#AdaptiveKids: The Canoe Trip

I just returned from a multi-day canoe trip. The kind where you pack your stuff into dry sacks, camp each night along the river banks, and have to dig holes in which to poop. It's a yearly adventure for us old friends to bring our sons into the wilderness -- without microwave ovens, cell service, sports schedules, or iPads. 

An aspect that continues to interest me...after years of hiking, camping, boating with them (and various other groups)...is how much variety there is in packing between us.  

Personally, I subscribe to a minimalist approach. Let me explain the mindset, given the inevitable tradeoffs, risks, and compromises that go along with this practice. Here are some thoughts that went into my decisions on what to include in our boat: 

VOLUME & WEIGHT OF LOAD. First off, the sheer size and mass of the cargo impacts mobility, effort, and workload. Heavy packers have to carry more stuff. Stuff takes up room in your backpack...or in this case...canoe. When speed or endurance matters, so should the bulk of your load. But conversely: "Two (2) is one (1), and one (1) is none." Yet, extras and backups come at a price. 

ANTICIPATION OVER PREDICTION. I predict that everything will go fine. It probably will, right? Statistically speaking, we won't capsize our canoe. The weather report includes no rain. Injuries will be limited to sunburn and scraped knees. Prediction is necessary and valuable, but I believe anticipation can be more important here. That's why I pack rescue gear and a customized tactical medical kit more robust than a typical first aid bag. Prediction assigns probabilities; anticipation keeps you from being surprised. 
Prediction assigns probabilities; anticipation keeps you from being surprised. 
NECESSITIES & LUXURIES. I need water, shelter, food. Most everything else falls on a spectrum of luxury. Compressible pillows? Nah...I'll just stuff Crown Royal bags. (I separated our clothes into them anyways.) French press coffee maker? I can last more than a few days without my morning brew. A lot of this comes down to tolerances, as I've previously argued with the Bull Shark versus Princess & the Pea analogy, and also with picky eaters, mil-spec weapons, & amputees

MULTI-USE EQUIPMENT. Generalism, anyone? Tubular webbing with carabiners are vital rescue equipment; but also lashes our canoes to trees, tethers loose gear together, and acts as a clothesline. Tin cups. Mesh sacks. Duct tape. All things that have endless uses. Probably more so than the adjustable wrench of which I speak so frequently. Bring along tools that are adapted or exapted; despite their imperfection when compared to that specialty tool. 

MINDSET & EXPERIENCE. First time campers tend to fall into extremes. They are either unprepared or over-burdened. Some of their packing lists resemble outdoor retailers' catalogs, as opposed to mission-specific equipment for the trip that lays ahead. As a camper grows fieldcraft skills over the years, their packing list adapts. They shift their decisions on luxuries; we packed playing cards, Rubix Cube, and hot chocolate mix on this trip. Experience cannot be bought. Learning better ways is part of the fun! 

Some of the others inarguably ate better than us. We certainly moved more nimbly. 

These are complex issues, filled with tensions and balances. Definitely no right or wrong answers. Only personal preferences and comfort levels. During pre-trip shopping for this trip, along the river, and back home unpacking, I seized opportunities to talk with my kids about different dads' and sons' decisions on what to pack and how to prepare for the trip. Why are we buying this versus that? What did they like about what other families brought along? What might happen if _____? What should we have packed? What could we have done without? How are we going to do things differently next time? 

My kids and I talk frequently about dichotomies and their accompanying tradoffs. (Of course we don't actually use those terms!) We talk about what we might gain at one (1) end of a spectrum...but just as much...what we may be giving up. We then argue the other end of the spectrum. This method of adaptive thinking has become somewhat of a natural way for my young children to process complex situations and making tradeoff-informed decisions. 

Nature adventures are a terrific way to grow adaptive kids. We bring along a finite amount of supplies, and then rely upon our skills, knowledge, mental models, experience, and to-scale maps to get us through whatever challenges come our way. 

Developing adaptive-thinking kids is one (1) of the greatest challenges with the greatest payoffs that we as parents can embark upon. Go into the journey with the right packing list. 


Lou Hayes, Jr. is a criminal investigations & intelligence unit supervisor in a suburban Chicago police department. With a passion for training, he studies human performance & decision-making, creativity, emotional intelligence, and adaptability. Follow Lou on LinkedIn, & also the LinkedIn page for The Illinois Model


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