Backpacking the Elk River Trail with the Kids!

Hey guys!  It's John the Midwest Flatlander here, and I know I haven't blogged in like forever.  I'm sorry about that.  It has been an unexpectedly busy year here on the flatland.  Lots of work happening and lots of changes which are too numerous to mention here.  Life seems to be getting back to normal sort of, so that means it's time to make like a cow patty and hit the trail...the Elk River Trail (ERT) to be exact.  So come on along with me and my 4 oldest kiddos on a weekend backpacking adventure on the flatland.

 

Located just outside of Elk City State Park near Independence, KS, the ERT is our favorite place to backpack on the flatland.  One of the flatland's many hidden gems, the ERT is a 15 mile rugged trail that follows the shores of the Elk City Reservior and the Elk River.  The beauty of this trail is intense and abundant.  If you are a Kansas resident, pardon this comparison but when on the ERT you do not feel like your in Kansas anymore...Toto.  Okay, sorry Kansans for the lame comparison.  On to the adventure!!

 

We arrived at the trail head late in the day which meant that we would hike in to our campsite in the dark for some of the time.  This was a new experience for us, but it proved to be a lot of fun.  Along the way we did stop for a picture or two.

We hustled on the hike in but took time to take in the fantastic Kansas sunset.  Sunset on the flatland is amazing!!!
We hustled on the hike in but took time to take in the fantastic Kansas sunset. Sunset on the flatland is amazing!!!

 

We planned to make this a short hike-in trip, because we wanted to enjoy an easy time without a lot of intense hiking or rigorous activity.  We really wanted to chill-ax on this trip and enjoy our time at camp and the immediate surrounding area including a beach area by the lake.  So after a short 1.5 mile hike in, we setup camp, ate supper, and went to bed.  The remaining time was spent doing normal camp chores like gathering firewood, collecting water, and tending the fire.  We also spent our time swimming, fishing, a little bit of hiking, and of course eating.  Now, I'm sure some of you are wondering how to take a backpacking trip with four kids.  Well, I would like to discuss that with the remainder of this post, because I want you all to know that not only is it possible but also a whole lot of fun!

 

So let's start with the basics of how to pack the packs.  As you can see in the above sunset pic, we try to pack as light as possible, and we also try to "spread the love" as much as possible.  In our case, the love is weight.  The kids pack what they need for their own individual camp including shelter (hammock/tarp/tent/sleeping bag), extra clothes and warm layers (hoodies, jackets, warm socks, etc), and eating utensils/water bottles/cups (we pack a cup for hot drink and a cup for eating out of).  They also pack extras like a flashlight/headlamp and anything else they want for comfort in their hammock/tent.  For cooler weather, we also pack reflectix (you can get this for about $10/10ft roll at Home Depot) to put underneath our sleeping pads to help insulate us from the cool.  Everyone also carries their own individual food bags which we packed equally anticipating that some would eat more than others and vice versa.  By packing equal amounts we ensured that we would have a little extra from those that would not eat as much to provide extra for those that would.  Works out pretty good, as we even had a little bit of snacks left over to eat on our way home.  This method of packing food made for happy and full kiddos.  Once these items are packed, we divide up equally any other items we need for the trip among the oldest kids' packs (cooking stove, fuel, cook pot, etc.).

Everything tastes better in the woods.
Everything tastes better in the woods.

Our main meals (breakfast and supper) were various flavors of Mountain House for both suppers and one for breakfast.  Our other breakfast was instant oatmeal which happens to be very inexpensive (approximately $9 for a box of 60 packets at Sam's) and a favorite with my kids.  We also took a pack of Hormel precooked bacon which we laid on the stick that is fixed over the fire pit to crisp.  That pack of bacon we got at Sam's (Costco has it too) for about $10, and it contained 72 strips of bacon.  Yeah, inexpensive and made kids (and Dad) very happy at breakfast time.  For lunch we typically take snack type food including trail mix, cheese sticks, protein bars, fruit leather, jerky, summer sausage, and the like.  Costco is where I buy most of that stuff, and you can find really good deals on those types of snack foods.  We also packed a small bag for hot beverage which included things like coffee/cappuccino, hot cocoa, and Tang.  Yes, we enjoy hot Tang in the morning.  We try very hard to keep food simple, inexpensive, and delicious.  Mountain House single serving bags can run in the $5-8/bag  range depending on what you choose.  We have found that buying the ones that we like in a #10 can save money and feed us for multiple trips.   Simply repack the meals from the can into quart sized freezer bags and you can really stretch your food budget.  My next goal is to learn to make my own dehydrated meals and hopefully save even more money on food.  We'll see how that goes.

