By Michael Lanza
Some people might say my wife and I are bad parents. We’ve repeatedly and deliberately placed our kids—at young ages—in risky situations. And I’m not talking about letting them ride their bikes without wearing helmets or frequently taking them to McDonald’s.
I’m talking about setting out with seven- and four-year-old kids to cross-country ski through a snowstorm for hours to a backcountry yurt. Tying a six-year-old into a rope and letting him or her rock climb a cliff. Rappelling into slot canyons. Backpacking into the remotest and most rugged wildernesses in the contiguous United States, from the Grand Canyon to the Tetons to Glacier National Park.
Rafting and kayaking a whitewater river deep in one of the Lower 48’s biggest wilderness areas. Paddling down a river teeming with alligators, or in frigid Alaskan waters plied by killer whales, while camping on wilderness beaches where brown bears would view those kids as the perfect hors d’oeuvres before a satisfying meal of adult humans. Trekking for a week through the snow-covered, highest peaks in northern Europe.
And yet, beyond occasional whining and tears (which I do less of these days than I did as a new parent), we have suffered no disasters. Maybe we’ve just been lucky.
But I don’t think so.
It’s tempting to believe that you only have to take kids outdoors and nature will do the rest—because spontaneity is inherently better than micro-managing, right? But experience has taught me that how diligently the adults in charge control the situation will dictate how well the outing goes and how positive an experience everyone has, adults and children.
Through a lot of trial and a fair bit of error, I’ve learned a few things over the years about keeping kids, at all ages, both safe and happy outdoors—and when it comes down to it, safe and happy are always our ultimate objectives out there.
The good news is that whether you’re paddling among alligators or just out for a short hike in a state or national park with little kids, the strategies for success boil down to some simple rules that are as easy to follow as they are to overlook.
This article shares lessons I’ve learned while taking our kids—who today are fine young adults who make us proud and still love getting outdoors on trips with us—on numerous family adventures dayhiking, backpacking, climbing, skiing, and paddling since they were quite little, a period of time that included the 10 years I spent as Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine and my many years running this blog.
Keep these 10 rules in mind and I think you will find that, as with my family and others that join us, everyone will be happy—most of the time, anyway. And safe.
Click on any photo to read about that trip. Please share your thoughts on my advice or your own tips in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.
1. Know Everyone’s Limits
When I was thinking about attempting a three-generation hike up Mount St. Helens, I was most concerned about the two people who would be the slowest and weakest in the group: the youngest person, my 10-year-old daughter, and the oldest, my 76-year-old mom. So I discussed the plans in detail with everyone who was going: how long it would take us, and how hard it would be both in concrete numbers (10 miles and 4,500 vertical feet) as well as comparing it to the difficulty of other activities they had done before. And I only considered hiking St. Helens with them because everyone had previously done well on hikes that were nearly as difficult.
This is my first rule because it’s so important, and yet incredibly easy to forget: Your group’s limits will be determined by the weakest member. At best, ignoring this can result in much loud complaining and bad feelings; at worst, someone could end up hurt, you may finish the day hours later than planned (with everyone exhausted, starving, and unhappy), and children may have a lasting negative impression of the event.
On the other hand, knowing and respecting everyone’s limits allows you to challenge those limits without undo risk and with the potential for huge emotional rewards for everyone: My family all made it up Mount St. Helens—and back down—and reaped the rewards of tremendous pride and self-satisfaction.
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2. Make Sure They Sleep Enough
This may seem like “duh” advice, but it’s remarkably easy to overschedule our kids just as we overschedule ourselves, resulting in an entire family of sleep-deprived people—not a fun group to hang out with. This is my second rule because it’s important enough to be interchangeable with my first rule, and I’ve found it rings just as true with grade-school kids and teenagers as it did when my kids were toddlers and preschoolers.
