We went camping in the great outdoors . . . with our toddler! Not only did we camp in a secluded section of the Shenandoah National Park, but we hiked through a very steep, slippery, and rocky trail that was labeled moderate-to -difficult. Check out the Cedar Run hike (elevation gain for the complete loop is 2,450 feet!) We were warned that we’d be deep into bear country. It would have been cool to see one, from a distance, on the hike. We did see several deer, salamanders, and ravens on the trail.
Lugging 40 pounds on my back plus high stepping a rocky trail was very tough. I haven’t done a ruck hike in about 9 years. I wasn’t expecting my husband to pick something quite so . . . tough.
Later, I asked him why he wanted to spend our family weekend doing such a difficult course.
His response, “It’s not difficult. It’s only a couple of miles. Difficult would be a 6 mile hike with all of this rocky terrain thrown in the middle.”
Well, okay, so he didn’t really answer my question. Ultimately, he wanted to camp in a more secluded spot.
We definitely had seclusion. In fact, we were diverted from getting to our targeted trail thanks to a park ranger who told us to drive another 1.5 hours to another entrance to the forest to get to our trail.
We left our home at 4:45 pm. We parked our vehicle outside of the trail around 8pm. It definitely took much MUCH longer than projected. So, by the time we hit the trail, it was growing dark, and we didn’t have much time to find a decent campsite, or take pictures, or view the waterfalls.
Steve found a semi-clear spot well enough away from the trail. Unfortunately, the ground was littered with big gooney rocks.
Steve set up our A-frame tent that he purchased 7 years ago (we hadn’t yet had a chance to try it out). Meanwhile, Calvin clung to my pantlegs for dear life. I’m sure he was thinking, “where the heck are we? Why is it so dark here? I’m scared!”
Once we were inside the tent, I set up the sleeping bags and turned on a flash light. Calvin took a few moments to get oriented. Yet, our tent was slightly inclined. He still hugged me and had at least one limb on me at all times.
Then, I busted out with the gorp or trail mix. He started picking through and eating the raisins. Suddenly, life was good. Big fluffy, down sleeping bags to clamber over and jump upon…and eating raisins late at night…staying up past bedtime. He was living it up!
Since you cannot light a fire in the Shenandoah National Forest, we used our little camp stove to cook up some delicious nitrate-free brats and hot dogs. We chased them down with more gorp.
Then, Steve decided to head upstream to see if there were any other campers nearby. Meanwhile, it was close to 10pm, and Calvin was exhausted. He and I snuggled together in a sleeping bag, and he kept pointing to the flashlight overhead and rubbing his eyes–wanting me to turn it off.
I would have loved to turn off the light and doze off myself, but I had strict orders from Daddy to keep the light on until he got back. After another 30 minutes, he returned, and we finally were able to get some sleep.
Sleeping outside with Mommy and Daddy was such a treat for Calvin, that he got so excited and wouldn’t fall asleep. He kept standing up, walking and stumbling around and laughing. Finally, Steve had to wrangle him and pin him down, and told him to lie down and go to sleep.
Within minutes, I heard baby snores which lasted until daybreak.
I didn’t sleep nearly as well as Calvin. Maybe it was the various rocks underneath my back or the fact that I couldn’t sleep on my side without my favorite pillow. I kept thinking to myself, “It’s only one night. I can handle this!” Steve quipped that the large rock underneath his low back was in just about the right spot for his low back spinal molding (something we usually do with cylindrical foam pillows).
THE HIKE: Part I
The next morning, we gobbled up bacon and eggs for breakfast before we set out to explore the waterfalls, pools, and steep rocky cliffs. Rain was coming so we broke up camp rather quickly.
Even though Calvin was comfortable going to the bathroom on his potty at home, he wasn’t quite so ready to go in the forest. He made his “I NEED to potty” sound and whimpered when we tried to get him to go near a rock. That just wasn’t going to cut it for him. So, off with one diaper, on with another, and immediatley off with the fresh diaper for one that was clean. We were down to 3 diapers, and I had no idea how many more hours we’d be hanging around outside.
We decided to trek downhill and keep Steve’s pack hidden at the campsite so that he could bear Calvin’s weight while I freely hiked. It was rough enough heading downhill with muddy puddles and slippery rocks, but it was treacherous returning back to our campsite. By this time, the mild drizzle had turned into a torrential downpour.
