What Happens When a 5th Grader Plans Your Hike?

Let a 10-year-old be your guide and discover a new kind of fun.
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Let a 10-year-old be your guide and discover a new kind of fun.
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Illustration by Vidhya Nagarajan

Thunk. That’s the sound of a quarter-size rock hitting the ground after being shot skyward with a slingshot, then free-falling about 100 feet back to earth.

Eeyahhh! That’s the sound of five preadolescent boys scattering in all directions, hands over heads, evading the missile.

“Guys, do you really think this is such a good idea?” That’s the sound of reason, I hope, as I try to persuade 10-year-olds to exercise a level of caution not usually associated with anyone their age.

Eeyahhh! Thunk. No dice.

When I told Tate, my youngest son, that he could plan and lead a weekend backpacking trip with his friends, there’d been some debate over the rules. “You mean I can get any food I want?” he asked. Yes. “Can we go to a lake where we can swim and make a campfire?” Yes. “And we get to make all the decisions?”

“Um, yes,” I responded. Then thought better of it and added a caveat, “Unless you decide to do something dangerous.”

I’m about to remind him of the fine print and put an end to the slingshot game. But the warm August sun must have reached a critical height, because just then, on our second day at Bowen Lake, the kids decide it’s time to go jump in the icy water.

Tate retrieves the bathrobe he packed for this occasion. It’s pale green, thick and soft, full-length—and heavier and bulkier than his sleeping bag. I saw him cram it into his backpack but didn’t say anything. The only rule is nothing dangerous. Dumb is just fine.

The idea for a kids-in-charge trip originated earlier in the summer, when Tate asked if I would take him and his friends backpacking. Like a scout trip without the uniforms. “Sure,” I said, “why don’t you organize it?” From there it was a natural evolution to him leading it. I wanted to see what he and his friends would learn by being responsible for things adults usually manage. And I wondered what I would learn from them.

It doesn’t take long to realize that my first lesson will be patience. We’ve traveled 300 feet from the trailhead when Tate announces, “Let’s stop for a snack here.” He indicates a pine-shaded patch of ground from which we can still see the car. It takes considerable effort for me to resist pointing out that they just polished off a bag of chips on the way to the trailhead, and we only just started hiking, and have almost 4 miles to go, with a steep climb to Blue Ridge just ahead.

Still, I can’t fault Tate for taking his job to heart. A good guide anticipates needs—thirst, hunger, fatigue—and addresses them. No one protests.

“There are enough Clif Bars for one each,” he says, distributing them to his friends Jackson and Van, both 10, Banyan, 11, and Zig, Tate’s 12-year-old brother. (Tate tried to use his position as trip leader to prevent his brother from coming, which almost got him fired before he started.) During the break, the kids discuss variations on the game “camouflage” they’ve all played at camp, and debate the rules they’ll use this time. I’m worried they’re going to start playing here, within sight of the trailhead.

But five minutes later, we’re hiking again, ascending to Bowen Lake in Colorado’s Never Summer Wilderness.

Five minutes later, we’re eating again.

This time it’s jerky, teriyaki flavor. I can’t deny it’s a fine place for a break. We sit on a wooden bridge, with our feet hanging over a burbling creek. Late-summer wildflowers add dashes of yellow and purple to the grass-lined gully. The kids admire the scenery for a few seconds, then start cataloguing the rest of the snacks on the menu: apple rings, chocolate-covered pretzels, dried mango, fruit leather, Smarties, chocolate bars. Is this hike even long enough for all the breaks they have planned? I realize that adults talk a good game about the journey being the destination, but we could take a page from these kids if we mean it.

Sufficiently fueled, we hike for more than 30 minutes without stopping. The route climbs to the top of 11,000-foot Blue Ridge, then follows the crest for a couple of miles to a saddle above Bowen Lake. At the ridgeline, the trail forks at a signed junction, with one path continuing straight, down the other side, and the other heading right to stay on the ridge.

“Which way should we go?” I ask. Zig studies the trail sign, which doesn’t actually mention Bowen Lake.

Tate ignores the sign and says, without hesitating, “Let’s go straight, I think the lake is right down that hill.”

Jackson chimes in, “Wow, that was easy!”

“Maybe it’s to the right,” Zig says.

I’ve seen this scenario on plenty of backpacking trips. Routefinding question comes up. Group huddles over a map and discusses options. Leader manages the conversation to reach consensus. Group continues hiking.

Here’s how it looks when fifth graders are in charge: How cold do you think the lake is? Maybe we should have a snack? Should we save the chocolate for camp? Did you see Jackson drop his water bottle down the hill and go sliding after it? Is that bear poop?