 

 

Now let's talk about setting up camp.  Over the course of the last several years, my kids and I have discovered the joy of the hammock.  My three oldest kids and I all have Eagles' Nest Outfitters (ENO) Double Nest hammocks (a mid range hammock with a price point of around $50-$60).  We totally love this hammock, and it has served us well on our adventures.  We set up our hammock using a webbing type strap for suspension, and then run a ridge line above the hammock which we use to drape a tarp (the $15-$20 heavy duty tarps at Wal-Mart work great) over us for shelter from wind and rain.  There are many hammock setups to choose from.  We watched many different YouTube videos on how to hang a hammock and decided to try a couple.  We eventually stuck with one that all the kids seemed to figure out quickly to the point where they are able to setup their own camp by themselves.  It took a few times for them to figure it out, but they are for the most part completely independent and able to handle their own setup and tear down.  My youngest daughter was along for her first backpacking adventure, so she had to bring a tent.  However, she tried a hammock and now wants one, so she is putting that on her Christmas list for this year.  Hammocks are a very good and light weight option for a backpacking shelter setup.

Our campsite.
Our campsite.

 

Water is something that might seem difficult to come by on a trip like this especially with 4 kids along.  Retrieving and filtering water for one person can be a daunting task in and of itself, however with some planning and a little help from your kids it can not only be doable but efficient as well.  We have a Sawyer 4 Liter Gravity water filtration system that we really like, and it works very well.  It filters 4 liters of water at a time which is typically enough for us to cook a meal with as well as have hot beverage.  In addition, having additional water collection containers is also handy, so you can filter and have additional water to filter without having to make several trips to the water source (in our case the lake).  Water collection options that we use are the Sea to Summit Collapsible Bucket.  On our next trip, we are each going to lash an empty 2-liter bottle to our packs to use for water collection as well.  Lastly, once the water was finished filtering, I would store it in a Nalgene portable canteen.  Typically we would use this water for cooking, so I could fill that canteen after each meal and be ready to go for the next one.  This technique worked very well, and we always knew how much water was needed for our meal as well as how much needed to be collected for the next.  Worked great for us on this trip.

 

I highly recommend finding a spot to go back to again and again, because there are places for exploration.  If you take your kids backpacking, be sure that they have a lot of opportunity to explore and discover.  You will be surprised at what they find.  The area of the ERT that we go to has all of that.  Lots of rocks to climb and find along the lake shore.  One year we went with a group from our church and the kids discovered a cave with an owl's nest that had several eggs in it.  Totally cool!!  And of course, the lake itself provides opportunities to fish and swim even in November.  Exploration is one of the keys to a successful backpacking trip with kids.

Nothing amazes me about my kids more than their ability to explore and discover.
Nothing amazes me about my kids more than their ability to explore and discover.
Swimming in November.  It can happen.
Swimming in November. It can happen.

 

One thing to remember when planning a backpacking trip with kids is to give yourself some time to relax and just enjoy being together.  The hammocks help with this, as we were able to set them up in a U shape.  This setup allowed us to hang out (literally) and just relax and talk and have a good time.  My youngest daughter's tent was right next to my hammock, so she was able to participate as well in the chill-axing.  It may only last for a few minutes, but taking time to just relax makes for a good recharge before you head back out for more fun and adventure.

Take time to relax.
Take time to relax.
Chill-axing by the fire.
Chill-axing by the fire.

 

One of the things I've learned about my kids while backpacking is not to try to fit them into a mold that I've come up with in my mind.  Letting my kids be who they are is something that I continually learn as a parent, and this concept comes out while in the woods as well as other places.  For example, my oldest son likes to hike in his flip flops (he rarely wears shoes at all).  At first I was opposed.  Didn't want him to break an ankle or fall or fill in the blank of all the kinds of disastrous things we as parents imagine our kids doing to themselves if we do not step in and take over.  Well, I decided to let him.  He did great!  Lesson learned; sometimes I just have to let my kids be themselves.

Who says you can't hike in flip flops?
Who says you can't hike in flip flops?

 

Looking back on this trip, I must also confess that I did a few things wrong.  I try to learn from every trip we take and remember to do things a little different or try something new.  This trip, my Zippo lighter failed us after one use.  This caused us to learn how to take really good care of our fire and make sure it did not go out.  The lesson I learned, buy another ferro rod to put in my pack and leave it there.  And maybe switch to Bic lighters instead of Zippo.

Tending the fire turned out to be very important on this trip.
Tending the fire turned out to be very important on this trip.

 

Well guys I hope you enjoyed this adventure as much as we did.  We try to make it to the ERT at least once a year, but we are trying to increase that number as time allows.  I hope you find inspiration in this post.  Let me encourage you to try this or something like it with your kids.  These are experiences they will never forget, so get out there and be bold and adventurous and make those lasting memories.  I know what your thinking, it's too expensive.  It can be, but it doesn't have to be.  We started with backpacks from NexPak that we picked up here and there and online.  They are good packs and reasonably priced ($40-$60/pack).  We also look for stuff on garage sales or auctions that we can supplement.  These types of adventures cost as much as you want them too, but there are lots of low priced options out there waiting to be discovered.  So go find them and go adventuring.  It will be worth the effort.

My girls love adventuring in the woods, and they did an awesome job!
My girls love adventuring in the woods, and they did an awesome job!

 

That will do it for this session.  I'll see you next time, and remember leave no trace...leave a legacy.

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