Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Preparing your kids for your backcountry adventure

You're embarking on your backcountry journey for yourself, in some part, it's true- it has to be true. Discovering yourself in the untamed wilderness of the backcountry, and seeing things you can't see anywhere else. But the biggest part about it is letting your kids have that experience- give them the opportunity to enjoy the things we enjoyed when we were kids.

But how do you prepare for and choose the right trip for your kids? That's probably one of the most important questions. Now, I'm not saying you've got to micromanage every single aspect of the trip to the tiniest detail. Part of the fun is experiencing the unique and random stuff that happens along the way, and some of the best stories I have today are about when things went horribly wrong, and how we dealt and coped with that. But you do have to embark on some preparation, or else your goal of getting your kids to enjoy nature with you could backfire spectacularly.

My daughter is probably at an average fitness level for her age group. She swims laps every week for forty-five minutes at her swimming practice, and, if she keeps it up, will soon be a better swimmer than I am. She plays soccer every weekend in the spring. We often go for family walks around the neighborhood, where she'll alternate between pulling the dog on the leash and having the dog pull her. She's got it in her head she wants to hike the Gunsight Pass trail at Glacier National Park this August. Now, that's a hell of a trail; some of the best scenery and beauty of any in the entire world. But it's twenty-miles long, and even on the "easier" east-to-west route, it's got elevation gains of up to five hundred feet a mile. Five hundred feet a mile? Doesn't sound so bad, does it? Consider that in three miles, you'd have walked up from the ground floor of the Empire State building to the top of the tallest radio spire- not the observation deck, the top of the spire. To give you an idea on that, get on a treadmill, set it to an eight-degree incline, and walk that for three miles without stopping.

Doesn't sound like something for the faint of heart now, does it? Or something you want to set your kid on without getting an idea of theirs, and your, capabilities? Pushed too hard, and at the very least, you're liable to get an overdose of resentfulness. At worst, you could potentially endanger your child's health.

Last weekend, I had my daughter load her school backpack up with her sleeping bag, a couple bottles of Gatorade, a few books ("Junie B. Jones" and "My Little Pony" chapter books), and a journal she could write in, a total of about seven or eight pounds of weight, and we set out from our house to walk to the "end of the road and back". The trip is about two miles in total, with elevation gains and drops of 40-60 feet along the way. My daughter, who's almost eight, and has never been on a serious hike before did pretty good. Just before the turnaround point, she mentioned she was tired, and her back hurt a little. We took a short break to re-hydrate, make sure her pack was tightened appropriately, and headed back.

Along the way, when she'd mention being tired, we'd play games or sing songs; I asked her which grade she liked the best so far, she made me sing "Frozen" songs with her (she said my singing would scare away any bears), we played "I spy". She would occasionally complain about being tired or her back hurting; I acknowledged her concern and told her not to worry, and then did my best to distract her. I got her to do a dissertation on how to bake a cake in Minecraft and her plans for building New New York City before, about a quarter-mile from home, her voice croaked and she said, "Daddy, are we going to stop? I'm tired."

That was the key- I could tell she had gone about as far as she could. I showed her how close we were to home, and asked her if she thought we could make it the rest of the way- she took a deep breath and said, yes. In fact, she even raced me when we got into sight of the house, winning handily. All in all, the trip had taken about forty-five minutes or so, so a pace of just over two miles an hour, with a total of 200 feet of elevation gain (and loss).

Then I told her that the hike she wanted to do at Glacier was four times that long- per day, for three days. It didn't dissuade her even so, and she might have been able to do eight miles that day if I pushed her- but that's the point. A little pushing might be okay, but you have to be able to recognize what's getting over a psychological hump, and where the real physiological limits for your child is. And since most people are pediatric medical experts, you need to make sure you're erring on the side of caution. If it's not fun for your kids, then it defeats the whole purpose! If you endanger their health or well-being, it completely defeats the purpose of what you're trying to do.

Try to make it a once a weekend thing, to take your kid(s) out just walking for an hour or so, Try to go a different route each time, to give everyone something new to see. Make sure you plan lots of games and side activities, even if it does involve you singing "Love is an Open Door" in front of some raised-eyebrow onlookers. Eventually, add a pack; first with light stuff, then replicating what you're going to take on your trip (at least the approximate weight). Work your way there, and enjoy the time with your kids.

And don't be disappointed if you can't do what you want, if the romanticized vision in your head doesn't come true. If we can't do Gunsight Pass this year, because we don't get a permit, or because we feel like it's too much for her physically, it's not a big deal! The folks at Glacier will tell you there are no bad adventures at Glacier, and it's true! If you can't do the "famous" stuff, there is plenty of other stuff you can do. That's why we're here. We're going to help identify that, so you and your kids have plenty of great options for stuff to do together.

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