Before any trip, I make an extra effort to see that my kids get to bed at a decent hour. If I plan to wake them up earlier than usual for, say, a big day of hiking, I let them know in advance and get their buy-in with the plan. When camping, it’s easy to stay up later than usual, which is fun and fine occasionally. But too many late nights will catch up with them (and it’s hard to sleep late in the morning outside because of daylight), and studies show that a regular sleep schedule is the key to being well rested. Be aware of the time and whether your kids need to hit the sack.
3. Are They Warm Enough?
Your child’s body is not like yours, so don’t assume you will experience hot and cold identically. You may be hiking or skiing the same trail in the same air temperature, but kids can warm up more quickly because of their different metabolism and because they often simply move around more than adults. At the same time, they often cool down more quickly when stationary because they typically have much less body fat and mass.
Children don’t pay close attention to their own bodies until they’re really uncomfortable. Ask them regularly, “Are you warm enough?” Even when they say, “Yes,” their faces or body language may say, “No.” Look for signs that they’re cold in their posture, or reduced activity level, shivering, or blue lips. Tell them to add a layer if a cool wind kicks up, before they’re cold, or to shed a layer if you’re beginning a hot climb, before they’re sweating heavily (wet clothes can make them cold later).
Babies, of course, can’t tell you they’re too hot or cold—although crying may be a signal. A trick I used was to periodically check a baby’s or toddler’s fingers or feet, because those get cold first. On the other hand, you can overdress a young child, too. (Guilty.) If his or her face feels unusually warm, unzip or remove a layer of clothing.
One advantage with babies: You carry them, so they’re not cycling between warm and cold due to shifting exertion level. Keep in mind that wind plays a big factor when dressing a baby—put a windproof layer on her when needed, but not in calm air when it can make a baby too warm. Also, a baby in a carrier on your chest or back receives a fair bit of warmth from you.
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4. Shovel Food and Drinks At Them
I cannot even estimate how many times I’ve been reminded that a kid who’s complaining about being tired is usually just hungry. Give him a big candy bar or a sandwich. Children need to eat more frequently than adults—sometimes every hour.
Look for warning signs: grumpiness, a slowing pace, growing quiet, or a faraway look. Feed them pre-emptively—before they tell you, “I’m starving!” Ditto with water. But because most kids are sippers rather than gulpers, remind them every 15 or 20 minutes, “Everyone take a big drink.” They might object at first, but they’ll get used to doing this. Giving each kid a daypack and hydration bladder helps.
Another lesson I’ve learned the hard way: Don’t let a kid hit the wall. When he’s obviously in need of fuel, don’t let your own goals prompt you to suggest that you all “hike a little farther and find a better spot to stop soon.” Just stop immediately and give him something to eat; you will spare everyone a lot of unnecessary grief.
Make your family’s next big trip one of “The 10 Best Family Outdoor Adventure Trips.”
5. Spell Out the Rules
Even adults who are in an unfamiliar environment will occasionally make seemingly stupid, dangerous mistakes simply because they did not understand the hazard. Children are at greater risk of not recognizing hazards. With young kids, define clearly the safe-zone boundaries in camp and rules like no one wanders out of sight or earshot of camp, or plays at the edge of the river without wearing a PFD.
Experienced older kids need less instruction and can be given more freedom, but don’t assume older kids who are beginners understand every potential hazard. Have experienced kids watch out for the less experienced. Rather than making rules seem like restrictions, tell kids you’ve taken them on this adventure because you think they have the maturity and ability to be safe and respect the rules—allowing you all to pursue more such adventures in the future. Turn it into a teaching moment about personal responsibility, and they will understand that they are in control of their own destiny.
Click here for my e-guides to the best beginner-friendly backpacking trips in Yosemite and Grand Teton.
6. Make It a Game
Adults have the patience and perspective to endure the difficult and tedious times of a hike or other outdoor activity, knowing the payoff will come. That’s an important life lesson that children can glean eventually—but in order to guide them to that level of maturity, we have to make tedious times fun for them.
