To the Colorado River and Beyond
(It’s ok to skip the words and scroll down to the pretty slideshow . . .)
Why the desert?
Jerome and I met in Colorado 15 years ago and soon after we went on our first backpacking trip together to the Maze in Utah’s Canyonlands followed by a road trip around Utah and Northern Arizona. We fell in love with slick rock and desert (and each other) and have always wanted to go back to explore more. So, this February we took the kids and headed west for nine days of High Desert and canyon exploration.
“But camping with kids seems so hard!”
The most common thing I’ve heard from my friends since I starting planning this trip is “I could never do that with my kids (and/or spouse)!”. And I understand what they mean, because parenting in a house with a roof and a refrigerator is hard enough. What really helps in my case is that in my pre-mom life I was an outdoor educator and Wilderness EMT and so I am very comfortable in remote areas. Actually, I am more comfortable camping than staying in a hotel, and Jerome will tell you, I’d much rather pee on the side of the road than in a restroom. I have the skills to keep us warm, safe and well-fed in a wide variety of conditions. In addition, before we got married we hiked 2,500 miles of the Continental Divide Trail together- whatever disputes we may have had about how to pitch a tarp, cook pasta, or stuff a sleeping bag are well behind us. Camping for us is a regular, comfortable routine with minimal spousal dispute (unless it comes to getting lost and needing to ask directions . . .)
Turning kids into willing backpackers
As a family we have built up our camping routine slowly – and you can too. We started by sleeping outside in our front yard or friends yards when they were only a few months old. When they were 2-3 years old we graduated to nearby state parks. Over the years we’ve established little rituals, like who sleeps where in the tent, how to pee and poop in the woods and how to be careful around the camp stove. By the time the girls were 3 and 4 we started taking them on canoe camping trips to nearby lakes, and motorboat overnights to islands in Blue Hill Bay. This gave us the freedom to bring more gear without having to carry it on our backs. As a rule, the more confident and experienced you get, the less gear you need. Once everyone can consistently keep themselves warm, dry and fed, back up clothing, food and gear becomes optional.
Planning an Adventure
After a summer of trail running and hiking the girls seemed strong enough for a more strenuous backpacking trip.
The first thing I needed to do was find a cheap way to get the four of us somewhere warm enough to camp during February school vacation. I lucked out and landed a great deal from Boston to Las Vegas – on Virgin Air no less!
Next up, I applied for a backcountry camping permit at the Grand Canyon. It’s kind of a fun, antiquated reservation system where you mail or fax the Park a trip-leader application with your desired dates and camping locations. Supposedly, to beat the crowds, you need to send your fax in on the morning of the first day of the sixth month prior to your desired trip date. After figuring out what that even meant, I was disappointed to discover that I was several weeks past the magical date. I sent in my application anyway and hoped for the best. Fortunately it turns out February is not a popular month to camp in the Grand Canyon. Maybe because it is winter? The Park sent me a permit about a month later with an ominous note saying that because of trail work, there might not be water at the campgrounds. They also included a trail map with elevation totals. It looked like our hike would be similar to hiking down Katahdin in one day and back up in two days. That seemed doable.
The next thing I did was what any ultra runner would do. I searched for trail races in Arizona in February. Ding ding ding! I found the perfect race, Ultra Adventure’s Antelope Canyon 55k in Page, AZ and on the final weekend of winter vacation. I signed up and several days later casually mentioned to Jerome that I might want to run a race to celebrate my 40th birthday . . . Thankfully he’s either the most supportive or most resigned runner’s-spouse ever – he didn’t even blink.
Thus, the next obstacle was finding a cheap rental car. I always opt for the smallest possible ride because I’m stubborn that way. I view cars the way light-weight backpackers view packs. The smaller it is the less you can bring and the easier your life will be. This is more true in theory than reality, especially with kids. [Fortunately when it came time to pick up our car, the guy behind the counter saw Georgia and Lucy fighting over who would pull the luggage in the cart and kindly gave us a free upgrade to a Mazda 5.]
