Solo Distance Hiking and Kids: Six Things I Learned

There is nothing quite like a good, long backpacking adventure. Everything from the physical exertion to the trail’s beauty is rewarding and rejuvenating. Be it a day, long weekend, or something of the thru-hike variety; it is an experience that’s hard to find elsewhere. But what happens when pursuing this enriching endeavor means choosing between time with a child and time on trail?

Like many of us, I find solace in the woods and I am a better human (and mother) because of it. My life situation is (very) complicated right now and without my time on trail, I would be a stark-raving ball of anxiety (literally). The impact of trail time is invaluable to me. My 5-year-old, on the other hand, doesn’t quite see it that way. Because of this, the past few months were a learning experience in the balance and how-to of trail time and children.

First Things First, Tell Them Why

Just as we consider the “why” behind our backpacking adventures, sharing that “why” with your child is equally as important. If I don’t explain to her exactly why I’m out on Sunday or gone for a weekend, she thinks I’m choosing the trail over her. I know this because it happened and oh boy, did she let me know about it. Now she knows that mommy goes for weekend hikes because it’s good for mommy’s body, mind, and spirit.

We actually say that together and draw comparisons to things she does for her own body, mind, and spirit. Her understanding of my “why” and the parallel of similar activities in her own life made a world of difference. But it doesn’t necessarily make a day or weekend away easier for her on its own.

Communicate in Advance: When, Where, and How Long

I learned this one the hard way. On one hand, I didn’t want her to stress about my being gone for a day or weekend. In reality, it was my stress about it that made me wait to tell her, and that ultimately made it harder for her. Now I tell her about a hike days (or weeks) in advance, even if it’s just a day hike. I tell her exactly where I’ll be, how long I’ll be there, and when I’ll be back. We also talk about what we’ll do together when I get home, which is exciting for her.

That time to process lets her ask questions and express her thoughts and feelings so we can talk about it. The more she knows, the more secure she feels. Routine helps too. She knows that mommy hikes on Sundays when she is with her father and grandmother. It’s now expected rather than surprising-in-a-bad-way. But it took some time to get there. 

Include Them

While my 5-year-old is too small to go for long hikes, we take walks every day and short hikes on the weekends. We call it Mommy-Chicken Special Time, and special it is! I spend nearly every morning in Rock Creek Park (RCP). I bring her there on weekends so she can hike the trail too, look for blazes, and be involved in this adventure with me. And if she expresses that she doesn’t want to go to RCP, I listen. At those times, we go where she wants to go so she can participate in the adventure too.

We even have our own trail call: Hardcore Lady Types (for my fellow Lumberjanes fans out there). It’s a really fun and special thing we share between us. And we also talk about our own plans to hike and camp together, which she loves (pending the outcome of our current global pandemic). Her excitement and empowerment are of the utmost importance. 

Let Them Participate 

When I go for a hike that is beyond her current ability (most of my hikes at this point), I involve her in the process. I show her my Guthook route and pictures and videos from the trail. Recently, she sent me on an overnight with two of her toys so I wouldn’t get lonely. You best bet I carried those suckers for 40 miles and took pictures of them along the way. That meant so much to her and is now a tradition of sorts. She sends me hiking with something special of hers, and I show her how it made me happy and kept me thinking of her on trail. This will be a major way I stay connected to her while I’m thru-hiking the Long Trail this summer.

Listen, Talk, and Reassure Them

Even with all of these measures, sometimes she is still upset that I’ll be away for any amount of time, and she is entitled to those feelings. I don’t want her to think that what she feels is wrong in any way, so I just listen to her. She talks and I ask her questions about the feelings behind her words. We go back to the “why” and how taking care of our ourselves is important. It’s also important to reassure her. She needs to know that I am coming back and I am not hiking instead of being with her. I’m hiking so I can be a better and more present mom to her. Eventually, she moves on and the upcoming hike is a non-issue. The amount of time she is upset gets shorter and shorter with every trip. But it still sucks. 

Dealing With Your Own Guilt

At some point, the guilt will hit. Ultraendurance sports have a bad rap as it is. Seeing your child upset about your choice in hobby doesn’t help. But it’s important to come back to your own “why” and the impact the trail has that extends beyond you. Up until recently, I was on five different anti-anxiety and antidepressant medications. While they helped keep my mental baseline even, I felt like a numb robot. I might not viscerally feel the lows, but that also meant I couldn’t viscerally feel the good, beautiful moments either. 

Being present for the good, the bad, and the ugly, and actually feeling it all, has made me a better person and mother. The trail gives me the space and time to process life so I can show up for myself, which allows me to show up for my daughter. That whole oxygen-mask thing? It’s legit. I can’t effectively support her if I can’t support myself, and to do that I choose trail therapy over prescriptions. Your “why” will be different, but it’s important just the same. When the guilt hits, and it will hit, remember why you got out there in the first place. Happy trails, my friend. 

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Comments 3

  • Alexis McAllister : Jun 30th

    Scrappy. Proud of you, from a fellow mom of two boys. We all need to feel strong enough to stand up for what we need to keep us mentally heath lyrics. I live for my respite I get in long hikes. The trail allow my a chance to rejuvenate and heal.

    I took a slightly different approach. My sons and I have been section hiking for the past 5 years, starting when they were 5 and 6. Short 3 day trips and steadily building up. The stuffed animal? My boys took different ones with them each trip to share the journey. Never focused on miles but always the journey. I found that sharing my love with them, it has brought us closer and they have the same love of the wild (has to be in the genes). The smiles when we spent one entire trip on pictures of butterflies, a long 15 mile day with lots of dum dums for energy (they wanted to see what my hike was like so we chose a flat section) or a day when we ran across a place that they could play in the water all afternoon is a joy I will always cherish.

    This year (ages 10 and 11 now) we are targeting spending a month on the trail in vermont. We still take 24 hrs off each weekend to check into a motel with dad (who cannot join us), play in a pool and resupply, but as each year goes by, they grow in knowledge. I see the love of the trail in their eyes. They are both proud to say how many miles, trails experienced, and progress. They are proud at setting up their own camp, knowing how to handle wildlife and choose what they pack. We have a family map and mark each completed trail.

    • Tracy (Scrappy) Buro : Jul 1st

      Hi Alexis, I am so glad to hear about your adventures with your boys! It is great to see the ways your kids have been included in and excited about hiking. My girl is getting there. She loves the camping part, the walking part… we are finding ways to make it exciting. The map is a wonderful idea. We each have an adventure journal and that would be the perfect place for us to start recording her treks. Thank you so much for sharing your insights with me. It makes me even more excited to share my love of the trail with my daughter ?


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