Trail Review: Backpacking Max Patch

I have done a lot of day hikes on the Appalachian Trail. It’s hard not to, when you live in Virginia and grow up hiking in Shenandoah National Park. The AT cuts a path through the heart of the Virginia mountains, and is home to a huge number of day hikes.

The older I get, the more I think about trying to hike the whole thing. It’s been a “someday” goal since I was in high school, and after hiking the Camino de Santiago after college, cemented itself firmly on my bucket list. But then I got married, and then had kids, and now taking six months away from my life is not something I can do.

At least, not unless I take my kids with me.

Which sounds crazy, and it is crazy. The Quirin family made headlines in 2017 for thru-hiking with their one-year-old, which told a lot of families just like mine that yes, you can have great adventures even when your kids are young. The difference in them and me is, they had two adults for one child. While my husband could not take six months away from work, which would leave me with one adult for two children.

So, can I do it?

The answer is…no. Not at their ages right now. But I wasn’t going to get to that conclusion without at least testing out backpacking with the kids, so a couple weeks ago we packed up and headed out to hike Max Patch in North Carolina.

There is a road crossing at Lemon Gap, just under six miles north of the Max Patch Summit along the AT. While we debated parking there, and hiking up and back out as a family, the weather had us worried. We are still piecing together our backpacking gear, and sleeping bags have been the last thing to add. Worried about how we were going to stay warm when our bags are way too heavy to carry, we decided that I would drop Billy and the kids off at Lemon Gap, then I would drive to the Max Patch parking lot, leave the car, and hike north until I met up with them, at which point I would retrace my steps and we would finish the climb together.

The plan worked. Other than me daydreaming so much that I followed another hiker down a wrong turn (adding almost two miles to my hike), we were able to do a backpacking/slackpacking combination. We still had full packs–Kairi even carried her own sleeping pad–but we left our massive double sleeping bag in the car, so that once we set up camp, Billy walked to the car and back (adding over a mile) to bring it to camp so we wouldn’t have to worry about staying warm at night.

All in all? The trip was a success. Billy got some time on the trail with the kids without me, which all of them could use more of, I got some time on the trail by myself (which I could CERTAINLY use more of), and the kids got their first taste of true primitive camping.

In the interest of learning from experience, here are a few of the major points we walked (haha) away with:

  • Two adults is going to be a must for awhile. A newly three-year-old still needs to be carried a lot, so having a second set of shoulders to lug gear is a necessity so adult #2 can take on toddler-carrying duties
  • We are in no way ready for cold weather backpacking, and probably won’t be until our kids start sleeping in their own bags instead of wanting to snuggle up with us
  • Warm weather backpacking on the other hand I think is very doable to far more remote locations, when the nights are still warm enough that blankets (like the ones from Rumpl) are enough to stay warm.
  • Mountain House meals are amazing, and should be in everybody’s emergency food supply
  • Hot chocolate is an excellent remedy for the problem of “how do you keep milk cold while backpacking.” Both of our “I must have milk at bedtime” kids were satisfied by having hot cocoa instead.
  • A bear canister is now on our future-purchases list. Kids are messy and generate a lot of trash, meaning dirty clothes and a lot more to store at night than just food. And once they are ready for bed, they are ready. Having an easier method of storing food/trash than hanging a bear bag is going to be a necessity if we want to continue backpacking.
  • And finally–our kids loved it. We set up camp about halfway between the bald and the dispersed camping area (officially, camping is not allowed on the bald, though you’d never know it for how many people ignored that rule), at a previously used site near the trees. The kids loved having dinner on the bald, making friends with other hikers and their dogs, and playing frisbee to one of the best sunsets they have seen in their lives.

All in all, Max Patch is a great place to get your feet wet in terms of taking kids into the backcountry. You’re close enough to a parking lot that you can do what we did and leave some heavier gear in the car while on the trail,–or to just bail out if they get scared or things go sideways. The wide open spaces gave the kids plenty of room to run and play while staying in sight. It’s a popular spot for thru-hikers to stop for the night, and for section hikers to start or end their trip, so while the isolation factor is small, it’s such a huge area that it’s not hard to find a place to set up camp–and unlike crowded campgrounds where you may be around loud parties or next to neighbors who don’t want to hear a crying toddler at night, setting up camp in thru-hiker country is an entirely different atmosphere–everyone is out there to experience nature as closely as they can, and there’s a sort of mutual respect for each other for getting to camp through walking than I typically experience at frontcountry campgrounds.

This was a perfect test run for how our kids did walking into camp, and for how much gear we could carry with a child that needed to be worn part of the time, and for some changes we need to make to our gear for next time. I don’t know that we will come back to hike the six miles again (the Roan Highlands are calling to me for our next backpacking trip), but we will definitely be back to camp.

Published by Whimsy & Wilderness Photography

I am a photographer and writer based in Chattanooga, TN, and adventuring around the southeastern United States with my husband and two children.

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