Little Victories: Are Your Kids Ready for the Backcountry?

February 29, 2016
Backcountry Kids
Pete IngrahamRain didn’t keep the author’s kids from enjoying their first family backpacking trip, on Mount Cardigan.

We had just finished reading the last of the bedtime books, the glow of the headlamp-turned-nightlight casting shadows on the tent walls, when we hear it. The clear call of an owl.

“Hoo hoo hoo-hoo; hoo hoo hoo-aw.”

Mabel, my 5-year-old, looks at me, and I can see her eyes are wide.

“Mommy, an owl!”

Gus, who is 3, has heard it, too. He and my husband, Pete, are in an adjacent tent. Our hushed voices easily carry between the thin fabric walls. The kids want to know what kind, and we tell them a barred owl, pointing out the seeming phrase: “Who cooks for you?” We all fall silent to listen.

There it is again. A second owl joins in. Then, surprisingly, a third. My awe matches that of my children. I picture our campsite in the center of a triangle, with each bird a different point. The owls call and answer, the volume and frequency of their conversation injecting energy into the surrounding darkness.

During a brief pause Pete calls out, his hoot impressive in pitch and rhythm. Next Mabel tries. Her call won’t fool any owl, but we still wait and listen. By coincidence—or perhaps curiosity—an owl responds.

“I did it! The owl answered me,” she says proudly.

The calling subsides, and as we lie in our sleeping bags on this cool night in late summer, my ears tune in to another sound: drops of rain hitting our tent and running down its sides. I drift to sleep as the afterglow of our wildlife encounter fades to more practical concerns, like how Pete and I will manage two small children and keep all of the essential gear dry during our hike to AMC’s High Cabin on Mount Cardigan the following day.


When Pete and I saw rain forecasted for the weekend, we remained stoic. We had backpacked in worse weather. I had some winter camping experience, which was dwarfed by Pete’s years of mountaineering and climbing. This backpacking trip, however, promised to be different—and possibly as complex—despite the low mileage. It was our first attempt to move beyond car camping with the kids, and we didn’t want to dampen their enthusiasm for the outdoors with a soggy experience or too much distance. We had, after all, just gotten to the point where we no longer carry Gus in a backpack, and both kids could do a couple of miles on their own, especially with the help of an M&M-rich trail mix. Mabel, in particular, has reached an age and level of enthusiasm for hiking that has heartened us, as Pete and I have longed for more time in the woods.

We chose a walk-in tent site a short hike from AMC’s Cardigan Lodge for our first night of camping followed by its satellite High Cabin, which sits just beneath the summit of 3,156-foot Mount Cardigan, for our second night. The mountain is located in the Lakes Region of central New Hampshire, and on clear days it offers 365-degree views of the surrounding landscape. Even better, one of the trails to the summit is 3.1 miles of easy- to moderate-grade terrain, and we would spread out that distance over two days. All very doable for wee legs, as well as for parents wearing large packs that have seen little use since the kids were born.

On day 1, we quickly covered the 0.3 mile from the lodge to the tent site, where the composting outhouses provided plenty of amusement for Mabel and Gus. The chance to pee in such a structure, in the middle of the woods, was funny enough, but it was nothing compared to learning that you put handfuls of leaves into the compost below the potty after you had attended to other business. Now that was exciting—another example of how young children find novelty in things we tend to dismiss out of familiarity. Composting poop spurred a lot of giggles and snorts, but we also had a useful discussion about its relationship to the food composting we do at home and how it all ends up as good dirt that plants love.

In the evening, we built a fire in the site’s established ring with wood we had purchased from the lodge. After a meal of tortellini and sauce cooked on our backcountry stove, we broke out the marshmallows and roasted s’mores. The treat has been a staple of our car-camping trips, and I wanted to connect those positive memories with this new adventure. Warm, gooey dessert never disappoints.

