Greetings from the Happiest Place on Earth! We’re having a blast soaking up all the Disney magic we can over the next three days. While we’re gone, my sister, Heather is taking over the blog to share about learning to backpack camp as a family. Heather lives in Virginia with her husband and three kids. All photos are hers.
Thanks for inviting me to guest post, Allison! My family and I live in Northern Virginia, which we love for the simple reason that there are endless options for day trips within a two-hour drive. We can hop into Washington, DC for a museum or monument day. But if we want to enjoy the outdoors, we are an easy drive to Shenandoah, the mountains of West Virginia and Maryland, and the shores of the Chesapeake Bay region or the Potomac River. Even closer are the many state and local parks with kid-friendly hikes and water play available. We’ve lived here four years and my to-do list of day trips has never run out.
Occasionally, about once a year, we manage to organize ourselves enough to camp overnight. This year we decided to venture beyond car camping (it doesn’t feel all that wild sleeping next to someone else’s RV) and planned our first “backpacking” trip. We are not amazing outdoor folks but I am committed to being a family that enjoys experiencing new adventures and challenges together.
Since we didn’t want to spend a lot of money on fancy gear so we cobbled together what we already owned- a backpacking stove for hot water, our one down sleeping bag along with four heavy ones, some rope that we didn’t use but seemed important, a first aid kit, and plastic dishware- that stuff you buy for your babies but keep around because it’s just so convenient. We did invest in a water filtration system, which worked perfectly and was incredibly portable, and five sleeping pads that we bought during the annual REI sale. (The folding kind are much more manageable than the kind that roll. I couldn’t stomach the cost of five inflatable pads just yet.) We also bought our six-person tent that is not light but comes in a convenient backpack.
We chose Sky Meadows State Park for our toe-in-the-water attempt at backcountry camping because, on our first trip there, (our very first day trip after moving to Virginia) we noticed signs that said “Campground-1 Mile.” It was the perfect distance for us- our three-year old won’t walk any further than that and we could take on the challenge of packing all our gear without the stress of being too far away from civilization or having to deal with making our own toilets, finding our own water, etc. The park even has wheelbarrows available for rent to haul your gear up the trail, although we proudly, and somewhat foolishly, went without.
The campsite has 15 individual spots, which you much reserve, but the sites themselves are first-come, first-serve. Two of them are reserved for thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail, so you can admire those who are inestimably tougher than you are. There are two large outhouse-style buildings and a covered well with non-potable but very clean-looking water. The campsites are tidy and gravel-filled. Each is down a small path so it felt fairly isolated from the other sites– definitely better than camping next to a parking lot! They also have a large stack of honor-system firewood for $5/bundle.
The hike itself was short and easy. The kids each carried their own clothes, water and a snack- even our three-year old in his tiny penguin backpack. The big kids carried their sleeping pad attached to their pack. We managed the rest of the gear in our very regular-sized backpacks. My husband carried the tent, and I carried his backpack on my front and mine on my back. We also carried the five sleeping bags.
The first half of the hike follows an old rock wall along a stream. There was moderate shade but some sunny patches. The second half was on a wide gravel road up a hill that was just steep enough that we were grateful to finally arrive. Our little guy made it about halfway before we stopped to rest. Then, very slowly, we began the second half. Dad dropped off the gear at the site and came back to pick him up.
The kids’ favorite activity was filtering the water at the well, which we did repeatedly since we each only had one bottle. I cooked foil tacos beforehand and packed them in a cooler. Since we hiked in the afternoon, we brought them up in the backpack without the cooler and warmed them up in the fire not long after we arrived. I don’t guarantee that’s the safest way to go, but I didn’t have any freeze-dried super-camping food so this worked well for us. In the morning we ate instant oatmeal and dried fruit with water from our isobutane-propane camp stove.
Because the hike was only a mile, in the morning my husband took an early trip back to the car with the sleeping bags to make our return hike a little easier. I can’t say we slept amazingly well. (It’s never easy to get small, hyper children to sleep in a tent. But we’re practicing now as an investment in future fun.)
We’ve been to Sky Meadows twice now, and both times they have had great programs for kids. The first time the kids cooked eggs and potatoes over the fire in one of the historic farm buildings. On our camping trip, they had a fishing day at a satellite location a couple miles down the road. The kids were loaned fishing rods and worms and given some instructions for our first fishing trip. (Did I mention we’re not amazing at outdoor activities?) After an exciting and exhausting 24 hours, the best part was that we only had a short, 45-minute drive home.
For our next attempt at backcountry camping, we hope to buy at least one larger pack (65-liters or so) and another down sleeping bag. Those sleeping bags were definitely the most inconvenient part of the whole trip. I know we’ll need some lightweight tents before we can begin to go on longer, trips. I also have to figure out how the whole camping without an outhouse thing works.
Do you have any tips for backpacking with kids, recommended food, essential gear, or family-friendly backcountry sites?
Check out these posts about other state parks around the United States.
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