For those of you in Northern California, consider Sunol Regional Wilderness Backpack Area as an option to get in a quick overnight fix after work.
In May, I did two separate trips here each with one of my kids -- 10 year old girl and 12 year old boy. It was a way for me to ease them into backpacking and a way for me to try out gear and techniques l learned here as I transition to lightweight backpacking.
For both trips, we were on the trail at around 5pm on Friday and in our campsite with enough daylight left to cook dinner. On Saturday we slept in, cooked breakfast and enjoyed a morning hike out before heading back home -- usually by early afternoon. On a Friday afternoon the trailhead is about 30 minutes from Walnut Creek, 45 minutes from San Jose and maybe an hour from San Francisco.
You can configure the hike in to fit your time, distance and elevation requirements starting with as little as 2.8 miles and 800 feet. By choosing other trails heading the same direction you could easily double both the distance and elevation.
There are 7 campsites all of which are well separated (.1 to .25 miles apart) and tucked into nice overlooks, ledges and glades. There is an untreated water source near one site which makes it up to one mile r/t from some campsites and also two pit toilets in the general area.
Both of these trips were done in May with the wildflowers in full force and the east bay hills still pretty green. Night time temps were in the high 40's and low 50's and day time temps on the hike out were in the mid 70's. So, the clothing requirements were minimal. This place can be an absolute oven in the summer so spring and fall are the best times to travel here.
Fees are $5 per night for the campsite along with a $2 one-time annual trail permit fee for each person 12 or older. For the trail permit fee you get an excellent custom topo map of the entire 25 mile Ohlone wilderness trail (that's a whole other trip!). You make reservations by calling the East Bay Regional Park main line. For both trips I was able to get a site reservation by calling on the Monday of the same week of our trip. Going on a Friday means plenty of availability. The sites are far apart, but I think most were empty. The ranger entrance kiosk closes at 8pm after which the gates are locked.
These were my first trips since discovering BPL and making the transition from my traditional (pre-kid era) backpacking approach of 55 pounds. My base weight on the second trip was 12 pounds and that included me carrying the shared gear to keep my kids' pack trail weights at around 8 pounds. I am sold and I will never go back to the days of sherpa style backpacking!!!
My kids loved these trips and this was my main goal. We plan to do at least one more of these before biting off a bit more with a family trip into the Yosemite backcountry this summer.
Besides all the great advice on transitioning to lightweight gear and techniques, here are a few things we did to make this successful:
Backyard food testing -- the kids and I bought various freeze dried meals from REI and cooked them on the patio using my new AGG Caldera Keg stove. We made notes on the foods we liked and didn't like. Some nights we made their dinner from FD meals. MaryJanesFarm Pasta Alfredo was the big winner for both of them and this is what went on the trip. Whereas selecting food the kids like is critical, I can eat almost anything if I put enough Tabasco on it.
Bring a treat -- freeze dried ice cream, freeze dried chocolate cheese cake. It is amazing how much they looked forward to this in camp.
Bring a game -- we played cards in the tent after dinner. I brought along a mini card deck I found at REI. We clipped a photon mini light on the loop in the top of the tent for light.
Let them choose the route on the map as you set out and during the hike. This helps build their orienteering skills and gives them some ownership of the trip. They are less likely to complain about the climbing if it was their decision to choose that trail.
Let them lead -- always. Get into the habit of hiking behind them on single track or just behind them and to the side on wide trails. This gives them the feeling of leading the effort and it keeps you from dragging them along at a pace that is too fast for them without realizing it.
17 oz WM HighLite down bag (factory blemish that I bought on sale from Sunrise Mountain Sports in Livermore)
NeoAir pad (love this pad)
REI Flash 50 Pack (with the top removed). Stuffed the sleeping bag loosely after everything else was in the pack to fill the volume.
REI QuarterDome T2 -- not the lightest shelter, but good for Dad and Kid. I left the footprint and stuff sacks at home to lighten it.
AGG Caldera Cone Keg -- what a great setup! I cut out the thumb and one finger of a rubber dishwashing glove to use as a lightweight pot holder. The beer can gets a bit too hot to handle with boiling water in it.
BPL mini dropper bottles -- amazing how much this lightens things up by not taking along so much liquid.
Platy Hoser 2L -- I tried one trip using just 1L plastic water bottles in the side pocket of the Flash 50 but I found it inconvenient to pull them out as I hiked. I much prefer a hose system. The Flash 50 has space for two 2L hosers and ports for two hoses. I used one. In camp, I swap a normal cap on the hoser and it becomes our in camp water source.
Finally, on the hikes out we ran across several scout troops hiking in for weekend backpacking trips. One troop had a UL enthusiast Dad who had done a great job lightening up his whole crew. We chatted for a few minutes about gear and technique. It was great to see these smiling scouts with their light loads.
The other troops had dads and loads from the traditional era and they were all struggling. I swear, one poor dad who was not in the greatest physical shape must have had 80 pounds jammed into what had to be the the largest external frame pack I have ever seen. We got some strange looks when they found out we were on our way out from an overnighter.
Thanks to everyone here for the inspiration and information that helped me make this happen. I'll leave you with a sunset view from our tent.