Zach suddenly stopped in front of me as we trudged uphill through the woods north of Yosemite.
“Pole break, dad.”
I shifted the pack on my back. I was carrying most of the gear and my aching shoulders could vouch for that.
“Sure, buddy.” I called ahead to my daughter: “Anna, pole break.”
“Again?” She sighed and turned her tired but determined face back towards us. “All right.”
“Pole break” meant we stood leaning on our hiking poles without taking the backpacks off. The kids drank from their camel back hoses, while I wiped the sweat from my face and looked around. We did this every fifteen or twenty minutes. Longer breaks—by creeks or lakes or at the top of a hill—were less frequent but often enough to make the day about them. A “pole break” had been my idea some years back when I’d been trying to talk them into moving just a little further down the trail before plopping to the ground and resting. Good compromise. Turns out, in fact, with my kids anyhow, compromise was the key to a successful backcountry trip with youngsters, along with fun, and most important of all, “kid food.”
I’ve heard so many stories from adults about a backpacking or camping trip nightmare—blisters, bugs, heavy packs, and gag-inducing meals. So many folks I know say that they went backpacking that one time, carried a heavy pack, got blisters, were eaten by mosquitoes, ate undercooked flavorless oatmeal and had to march for hours at the orders of an adult determined to get them to that special spot by the lake, that instead of becoming lifelong lovers of the outdoors — the point of the whole ordeal after all — they entirely avoided all ventures into the woods or mountains again. I knew, when I started taking my own children on hikes, that I didn’t want that to happen for them. I wanted to pass on to them the joys and wonders I knew awaited them, if they could only get past the bugs, blisters, sore shoulders and discomfort that came with the territory.
I started taking my kids out backpacking when they were young, five or six. We started with short overnight hikes, and I learned pretty fast that if I wanted to have fun, then I needed to make sure they were having fun too. I chose destinations close to the trailhead, got them to carry a few things, especially their own snacks and water. We made a game of setting up the tent together, making it their home away from home with a little pillow, an extra wool blanket. We also brought notebooks (ok, yes I had them create their own out of colored paper and string a few days beforehand) and wrote about what we’d seen on the day’s hike, drew pictures and shared them under the glow of headlamps in the tent. We stopped often along the trail, went swimming, told stories and played games. They drove me crazy with 20 questions.
But perhaps most important of all, the fun of the adventure centered around food. Having food they liked, letting them set up the stove and prepare meals, made dinners a part of the adventure. They boiled water and made ramen noodles. They cooked mac and cheese, or instant soup—all things they’d picked out when we’d shopped for the trip. They’d also put together their own “snack bags” in the days before the trip—nuts, dried fruit (I insisted) but also red vines, peanut M&Ms and Oreo cookies mixed in with dried banana and dates. A few jelly beans tossed in drew cheers later on the trail when they were found tucked into a corned of the almost empty bag.
I talked to my daughter recently about this. She’s in her twenties, still backpacks and camps out often—it’s a central part of her life. She told me what seemed to “hook” her was the combination of having fun destinations (“cool waterfalls, swimming holes, lakes”) and lots of control over trip planning, meal preparation and setting up camp. Guess I’d gotten that right. My son says pretty much the same thing. Both my kids have hiked the John Muir Trail start to finish, besides other great adventures with me and with their friends. One of my favorite memories as a dad is the one where Zach, 8, and Anna, 10, scrambled up the cable route on Half Dome—on a trip that we’d decided to break into three days of hiking, camping, swimming, and climbing—proud and excited and confident. I could see it in their faces—they’d be back out here again.
I can’t tell you how glad I am that their childhood memories—even the ones that include close calls and stories about bears, bug bites, frozen toes and fingers, even getting exhausted or lost or in a little over their heads—are never recounted as nightmares, but as part of the overall experience of the outdoors, the awe and life-altering moments of personal achievement and appreciation for raw beauty of the mountains. I can truly say the difference might be a few jelly beans, noodles, and moments of standing rest.
Here are few favorite food ideas my kids recall:
Hot apple cider (non-sugared drink mixes in general: they’re lighter and not dehydrating. Anna remembers her favorite treat was a flavored drink mix snow cone atop Silver Pass south of Mammoth. We made a thick syrup of the drink powder, scooped snow from the pass into our mugs, and poured the good stuff over the ice crystals. Herbal tea bags and sliced lemon can be left in the water bottle all day to keep kids drinking water. They also like the vitamin C mixes you can buy at any grocery store).
Spam tacos, fried spam and cheese and crackers, spam and instant mashed potatoes (mashed potatoes are always a hit as long as you bring along instant gravy mix too)
Mac and cheese
“magic mix” gorp that they made before the trip
And perhaps most important of all: tortillas. Corn tortillas fit in the bear can just right, and provide variety, including…
Burritos: cheese, freeze-dried bean soup made thick as refried beans, wild onions we found along the trail, taco sauce or ketchup, instant rice
Fish tacos (trout caught mostly by Uncle Danny!)
Stir-fried torilla bits with “all in” left overs and oil, more wild onion, dried fruit, nuts and garlic flakes
Dessert: two tortillas with chocolate bits melted between
But this is our list. Take the kids shopping and have them plan the meals. Of course they’ll be talking about what they plan to eat as you walk along the trail all day. Keeps their mind off their aching feet. Plant early “seeds” of fun with kids in the back country, and it might turn out, as it did for me anyway, you’ll have hiking partners for life.