The 5 Rules About Kids I Broke While Backpacking in Rocky Mountain National Park

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 clearly enjoyed 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.

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Ouzel Lake, Wild Basin, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.
Ouzel Lake, Wild Basin, Rocky Mountain National Park.

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.” My son has always had a flair for melodrama.

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 in using it.

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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.

School-age kids at a campsite in Wild Basin, on a backpacking trip in Rocky Mountain National Park.
My kids at a campsite in Wild Basin, on our backpacking trip in Rocky Mountain National Park.

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.

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.

See my story “The 5 Best Tips for Hiking With Young Kids” and all of all of my stories about family adventures at The Big Outside.


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7 thoughts on “The 5 Rules About Kids I Broke While Backpacking in Rocky Mountain National Park”

  1. I completely appreciated your book and have recommended it to several people. You kept it both entertaining (which your description of family) and educational (with your research on environmental changes). Thank you for your hard work.

  2. I’m going to have to check out your book, My wife and I have been backpacking with our boys (now 11 and 8) since they both were in diapers. Our boys have grown up here behind Pikes Peak with very little influence of the city. Growing up in the mountains at 9 thousand feet I believe has helped when we take them out on trips now. They are use to elevation, wildlife, cold and the chores that comes with mountain living away from the city 🙂

  3. LOVED your book! Really enjoyed these extra pics to go along with that story~ and my 9&11 year olds are loving these stories too!!
    Thanks for inspiring us!!