Kids’ needs for stimulation vary depending on their age. Play games while hiking, like starting with one simple word and taking turns thinking of rhyming words until only one person is left with a rhyme. My kids love “The Story Game,” where we take turns contributing short pieces to the plot of one developing story, which always takes humorous twists. Tell your kids a true story about some past adventure of yours. Stop at streams for kids to play in or boulders to scramble on. Promise them a special stop along the hike, or that everyone gets a big candy bar at the halfway mark, to give them something to look forward to.
Relevant to this tip: Let your child bring stuffed animals or other comfort items that will make them happier. Think about what could make them more comfortable during difficult times—like high-quality technical clothing, or a lightweight umbrella for hiking in the rain.
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Use my “7 Tips for Getting Your Family on Outdoor Adventure Trips.”
7. Surprise Kids
Simply put: Take them someplace really cool. Adults like big views, but kids want to interact physically with the environment. They want to play in water, climb on rocks, crawl through narrow crevices, weaponize sticks, throw stones.
On family backpacking trips when our kids were young, they always wanted us to camp by a creek that was safe for them to get in. They have always loved a paddling trip—being on the water all day, paddling a canoe or kayak or having a turn at pulling the raft’s oars. The Green River through Canyonlands National Park is an easy, family- and beginner-friendly, multi-day float trip.
But our family’s favorite multi-day river trip has been Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon River.
Choose outdoor destinations that you know will provide natural features that engage and excite kids. Make them want to go out again.
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8. Teach Them Skills
On a two-family, cross-country skiing trip to a backcountry yurt, the other dad in our group taught the four kids—age nine to 12—how to build a campfire. He monitored them to be safe, and showed them how, but also gave them the freedom to each start his or her own fire. It was a huge success: they learned a valuable survival skill and had a blast. The takeaway lesson for parents? Children want to learn adult skills; it can be fun and thrilling for them and give them larger lessons.
Start when they’re young teaching kids age-appropriate skills: how to pitch the tent, build a snow cave, light the backpacking stove, use the water filter, read the map, belay a climber and build climbing anchors, paddle and roll a kayak, ski backcountry snow and recognize avalanche hazard. The long-term payoff for parents—besides the satisfaction of seeing your children learn? They learn how to take over these chores from you.
9. Let Them Bring a Friend
Young kids (generally under 10) love being with their parents and getting your direct attention. As they get older, you can still enjoy rewarding parent-child time in the backcountry together. I take an annual father-son and father-daughter trip with my kids for wonderful one-on-one time together—something they look forward to as much as I do.
But it becomes more important to older kids, especially teenagers, to have a friend along. Inviting one of their friends not only helps your child enjoy the trip more, it usually means less complaining: whining isn’t a cool thing to do in front of your friends.
Plus, you could be introducing another kid to the outdoors: When my son was 15, he told me that he wanted us to take two of his buddies on their first backpacking trip. We went, and it was a big success, from the boys enjoying it together to me seeing my son assume a leadership role showing his friends how to pitch their tent, cook on the stove, and other skills.
Finding other families that share these interests, where the parents and kids all become close friends, is like finding gold.
I know dangerous. Read “Why I Endanger My Kids in the Wilderness (Even Though It Scares the Sh!t Out of Me).”
10. Give the Gift of Independence
We have to dote on little kids—they need the attention emotionally and require it for their own safety. But as they get older, they must learn to anticipate and self-manage their own needs, so that you and they don’t have to go through the agony of the parent always telling the kid what to do.
This is hard, but know when to cut the cord. Find that delicate balance between giving kids enough rope to trip once in a while—which is okay because they have to learn to fix their own mistakes—without giving them enough to hang themselves. No one enjoys it or benefits when a parent is constantly correcting or instructing a child who’s old enough to figure it out. Everyone is happier when a child doesn’t need a parent’s help.
Ultimately, independence gives children the larger benefit of self-confidence—the belief that they can manage any personal crisis in life. That may be the best gift you can give your children through taking them outdoors.
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