10 Tips For Raising Outdoors-Loving Kids
By Michael Lanza
As we neared Gunsight Pass in Glacier National Park, on the middle day of a three-day family backpacking trip, a man and woman in their fifties stopped to talk with us. They sized up our kids and smiled; Nate was nine and Alex was seven. “We’re impressed!” they told us. “We never had any luck trying to get our kids to backpack when they were young.” We chatted a bit and then headed off in opposite directions on the trail.
After they were out of earshot, Alex turned to me, wanting to clarify a point: “You didn’t get us to do this,” she told me. “We wanted to do it.” Her words, of course, warmed my heart. But her comment also spotlighted the biggest lesson for parents hoping to raise their kids to love the outdoors: Create experiences that make them eager to go out again the next time.
I’m no authority on how to raise kids to love the outdoors, and all kids are different. Offering advice to parents on how to raise their kids treads on dangerous ground—kind of like telling members of my extended Italian-American family how to make pasta sauce. But my wife and I have had good success so far. Our kids are now 12 and nine-and-a-half and look forward to our regular backpacking, paddling, skiing, and climbing adventures. They also have an impressive list of pretty hard-core trips on their wilderness CVs already, from sea kayaking in Alaska’s Glacier Bay and descending a technical slot canyon in Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park, to numerous backpacking trips in national parks like Zion, Olympic, and the Grand Canyon. (Click on Family Adventures in the top or left menus to see what we’ve done as a family, The Big Outside home page for more stories of backpacking, hiking, and other outdoors adventures, and my Book page to read about the year we spent taking wilderness adventures in national parks threatened by climate change.)
I think much of what we’ve learned could be helpful to most families, and it boils down to 10 basic rules.
1. Give Away Your Baby Stroller
As soon as your toddler can walk, give some friends that stroller and let your child walk everywhere you go, whether around town or on a trail. Sure, walking with a little one requires patience. But it turns children into strong hikers at a young age and gets them used to the idea that they will walk rather than be carried.
I preferred a child-carrier backpack to a stroller, even in urban settings, for those occasions when my kids needed a break from walking. It gives you exercise, is more convenient on stairs, and helps communicate to kids that our family carries packs—that we’re hikers.
2. Don’t Give in to Frustration and Apathy
Let’s face it: Hiking, camping, or doing almost anything outdoors with babies, toddlers, and preschoolers is often more work than fun. Don’t get discouraged; take them out anyway. If you wait until they’re older you may find that your child isn’t interested. Introduce children to the outdoors while they’re very young and make it part of your family lifestyle, so that you nurture in them a long-term love for it.
3. Take Baby Steps
Don’t push your kids too hard. This one’s especially hard for parents who have always been very active, but pushing them risks creating a negative association with the outdoors. Start small, with short hikes, and work gradually up to longer outings. Think of it as pulling them along rather than pushing them. This also helps prevent the need to abandon plans, which is sometimes necessary (see tip #5) but can be disappointing for everyone involved.
What’s familiar and easy to you may seem scary and intimidating to a kid. Evaluate your child’s readiness for something new based not just on its physical difficulty, but how well your child handled previous experiences that presented comparable stress.
Example: When I considered taking my kids, at age nine and seven, sea kayaking and wilderness camping for five days in Glacier Bay, Alaska, I figured they were ready for it because they had done several backpacking trips, rock climbed, floated and camped on a wilderness river, and cross-country skied through snowstorms. They had managed stressful situations well and understood the need to follow instructions and that trips have uncomfortable moments. Despite how wet and raw it was, they loved Glacier Bay.
4. Employ Bribery Strategically
Bring along motivators like their favorite candy bar to eat halfway through a hike and a favorite stuffed animal. Do things that create positive associations for kids, like giving them their own gear (headlamp, pack, walkie-talkie, etc.), and letting them be the hike leader or take charge pitching the tent.
Remember: What a child says now does not necessarily reflect how she will feel 20 minutes from now. I’ve been reminded time and time again that a seemingly tired kid is often just a hungry kid. They don’t have nearly the fat reserves and muscle mass of adults, so they need to rest and refuel more frequently, sometimes every hour. Look for warning signs: grumpiness, a slowing pace, growing quiet, or a faraway look. Remind them frequently to take a drink. A 10-minute rest and a fat chocolate bar can swing a kid’s attitude 180 degrees.
5. Tear Up Your Agenda
Whether hiking with kids or on a serious mountain climb, I think people often get into trouble simply because they focus too much on the destination, overlooking that it’s really about the journey. Don’t be so wedded to your agenda that you fail to see when it’s time to switch to Plan B.
