Leave No Trace

Last week my son developed a PowerPoint presentation on Leave No Trace (LNT) principles and presented it to his Webelos den (Cub Scouts). He had a lot of fun adding pictures, sound effects, and motion to the presentation. The result was a presentation that was very busy by any professional standard, with things flying on and off the screen and sometimes spinning around in circles. But it certainly held the boys’ attention.

The presentation and discussion made me think about the LNT principles as they specifically relate to kids in the backcountry.  So here they are with tips from my experience hiking, camping, and backpacking with kids.

1. Plan ahead.

Planning ahead generally includes mapping out your route and bringing navigation tools; checking the weather in advance; packing appropriate gear and clothes for the season and terrain; and telling someone where you are going and when you will be back. When backpacking with kids, I would add:

  • Bring a friend if possible.
  • Make a “Plan B” in case the first route proves to be too long or difficult.
  • Bring plenty of foods that the kids love to eat, they might eat twice as much as you expect!
  • Bring a small toy or stuffed animal for them to play with at camp.

2. Stick to trails.

Kids heading up Bowen Pass Trail

Kids heading up Bowen Pass Trail

Staying on established trails minimizes impact on the environment. Fragile plants in the tundra and other areas can die if you step on them. Staying on trails also makes it easier to get help if there is an emergency, either from other hikers or rescuers.

I know some people prefer to hike off trail, but I think staying on trails is good advice for the majority of hikers—especially if you are navigationally challenged (like me) or if you are hiking with kids. Here are some suggestions for hiking with kids on trails:

  • All kids want to lead. You will probably need to make them take turns.
  • They often want to hike side by side with their friends. If the trail is narrow and you are in a fragile environment, you will need to remind them to walk single file and stay on the trail.
  • Kids love to take shortcuts, you will have to watch for cross-cutting when there are switchbacks.
  • Younger kids often like to pretend they are animals, fairies, or something else as they walk, run, or fly down the trail. Encouraging them by playing along can help them go farther without complaints.

3. Leave what you find.

Aspen tree with initials carved in itThis one can be a real challenge with kids—especially toddlers. When hiking in national parks I tend to be more strict about this than when we are in less restricted areas. My son recently found a hummingbird nest on the ground by the side of a trail in Rocky Mountain National Park. It would have been nice to bring it home and let him share it with his sister, but instead we took a short video of him holding it, and he put it back where he found it. Perhaps others walking by will spot it and enjoy it too.

Here are some strategies for convincing kids to leave what they find:

  • Take a picture or video of the child with their find (antlers, bird nests, special rocks, etc.)
  • Remind kids that other people will walk down the trail and they will want to see the special item too. You can call this “sharing” the find with others.
  • If kids start to break off tree branches or otherwise damage the environment, ask them how they would feel if someone broke into their home and started wrecking it with a sledgehammer. Remind them that the forest is the animals’ home.

4. Respect other visitors.

Kids are often unaware of others around them on the trail or in camping areas. You will need to remind them that most people come into the backcountry to get away from noise, pollution and stress.  Here are some ways you can encourage kids to be respectful of others:

  • Camp away from other groups whenever possible.
  • When you must camp in close proximity to other groups, point out the other sites to the kids while you are setting up your camp. Remind them that they are not to disturb the others by running through their camp space or playing near their site.
  • If possible, identify a good area near your campsite that is away from others where the kids can play. Give them some boundaries. An open meadow works great for all kinds of games.
  • When hiking, remind the kids to step aside when faster hikers come up behind them, or when others come from the opposite direction on narrow trails.
  • Kids often want to ask questions of others they meet on the trail. Most people are open to this and will gladly answer. But some people will be listening to their iPods or will just ignore the kids. Help the kids to be polite in their questions, and to understand that not all people will respond and that is OK.
  • Kids are drawn to wildlife. But you must teach them that animals that might not seem dangerous, such as deer and elk, should still be given a wide berth. As my son likes to say, “Respect wildlife and it will respect you.”

5. Manage your pet.

Mt Elbert with Buddy

Mount Elbert summit, highest peak in CO

OK, I have to admit that I sometimes hike and trail run with my dogs off-leash. However, I try hard to follow the rules of the specific area. I do not take my dogs on trails in Rocky Mountain National Park. But there are several trails around my home that allow dogs off leash if they answer to voice control. From the standpoint of hiking with kids, here are some extra considerations for keeping your dog on leash in the backcountry:

  • Dogs are more likely to attract wildlife to you if they are off leash. If an elk begins to chase them, they are going to return to you looking for safety with that angry bull elk on their heels. This could be dangerous or at least frightening to the kids.
  • An off-leash dog could get injured and be unable to walk. This could cause you to stay out overnight unexpectedly or force you and your kids to make a difficult decision about whether to try to carry the dog home or leave it behind.
  1. 6.       Trash your trash.