When it comes to navigating, they don’t actually decide anything. Zig and Banyan, who have been hiking in front, simply put their packs on and start up the trail to the right. The others follow. Either Tate has forgotten his urge to go straight, or has reconsidered. As it happens, right is the correct direction, but I’m not sure anyone learned anything.

Three hours later, we stand on a windswept ridge at 11,500 feet. The peaks of northern Rocky Mountain National Park stab the horizon before us. Five hundred feet below, Bowen Lake sits in a cirque with a boulder-lined shore on one side and forest-shaded campsites on the other. It’s all I can do to keep up as the kids practically race down the switchbacks to the lake.

When I arrive at a destination like this, I want to scout the lake for the best campsite, but Tate doesn’t consider this a critical part of his job. Actually, I don’t think looking for any campsite is on his mind. The kids drop their packs in a shoreline meadow and sprint off to throw rocks in the water.

Fortunately, they’re soon hungry again, which reminds Tate about the canned chicken soup they packed. Which reminds him that we need to make camp to cook.

We find a campsite in a stand of pines overlooking the lake. Setting up camp, for a 10-year-old, apparently consists of throwing packs down and running off to play. That’s what the three fifth graders do (after Tate delegates warming up the soup, to me). But there must be some camping gene that turns on between 10 and 12, because Zig and Banyan insist on setting up their tent and laying out their bags and pads before relaxing, just as I’ve seen many adults do. There might have been a lesson here if it had rained. But it doesn’t. In fact, hours later, after dark, Jackson, Van, and Tate think it’s pretty fun setting up their tent by headlamp.

They also fail to learn what I expect they will from the groceries Tate picked. I checked his shopping before we packed up at home, and most of it looked pretty smart—dried fruit, ramen, bagels, salami—but I thought the kids would complain about carrying canned soup and root beer. Wrong. What do they know about ounce counting? Besides, I realize, I’ve happily lugged a few cans of beer into the backcountry. Are these treats any different? Perhaps they are learning to think like backpackers: There are penalties—and rewards—for everything we carry.

“When are you going to hang a bear bag?” I ask Tate at dusk. I figure this comes under the danger rule: I should remind him it’s his responsibility, but if he fails, I won’t let them sleep with a pile of food in the middle of camp. I suspect it’s going to take quite awhile for him and his small-armed buddies to get a rope over a branch.

“Come on,” he rallies the crew, and they set off to find a suitable branch. He and Zig have helped me hang a bear bag, so they know what they’re looking for. After a few minutes of exploring, they find a likely candidate, but it’s 20 feet high—a tough throw.

“I don’t know,” I caution. “Is it too high?” I’m imagining kids throwing the rope for the next two hours.

“I can do it,” Tate says. “I’ll climb up.”

Over the years, I’ve seen hundreds of bear bags get hung. I’ve never seen someone climb a tree to do it. But this tree has thin, dead branches running up its trunk like a ladder. They’d never hold the weight of a bear, but manage a 70-pound fifth grader just fine. Tate scampers up, throws the rope over the desired branch from about 4 feet away, and comes back down. The whole operation takes less than 10 minutes.

On the way back to camp, everyone gathers sticks for marshmallow roasting. S’mores ingredients were on the packing list, naturally, as were pocketknives for whittling sticks.

Five boys wielding knives, I assume, will be the biggest safety issue of the trip (the slingshot game won’t come until tomorrow). But they all insist they’re expert whittlers, which mostly seems true. Only one Band-Aid is required.

They gather around the campfire pit with marshmallow sticks that look like spears capable of bringing down a large deer.

But there’s just one snag in the plan: The kids can’t get a fire started. I supplied a lighter but no paper or instructions, and one after the other they build complicated structures out of sticks and fail to light them. I want them to succeed, just as they’ve succeeded at every other task today, but I admit it’s gratifying when Tate asks me to start the fire. I can see it won’t be long before he and his buddies are planning their own backpacking trips, and the only thing they’ll need from me is the car keys. But I’m glad we’re not quite there yet.

“How many marshmallows can we have?” Tate asks, momentarily forgetting who’s in charge.

I’m tempted to impose a limit. That’s a parent’s job, right? Not this time. “I don’t know,” I answer. “You guys decide.”

In a few short years, they’re going to be making more important decisions than this on their own. I’m glad Tate and the others have had this chance to get a taste of independence in the backcountry. Hopefully, the experience will help them act smarter and safer wherever they go.

Then they eat a dangerous amount of s’mores.

Editor-in-chief Dennis Lewon plans to have more snack breaks on all future trips.