We passed more waterfalls, took a refreshing drink from the clean and refreshing spring water (Steve didn’t get sick from drinking it the night before, and we’d read that it was clean and good to drink from the source without boiling). Calvin watched our lead and did the sign language for “please” and “more”. We let him drink stream water from my hands. When he was finished, he said, “Mmmm!”
We passed a couple of hikers who told us the next larger waterfall was another 30 minutes downhill. We considered going, but the rain was getting more intense, and for every step we tread downhill, we’d have to re-claim it going uphill. Sooner than later, I’d have to carry Calvin, and we’d have to climb even more back toward our car on Skyline drive.
So, we opted to head back to camp. My legs were still quivering from the intense downhill climbing the night before. It was tough walking, but I could do it.
The Hike: Part II
We got back to the campsite to get Steve’s pack and to take a brief rest. We chowed on gorp, downed some water, and let Calvin loose to stretch his legs. When the rain picked up, we put Calvin back into the carrier, and strapped him onto my back.
It’s a completely other thing to climb a steep ascent on slippery rocks during a downpour with your precious child strapped to your back.
My quads BURNED. My calves felt like iron knots. I was utterly exhausted from not sleeping (I consider waking up 8-10 times during the night NOT sleeping). And yet, we had to get back to our car, and I couldn’t mis-step and fall and risk hurting my sweet baby boy.
Steve yelled back to me to stay focused. I felt like I was in military survival school.
So, I thought about my sweet reward when we got home. I completely focused on throwing back a strawberry-banana smoothie. I was exhausted, but I said aloud the healthy and refreshing ingredients that would go into my lovely smoothie.
Then, I got tired and had to rest.
The rain let-up a little. The air grew more humid and heated. The mist starting rising from the stream. Mosquitoes began to buzz and hover near me.
We pressed on.
Big rocky steps. Endless trail in an upward ascent.
Tired. So freaking tired. Must sit down. Must rest. Must sleep.
At one point, I told Steve he may have to continue up the trail and unload his pack…then return to carry out Calvin in the carrier while I walked back. Steve told me to stay focused, and that it was only a little further.
About 45 minutes later, we finally arrived back on Skyline Drive with our car in sight.
The Hike: Part III
We drove on Skyline and stopped at the Visitor’s Center to fill-up on gas, take a rest stop, and to check out the mini-museum inside. We ended up getting a hot meal which was rejuvenating for the spirit and the flesh.
Steve asked a park ranger about some of the less steep hikes in to some of the bigger waterfalls.
We deliberated back and forth on whether or not we should go. I was completely tuckered out…but we were THERE, and we may not go back. It was past Calvin’s naptime, but he could always sleep later.
Finally, we decided to give it a go…Steve would carry Calvin, and we’d take the easy-peasy trail to the waterfall. Calvin was all revved up and happy for another walk.
We were momentarily distracted by a little cemetary path that jutted off to the side of the trail. We wondered who’d have access to bury folks in a cemetery…in a National Park. We walked around for a couple of minutes, then headed back to the trail.
The sun was beating down on us, and I didn’t want Calvin to get burned. I reached up to put his hat on his head, and suddenly his head flopped to the side, and then the other side. I ran up to look at him, curious at what he was doing. He had fallen asleep…completely exhausted sleep.
The more Steve plodded on, the more his head would sway. I’m a chiropractor, I didn’t like what was happening to his poor little neck without any side support. So, I gently placed his cheek against the front of the carrier, and asked Steve to slow down his walking.
We were halfway to the waterfall at this point in the trail.
But, we decided to head back to the car and to put our little, sleeping boy in his car seat and head home.
I awoke for occasional breath-taking vistas along Skyline Drive, but I was glad to get home and whip myself up a strawberry-banana-coconut milk smoothie.
Backpacking and Camping with a Toddler: Tips for Parents
- Bring familiar food and snacks
- Encourage a love of new and foreign things by experiencing it yourself with confidence and awe
- Counter fear of a dark and strange place with unusual animal sounds with calmness and joy.
- Point out and name familiar things: animals and trees.
- Point out and name unfamiliar things and describe how they’re like familiar things: waterfalls–like the bath tub faucet; warm rain–like a big shower.
- If you’re having fun and engaging your child, chances are that a uncertain attitude may easily settle into one that matches yours.
We had a wonderful Daddy’s Day weekend. How was yours?