With packing economy in mind I honed in on our gear. I told the girls they could bring 2.5 outfits (in case you’re wondering, a skirt counts as a half, a dress as a whole) and this had to include their camping clothes. We made a gear checklist and Lucy assigned each family member their own color check mark. You can find a complete annotated version of the list we came up at the bottom of this post, and here’s Lucy’s original Camping Checklist.
Keeping it light is harder with kids!
When Jerome and I thru-hiked we kept our pack weight between 15-25lbs depending on the weather conditions. Each day of food added about 2lbs, and since we often carried 4-6 days of food at a time our packs rarely exceeded 35lbs. But with kids our packs have swollen in weight and girth. In order to keep the kids’ packs around 10lbs we parents would each need to carry two sleeping bags and two sleeping pads, plus the bigger tent and extra dishes.
No matter how well prepared we are, there’s ALWAYS last minute craziness
I had to make several last minute gear repairs including relocating the spider family from my ancient backpack, patching a thermarest (after submerging it in the bathtub to find the leak) and sewing up the huge rip in our four person tent that I ordered on clearance from The Clymb (you win some you loose some . . .) Our living room was a total disaster the night before we left. Mostly because trying to organize anything in the middle of feeding, dressing and getting kids to school while keeping yourself presentable for work and fitting in one last training run is a painful experience done best with a bottle of wine nearby.
The afternoon we were supposed to drive to Boston we realized that we hadn’t yet shoveled the 4 feet of snow off our roof. So when Jerome got home from work he spent the last two hours of daylight on the roof while I dragged in several loads of firewood so our neighbors could keep the fire going if the power went out. The kids focussed on enthusiastically preventing the cats from making a last minute escape into the -10 degree snow covered wasteland that surrounds our house. Finally, at 6pm, we headed south to Boston and made it to our park-and-fly hotel well before midnight.
The next morning we squeaked out of Logan just before the next big storm and soon found ourselves under blue skies and flying directly over the Grand Canyon!
In the end all the planning combined with incredible good luck weather-wise made for a wonderful and unforgettable family adventure. We camped free on BLM and Forest Service land, ate from a cardboard box stocked with all kinds of yummy things from the Natural Grocer in Flagstaff and completed an excessive number of Junior Ranger programs.
For a visual tour of our trip I made this slideshow. Enjoy!
For a full race report filled with lots of nice photos of the course, check out Fast Cory’s page.
The Annotated Gear List
___ 1 Short sleeve synthetic or wool shirt
___ 1 base layer (Synthetic or thin wool long sleeve shirt and pants. Often found on Sierra Trading Post or Campmor websites for less than $20 per set.)
___1 Light-weight fleece layer (Shirt and pants. Ours are all hand me downs, but are also often found at second hand stores)
___ 1 pair shorts or skirt.
___1 set rain gear (Jacket and pants. These are annoyingly expensive and hard to get as hand me downs because they don’t age well – I get the ones from L.L.Bean because they are light and comfortable and provide good warmth for their weight).
___ Warm Hat with ear coverage
___ 1 pair light weight fleece gloves or mittens.
___2 pairs socks (wool or synthetic, cotton is blister prone and don’t wear as well in the wild)
___ 2 pairs underwear.
___ 1 sun hat. Light weight visor or ball cap.
___1 pair shoes (my kids are barefoot all summer – even on our mountain hikes, so I know their feet and ankles are strong enough to hike long distances in lightweight sneakers. The bonus is no blisters and a much more agile, less tiring gate than you find with boots).
___1 pair “camp” sandals. We brought our homemade Xero sandals to avoid stepping on cactus spines and scorpions.
___ 1 set of light weight, unbreakable bowl and cup (we love our silicon bowls from Guyot Designs, they are a little on the heavy side but totally indestructible and I swear, Georgia loves hers so much she will eat anything you put in it.)