Taking children outdoors, especially younger ones, does not always go according to plan. Adults hike for exercise, the views, and to get somewhere; young kids want to throw rocks in a creek. Let them. Explain to kids that there will be time for playing, but also a time for hiking. Encourage your teenager to invite along a friend. Find a balance that makes everyone happy, giving children some say without relinquishing all control.
6. Talk and Listen
Establish a rule up front: no whining. Tell your children they can talk about any situation they’re not happy with, but draw the line at complaining just to complain. Everyone will be happier.
At the same time, explain to your kids what you will be doing and what’s expected of them. Welcome their questions and address their concerns. Make sure they know that you won’t ask them to do anything they are not comfortable with, and that you will provide whatever help they need. Make them feel like they’re part of the decision-making process, so they have a sense of control over their own fate, which goes a long way toward relieving stress, no matter what your age.
7. Let Them Ask to Carry More
I never asked my kids to carry a daypack or a backpack, which makes a hike significantly harder; I waited until they told me they wanted to carry their own pack. If they perceive it as a chore imposed upon them, they might resist or resent it. If they perceive it as something an experienced, grown-up, strong hiker (like you) does, they will want to emulate you. This means you have to carry more weight until they’re ready to do it. But I always felt that our family’s overall enjoyment of an outdoor experience was more dependent on how happy my kids were than how hard I was working.
Once a child starts carrying a pack, follow the guideline (also useful for adults) of keeping pack weight to no more than 20 to 25 percent of body weight—and even less for a small child who’s new to carrying a pack. For someone who only weighs 50 pounds, a 10-pound pack can feel like an anvil. Give her a half- or one-liter bladder of water, a tiny toy or favorite stuffed animal, and maybe a couple of snacks, and you carry most of her clothing, gear, food, and water. As your child gets bigger, gauge his willingness to carry more: his own clothes, sleeping bag and pad, snacks, etc.
8. Kick Them Out of the House
Kids today often want to play indoors (where the electronics are); they say there’s “nothing to do outside.” Insist that they play outside—but also, give them the freedom to roam around within boundaries appropriate for their ages, so they can explore and not get bored. (Think about how far you wandered from your parents’ house as a kid; ignore irrational fears about your child’s safety.) When kids go outdoors to play, they will naturally be more physically active than when indoors.
Besides regular, unstructured outdoor play—critical to a child’s development, as author Richard Louv has so compellingly demonstrated—involve them in active, seasonal sports like soccer to maintain their fitness without them feeling like they’re “training.” It also helps if you get regular activity as a family: cross-country or downhill skiing, hiking on local trails, biking, even walking around town.
9. Work Your P.R.
Talk about upcoming trips with your kids—it gets them excited, builds anticipation, and sets up a positive experience. Engage them in the planning: Ask them what they want to do, within the trip parameters you have in mind.
Compliment kids when they do well and encourage them when they’re challenged. They crave your attention; shower them with it, especially positive reinforcement when they do something you like. Tell your kids they’re good hikers, skiers, climbers, paddlers, or cyclists, and they will take pride in being good at it. You will help them self-identify as a kid who likes the outdoors.
Remember also that kids look to their parents for a sense of how they should react to a stressful situation. Always show your kids that you are calm and in control, and they will probably remain calm, too.
10. Take Care of Yourself
Don’t be a martyr parent—it’s not good for anyone. Make sure you get your own outdoor recreation fix regularly. When children are young, getting outside for adult-scale exercise and activity often demands that spouses take turns—a big shift for couples who were used to doing things together. It also translates to more solo parenting. But it keeps you happier and in better shape for your adventures with your kids—which can demand a surprising amount of stamina. Plus, while those preschool years can seem eternal when you’re in the thick of it, they pass. Maintaining your own fitness is important for taking your kids on bigger adventures as they get older.
Perhaps most importantly: You inspire and provide a role model for your kids when you take—and talk about—your dayhikes, trail runs, bike rides, backcountry ski tours, river adventures, or mountain climbs with adults. Kids want to emulate their parents; they will perceive whatever you do as normal and fun and eventually ask you to bring them along. The best way to get them to love the outdoors is to set a good example.
NOTE: See stories about our many outdoor adventures as a family by clicking on the Family Adventures category, or check out “My Top 10 Family Adventures.” I give talks and slideshow presentations about taking kids into the wilderness. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I also wrote about taking our young kids on 11 wilderness adventures in national parks facing threats from climate change in my National Outdoor Book Awards-winning book, Before They’re Gone—A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks, from Beacon Press.