As the pack settles on my shoulders and I adjust the clips, hip belt, and tension one more time the weight of the pack melds with me and in the process releases the weight of my other responsibilities. For the next day or more my only responsibility is to myself, no managing four children’s activities, a full-time paid position, nor my full-time board position; this time is for me. I hike away from my car, my other responsibilities, and move into a space where I exist only as me. I have been called selfish and irresponsible for choosing to hike and backpack as a single mom, every horrific “what if” scenario tossed at me from well-meaning friends, family, and colleagues. What they cannot understand is that this time away is part of the balance; it is an essential component to my health and well-being and motherhood.
The life of a single mom to 4 children is filled with challenges. There are multiple school schedules, activity schedules, and medical appointments, and then my own work, my activities, and health. I am the primary parent, primary caregiver for my four children, my days spent working, driving, and running our household- often with little breathing room. When I can take a day or a weekend to hike or backpack I can breathe freely. It can be challenging to find the time even on a non-custodial weekend to hike. There are always chores and bills to be addressed, and then there are the weekend activities for my children: competitions, meets, birthday parties, and more that require my attendance and attention. My friends and family members with dual parent households ask me frequently, “how do you find the time to hike/backpack?” The answer is simple, I will schedule it.
If I am lucky there are no competing needs and I can drive to the trailhead, don my pack and be out for a night or two or three. I am often solo on these trips as it can be challenging to coordinate my schedule against another. I relish the solo time, a chance to be in the quiet without the demands of another. At times I spend as much of the trip solo as possible, camping away from popular spots, only socializing briefly with other hikers I pass. There are other trips where I crave adult interaction and look forward to camping with others, sharing a meal without managing the banter and manners that comes with a family meal of tweens and teens.
In contrast there have been weekends where I plan a quick overnight within a few hours drive of one of my children’s activities. Those backpacking trips typically mean a lower mileage trip, often leaving camp early in the morning to drive straight to the activity. I have found myself changing out of my hiking gear into parent clothing in the parking lot of a venue so that I can be there to support their endeavors. These trips are intensely planned, looking at maps, mileage, weather, driving distances, and then factoring in extra time just in case. It involves packing your backpack for your overnight and an additional bag holding your street clothes, baby wipes, and anything else I might need to make myself more than presentable when I rejoin the world of parenting. The physical transition from backpacker to mom completes in a parking lot, yet the mental is a longer process. It can be difficult to sit in a crowded venue with the sounds and smells and crush of people when you so recently left the quiet and peace of the woods. I manage it as best I can because both components, the hiking and my children, are important to me.
There are plenty of noncustodial weekends where even with my planning things have fallen apart and I must sacrifice the backpacking overnight for a day hike. From weather conditions to event time to illness and injury I have learned to be more accommodating in my expectations. I am often disappointed, yet there has been relief as well. When I began backpacking and hiking more consistently it became the question of the week: “Where are you headed this weekend?” I began to feel a pressure to be out constantly, as time passed I learned to find a balance between the imagined pressure and my own desires and my body. There are weekends even a day hike can be challenging, I am physically tired from a busy week, emotionally worn out from carrying the load as a single parent, yet nearly every kid-free weekend you will find me out for a hike. Hiking is a critical component to my health, and I have set it as a priority. Even with it as a priority I need to evaluate the time and stress it takes. The balance of being a single mother and hiker rests within me. This weekend you may find me donning my overnight pack, tightening the straps and stepping into myself, or you might find me with a daypack enjoying the local trails, or you may find me sitting in the bleachers cheering on a child, or maybe even on the couch with a good book. Somewhere in the choices is balance where at least one will be made possible and with that I find myself and keep me up to the challenges of single parenting and respecting my own needs.