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While our first family trek was just less than 2 miles into Rocky Mountain National Park, it felt a world away. Photo: Courtesy of Crystal Windley

For different reasons, even diehard backcountry enthusiasts go on either voluntary or compulsory hiatus from backpacking. In my case, it was chasing after little kids for a few years that made the prospect of planning and actually going on a pack trip more than a little daunting.

OK, make that almost a decade.

I probably found too many excuses for too long, but when we finally decided to dig out the vintage backpacks this summer to introduce our kids to backpacking, what I discovered — or rather rediscovered — was all the beautiful little lessons learned by carrying your life on your back.

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There’s a lot to learn when you must pare down your life to fit in a pack. Photo: Courtesy of TDway/Shutterstock

The pleasures of un-packing

Just the process of combing through all of our old gear, buried in mounds on garage shelves, brought back a flood of memories that kept me on a pre-trip emotional high for days, despite the reality of what we really uncovered: bottles of festering insect sprays, dilapidated camp stoves, un-pure-looking water-purification pumps and mildewed rucksacks, among other unmentionables.

But buried beneath the filth were so many backcountry moments I had also packed away long ago. Hand-sewn patches from Nimbin, Australia, reminded me of amazing, wandering pack trips I took along ocean and desert and rainforest on a continent halfway around the world.

The tinkle of a long-lost bear bell conjured up some spooky nights in Glacier National Park along a notoriously bear-trodden trail. There was a long walk in the Wind River of Wyoming, and those forays on part of the Appalachian Trail.

Dang, I had done a decent amount of backpacking.

Trailside teaching moments

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Adults and kids alike were left to their own “devices” when it came to entertainment in the backcountry. Photo: Courtesy of Crystal Windley

Once we actually made it to the backside of Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park for our first mini-backpacking excursion with kids, I felt light as air, despite the weight of the sleeping bag, pad, clothes, stove and meal-loaded bear-proof canister we were required to stuff in my top-heavy pack.

Suddenly the real weight of carrying everything you need to survive by your own devices sunk in — all over again.

This might be my favorite thing about backpacking: pure and utter simplicity. Life stripped down to the essentials. All of our entertainment during our short hike and night in the woods — away from other car campers, highways, light pollution and all the other nature-spoiling elements — would be made up.

No electronic devices. No toys. No passive activities.

And what ensued was, naturally, beautiful. For literally hours on end, our kids played barefoot in an ankle-deep river slicing through a meadow, breaking intermittently for bouldering, tree climbing and deep-woods parkour. The adults explored unfettered and talked about real-life stuff that made us think — differently.

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A close encounter with moose humbled us with another lesson from the backcountry: we’re just sharing this place. Photo: Courtesy of Brian Windley

We watched a moose and his mate creep closer throughout the evening, very close, until we stared in awe as the sun set on the magical creatures, knowing that may be as close to a live moose as our offspring may ever get, ever again. We ate, deliberately, when we felt hungry. Time seemed deliciously slow.

We washed our dishes by hand, side by side, movements that felt foreign — and wonderful. We slept when we got tired, and woke when the sun told us to, and sipped steaming coffee on tree stumps while the dew drew up around us, equally cold and captivating.

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A shallow mountain stream created hours of unstructured fun. Photo: Julie Kailus

We got dirty. We made do. And seemingly large issues in daily life — your only shoes are now soaking wet! — suddenly were minuscule.

A challenge. A lesson, maybe. But not a cause of debilitating stress and tears. Here, take my dry socks.

Ultimately, what I re-discovered — and my kids experienced for the first time — was “out there” is elegantly far away from “right here.”

Just far enough to provide a fresh perspective. By going deeper into nature, we remove layers — at first dust, then devices, then expectations — leaving us free to explore in an entirely new way.

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