___ 1 small spoon. Any small spoon will do. Leave the fork and knife at home.
___1 sleeping pad. The girls use our old ¾ length ultra light thermarests, but we’ve also found that once they fall asleep, they’ll stay asleep on any surface and you can steal their thermarest out from under them, if say, yours deflates in the middle of the night . . .
___ 1 synthetic (not cotton) sleeping bag. Ours kid’s bags are mummy bags good to 20 degrees. Basically, the cheaper the bag the bulkier it is (taking up most of your pack) and the heavier it is. So it’s up to you, the parent, to decide how much of your kid’s gear you want to carry and how much you’re willing to suffer versus spend.
___ 1 head lamp or small light weight flashlight.
___ 1 quart water bottle. It was an investment, but the girls like the Camelbak kind and I do to because I don’t have to get their water out of their pack for them every 5 mins.
___ Camera (one between the two of them)
___ Backpack. Finding a good, affordable kid’s backpack is not easy. School backpacks aren’t the best for multi-day trips because the straps tend to made of thick, stiff, shapeless foam that does not feel good on little shoulders after a few miles. They also tend to be heavy and bulky and lack the structure needed to distribute the pack’s weight up against the kid’s body where it will be most comfortable. That said, kid’s don’t need a huge fancy pack. In fact, smaller and simpler is probably better because it will keep them from carrying too much. We lucked out and with a little help from a friend the girls got to demo a pair of very cool Vaude 15 Liter Minimalist packs. This model isn’t specifically made for kids, but it’s smaller size worked well for them. The top flap pocket has two zippered compartments which made it easy for the girls to store their snacks and cameras where they can get to them. We appreciated how simple and light these packs are and they will fit the girls even better next year. The girls appreciated having “real” backpacks, and we all know the more a kid looks the part, the more they act the part.
In addition to the same list of personal gear, Jerome and I also bring:
___2 stacking ~1qt titanium cook pots and lids (left over from our thru-hiking days).
___ 1 butane/propane camping stove, because we find with kids we need to be able to drink vast quantities of tea while camping and we don’t want to mess around with cranky stoves (alcohol, white gas, tin cans, whisper heavies etc . . . ) We carry one 8oz container of Isopro fuel for three days of camping. FYI – you can’t bring filled fueled canisters on the plane – we picked ours up Peace Surplus in Flagstaff.
___ 1 stirring/serving spoon (also serves as my eating spoon). Metal so it won’t melt.
___ 1 four person tent. We like ours, it is simple to set up but compared to our home made 2 person tarp-tent (made of parachute cloth) the tent is heavy and takes up a lot of space in our packs. We’re going to experiment with sewing a 4-person tarp-tent this summer.
___ 1 ground cloth (a piece of Tyvek cut to fit the shape of our tent’s footprint).
___ First aid kit. Fits into one pint sized ziplock: Bandaids, sports tape, gauze, alcohol wipes, steristrips, second skin and tweezers. You can do a lot with sports tape and gauze.
___ Water sterilizer. We use one of the smaller, simpler Steripens.
___ ½ liter metal thermoses. Because we really like our hot drinks.
___ Simple knife – with one blade and a can opener
___ Sports Bra
___ Small plastic comb
___Small container face soap – because it feels really good to wash your face at the end of a dusty day.
___ Small container face oil – because the desert air is cold and dry!
___ Dental floss – endless possibilities.
___ Cellphone/camera. Keep on airplane mode unless you want battery to die before your trip is over.
___ Small LED lantern – to hang from tree or tent so kids don’t have to wear headlamps and therefore won’t continually blind adults with their highbeam.
____ Spices. A few small baggies of spices go a long way to making camp food edible. We bring a few teaspoons of salt, pepper, cinnamon and curry powder from home so we don’t have to buy big containers once we’re there.