This one is pretty easy for kids to understand. However, they are often careless with wrappers on their various snacks while on the trail. Here are some strategies to help them:

  • Take durable snacks out of wrappers before setting out on the trail and put them in kids’ pockets or snack pouches.
  • When kids ask to stop for a snack, remind them to put their trash back in their backpack. With younger kids it is often best to just unwrap the snack for them and stow the trash yourself.
  • Model good habits by picking up any trash you find on the trail or at your campsite even if it is not yours.
  • Each night before bed, make sure the kids have emptied all of their food trash into your bear canister or bear bag before going into the tent.
  • Before you leave your campsite, have the kids help make a sweep to pick up any trash in the area. You can even offer a small prize for the person who finds the most trash.
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No More Excuses

Don’t you hate it when you have no more excuses? No more reasons to hold yourself back? When that little voice in your head that says “I’m not good enough” can’t come up with a single reason to back up its own argument?

We all use excuses to avoid our own vulnerability; to hide from the possibility of failure. We say things like, “I’m too busy to learn to play the guitar.” “I’m not a good enough writer to publish a book.” “My knees are too messed up to run a marathon.”

But what happens when the excuses are suddenly gone, zapped into oblivion? It’s like venturing out into the mountains with only an old overcoat and a crust of bread in your pocket.* You feel unprepared, raw, vulnerable without your security blanket of excuses. What is there to stop you now? What is there to hold you back?


Tough Mudder t-shirt

That’s exactly how I feel after reading the book “Born to Run,” by Christopher McDougall.

Seven years ago I stopped running. I was having knee problems and I wanted to save my knees as long as possible for hiking. So I decided to take the pounding away and replace it with spinning classes at the local gym. This did not make my dog happy. But my knees did get better. I was able to hike Longs Peak after about eight months. So I continued with this strategy until this past winter when I began training for Tough Mudder. I needed to run to train, so I did. And the knee problems came back.

By spring I was mixing running with spinning as best I could to try to prepare myself for 12 miles of steep trail running with crazy obstacles thrown in for fun.  One day, I stumbled on an article in Backpacker magazine about trail running that described how to effectively run downhill. It caught my eye because I am a terrible downhill runner, so I read it to get a few tips. In a nutshell, the article said you should run on the balls of your feet, leaning slightly forward. So I gave it a shot.

At first it was awkward. But after confirming with a knowledgeable friend that my heel should not even touch the ground when I am running, I continued working on it. The new style slowly became the norm for me, and I was able to run the entire Tough Mudder course with no knee pain—except for the part where we had to crawl through tunnels.

Tough Mudder Team

Me (third from left) with my Tough Mudder team after the finish.

The strange thing to me is that none of the doctors I went to over the years for my knees ever asked me how I ran. They never asked me if I was striking my heel first, which I was taught was the “right” way to run to avoid shin splints. No doctor ever mentioned to me that I should try running on the balls of my feet. They always just said I had “runner’s knee,” and that I needed to do other exercises to strengthen my knees. Now that I have read “Born to Run,” I know that I am not the only victim of misinformation about running technique.

Yesterday, I watched my 6-year-old daughter run joyously down the road—on the balls of her feet. No one has ever told her how to run; she just runs naturally because she loves how it feels. I remember that feeling, running down the beach barefoot. As a child growing up in Florida, I went everywhere I could barefoot. I hated wearing shoes. My son also hated shoes as a baby and toddler. I couldn’t get him to try them on in a store, and I had to buy the same pair in graduating sizes to trick him into thinking they were the same pair of shoes when he outgrew them.

I am not going to run barefoot in the mountains. They call them the Rocky Mountains for a good reason. But running on the balls of my feet as if I were running barefoot sure seems to make a big difference for me. Running doesn’t hurt my knee anymore. My excuse for never running a marathon is obliterated.

Now I just need to decide which Colorado trail marathon to try first. Suggestions?

*Reference to John Muir from the song “Two Little Feet,” by Greg Brown

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Scary halloween costume

Halloween in Estes Park, CO is different from anywhere else I have lived. Instead of going door-to-door, the town shuts down the main street and the kids go shop-to-shop to trick or treat. The coolest part is that all the shop owners dress up, and most of the parents and other adults do too. Yes, many adults show up in costume even if they don’t have kids!