We entered our tents as the first raindrops began to fall. We had chosen to carry a pair of two-person backpacking tents because they were lighter than the family dome tent we typically use. If Mabel and Gus prove to like backcountry life, we’ll invest in a single lightweight tent and upgrade their sleeping bags, which are rated to 40 degrees but weighted more for front-country use and ate up precious space in our packs.


I hear Mabel stir beside me. The morning light is dim, filtered through gray clouds. She rolls over, blonde hair tousled and cheeks red. She smiles, undisturbed by the rain outside or the small pool of water inside the tent corner, where the nylon’s age and wear have allowed seepage.

“Mom, the tent is leaking,” she says.

“I know,” I reply with a grimace. “It dripped on my head during the night.”

She laughs, picturing it, and then sits up, ready for the day to begin, as she would any other day in her own bed. Camping has become familiar enough that she is comfortable. I’m thankful for the investment we’ve made in front-country campgrounds, even though it sometimes seemed as though we drove a couple of hours to do nothing more than roast marshmallows or discover a new playground. As Pete and Gus sleep, Mabel is content to color quietly with the crayons and small book that I had packed.


“Mom,” Gus says with a whimper. “My legs are too tired. You need to carry me.”

He wipes his nose and turns those huge baby blues on me, a powerful force to deny. We have hiked no more than three-quarters of a mile, with more than a mile to go to reach High Cabin. Because we are carrying clothing and gear for four, Pete and I both have on packs that weigh roughly 50 pounds each. Despite my maternal urgings, it simply isn’t feasible or safe to add Gus’s 35 pounds to the front of my body.
He has to walk, or we have to turn around.

This was the moment I most worried about when we were planning the hike, but it isn’t the rain causing his trail revolt. In fact, as Pete and I worked to break camp earlier, I was impressed by how little the rain affected the kids. They chased each other up and down the trail and made up games while they waited for us to load our packs. Pete summed it up: “Kids don’t care about rain as long as they are warm.” So true, and with temperatures climbing into the lower 60s, we did have that in our favor.

“Mooooom,” Gus calls. “My legs are really tired.”

We are maybe 50 feet farther up the trail. I crouch down to his eye level and try a pep talk.

“You can do this, bud,” I say enthusiastically. “I know you can hike this, and we get to stay in a cabin on a mountain—with bunk beds!”

He looks at me dubiously.

We hold hands and walk slowly, my bag of tricks diminishing with each step. No, he doesn’t want gorp. No, he doesn’t want to earn a prize for making it to the top. Plus, he reminds me, he and Mabel have a bunk bed at home.

Mabel and Pete are ahead of us, moving at a quick pace. Mabel is chatting away with her dad, happily climbing over wet rocks and tree roots, giggling if she slips or gets her hands dirty. One out of two ain’t bad, I think to myself, giving Gus’s hand a little squeeze of encouragement.


“There once was a reindeer named Elvis!” I say. “He lived in the North Pole with Santa Claus.”

Mabel and Gus are each holding one of my hands. They love it when I make up stories, especially if they are the main characters, along with some reindeer and Santa, and I can’t believe it took me so long to break one out. We are just a half-mile from the cabin, and the story comes after several hundred feet of repeatedly singing a silly song that I spontaneously made up and that ends with two children who “adventure pee” in the woods because, of course, the phrase elicits endless laughter.

Gus has completely forgotten how tired he was. He has even forgotten that, farther back on the trail, he had been so defeated and sad that Pete hiked ahead to the cabin to drop off his pack in order to return and carry Gus the rest of the way. Now Gus is easily keeping pace with his mom and sister.

I encourage the kids to continue with me just a little ways to meet Daddy on the trail. As we walk and Gus chats with his sister, I realize that part of the problem was his separation from Mabel—that she’s always ahead of him. I can see how his energy changes when he hikes alongside his sister. Add in off-key singing and stories about the North Pole, and I’ve found my formula for success.

When we meet up with Pete, Gus doesn’t ask to be carried. We all walk together and as we exit the trees, the kids see the building ahead through the mist and hurriedly skip-walk toward it. Their faces radiate pride and a measure of relief as they scurry up the porch steps and wait impatiently to get inside and explore.


