My husband and I had never ventured beyond the front country in our pre-kids life. When we first started to throw around the idea of packing up our pre-school aged kids and hitting the backcountry we were pretty nervous. I was not confident that I could shoulder a pack for any length of time and there seemed to be so many barriers to such an undertaking and some pretty large scale things that could go wrong (hello bears). However, it turned out that our biggest challenge was overcoming our uncertainties and heading out on our first trip. Our experiences in the backcountry so far have been wonderful. Here are some of our learnings about what makes hitting the backcountry with kids manageable, especially for the first time.
Start small – Head out to a single camping spot for one or two nights. Keeping your trip short will minimize the amount of gear that you need to pack in, making the load lighter for all. Starting with a one location also ensures that you are never so far into the backcountry that you can’t make it out again within a few hours if things get overwhelming. A one or two night trip also means that you can forgo the fancy dehydrated backcountry food in favour of more typical food that will last for a day or two without refrigeration. We typically pack in cured meats, pasta, home made lentil and veggie wraps and hard cheeses from the grocery store, rather than dehydrated meals from a specialty store or home dehydrator. This removes another barrier to backcountry camping if you are intimidated or grossed out by the idea of dehydrated food.
Find a “camp anywhere” location – If you are worried about how far your kids will be able to hike (or how far you can make it loaded down with your pack) see if you can find a park or wilderness location where you can pitch your tent wherever you would like, that way you can stop and set up camp as soon as anyone is getting tired. For our first backcountry adventure we headed to Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan where you can camp anywhere as long as you are one kilometre from the edge of the park and out of site of roads and lookouts. We made it much farther then we had expected, covering about five kilometres, and fording a stream, to reach a spectacular range of hoodoo rock formations. Knowing we could quit anytime gave us the confidence to set out loaded up with overnight gear and making it all the way to a spectacular destination gave us confidence that we could do longer treks in the future.
OR try a full-service backcountry campground – If the barrier to hitting the backcountry for you is more about the lack of toilets than the hike in, then heading out to a backcountry location with some services may be the answer. Many parks have backcountry campgrounds with some amenities, including outhouses, firewood and pits as well as bear lockers. I was very intimidated by the idea of having to cache my food, cooking and eating supplies in trees in order to be safe from bears in the backcountry. On our first foray into backcountry where the grizzlies roam we headed to The Point backcountry campground in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park in the Canadian Rockies. We only had to cover about 3.5 kilometres on our way in, as backcountry camping locations with more amenities tend to be fairly close to the front country. The bear proof lockers for food storage which were located well away from our camping space gave me more confidence in our level of safety and the fact that there were other campers nearby (some of them very experienced) also helped me feel more certain about our ability to face an array of backcountry challenges. The fire pit and wood also made a slightly cool and rainy few days in the backcountry much more enjoyable.
Bring more gear when you canoe in – Another way to sidestep some of the logistical challenges created by having to pack in all your supplies is to skip the trail and canoe in to a backcountry location. Maybe you don’t want to invest in lightweight camping gear and yours is too heavy or bulky to realistically pack in to the backcountry, maybe want to take a cooler for access to a bigger array of food and drink options or maybe you just really don’t think you can give up your camp chairs. All of this gear and more can make it to the backcountry if you canoe in. Boating in to the backcountry means that you can enjoy the isolation of a wilderness camping spot with all the front country camping gear. Even if you do not have your own canoe consider renting one for a couple of days and setting off down the river.
You don’t need to feel like you need you need all the lightweight gear or a high level of camping expertise to venture into the backcountry. Your initial backcountry adventures with little kids will not be pushing the limits of the sport. Do some reading, invest in a few basics and pick a doable destination for your first time away from the crowds. You will be surprised how lovely it is to get away from it all as a family.