Personal trainer costume

Well, except for my husband to puts on his volunteer fireman jacket each year and calls it good. That’s him in the photo below, behind my son in his Alice Cooper costume. It looked a lot better before he put on the orange fleece to keep warm. He is busy getting ready for those teen-age years so any costume I suggested was shot down.

Alice Cooper costume

The caramel apples are a big draw. One of the shops gives out hundreds of caramel apples every year. Some adults sneak downtown without costumes each year just to grab one and to watch the street dancers perform to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”

Thriller street dancers

There is one shop with a large front window space where two guys always dress up to perform for the crowd. This year they were dressed as Romney and Obama. They danced to the hokey pokey and played pat-a-cake. It was very funny. I wanted to stay and watch but the kids dragged me away. I’m sure you can find it on YouTube.

But the best part about Halloween in Estes Park is seeing so many friends. Since were all in one place rather than roaming around our own separate neighborhoods, the kids see lots of friends and the parents have a chance to stop and chat with friends they haven’t seen in a while.

Halloween friends

I hope Estes Park continues this tradition for many, many years to come. It is truly something that we all look forward to–even if it is only for the caramel apples. One day I hope to trick-or-treat in Estes with my grand daughter wearing the gypsy costume my daughter wore this year. My mother sewed that gypsy dress for my Halloween costume when I was in second grade.

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Get a Grip!

While poking around online last week, I ran across a sponsor logo for ICESPIKE. I was not familiar with the product, so I clicked on the logo and went to the website. After reading the rave reviews, I ordered enough spikes for my trail running shoes and both my kids’ hiking shoes. This was the FIRST time I have ever clicked on a sponsor logo and immediately purchased a product. It was a total impulse buy.

Yes, I have a pair of Yaktrax. And yes, I have been happy with them. But my son lost one of his on a hike last spring, and I have not bought a pair for my daughter yet. Her feet are still pretty small, so she would probably lose them too. I have not found them in children’s sizes. So when necessary, I take one of my Yaktrax off and strap it to one of her boots as best I can . This way all three of us have one foot with good traction. It works. But spikes already on our shoes that we wouldn’t have to manipulate with cold hands sounded like a good idea. Plus, I was able to buy enough spikes for all of us for about the price I would pay for one pair of Yaktrax.

Lucky for me, two days ago Mother Nature provided me with five inches of new snow and a golden opportunity to test out my new spikes. So I installed the spikes on my trail running shoes and went for a spin.

Snowy Creek

The verdict?  ICESPIKE worked great. I didn’t slip once, and I felt very confident even on steep hills running on nasty looking ice. I purposely ran on car tracks where the snow was compacted into ice, which I would normally avoid. Would my Yaktrax have done the trick? Probably. But one thing I like better about ICESPIKE is that I can’t feel them. When I run in my Yaktrax, I can feel the coils under the balls of my feet. It doesn’t hurt, but it is not very comfortable on hard-packed dirt roads in sections where the snow has melted. Since the spikes are installed close to the edges of the shoe, I did not feel them at all on the dirt road. Although I think you would feel them on asphalt.

One downside to ICESPIKE is that you can’t just take them off like the strap-on traction products. This is great for kids not losing them in the snow, but you have to be careful when you come inside. You have to make sure the kids take off their shoes at the door. And they won’t be able to wear those shoes around town. So you need to have one specific pair of shoes to wear when it is icy, and wear them only outside. Kids will need to have different shoes to wear to school and other activities. So you need to think carefully about which shoes to install ICESPIKE on.

Today the kids and I went out for a hike together to test the new spikes. They also did not feel them at all while hiking, and my daughter even made up a song with a chorus of “I didn’t slip” as she ran down the trail. All the spikes stayed on through snowball fights and icicle gathering.

Snow Mohawk

Snow mohawk, a gift from the trees

Ice truly intimidates me; so much so that I often don’t go out when trails are icy. My kids don’t get as nervous about ice as I do. But anything that makes them more confident and safe is a good investment. We are planning to get out much more this winter. I want to try building an igloo and sleeping in it too. Hopefully these spikes will help me and the kids get where we need to go without growing hooves as sure-footed and strong as these guys…

Bighorn sheep

Agile bighorn sheep live on steep cliffs but come down to lick salt of the canyon roads

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How Fragile We Are

Yesterday was a bit tough. In the morning at the gym I found out that a friend of mine was killed in a car accident last Thursday evening. It was strange because I heard the accident reported on my husband’s fire scanner when it happened, and I briefly wondered if it was anyone I knew. I never do that. It was almost as if I knew it was a friend. I felt it.

