Winter Camping w/ 9 yr old near Washington DC?
January 30, 2016 3:29 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for suggestions for one-or-two-day (night) loop trails within three hours of Washington, DC, that can be done in March with a 9 year old.

I've done lots of hiking and camping in my life, including winter camping and glacier camping, but it's been .. oh, 20 years since I've thought about it much. I have the equipment, everything works, I'm not particularly worried about surviving. I just want to find a scenic route that's easy enough that I won't be dealing with a whining child for the bulk of it, but hard enough that it'll be interesting.

Ideally I'd be grabbing him from school at 3:30 on a Friday, driving to a parking lot, hiking an hour or so in to a campground (with water!), hiking 10 to 12 miles the next day to a campground, then hiking out on Sunday.

.. also, if anyone has any experience taking kids on their first camping outing that involves actual hiking, please feel free to chime in. I'm undoubtedly thinking this is going to be easier than it is.

Thank you!
posted by DoubtingThomas to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (12 answers total)
You're thinking of taking a 9 year old on a 10-12 mile hike? With a backpack on? Even if you're carrying all the gear for both of you so he doesn't have to carry a backpack, that strikes me as rather optimistic. Has the kid ever hiked that far before? Unless he regularly does hikes close to that length and really wants to push himself, I wouldn't plan anything longer than about 5 miles. Depending on the kid, even that could be pushing it. My 10 year old has been going on occasional backpacking trips since he was 2 1/2, but I wouldn't expect him to enjoy a 10-mile hike (and I wouldn't ask him to carry much more than his own sleeping bag and pad.)
posted by Redstart at 4:04 PM on January 30, 2016 [12 favorites]

I did the Camp Hoover loop as a winter hike/over-nighter when I was 12 and I remember it like it was yesterday - very pretty.
posted by j_curiouser at 4:05 PM on January 30, 2016

I would recommend reducing expectations and easing into it with a car camping trip instead of a 10 mile hike. You can do a short day hike as part of car camping and a cozy campfire. The worst thing you can do when introducing someone to the outdoors is to traumatize them on their first experience by over-committing. Make sure their first trip is very enjoyable and not an epic.
posted by JackFlash at 4:06 PM on January 30, 2016 [4 favorites]

Does your kid want to go on this camping trip? If not, it's going to be a rather miserable trip for both of you. Even if (s)he wants to go on this type of trip, does the kid understand what's involved? Being out in the cold all weekend, sounds absolutely miserable to me. I would suggest waiting until spring with some hikes and see if your kid is interested and then slowly build up from there.
posted by parakeetdog at 4:40 PM on January 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

I had a friend whose outdoorsy and camping-experienced kid simply stopped dead in the middle of a trail on day 2 of a 5-day hiking trip; she literally could not cope with the experience anymore (emotionally, physically, etc.) She made it the last five miles after everyone promised the trip absolutely would be OVER as soon as they got back to camp, though she was still stressed out a few days later. She didn't do any more camping that season.

So, I Nth the idea of reducing your expectations for this trip. Be prepared to convert the second day to "let's go back to town and play mini-golf and eat ice cream" if needed.
posted by SMPA at 7:13 PM on January 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

I have led a lot of kids on a lot of outdoor experiences; it used to be my job. 10-12 miles is way, way too long for even the hardiest kid under 10 if they are new to this sort of thing (and really, even then). There are plenty of adults that would be absolutely done in by that length.

Camping is level 1. Hiking between camps is level 2. Winter camping is level 3; hiking between winter camps is level 4. Take a moment to recognize the difficulty level you're asking for someone who doesn't have anywhere near your experience. (I know you can quibble over whether March is winter, but it can be, and even if it's a mild March a combination of damp air, cool nights, damp ground, short days, etc., can make you a lot less comfortable than it seems, and that's without bad weather). This is a learning experience like anything - scaffold it for them, and they'll have a far better experience and learn to love it instead of dread it.

