Backpacking: Things My Three Sons Better Know Before Moving Out


As a father to three sons, I have embarked on a mission to impart in them life lessons of the utmost importance. These are my stories.

Life Lesson #43- The Feeling of Waking up in the Wilderness

Two years ago I headed up a trail near my hometown of Bozeman, MT with a pack on my back. Just ahead were my two older sons, Josh (then 11) and Gabe (9). Right behind was my father. The weather was perfect that August day- 70’s, no humidity, not a cloud in the sky. The hike into the woods and up the canyon took several hours. We pitched our tents near a lake and ate a dinner of freeze-dried meals (vegetarian, of course) with the help of a camp stove. The next morning we cruised back down and were at my dad’s pickup truck by late morning.

backpacking and my first trekThat was it- my sons’ first backpack trip. It took about 24 hours, but it was incredible. I was about their age the first time my dad took me and my younger brother backpacking, so having three generations of Pohlmans in the wilderness was poignant. Since my first trek, I have had many extraordinary backcountry experiences, learning a lot about life and myself on the trail. As a father, I want my sons to learn those same lessons.


Scuba divers have a mantra, “Plan your dive, dive your plan.” That certainly could be adapted for backpacking to, “Plan your hike, hike your plan.” You have to know where you’re going, which means some research. For the trip with my sons research included conversations with those familiar with local trails, internet searches, and referring to trail atlases. I involved Josh and Gabe in that process. I wanted a trip that would challenge them just enough, so the distance and elevation change had to be gauged. We talked about which clothes to bring, what equipment to pack, and how much food we’d need (including what kind).

Once we were on the trail, their executive functions were further utilized. Where were we on the map and were we on-course? What was a good place for a lunch stop? Where should we set up camp so that we had space for our tents, access to water, and a high tree to hoist our food at night (bear safety protocol)? Being away from civilization means that things we take for granted don’t come easily. You even have to think through where to take a poop (over ground that is soft enough to dig a hole, next to a tree for leaning against that has, ideally, a branch to hang the toilet paper).

hiking with my sonsa hike with my son while backpacking


The physical obstacles of backpacking are just as numerous and formidable as the mental challenges. I have experienced hypothermia (in July, no less), dehydration (didn’t plan my water supply so well), and infected foot blisters (a major problem when backpacking).

In high school, I was on a trek with friends and one of my buddies nearly cracked several ribs when he belly-flopped onto some rocks when he was glissading. And, of course, backpackers have to conquer fatigue. On our trip two years ago Gabe struggled to maintain pace on our way up the canyon. As we gained elevation he asked to stop for a water break about every 5 minutes. Realizing that at our snail’s pace we’d probably reach our campsite well after dark, I used a trick that I had learned years ago on the trail- distraction through discussion. I got Gabe talking about something of interest to him- superheroes. His mind settled into our conversation and he stopped thinking about being tired. We then hiked for an hour without stopping and made our elevation.

That was one of Gabe’s first experiences pushing himself through a wall, and he was very proud.

first trek in the wildernessfamily backpacking trip


Sure, backpacking requires problem-solving and persevering, but it’s also a lot of fun. Perhaps what makes it the most fun is spending time with family and friends, away from the distractions of work, school, technology, civilization, etc. Some of the most profound bonding moments I’ve had with special people in my life have happened on trails and around campfires. Walking in the wild is just very conducive to long, in-depth conversation (about, say, superheroes). Without media, humor usually becomes the best entertainer.

A year after getting married, my wife and I went on a trek in the Crazy Mountains of Montana, along with my brother and his wife, my cousin and his girlfriend, and my dad. My cousin had some foot problems on that trip but he made fun of the situation such that we laughed until we cried. It didn’t take long for my sons to enjoy backpacking. When we stopped for lunch on our first day (in cool shade next to a stream), Josh sat down next to me and beamed, “This is really fun!”

backpacking with my three sonsbackpacking with my three sonsbackpacking with my three sons

Being Present

Because you have to unplug, backpacking is perfect for mindfulness (even if you don’t call it that). A key to mindfulness is focusing on sensory experience. On our trip, there was so much for my sons to see- trees, rock formations, streams, lakes, deer, birds, grass, etc. The back country actually isn’t quiet, it’s just that the noise is not what we’re used to hearing in civilization- wind, running water, bird calls, your breaths. Then there are the smells (of evergreens) and tastes (of mountain water). And there is so much to touch, like bark and boulders and pine cones. All of those sensations keep you centered in the moment.

I also love getting into a rhythm on a trail, with my pack balanced just right and my strides in sync with my breathing. After a trek, I’ve always felt physically fatigued but spiritually rejuvenated.

backpacking and hiking in the wilderness on my sons first trekbackpacking and hiking in the wilderness on my sons first trek

I could not have been prouder of Josh and Gabe on that trip. When things got challenging (sore shoulders) or uncomfortable (marauding mosquitos), they did not complain even once. They loved the adventure of being self-sufficient with all that you need on your back. And they felt the joy of waking up in the wilderness, far from home but close to your soul.

Be sure to check back next month for another of Craig’s Life Lessons for his sons. Have a suggestion? Something you are teaching your son or daughter? Please share in a comment!

Dr. Craig Pohlman
Craig is a learning expert who has helped thousands of struggling students in his psychology career. He’s written extensively about learning issues, including the book How Can My Kid Succeed in School? He has three sons, so he has been up close and personal with things like cramming for tests, scrambling to finish homework, shuttling kids to sports practices, stuffing backpacks, etc. Follow him on Twitter - @DrCraigPohlman


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