I was too focused on finding shade for them for that break, when there wasn’t any shade.
No. 5 Tear Up Your Agenda
I had planned a trip that followed my agenda rather than considering what would help them enjoy the trip more—and I was lucky that Jenna showed up with a fly rod.
No. 6 Talk and Listen
I should have invoked the no-whining rule early on, while talking and listening to them to hear why they weren’t happy.
No. 7 Let Them Ask to Carry More
Although Nate had carried that much weight in his backpack a few times that summer, on this particular trip—which was at a higher elevation than my kids had previously hiked—he just felt too tired and was struggling with that much weight.
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But I did do a few things right on that adventure. I made sure we camped near water both nights: The kids played in a creek near our campsite at Siskin for an hour-and-a-half the first afternoon, and fished and played in Ouzel Lake for hours on our second day and third morning.
And I did follow my own advice about not giving in to frustration and apathy (Tip No. 2). Taking young kids outdoors can be a lot of work. But I always happily paid that price in return for the pleasure I get being out in the wilderness, the time we have together as a family without the constant interruptions and distractions of civilization—and the moments when I see my kids really excited about being out there.
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Note: I write more about this backpacking trip in Rocky Mountain National Park in a chapter of my National Outdoor Book Awards-winning book, Before They’re Gone—A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks. I also offer a speaking program, with lots of photos, about taking kids out on wilderness adventures.
THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR anyone capable of backpacking three to five miles a day, or dayhiking 9.4 miles round-trip to Ouzel Lake, including children. Challenges include elevations up to 10,000 feet, hot alpine sun (especially in afternoons), and possible afternoon thunderstorms. The trail is generally not steep and is well marked, so route-finding won’t be a problem for anyone with basic compass and map-reading skills.
Make It Happen
Season The peak season for hiking and backpacking in the Colorado Rockies begins after higher elevations become mostly snow-free in early or mid-July and continues through September and often into October.
The Itinerary From the Wild Basin Trailhead at 8,500 feet in the southeast corner of Rocky Mountain National Park, we hiked three miles uphill to the Siskin backcountry campsite. On day two, I took an early-morning, roughly six-mile, out-and-back hike to Thunder Lake, and then we all hiked three miles to the lone backcountry campsite at Ouzel Lake, at about 10,000 feet. On day three, we hiked 4.7 miles downhill back to the trailhead.
Getting There From Estes Park, drive 12.6 miles south on CO 7 and turn right onto Wild Basin Road. Continue 0.4 miles, turn right, and drive about two miles farther to the Wild Basin Trailhead at the end of this gravel road (which is passable for cars).
Permit A permit is required for camping in the backcountry. The park starts accepting permit reservations online or in person on March 1, starting at 8 a.m. Mountain Time, for that calendar year. Phone, mail, email and fax reservations are not accepted. There’s a fee for making a reservation. See nps.gov/romo/planyourvisit/wilderness-camping.htm.
Map Trails Illustrated Rocky Mountain National Park map no. 200, $11.95, (800) 962-1643, natgeomaps.com.
Contact Rocky Mountain National Park, (970) 586-1206, nps.gov/romo. Backcountry office, (970) 586-1242.