When I saw your question I came in to suggest the Batona trail in Souther NJ - it's really flat, easy walking, water at most camps. But it's pretty remote - most places you can't easily walk out to civilization.

I recommend starting your kid out with some good, solid day hikes. They can learn how to manage their energy, how to prepare, how to be independent, how to enjoy a hike. Then, take a one-night overnight somewhere fun and scenic, with plenty of downtime in the evening, a nice swimming hole, etc. After that, graduate up to a two-night, and only after they're comfortable with that would you start experimenting with the tougher weather of the shoulder season.
posted by Miko at 8:01 PM on January 30, 2016 [3 favorites]

Remember that you'll be carrying enough stuff for two, so even if it's "easy" distance, your pack will be heavier and bigger than if you were just carrying stuff for yourself.

I've always loved to challenge myself backpacking (lighter, faster, longer, etc.). However, this mentality is really really problematic with kids. Find some other release for your own athletic ambition, and take the kid backpacking for their sake not yours (or for the sake of enjoying their company).

We've taken our little ones (much younger) on several trips (all in the summer, but some in the mountains), and the most fun have been the least ambitious. Then you have time to follow and learn from them as they discover the world.
posted by lab.beetle at 9:20 PM on January 30, 2016

Wait, and you also haven't done any serious camping in two decades? Yeah, I'd pick a 2-3 hour Saturday afternoon walk in Rock Creek Park or some equivalent location that is natural, but immediately adjacent to civilization in case you need to hastily abort. And I'd do things at that level at least a dozen times before attempting a trip that includes both a hike and an overnight.
posted by decathecting at 10:04 PM on January 30, 2016

I have the perfect book for you: Appalachian Mountain Club's Best Day Hikes in the Shenandoah Valley: Four-Season Guide to 50 of the Best Trails From Harpers Ferry to Jefferson National Forest. Yes, the focus is on day-hikes but you can get some great suggestions for camping, too. Regardless of where you decide, it's a great resource for both serious and casual DC hikers looking for nearby outings.
posted by smorgasbord at 11:20 PM on January 30, 2016

Response by poster: I am swayed by these voices of reason, but -- he regularly does 5 mile walks over the course of 2 1/2 - 3 hours with me, and he *wants* to go on a longer hike, am I really that crazy?

Sigh. Car camping with a hike-out it is. If nothing else, I'll be outside. :P

Thank you all! No need to pile on the "silly man" part of the thread, but feel free to suggest destinations. :)
posted by DoubtingThomas at 4:53 AM on January 31, 2016

How about camping near Gettysburg and hiking through the park? Not too hilly and all the monuments break up the day. Also close enough to civlization if you need it.
posted by COD at 6:32 AM on January 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

he regularly does 5 mile walks over the course of 2 1/2 - 3 hours with me, and he *wants* to go on a longer hike

So go on an overnight hike during which the total mileage is 5 miles. Don't forget that carrying gear, making and breaking camp, making a fire, cooking and hauling water, etc. are all going to be new learning experiences and will take additional mental and physical energy that riding home in a car to a hot dinner after that 5-mile hike doesn't. Teach him the art of pack-in camping and get all the logistics introduced in a solid manner before you try to lengthen. And I would really not do that in an iffy month like March, but plan a really nice experience later in the spring when you'll have balmier, happier weather. Remember that the first time out with an overnight, you're aiming not for notches in the belt, but for a good experience, and that plenty within that will be more than challenging enough. Let him learn how to take care of himself capably and comfortably backpacking and camping, and then lengthen the trips. You can take side hikes from base camp if you still have energy, but you can also work on campcraft types of skills or go swimming or foraging and just have fun.

Also, I agree that if you haven't backpacked overnight with a 10-mile in-between in 20 years , you should ramp up more slowly than you're thinking, too. Trust me...there is a lot you have forgotten about. An easy trip will be a good way to shake the rust out, remember what you need to do to really enjoy the experience, and get started again without overdoing it and hating it.
posted by Miko at 6:56 AM on January 31, 2016 [2 favorites]

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