Pass/Fail: Take A Reluctant First Time Backpacker

Our veteran hiker takes on the ultimate tricky guest: her never-been-backpacking, 64-year-old father.
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Our veteran hiker takes on the ultimate tricky guest: her never-been-backpacking, 64-year-old father.

My map of Rocky Mountain National Park looked like it had the measles. I had drawn dots at all the designated backcountry campsites that had pit toilets. This was a key element of my elaborate preparations for The Big Trip With Dad. Because my father was 64 years old and rather stiff in the hips and I had never seen him squat, and because the idea of teaching him how to poop in a cathole sounded more awkward than every second of middle school combined, our route would connect the dots.

This whole endeavor was my idea. The last time my dad had gone camping was in 1963. Over the years, I’d dragged him on a few major dayhikes, including one in Hawaii on which he’d failed to drink enough water and nearly collapsed. He likes bicycling, softball, skiing— and showering at the end of the day. But I love backpacking, and he loves me, and we both knew he’d only started skiing 20 years ago because I’d wanted to try it. Maybe he’d fall in love with backpacking, too. At the very least, I wanted to give him a real intro to camping and leave him wanting more. His predictable response: “Whatver you want, honey.”

Using my trusty dots, I mapped out a horseshoe route that had us camping at three mountain lakes, covering a total of just 15.7 miles in four days. I’d learned over the years that with newbies, it’s important to keep one’s ambitions in check. The students I led on freshmen orientation trips in college could sometimes take until past noon to wrangle themselves out of camp. A friend from high school had recently spent hours curled in the tent with an altitude headache on her first backpacking trip. No matter what kind of trouble we ran into, I wanted to be able to say—and mean—“No hurry! Take your time!”

I sent dad off to a specialty retailer to get fitted for good boots—with plenty of time to break them in. I gave him an extensive, detailed packing list, which I then took complete control of fulfilling. I planned a simple menu, which I would cook entirely myself. I ordered us a custom-centered topo map, even though I already had my dot map, because that seemed like a good way to Have Thought of Everything.

I found us a book of stories about camping to read aloud together should we have any downtime and acquired some crossword puzzles, so I’d have a way to remind Dad, if he got down on himself, that he was indeed more skilled than I am at many areas of life.

The day arrived. The sun shone. Picking up our permit, we passed a herd of elk in the parking lot. All went well, until it all went downhill, literally. As we crested a saddle and started down a steep, rocky stretch around mile 2, I watched the head of gray hair ahead of me jerk sideways, then careen toward the ground. I flashed to an image of my mother’s tear-stained, accusing face, but luckily Dad quickly righted himself with a sheepish shake of his head.

That night, as I cooked dinner, a moose ran right through our campsite. It seemed like a good omen, until I watched Dad try to get into our small, light-weight backpacking tent. It was like trying to fit a ladder into a Volkswagen—he didn’t bend in the spots humans normally do. After much groaning, he settled in, and I decided I’d better pull out the crosswords.

I awoke at some point to find the tent perfectly free of snores. Not good. “Do you hear that noise?” came a whisper from next to me. I listened. Our wilderness permit was moving slowly in the breeze, scraping the nylon above our heads. Even after I defeated that adversary, Dad claimed he didn’t sleep at all.

Despite a leisurely morning and an easy pace, we got to our next campsite, 3.6 miles away, around noon. I’d mapped out a dayhike from here, but looking around, it became clear that my vision involved bushwhacking, scrambling, and a steep climb, and was completely unsuited to the tired man tripping along the trail ahead of me. We didn’t have fishing gear or cards, so we read as much of the truly awful book I’d brought as we could stand. Dad kept shifting around on his perch on our bear can- ister, as sitting on the ground was almost as hard for him as getting into the tent.

After a few more crosswords, I pulled out our maps. Tomorrow’s hike was less than 2 miles. We’d be there by 10 a.m. at today’s pace, but my plan to “explore off-trail” would be no more reasonable than today. “What if we hike all the way out tomorrow, sleep at home, then do a dayhike the fourth day?” I asked.

A look that seemed suspiciously like relief flitted across Dad’s face. “Whatever you want, honey.”

That second night, he slept much, much better.

The Verdict: FAIL

Anyone can politely survive a night or two out. I wanted my dad to enjoy it so much he wanted to go again. But I could tell that he’d been bored and uncomfortable. I couldn’t fix his creaky joints, but I could have done a better job planning. Despite my obsessive research, the route was much too aggressive and lacked viable dayhike options.

LEAD A TRIP FOR FIRST-TIMERS

Use these tips to ensure your beginner guests want to go backpacking again.

TAKE CHARGE. You’re playing the role of guide here; act like one. It’s fine to delegate tasks (like grocery shopping), but you’re the one who knows what you’re doing. Make sure the group is comfortable, safe, and prepared.

PLAN A FLEXIBLE ROUTE. Stay conservative with mileage, so your guests don’t feel like they’re on a death march. But ideally, your route should have easy extensions of varying length, so you can adapt your goals as their skills and energy warrant.

HELP WITH PACKING. It’s hard to understand what gear is good for the backcountry until you’ve been there. Provide a gear list, help find loaner or rental gear, and then teach your guests the art of properly loading a pack (see backpacker.com/packing).

CHECK IN OFTEN. Consider hiking in back to let your guests set the pace—and so you can observe their behavior and suggest fixes if you notice them struggling. Good idea: Each night, have everyone share their highs and lows for the day, which may help you identify fixable issues you weren’t aware of.

ENCOURAGE LEARNING. Without being bossy, model trail habits that work for you by pointing out when you’re drink- ing, having a snack, dealing with a hot spot, etc. Have your guests help with camp chores.

Get more first-timer tips, plus our picks for the top beginner-friendly hikes, at backpacker.com/firstnightout.