Sunday, July 31, 2011

Notes from a backpacking and camping vacation with a toddler

When we decided to take la cocotte on a backpacking, camping vacation, we knew that we were not exactly signing up for a relaxing vacation at Club Med. But backpacking has been an integral part of our couple hood and we were eager to share this particular area of the world with la cocotte. She is, after all, named after an important natural entity in that part of the world. Which, as an aside, made for a strange experience. La cocotte's name is not exactly common. It is not unheard of, people recognize the name when they hear it but there will (hopefully) never be multiple children sharing her name in any of her classes. So although predictable, it was still somewhat of a shock to be in that part of the world - Yosemite and surroundings - and see her name EVERYWHERE. _______Lane, Old _______Highway, The _______Laundromat, _______Inn, Ye Old _______Fish and Tackle Shop, _______ Beer & Booze. In neon lights, fading highway billboards, faux western signs, tourist shops, grocery stores, her name was omnipresent. I also felt embarrassingly cheesy when answering the inevitable "what is her name?" question. I guess it's not so cheesy name a child _______ when you live 5,000 km from _______ but it felt cheesy there. Yes, I realize I am inviting guesses and that's ok. But if I have told you la cocotte's real name in a private e-mail or if you've met her in person, that doesn't count as a guess!

But back to backpacking. We attempted two separate, two night backpacking trips. There are several challenges when backpacking with a toddler most of which we were very much aware of in theory while planning the trip. Hubby and I usually try to go light to ultra light when backpacking. We usually do 7-10 day, 80-130 mile trips and try to keep our packs to 28 lbs or under, this weight includes the 4 pound bear canisters the National Park Service obliged backpackers in Yosemite to carry. To stay light, everything we carry has a purpose if not two or three and nothing we carry is unused (except for some emergency gear - we skimp on comfort but not safety). Toddlers are, from the ultralight backpacking perspective, complete disaster! They require tons of extra gear some of which is actually heavier & more voluminous on the way OUT than on the way IN (used diapers must be packed out). Not only do they necessitate extra weight, they don't even often carry their OWN weight. We carried one backpack and one baby backpack which meant that one of us carried the lion's share of all gear and the other carried baby. And baby's baby because, oh yes, toddlers travel with baby dolls. Talk about insult to the ultralight backpacking aesthetic, we actually carried in her baby doll (which you can see here). Note the eNORmous plastic head which weighs about a pound and complete lack of practical purpose (practical in the backpacking context... clearly it baby had a crucial emotional purpose).

Did I say toddlers travel? I use that term loosely. Which brings us to the next challenge. Toddlers actually do not travel very far or very linearly and rarely in the direction that leads one to the destination for that evening. One of the books we read prior to leaving said that when hiking with toddlers, to forget about miles per hour and think instead in terms of  HOURS per MILE. So, so, so true. And hard for an anal, time-obsessed competitive runner, former serious backpacker to do. So our typical session of "hiking" went something like this:
~coax la cocotte into baby backpack
~walk 10 minutes
~la cocotte starts repeatedly calling "down! down!"
~coax her for another 5 minutes
~realize this is her vacation too and put her down
~complete standstill as she plays with a rock/anthill/leak/horse poop for 10 minutes
~pick her up in my arms and carry her for 100 meters ignoring "down! down!"
~repeat previous 5 steps
~repeat previous 8 steps
~la cocotte falls alseep - walk hike as quickly as possible during her nap not bothering to look at scenery, not stopping to pee, eat, drink etc.

But it was good, mostly good. Once I purged myself of all time and distance goals and realized how much fun the JOURNEY can be, I relaxed and let go. Letting go of past obsessions was probably a healthy exercise for me. And we did, of course, realize ahead of time that "hiking" would proceed very much as described above.

What we were not prepared for was the crying fit when we got to our destination for the night, a pretty lake in a rocky bowl about 5 miles from the trail head. La cocotte would not settle and every time I put her down she made a beeline for her baby carrier and frantically tried to climb in. By this time it was 6 pm and hubby and I were quite exhausted and had barely managed to do all the chores - tarp pitching, water fetching etc.. It was starting to feel a little like the plot of a Hollywood B horror movie: terrified toddler sensing that something wicked this way comes tries to convince exhausted, unpersuaded parents to leave... LEAVE NOW! We were really unsure what to do. It seemed we were trading off the dangers of hiking out, exhausted, in fading daylight against possibly having a terrified toddler on our hands all night. We decided to question her further.

Now normally, when it comes to giving information, our not-quite-yet-two year old toddler is about as reliable as a magic 8 ball (yes! no! maybe! ask again later!). This time though she was quite consistent:
-Do you want to stay? shake.
-Do you want to go back to the car? nod.
-Do you want to sleep here? shake.
-Do you want to sleep in a bed? nod.
-Where is the car? points in the correct direction.

Hmmmmm. Exhausted parents. Fading daylight. Terrified toddler. Hmmmmmm.
Ultimately we decided that there are certain things that she, as a two year old, must do with no negotiation - brush her teeth, share, take her vitamin D, go to daycare. But backpacking is simply not on that list. We decided to not risk scarring our child's psyche and destroying the tranquility of anyone within a mile radius and  bust a move out there.

