Our family’s very first backpacking trip was a winter one. The destination? A cabin in Maine’s coastal Camden Hills State Park.
It was an easy hike-in on packed snow. Our winter boots sufficed, we didn’t need skis or snowshoes as we followed the wide multi-purpose path, which in summer is actually a park road. It was an easy route, an easy trip, an easy destination by serious backpacking standards. But for a family with three elementary aged children, in the middle of a Maine winter, it was a good place to start.
Looking back, I can’t believe how cumbersome, large, and downright heavy my pack was. (I now wear a GG Gorilla pack.) After only a couple of hours I was really hurting. Thankfully, it only took a couple of hours to get to the cabin.
We’ve come a long way since then but everyone has to start somewhere. And that was as good a place as any.
Winter cabin-ing was our introduction to backpacking. Our family’s first experience of carrying everything we’d need for a few days on our backs.
Yes, our packs were heavy, much heavier than what we carry now. Part of that was because our kids were younger and needed us to carry more of their gear. Even still, we appreciated the experience enough to convince us we wanted to do it again.
And again. And again.
I suppose it could have gone either way – if the cabin had been a disaster, if the kids really didn’t enjoy the experience (they loved it!), or if someone had been injured. Though as I recall our youngest, who was six at the time, experienced a touch of gastroenteritis. I remember sitting up at night, next to my daughter’s sleeping bag on the cold flagstone floor holding out the “kitchen sink”, like the way I’d hold “the bucket” at home.
And even with that, we still considered it a great trip.
Winter cabin-ing might not be the most obvious point of entry for backpacking but I think it’s a great introduction to family backpacking for a few reasons.
- You don’t have to carry a shelter.The same could be true for summer trips to backcountry shelters but tenting is part of the fun of summer trips. In winter, for many families just starting, winter tenting isn’t even an option. When you eliminate packing a shelter, this makes a big difference for a family.
- Snow is fun. We have done many, many, many summer hikes and invariably our kids favorite hikes are the ones with water – lakes, streams, rivers. That’s what they like best. What is snow? Water! Lots of it. Frozen. You can hike-in one day and spend the next day just playing.
- The pace is slower.In summer the days are long and you want to push yourself to go the distance. (With a family this might only mean five miles. But that’s significant when you’re starting!) Winter cabin-ing has a completely different pace. The days are short and cold. And part of the experience is spending time indoors around the fire, playing games, and reading. The relaxed pace, the forced downtime, is a nice change for our family from our summer forays.
- You can pull a pulk. When you start family backpacking you probably won’t have all the lightest gear for every family member right off the bat. A pulk lets you pull the extra gear behind you and, if you fashion it right, you use the sled part of the pulk later for sledding.
- Uninspiring locations become more exotic in winter. A cabin at the end of a relatively flat trail can still be a fun destination in winter. In the summer, not so much. As we have grown experienced in the outdoors we have sought out more challenging winter terrain that requires skiing in but we didn’t start that way. A cabin in your local state park may be the perfect place to introduce your family to an overnight outdoor trip.
Our first winter trip five years ago started our family backpacking adventures and it convinced us to make winter cabin-ing an annual event. We’ve also found that having family or friends join is our favorite type of winter trip. Short cold days make for longer periods of time “at camp” and it’s fun to pass this time playing games with friends, or reading and snoozing while the kids play together.
Have you gone winter cabin-ing with your family? Any advice for families wanting to try?