I use the Leatherman knife to cut up the chocolate bar left over from last night’s s’mores. We had planned for pancakes on this last morning—another special meal to enhance the appeal of backcountry life—and the addition of chocolate doesn’t hurt. The cabin’s two-burner propane stove feels luxurious after cooking on a backcountry stove. So does being dry in a good-sized cabin with three-bed bunks lining the walls. While we cook, Mabel and Gus get a kick out of all the games they can make up with the aid of 12 beds and mattresses.

After breakfast we hike the short distance to Cardigan’s South Peak. It’s no longer raining, but the mountain is socked in, and we aren’t expecting much, if anything, in the way of views. The kids don’t care. At their ages, it’s more about the adventure than bagging a peak.

In fact, I’m envious of how Mabel and Gus inhabit each moment better than I can, especially on the trail. A mica-dense rock becomes an immediate treasure. The bright orange fungus growing on the side of a fallen tree elicits a hard stop and minutes of close analysis. Time and the trail ahead are inconsequential when a pearly blue, half-alive beetle needs examination and hypotheses about its eventual fate. In these moments, Mabel and Gus help me see life at a micro, rather than a macro, level. I’m getting better at appreciating these pauses and embracing their wonder and discovery, but it’s not always easy. After all, the backcountry isn’t a mulched playground around the corner from home. It requires a healthy balance of respect and awe, undergirded by good planning. This trip has helped me recalibrate that balance, now that our children are part of the experience.


At trail’s end we reach the parking lot, where Olive, our minivan, awaits. I ask Mabel and Gus the inevitable question: “Do you want to go backpacking again?”

“Yes!” they shout in unison, as Gus pumps his fist in the air, not unlike a superhero.

Mission accomplished.


1. Expect your perspective to change. As much as I love the backcountry, I was caught off guard by how my comfort level shifted with my children present. It didn’t dampen my enjoyment but it did heighten my risk assessment and mommy radar.

2. Pack the familiar and the favorite. For us, that means pasta, pancakes, and fruit. We also carried lightweight paperback books, as story time is a sacred bedtime ritual.

3. Let your surroundings entertain. It’s smart to pack activities, like playing cards or coloring books, but don’t be surprised if those remain largely untouched in favor of imaginative games inspired by the environment.

4. Celebrate the wins. We wanted the kids to participate fully, so they each wore a backpack, sized and weighted according to age and stamina. Mabel’s pride in carrying her pack all the way to the cabin, and our recognition of it, motivated her to carry even more on the hike down.

5. Remember that it’s an investment.First outings require a lot of planning and effort for sometimes minor scenic payoffs, but we treat each experience as a deposit for the future, when the kids may be ready and eager for longer trips.


We cracked the AMC vault for these six kid-friendly spots. Get more details on these spots.

Assateague Island National Seashore(Berlin, Md.) scores with a twofer: beaches and wild horses.

Arcadia Management Area (Exeter, R.I.)offers more than 30 miles of hiking trails, with campsites just a quarter-mile from the trailhead—ideal for a first outing.

Pachaug State Forest’s Dry Reservoir Backpack Area (Voluntown, Conn.) feels wonderfully remote, belying the eminently doable half-mile hike in.

13 Falls, Pemigewasset Wilderness (White Mountain National Forest, N.H.)offsets a longer hike—8 miles—with an easy trail on an old railroad bed. Bonus: swimming hole!

Adirondack Park (Keene Valley, N.Y.) is home to Johns Brook Lodge, similar to Cardigan Lodge, with both bunkrooms and campsites available.

Wolf Gap Recreation Area (Wardensville, W. Va.) delivers big views, with two free spots to camp 2 miles or less from the trailhead.


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Karen Ingraham

AMC Outdoors, the magazine of the Appalachian Mountain Club, inspires readers to get outside and get engaged. Learn more.