We broke camp in 21 minutes ( a record) and hiked the 5 miles out in 1 hour 33 minutes (downhill, but a record nonetheless). La cocotte, somehow sensing the need for speed, calmly sat in the baby backpack the entire time and did not request down once. We made it back to the car exhausted but with about 20 minutes to spare before complete darkness.

Other than that we did lots of throwing of rocks into streams, lots of playing on logs and watching of deer. We did small scale activities in a large scale place. Meaning that while Yosemite is a place of grand cliffs, imposing waterfalls, impressive mountains, enormous trees, we would spend hours sitting on a sedge hump in a meadow playing with gravel or just letting la cocotte go in and out of the door of our tent for ages. In the end the scenery and the grandeur of the park was largely lost on her which we mostly expected. But we knew we were there and that she had seen it on some level.

I have to say it was a bit of an achingly uncomfortable situation for me to be in my favorite spot in the world and not be able to take it in physically. Xapis wrote a post awhile back about how running makes her feel connected to a place and I could really relate to that sentiment. Yosemite is overwhelming in her beauty, angles, shadows, spaces, plays of light... it is impossible to take it in. One of the rangers was once asked by a visitor - "what would you see in the park if you only had half a day?" and he answered "if I only had half a day in Yosemite I would go out into that meadow and cry." But running allows me to become intimate with the microscale of one small piece of it. I cannot absorb the whole park but I know, for example, that there is a downed lodgepole pine tree along the Lyle Canyon trail that is home to a Picket Pin and lupines ring the decaying edges of its home. That sort of secret knowledge makes me feel like I have truly experienced something. Not being able to really run or indeed hike very far on this vacation almost made me feel isolated from the park as if I were not truly there. So that took some adjustment but of course the trade off is well, well worth it.

The other thing noteworthy about this vacation was the simple fact of spending 24 hours a day, day after day with la cocotte. It really drove home how much development we miss by being working parents. It happened time after time that she said or did something seemingly out of the blue that we could only guess came from the daycare experience. It was a fascinating yet somehow melancholy sensation to see all these sides of her, or, her bag of tricks so to speak that we just don't get to bear witness to by only spending 4-5 waking hours with her on week-days. Though she learned some new tricks on this trip as well - she learned to nuzzle up to hubby's chest and say, very hopefully, "lait de papa?" (milk from daddy?). She also clearly thinks that hubby and I control the world. Maybe not the world but the wind, rain, wildlife.... time and time again she would see a deer and say "chevreuil!" and then look at us and demand "encore chevreuil!", "encore ├ęcureuil", "encore bateau!" or whatever else had captured her fancy. It was pretty hilarious to me that she thought we could control all these entities when we couldn't even successfully get her to wear her hat.

I think ultimately we chose the exactly wrong developmental stage to attempt back packing and hiking. La cocotte is HYPER mobile and therefore resistance to being carried and ANY sort of device but her wonderful little brain is still largely reptilian and impossible to reason, rationalize or negotiate with. Actually she is a GREAT negotiator. Everything gets done her way! All in all it was a wonderful though exhausting vacation. I think, I hope la cocotte had a wonderful time too. Certainly there were moments of swimming, dirt digging, door slamming, rock throwing that were pure pleasure for her. The fact that these moments all could have happened in the park around the corner is perhaps neither here nor there.


  1. Oh wow. Sounds like an initially challenging but ultimately relaxing holiday to a beautiful part of the world (I'd love to hike the John Muir trail one day, I've only done 7 days into the Ansell Adams area). totally understand that sense of "letting go" of the physical challenges available hiking to enjoy the journey. It's a real hurdle for me at times and takes a few deep breath for me to see the bigger picture. But so neat to se La Coccotte growing into a little person. If you'd been at home there would have been too many daily life distractions to observe it perhaps. But on holiday it becomes about just the 3 of you. Really like the observations in this post!

  2. I think you nailed it - it totally depends on the developmental age of the child when it comes to their willingness to backpack. I am impressed, though, that you guys are such seasoned hikers! Totally cool you have done such long trips. That was hilarious, by the way, about people asking what her name was. Gotta say I hadn't thought of that when you mentioned your trip. I'm sure La Cocotte got a lot out of the trip, anyway, if nothing else, time with two happy parents (and it probably doesn't get better than that for a two year old!).

  3. I have to say, when I first heard La Cocotte's name (first and last name), I thought "That's the most American sounding name ever. It must sound exotic in Italy!" Then I made the quick correction mentally from American to Canadian.

  4. What a great post! You're so honest and funny.

    We have been in similar situations several times, including our honeymoon in the same mountains, whose name we won't mention here. We took turns hiking with the Lorax in the backpack and running, both wishing we could turn him off for a few hours a day and go run together. And I should add that mother-in-law came to join us for a week for that very reason.

    One day she'll grow up and you will long back to when she was a little soft mass of toddler goodness, but such is the life.