I have been backpacking for 36 years, exclusively throughout California, along the coast, in the foothills, but mostly in the magnificent Sierra Nevada mountains. I have rarely been to the same place twice, such is the beauty and diversity of our wilderness. The spirit of adventure, freedom, and curiosity hits me hard every summer, and the time spent in the wild always brings me to a peaceful and centered place.
For the past 18 years, my good friend and I have taken our daughters on an annual "Dads and Daughters" trip, starting when they were around five years old. I will be sharing some successful ideas from these experiences to help you on your way to your own memorable time enjoying the simplicity and beauty of the wilderness.
Step 1: Questions
So many factors go into the planning of a backpacking trip, so please consider the following:
1-What is the experience level of your group?
If you are taking young children, like we started out doing 18 years ago, maybe only plan to go a few miles at most. Have a beautiful lake be your destination. The kids won't be carrying much weight, so guess who is? A stronger group of teenagers or adults can easily go quite a bit further.
2-How many days/nights will you be going?
Our little group has settled in on an optimal 5 days/4 nights adventure, and we all seem satisfied.
3-Do you want to establish a base camp and explore each day from there, or pack up and travel each day?
We prefer the former, to have opportunities to climb peaks, find other lakes, and just enjoy our peaceful spot without heavy packs on our backs.
4-Do you have all the equipment you need, or do you need to borrow, rent, or buy anything?
A barrier for a lot of people can be the cost of gear that's needed, but a lot of outdoor suppliers like REI rent out gear as well as sell it and it can be much more affordable that way. This is also a great option if yoou have kids who will have outgrown their gear by the next trip you take!
5-How much solitude is important to you?
Many wilderness areas are heavily impacted with people, while some are much quieter.
Step 2: Choose Your Location
Once you have narrowed down your answers to these questions, consult maps, guide books, ask friends, and go online to research some possible great hikes. We prefer to hike into lakes that are about 5-7 miles of hiking, are near treeline at high elevations for great views, and seem to be away from highly popular and well-traveled trails. It's great to be away from crowds in the wilderness! Our favorite places originate on the east side of the Sierras, because you can drive and park at a trailhead and be starting at a high elevation. The trees aren't quite as dense as the west side, and the views are very dramatic. Be sure to tell your family where you will be going, and the nearest ranger station to your area, in case of an emergency.
Step 3: Get a Permit
In California, you need a backcountry permit for all backpacking trips. This way, the park system can manage the numbers of people using the trails and minimize the impact on the environment and wildlife. They are free if you get them the day of your trip, and minimal cost if you reserve ahead of time. I highly recommend getting a permit ahead of time (at least 3-4 weeks), so you can go when and where you want to. Some areas allow dogs and some don't. Mid to late August is usually a great time to be in the Sierras, as the mosquitos have faded, and the wildflowers are beautiful. Of course, this depends on the wetness or dryness of the winter, but this timing has worked well for us. One last crucial point-Sunday through Thursday is a great block of time to avoid people, as the weekends get much busier.
Step 4: Rules and Regulations
Governing agencies of different wilderness areas have different rules and regulations. National Parks are the most stringent about locations of campsites, water use, even requiring packing out used toilet paper! Less popular areas, such as National Forests, are less strict (but people have a tendency to trash the place, leaving fishing line and random bits of packaging lying around). Most agencies forbid campfires above treeline (often around 9600 feet), as the wood is very scarce at high elevations. So...get to know your rules, and practice good backcountry ettiquette!
Step 5: Packing
This can easily be an entire Instructable by itself (especially food), so for now, I am going to keep it fairly general. A comfortable pack with a good harness system is a must! Food that is dry and full of protein is light and can be rehydrated to make delicious meals. Remove packaging and double bag items such as rice or nuts, so a hole doesn't ruin your fine packing job. You will need a backpacking (not camping) tent/s for the number of people in your group. Camping tents will be too heavy. Other essentials include sleeping bags (keep them dry!), pads, stove, fuel, pots, and water filter. Wear comfortable and sturdy hiking shoes or boots. If they are new, take time to break them in beforehand. Also: sunscreen, matches, small first aid kit, map, day pack. I will give more particulars in the future-this is to get you started!
Step 6: Travel
Plan to drive up a day ahead of time, especially if you have a long drive. It's hard to drive and hike in on the same day. We've done it and it is sometimes unavoidable, but it feels rushed and hard to acclimate at higher elevations. Stop at the ranger station before they close and pick up your permits. Sometimes, they will put them out in an after hours box if you call to request that. You must have it available if a backcountry ranger asks to see it on the trail, or else you may get a fine.
At your trailhead, make sure you park properly and aren't blocking anyone or some access road. We like to hide our wallets in deep hiding places so we don't have to lug them around. Bring your car key with you, and put it in a safe place that others know about in case you forget.
Step 7: Go Do It!
Backpacking takes careful planning, and I hope these guidlines will help you try it. But don't be daunted! It is definitely managable, and so worth doing if you love the outdoors. I did it for many years with friends, and I was determined to expose my own children to the wonders of the remote backcountry. My buddy and I did it gradually, giving the kids a bit more weight, responsibility, and challenge each year. Now we explore as peers, and as corny as it sounds, is an unparalleled bonding experience. We all find ways to arrange our work schedules each summer so we can make this happen. Maybe when the dads are old and crotchety, the girls will start to carry their gear and tell them stories on the trail!