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The worst family backpacking trip ever

As I finished digging the last cathole with my ultralight trowel and dumping the remaining disaster from the night before, I considered my bruised and aching hands and wondered if I had been wrong the whole time – was the wilderness really the right place for kids?

My wife and I had a debate about whether it was dehydration, the trail mix, the dehydrated chili we had made for dinner, the sour keys, or simply poor hygiene that had knocked 3 of our kids flat out with nausea and diarrhea at 11 pm… through to the following day.  What was certain was that it was a disaster of a family adventure.


We spent a lot of time planning for this epic trip. All the planning went well and we felt confident. We organized gear, prepared meals, packed the six backpacks we’d need to get our little adventurers to our base camp in the British Columbia backcountry. We ticked every box on the list and were buoyed that our preparation would pay off. Our neighbors even stopped the night before with their kids to send us off with compliments that we were taking such a gaggle of children (aged 2-8) into the middle of nowhere. We were flattered and perhaps a little puffed up. What could go wrong?

A lot, apparently.


The hike in was fantastic. We enjoyed pristine mountain streams, wildflowers and even a few early berries. Ms. Adventure did have to carry the almost 3-year-old up the steep ascent for a kilometer or two, but she handled it like the amazing lady that she is. We got to camp in two hours or so and the kids immediately took to climbing huge boulders and exploring the shoreline of Margie lake.


We had a pleasant afternoon, despite the horse-flies and mosquitos (nothing a bit of bug spray and mosquito masks can’t fix, right?). We purified water despite the fact that no one had gotten sick from drinking from the stream in over 50 years of hiking there. We would take no chances with kids.

Dinner was homemade dehydrated chili, and it was fantastic. The bugs were at it again and the kids were getting fussy as a result, but the exercise and mountain air had whet their appetites and they polished off their mum’s home cooking in no time.


On hindsight, our first hint of impending doom should have been our daughter’s complaints of stomach problems. She complained a little bit of her tummy being a bit sore, but we chalked it up to gluten and dairy sensitivities aggravated by a small slice of cake we let her have the day before the hike. After dinner she was showing more distress… was there gluten in the trail mix? To be safe we pulled her from the girls’ tent and back into ours.

At about 11 pm, after being huddled in the fetal position for hours she loudly informed us that she had to go the bathroom. This was one of those emergency trips. The outhouse was a quarter mile away, so we headed for the trees. There was clearly something wrong. Very wrong. An hour later kid #2 took his turn, then kid #3, then Kid #1, then kid #2… after that I lost track.

As the night rolled into dawn, the temperature dropped. My feet were barely warming up from trudging through the dew and the bottom of my sleeping bag was getting soaked. At least I wasn’t sick like the kids.




In the morning we debated back and forth as to the cause (my guess was the chili), but mostly we debated if we should… or even could make the trip out to the trailhead with three sick kids. I mulled the decision over, as I went to work with the trowel, burying the catastrophe… catastrophes of the previous night.

The kids started to feel better, so we decided to pack up and make a slow trip back to the van. We decided to take out our niece so our brother-in-law could enjoy another day of hiking, and so she could spend more time with our kids. We were hoping and praying that the decision to leave early wouldn’t result in an even bigger disaster.


Knowing that the kids were pretty drained we pulled out all the stops. We took breaks for snacks and even cast in the line to fish a few times. We stopped to examine every distraction, every animal print, every bear dig-site, the remnants of an old trappers cabin, and even remnants of an old plane crash. That was the best idea of the trip out. The kids saw the scraps from an old plane crash and they were in adventure mode. They were the survivors of the crash: pilot, co-pilot, navigator, scout and baggage handler all searching for signs of civilization. They only stepped out of character to throw sticks down the stream in Winnie-the-pooh fashion. With renewed hope of discovery we made it through the woods, down the hill, across the creek, up the hill, down the logging road and out to the vehicle.


Thankfully we made it home without event. It turns out the kids were fine, and we probably could have stayed another night… hindsight and all that.


It turns out it wasn’t the chili, the trail mix, the hygiene or the sour keys. The neighbours’ kids had been struck by a 24 hour bug and it appears that they unwittingly shared it when they encouraged us on our way. They had the worst of it with some vomiting thrown in to the mix as well. We hadn’t thought much of the “accident” that their youngest had during their brief visit the night before we left, and it was only when we recounted the tale of our early return to them that we were able to put the pieces of the puzzle together.

Did this scare us off backpacking? No, but there were a few minutes, as I kneeled there with bruised palms, trying to repair my bent trowel so I could finish cleaning up from the previous night, that I understood why some prefer front country resorts to backcountry ramblings.




The kids have all but forgotten about the disastrous night on the backpacking trip. They are talking animatedly about fishing, climbing on the boulders, splashing in the lake, discovering evidence of wildlife and letting their imaginations run wild thinking about trappers and plane crashes.




Sometimes you can do everything “right” and still have misadventures in the outdoors, and sometimes everything can go wrong, and you still have amazing adventures in the outdoors.

About Paul

A guy trying to get away from his desk so that he can fish, hike, play and just plain be in the outdoors.

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  1. What a horrible night, but oh how refreshing it is to hear we are not the only ones having major unplanned setbacks! Our most recent (yeah, I definitely did not say only) experience involved a child with no shoes http://www.alocalwander.com/2015/06/road-trip-ramblings-walmart–not-on-corner.html Thanks so much for sharing!

  2. Thanks for sharing! Nothing like the unexpected to create adventure… and grey hairs.

  3. We started taking our kids to the backcountry when they were around the same age as yours. After a while, I imagine your children will not remember being sick but instead how much fun they had. I hope you take them again, and are put off by the 24 hour bug.

  4. We have had a few incidents of puking on backcountry trips. I am glad to hear that your kids recovered. It is funny how you never end up regretting even the worst trips.

    • even as an adult this happens now and then for me. I get sick, etc. It’s funny because even though it sucks when it’s going on. like really really sucks. I’ve never taken this as a turn off for wanting to go camping.

  5. Flexibility is the name of the game when backpacking with kids and maybe plan A, B and C. Learned this on our family backpacking trip in Sequoia National Park last summer. http://blog.hikingalong.com/2014/08/flexibility-when-family-backpacking-in-sequoia-national-park.html

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