When our kids were babies we were involved in a small group study by Gary Smalley about marriage and family.  We had always taken to heart something Gary had shared in one of the videos. He mentioned that families who went camping together were typically closer than families who didn’t. Every time people go camping something always seems to go wrong, causing frustration and in the end the family ends up growing closer because they had to endure something hard together. We took Gary’s advice and starting taking our kids camping, canoeing, fishing, horseback riding, and on short day hikes when they were very young. We’ve heard so many joking comments from people like; “Roughing it is when I have to pack a hairdryer,” but we aren’t interested in being comfortable. We want our family to grow closer.

Our First Backpacking Journey

     The day had finally arrived! My husband and I had spent years counting down to this moment. The excitement continued to build as we counted from years to months, months to weeks and then just a few short days until our kids were old enough to endure such a journey. Over the past two years we had invested hours of reading, studying, and purchasing everything we needed to be able to hike the Appalachian Trail. Our goal was to hike a small portion of it every year, and each year following, return to hike the next portion.

Church had just gotten over and we were all packed up and ready to go. We had our packs fitted with all the essentials; tents, sleeping bags, water, food, flashlights, knives, flint, a survival kit and most importantly, a bear bag to hang our food in a tree. Our goal was to spend two days hiking around 10 to 12 miles, passing a few beautiful waterfalls and scenic overlooks along the way.  As we drove the 30 miles along Skyline Drive we were surrounded by thick clouds and dense fog. None of the scenic overlooks were visible, but the temperature was perfect for a hike. We had just endured two weeks of a heat wave, so we were very thankful that the weather was now cooler for our trip.

We were eager to get started as we parked our car, checked our map and strapped on our packs. The first quarter mile of the trail was flat with pebbles, and very easy to navigate. The forest was lush with tall, thin trees and large ferns that covered every inch of the ground, hiding any leaves and debris that lay beneath. It was breathtaking! Every once in a while we would pass a deer or two that would look up and stare at us as we passed by. They weren’t timid like most deer you see in heavy populated areas.  They just munched on leaves and peered at us as if we were one of them.  One of the most memorable sights was when we passed a mother deer nursing her two small spotted fawns. It was an incredible feeling to be experiencing the full beauty of God’s creation.

With each mile we hiked, the trail continued to change in appearance and personality. We trekked through muddy terrain, surrounded by dead trees and then on to steep, grueling areas with large rocks that jetted out over the trail. One of the trails on our map led to a place called Black Rock so we decided to go off track a little to check it out. It ended up being the perfect place to eat our dinner of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as we looked out over the sea of trees below. We only had about two more hours of daylight, so we tried to hike one more mile before finding a flat, safe place to make camp for
the night.

As we continued through rocky terrain we couldn’t seem to find a suitable place to rest for the night. Every area that was flat and clear was surrounded by standing, dead trees. The only place we could find was on a gradual incline right next to a cave.  There was a slight fear that the cave was actually home to a bear, but the sun was starting to set and this spot would just have to do. My daughter and I went to work clearing an area and setting up the two small tents as my husband and son gathered all our food and hoisted it up a tree, away from our camp. We were finished and settled in our tents just before the forest became dark- my daughter and I in one tent and my husband and son in the other.

With flashlights in hand, we separately spent time reading the Bible to our kids and thanking God for keeping us safe, and allowing us to have this opportunity together. It was only 9:00 pm, but we were eager to get a good night’s rest before hiking several miles to the waterfalls the next day. The weather had called for a slight chance of scattered thunderstorms, so I wasn’t surprised when I woke up an hour later to the sound of raindrops hitting the tent. I adjusted my earplugs and sleeping bag, and rolled over to go back to sleep.

It seemed like I had just fallen back asleep when I felt something hitting my face. It took me a minute to figure out where I was and what was happening. It was now pouring rain outside my tent and somehow sprinkling inside as well. The time was just after midnight and we still had a long night ahead, so I tucked myself deeper into my mummy sleeping bag and covered it with my face. A few minutes later I started to hear rustling and mumbling from my husband and son’s tent.  With a very annoyed tone my husband asked, “Is your tent leaking too?”

We were all awake!  There wasn’t anything we could do but to bury ourselves deep into our sleeping bags and wait until sunrise. The kids managed to fall asleep, but my husband and I tossed and turned while exchanging sighs, grunts and mumbles for several hours. After what seemed like an eternity my husband asked, “When does the sun rise?” It was now 5:00 am and we were ready to make a plan of escape from this wet, sleepless night.

At the first sight of dawn, we proceeded to wake our kids and get out of there. Our kids had been sleeping in pools of water inside our tents, and both of them were soaking wet and shivering. I looked for something, anything that was dry for my daughter to change into, but it was no use. Everything in our tent was drenched. As it continued to rain, we emptied the pools of water out of our shoes, slipped them on and went to work packing up our gear, tearing down the tents and getting our bear bag out of the tree. To make things worse, my daughter ended up vomiting from getting herself so worked up.

As soon as everything was back in our packs, we checked our map and followed the trail to the closest road. We knew that the road would be the easiest and shortest route back to our car, and we had only one goal in mind… get to our car as fast as we could, turn up the heat and drive to the closest restaurant. The road happened to be close by, but we still had four miles to go with wet packs that weighed several pounds more than the day before. Surprisingly the trek to our car seemed to go by quickly. It felt so good to be actively doing something to get out of the rain after having to wait so many hours for the sun to finally rise.

When we arrived at our car, I felt like it was the happiest moment of my life. We immediately drove to one of the restaurants in the National Park and sat down to order our food. The waiter brought coffee and hot cocoa and as we sipped our hot drinks, the realization of all that we had just done hit us. We broke out into laughter as we pointed out how pathetic we all looked in our wet clothes, with unkempt hair and yellow teeth. We had just hiked 10 miles and slept in a tent that rained on us all night long.

We didn’t get to continue our hike to see the beautiful waterfalls, but our trip was still a huge success.  This was a character-building experience for all of us. We endured something as a family, struggled through it, worked as a team and came out stronger than before. Our kids learned life lessons as they watched us stay calm and positive during “the storm.” In the end we were closer than before and we have memories that will last forever.

I think Gary Smalley was right! We are already excited and ready to start planning our next backpacking trip.  Of course I have vowed to burn our tents and buy waterproof ones before then.

What does your family do to grow closer and build character?