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Introduction to Backpacking

Started: 2014-08-24 19:08:08

Submitted: 2014-08-24 21:41:46

Visibility: World-readable

In which the intrepid narrator takes his kindergartner on a short backpacking trip

This spring, while on holiday in Scotland, we discovered that Calvin can, with only modest prodding, walk a couple of miles in any one direction. When we went camping in Rocky Mountain National Park for the Fourth of July, on two days we went on two hikes of four miles round-trip (two miles in each direction), with Calvin walking the whole way. He walked slowly, and required frequent breaks and encouragement, but otherwise he had no trouble walking.

At some point in the past, I told myself that I would take Calvin backpacking as soon as he was able to walk on his own from the trailhead to the campsite. (He was, in fact, conceived on a backpacking trip, but since he was born it's been much easier to schlep the stuff necessary to support a small child while car-camping than while backpacking.) With the Necessary prerequisite met, I looked at the available options and decided to reserve a backcountry campsite in the nearby national park for a Saturday night, so we could hike in on Saturday and back on Sunday. (While the national park took more effort to reserve, it had a few important advantages for our use-case: designated sites that were reservable in advance; and sites with privies, so I didn't have to teach Calvin how to dig and use a cat-hole.) I drove up to the national park's backcountry office on a Saturday in July when I was otherwise unbooked with a list of sites that met my criterion (within two miles of the trailhead and supplied with a privy) and got a reservation for Rabbit Ears, a one-site camp site up the Cow Creek Trail on the north-east side of the park.

When we car-camp, we have a giant six-man REI Kingdom 6 tent, which is more than enough to fit the three of us with room to spare. I had no interest in dragging that tent backpacking, so we fell back to the three-man tent we used before Calvin was born. I set it up in the back yard to prove that it would still work, and that we could more-or-less fit three people in it. Calvin saw the tent and asked, "When did you get this tent?" I explained that we had it before he was born but didn't us it much. My test indicated that we could fit our sleeping bags, and pretty much nothing else, inside the tent, so that was good enough for one night.

Since 2008 I've used my biggest backpacking pack, an aging Mountainsmith pack with shoulder straps that won't stay properly adjusted and inadequate hydration bladder support, only once, on my trip to Kings Peak. Someday I intend to replace the pack with something a bit more modern and light-weight, tall enough to support my abnormally-long torso, but I couldn't justify buying a new pack for only one night, and my bear canister wouldn't fit in my smaller, 50-liter GoLite pack (which is technically intended for long trips but I use it as a day-pack, since it's one of the few packs that I can get to fit right), so I loaded my big pack. I ended up with all of the heavy stuff: the bear canister with our food, the camp stove, fuel, dishes, three sleeping bag pads, my sleeping bag, my clothes, and the tent. Kiesa carried her and Calvin's sleeping bags, clothes, and pillows. Calvin carried nothing; we figured it was asking enough just to get him to walk to the camp site, and we didn't really have a suitably-sized backpack for him to carry his own clothes.

I picked up our permit at the backcountry office, then we ate pizza for lunch in Estes Park and headed to the Cow Creek Trailhead on the north-east corner of the park. Even with a pack that weighed at least as much as Calvin, I could still walk twice as fast as Calvin could. It did not take very long to walk the 1.4 miles from the trailhead to the camp site, through the tall grasses that made up the long meadow to the north of Cow Creek. We pitched our tent and managed to squeeze all three of our sleeping bags into the tent. The net effect was cozy, which was fine for one night. (I am not sure we could have actually fit three adults into the tent; Calvin is still short enough that his sleeping bag takes up much less space than a full-sized adult.)

Calvin at Rabbit Ears campsite
Calvin at Rabbit Ears campsite

I wasn't quite sure what to expect for the "privy" that the site was equipped with, but I didn't expect to see just a toilet seat mounted on a board over a hole in the ground, without any sort of privacy screening around it. (My father would call it a "scenic potty of the west".) But the privy served just one camp site, and was at the end of a long winding path, so one only had to keep track of the other people at one's own camp site to know whether the toilet was in use or not.

Privy at Rabbit Ears campsite
Privy at Rabbit Ears campsite

We found a nice flat rock a good distance away from the tent to cook and eat supper, then settled in for the night.

In the morning we did everything in reverse: eat breakfast, take down the tent, pack our backpacks, and hiked back to the trailhead. We were back in Boulder before noon, giving me plenty of time to do laundry and for Kiesa to find the error she'd made in balancing our checkbook.

Calvin seemed to enjoy his first experience backpacking, especially wandering around the woods, banging sticks around, and spending time with Mommy and Daddy. Next time he'll get to carry his own backpack -- though it's not yet clear when that "next time" will be, since we're planning on everything changing when Version 2.1 is released next March.

Rock outcropping north of Cow Creek
Rock outcropping north of Cow Creek