That one time we almost DIDN’T go backpacking with our kids.
All of the best adventures start with a good plan, high hopes and…an awful fire season! (Said no one, ever.) This is a fun story about my intentions of getting into the backcountry with my kids on our first ever expedition AS A FAMILY, and how God had a different plan for us.
To start with, though, let’s rewind to July 2019 when my husband and I embarked on our first backpacking trip as a couple, and my first trip out ever! To prepare myself, I used some REI “How To” guides combined with my husband’s knowledge that he gained as a kid backpacking with his family. We got a babysitter, borrowed all the gear, packed everything we needed on our backs, and headed to Lake Valhalla. After hiking three short miles to the lake, we set up camp for the next two nights. We basically hiked into the mountains to filter our water, make Mountain House meals over a JetBoil, and get eaten alive by mosquitoes. Against all odds, I was hooked and determined to take my kids out for a very similar experience the next summer season.
And then Covid-19 came at the end of winter 2019 and continued to linger, restructuring the hiking season with every new and changing state mandate. As our cases began to level out in Chelan county and organizations like the Washington Trails Association rolled out tips on how to hike and recreate responsibly, I decided to begin planning the trip. I gathered information from friends on how to backpack with kids, and with each piece of advice I began to feel more and more confident about this trip.
With all these new tips and tricks on how to bag a successful backpacking trip with my girls, I had everything I needed to prepare for the excursion. I settled on a location, a duration and picked a date that worked for the family. I scored some sweet gear from brands like Osprey, UST Gear and Big Agnes while using or simply re purposing a lot of what we already owned. I was ready and excited to make lasting memories on the trail surrounded by tall pines, peaks and my family.
The week leading up to our first backpack trip also happened to be the first full week of “distant learning” homeschool. My oldest daughter was plugging in twice and day, Monday to Friday, for instruction from her second grade teacher. After each Zoom meeting we would tackle the short list of items that needed to be completed and uploaded to her homework file. We squeezed in 15 minutes of reading with snacks and brain breaks where needed, and then we called it a day anywhere between 1 and 2pm. I am still trying to figure out how my life got flipped upside down as it feels right now. I’m trying, I’m learning, I’m tired…but I know I’m not alone in this!
As the week progressed I had our trip on my mind along with many other things. A group I work alongside called @ActivateLeavenworth planned to march from one end of my town to the other that Labor Day evening. As fires started up near the Colville Reservation, displacing hundreds of families from their homes, we were forced to postpone the march at the last minute. A very small group of people didn’t get the note of cancellation in time and still showed up. Amidst the wildfire smoke, counter protesters and officers arrived to police the situation as we stood there along Highway 2 protesting police brutality. Unfortunately, police brutality is happening everywhere: suburbia, cities and rural America alike. If you’re reading this it’s likely you already know that.
Little did I know at the time, the same smoke and hazardous air quality that disrupted our march against police brutality were also about to revise our backpacking story quite drastically.
As I signed off social media to excuse myself for a bit, I realized I needed to meal prep. As a woman who tries hard to influence the importance of loving people and taking care of the stolen land we inhabit, I was determined to make this backpacking trip low waste. The focus switched from maps and lighters to borrowing a dehydrator to make healthy meals and purchasing Stasher bags to put them in.
The day before our trip finally came, smoke continued to fill the skies to the point where the air quality index was now well over 150. The Air Quality Index (AQI) is used for reporting daily air quality. It tells you how clean or polluted your air is, and what associated health effects might be a concern for you. Even with this understanding I continued to meal prep as if doing this would somehow will the smoke out of the mountains. I checked in with the ranger station which gave me a definite “hike at your own risk” sort of response while handing me a map and sending me on my way.
I dehydrated chicken for the first time ever, which was a super interesting process! After spending the day watching all of the “How to Backpack” videos my hiker brain could handle, this text came in from my adoring partner:
“Do you think we should postpone our camp trip due to poor air quality?”