Sue Spooner was an older lady who was a regular in my spinning class. She was very active in the community and involved in several non-profit organizations. She loved to travel and to ride her horses. I didn’t know her very well, but what I will always remember is her beautiful singing voice. She once sang “Happy Birthday” to me at spinning class, and it sounded like an entire orchestra was playing. Sue also sang a song for my baby girl when she was fussy one day, sitting in her car carrier next to my spinning bike. R.I.P. Sue. We will miss you.

“On and on, the rain will fall, like tears from a star, like tears from a star.
On and on, the rain will say how fragile we are, how fragile we are.” Fragile, Sting

Bahama sunset

The news of Sue’s passing made me think of all the things I want to do. I could easily die in an accident tomorrow and never get to do them. How fragile we are, indeed.

Later in the afternoon I heard that an arrest was made in the Jessica Ridgeway murder. It is a 17-year-old boy. I felt like throwing up.

If he is truly the murderer, I am glad they have him. But what on earth could cause a child to do something like that to another child? This is an evil that I don’t understand. It scares me. We are as fragile in the mind as we are in the body.

Could someone I know do something so horrible? Could I? Could there be a short circuit in my brain that would cause me to do something horrible to someone? I hope not. But my own grandmother, whom I most resemble, suffered from dementia in her later years. My body is strong, but my mind not so much.

It is not death that frightens me most. We share our fragile nature with wildflowers, marmots, and elk. But the evil in the human race is not duplicated in nature. Where does it come from? Why are some people who seem normal suddenly drawn to “the dark side”? What can we do to prevent it from happening to us and the ones we love?

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Silhouette

Sunrise behind the trees

Sunrise Silhouette, September 2012, Rawah Wilderness, Colorado

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Stop, Think, Observe and Plan

Earlier this week, two backpackers were rescued in Glacier National Park after five extra nights in the backcountry. This article, Missing Hikers Were Well Prepared, describes their ordeal and how they used “situational awareness” to stay safe.

The term situational awareness is new to me, but I like it. Too often we don’t take the time to really stop and think about our situation before choosing how to proceed. We tend to push forward with our planned route. The first example that comes to my mind is the multitude of people I see continuing to climb in their cotton t-shirts and sneakers toward the summit of 14ers as fierce storms are brewing. My son often tells them that they should turn around as we are heading down. I usually don’t say anything to them. I guess I think they should know better.

But I must admit I have made my own share of mistakes.

Just this summer, we hiked Mt. Elbert, the highest peak in Colorado. After hiking about 15 minutes back down from the summit, my son realized we were not on the right trail. I was so absorbed in the beauty of the day and the mountain that I didn’t even notice. We looked over to our left and we could see the ridgeline and the trail we came up on – at the bottom of which our car was parked.

Rather than stopping to think about our options, I instinctively chose to cut across to the other trail. The problem with this was that cutting across at that point meant scrambling over a wide, steep slope of somewhat loose rocks. As we picked our way across, my son got very nervous. He wanted to turn around and go back to the trail. But I didn’t listen. I didn’t want to go “all the way” back to the summit and down the other trail. Why?

It wasn’t that far. It actually would have been less effort to stay on the trail, turn around, climb to the summit and get back on the right trail. But of course that was not part of my plan. I wanted to fix my mistake without backtracking. It was silly. I was not practicing situational awareness. I did not Stop, Think, Observe and Plan.

We were careful making the crossing. I changed direction to climb up diagonally a bit to avoid crossing above a nasty drop-off (at least I had that much awareness). In spite of my son’s vocal fear and suggestions that we call 911 or blow loudly on our whistles, we made it successfully across to the other trail. My son’s relief was palpable, and he told everyone we met on the way down about our crossing. Yes, everyone, and there were a lot of people.

Crossing in that area was not a good choice. But it was a good learning experience. As we went on down the trail, we saw several safer places we could have crossed. The distance would have been a bit farther, but the hiking would have been easier. We also talked about the fact that the BEST choice would have been to turn around and head back to the summit to get on the correct trail. There was no threat of thunderstorms at that time. So there was no danger in going back up. There was also no danger in going down farther and then cutting across. Either choice would have been better than the one I made. I needlessly frightened my son. That should have been enough to make me Stop, Think, Observe and Plan.

I am grateful for this experience, the rescue of the Glacier hikers, and this article about their situational awareness. I have learned as a parent that you often must let your children fail when the consequences are minor, so that they will not fail later in life when the consequences are much more extreme. I guess I can apply that to myself too. I hope that I have learned my lesson in this minor failure, so that the next time I face an unexpected situation in the backcountry I will remember to carefully analyze the situation and make the best possible choice.

What decision(s) have you made in the backcountry that might have been different if you chose to Stop, Think, Observe and Plan?

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