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Backpacking with Children
by Evan Hill

I took my infant 6mo old daughter backpacking. We were an hour from the trailhead and from there 2 hours to med services.

I've thought about it a little, and it is basically a line that you walk. You walk it for yourself personally, and you also have to choose how your children walk it when they are under your care. The line has risk on one side and personal growth on the other side. Taking acceptable risks leads to personal growth. As backpackers, we are continual practitioners of taking risks in exchange for personal growth. Mountaineers and climbers (both of which I used to be) take greater risks in exchange for (potentially) greater personal growth.

Children are an interesting situation, because they are generally unaware of risks. As such, you have to be very careful of the risks you will let them take under their own direction. I would certainly draw a line for my own children where I wouldn't let them do something under their own guidance where I didn't think they could adequately gauge risk and make their own trade off decisions appropriately.

I know that the bar for that has changed over the last few decades. There is an older gentleman who used to work for me who told me about boy scout outings when he was a kid in the 60s in Colorado. All of the boys would posse up in the middle of town on Friday afternoon with their camping gear strapped to their bicycles, and ride up to grand mesa for a day or two of camping without adult supervision.

All of the proceeding covers how much risk you will let your children take under their own guidance, but that leaves open the question of how much risk you will submit them to under your own guidance. This is a very personal matter. I'm willing to rely on my own skills to a pretty high degree when it comes to the risks I will take with my daughter. I know that these risks that I take will give her more independence and self satisfaction throughout her life. I know this because my own father took similar risks with me and my sibs when I was a kid. I remember one hunting trip in AK (I was maybe 6 and my brother would have been 4) where dad gave me the option of all of us going back to camp on the trail we had gone out on or bushwacking down to and along the river to reach our camp. I chose the bushwacking option and it turned into quite a long and hairy afternoon getting back to camp. Dad ended up carrying us from sandbar to sandbar in the river itself because the banks were impassable. When I was in kindergarten I developed a speech impediment due to emotional abuse at the hands of my teacher (I was a challenging student, and as you know, many teachers choose to be teachers so they can be big frogs in small ponds). My parents pulled me out of school and I spent a week floating the yukon river with my dad. I came back completely self confident with no speech impediment. These kinds of experiences shaped me immensely and I highly value them.

On the other hand, my mother recently confided to me that she was certain that she would never get out of Alaska with all three of her kids alive because of the risks my father was willing to take. I do know that the lower average life expectancies found in more primitive cultures and in earlier versions of our own culture were highly skewed by infant mortality rates -- if you could get to the age of five, your average life expectancy suddenly shot up by twenty years or so. This suggests in very real terms that it is more dangerous to be a kid. However, for this statement to be true, you would have to remove childhood death due to disease as a contributing factor in infant mortality (since we're not talking about the kinds of risks where kids are exposed to diseases here. third world travel is another subject). I suspect that if you could remove disease as a factor it may have only been slightly more dangerous to be a kid. Arguing on that side of things, we also know that children's bodies, although being more susceptible to disease, are LESS susceptible to traumatic injury than adults (they repair more quickly). It is certainly fair to say that kids bodies are more susceptible to exposure than adults.
I think all of this leads me to the conclusion that I will continue to take risks when my daughter is under my care because I believe that the risks are acceptable given the benefits. When she is old enough to start understanding risk and making her own trade-offs, I will provide opportunities for her to do so within whatever I consider the constraints of her decision making abilities.