Oooph. Up until that moment I had not even allowed the possibility of NOT going on this trip to cross my mind! I had been fervently watching YouTube videos on HOW TO backpack, not how NOT TO backpack. I needed to be out in the forest, I needed to be giggling along the trails with my loved ones, my soul needed WHAT I THOUGHT was rest. But, if you’ve been following along in this story closely you know that the process of going backpacking with kids has been anything but restful for me at this point. Determined not to give up, I read the text, responded with a dismissing sort of tone and continued to dehydrate more vegetables. At this point in the night my house looked like a contained bomb went off in an REI store, so I focused my last bit of energy towards house tidying . I didn’t even know how to express to my husband how much this trip meant to me, how much work I had put into it, and how disappointed I would be if we didn’t head out the next morning as planned.
The next morning I woke up and peered out the window like a small child looking for Santa on an early Christmas morning. I was hoping to be met with blue skies, but instead I saw that more smoke had billowed in overnight to find its home in the same mountains I was supposed to be taking my girls to later that day. The mountains were calling, but we physically could not go. I looked at my husband like a sad puppy before breaking the news to the girls that it didn’t look like we were going to be able to safely go backpacking today. Thankfully 2020 has made both me and my kids super resilient to change, and they understood the safety hazard and the importance of going when the smoke cleared. Mom, on the other hand, had done backpacking with kids lessons 1-14 all month long but ignored lesson 15: prepare for the off chance you can’t go due to climate change.
And so we decided to postpone for clear skies and an open schedule. Instead of eating my precious dehydrated meals, we ordered takeout and watched the Seattle Seahawks season opener in which they beat the Atlanta Falcons 38-25. I refused to clean up the REI bomb that had gone off in my living room, and decided to take a nap between football games. A nap was exactly the rest I needed after staying up way too late waiting for food to dehydrate and wishing the smoke away. For anyone who’s wondering, all the wishes in the world can’t clear the skies of hazardous wildfire smoke.
As much as it pained me not to go backpacking after going through some intense packing and preparation, all was well. It hurt to tell my kids that we had to reschedule, but at least we were all together and safe. I had to follow my own advice about hiking with kids: lower your expectations and remain patient and optimistic. The hardest part of it all was dealing with all the highs and lows leading up to our final decision. The low points were scattered throughout my whole week. I interacted with violent counter protesters – literally just racist community members who are confused about the movement but unwilling to ask questions. Fires started in the north and our air quality changed drastically, sounding the alarm that families were being evacuated up and down the west coast. I realized that my Instagram account (@she_colorsnature) was being shadow banned due to the anti-racist content I am producing. My high was supposed to be unplugging and going backpacking, but that never came.
Thankfully, I found peace in my family within the four walls of our home. I found joy in dance parties with my kids in the kitchen and I found reprieve when the rain and wind finally showed up to clear the air a few days later. I found joy again after taking a long solo car ride, listening to the music of my choice with the windows rolled down, singing along as loud as I could. I learned so many valuable lessons through this whole experience, the biggest one being that even when the mountains are calling there is nothing more important than your safety and health. And even when you think you know where you should be and what you need, God has a plan. His plan is so perfect, and He has such funny ways of making us remember this.
After leaving our backpacks packed and ready, we finally got to go backpacking as a family just a short week later. We had so much fun, and we had plenty of delicious home made meals! The weather was perfect! And the girls rocked it the whole time. I hope this story doesn’t scare anyone away from trying to backpack with their kids, that’s definitely not my intent. Instead I hope our experience helps you find courage to try, while reminding you to be flexible and to enjoy the journey…even if that journey finds you on the couch instead of at the trail head.
Hope you enjoyed reading, catch you on the trail friends! More on Backpacking with kids COMING SOON. Be sure to subscribe to my emails so you never miss an entry. Thanks!
Written by: Chelsea Murphy
Edited by: Jessica Floyd