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.
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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