10 Tips For Raising Outdoors-Loving Kids

By Michael Lanza

As we neared Gunsight Pass in Glacier National Park, on 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.

Sure, 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.


Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Join The Big Outside to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Click here for my e-guides to classic backpacking trips. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip.


Young kids hiking the Gunsight Pass Trail in Glacier National Park.
My kids hiking the Gunsight Pass Trail in Glacier National Park.

But my wife and I have had good success. Our kids are now 19 and 17 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 Grand Teton, Zion, Olympic, and the Grand Canyon, and trekking hut to hut in Italy’s Dolomite Mountains, Norway’s Jotunheimen National Park, on the Tour du Mont Blanc, and in Spain’s Picos de Europa.

(See a menu of stories about many of our trips at my Family Adventures page, and see 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 these 10 basic guidelines laid out below.

See the many comments at the bottom of this story, and please share your own thoughts, questions, experiences, and tips there, too. I try to respond to all comments. Click on any photo to see the story about it.

A toddler girl sitting in Skillern Hot Springs in Idaho's Smoky Mountains.
My daughter, Alex, on an early family backpacking trip to Skillern Hot Springs in Idaho’s Smoky Mountains.

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 one of 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.

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Young children rock climbing at Idaho's City of Rocks National Reserve.
Alex and Nate rock climbing at Idaho’s City of Rocks.

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.

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The Big Outside's Michael Lanza sea kayaking with his family in Johns Hopkins Inlet, Glacier Bay National Park.
Our family sea kayaking in Johns Hopkins Inlet, Glacier Bay National Park.

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 decided 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.

I can help you plan the best backpacking, hiking, or family adventure of your life. Click here now to learn more.

 

4. Employ Bribery Strategically

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
Nate in a slot canyon, Capitol Reef National Park.

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.

 

Like this story? You may also like “The 9 Hardest Lessons for Parents Who Love the Outdoors.”

 

A raft filled with children running Cliffside Rapid on Idaho's Middle Fork Salmon River.
Alex (center, upright) in “the kids raft” running Cliffside Rapid on Idaho’s Middle Fork Salmon River.

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 and play in the mud. 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.

Make your next trip unforgettable with one of “The 10 Best Family Outdoor Adventure Trips.

A young girl backpacking the High Sierra Trail above Hamilton Lakes, Sequoia National Park.
My daughter, Alex, backpacking the High Sierra Trail above Hamilton Lakes, Sequoia National Park.

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.

I’m also a big believer in taking charge when necessary. My friend Shelli Johnson, a life and leadership coach, adventure guide, and blogger at yourepiclife.com, framed this advice wonderfully: “If you want to go hiking as a family, don’t ask your child or children, ‘Do you want to go hiking?’ Just say, ‘We’re going hiking.’ Trust me on this. You’re in charge, and if you’re serious about wanting a family that hikes and spends a lot of time outdoors, be the captain.”

I know dangerous. Read “Why I Endanger My Kids in the Wilderness (Even Though It Scares the Sh!t Out of Me).”

Backpackers above the Baron Lakes in Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains.
My son, Nate, with friends Kade and Iggy, backpacking above the Baron Lakes in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains.

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.

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Teenage girl trekking the Tour du Mont Blanc.
Alex trekking the Tour du Mont Blanc in the Alps.

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.

Keep the magic going with my “10 Tips For Getting Your Teenager Outdoors With You.”

A family trekking through Spain's Picos de Europa National Park.
My family trekking through Spain’s Picos de Europa National Park.

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.

Want this lifestyle for your family? Use my “7 Tips for Getting Your Family on Outdoor Adventure Trips.”

Rock climbers atop Eichorn Pinnacle in Yosemite National Park.
Nate and me atop Eichorn Pinnacle in Yosemite National Park.

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 act as 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.

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See a menu of all of my stories about our many family outdoor adventures at my Family Adventures page at The Big Outside.

I 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.

 

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121 thoughts on “10 Tips For Raising Outdoors-Loving Kids”

  1. This is so helpful!! It makes me wish that my parents had found your blog when I was growing up. I wonder if you have tips for where to buy/sell outdoor gear when your kids grow out of it? I recently found a website called switchbackr.com with some good deals, but not sure where else to look. Cheers!

    Reply
    • Hi Sasha,

      Thanks for the nice compliment and the great question. I wasn’t familiar with switchbackr.com, but that looks like a very good option. REI’s used gear shop also sells used gear and allows customers to trade in used gear for an REI gift card.

      Many cities also have outdoor-gear consignment stores, where you can purchase used gear that’s in good condition at very reasonable prices and sell your own old gear and earn a consignment on it, while assuring that it will have another life for someone who’s trying to enjoy the outdoors on a budget. There are two in Boise, where I live, but do an online search in your area and you may find some close by.

      I hope that helps. Good luck and keep in touch.

      Reply
  2. I like your idea to kick your kids out of the house to get them to play outside. I have to go back to work so I have to put my children into childcare until I get home. I’ll look for a place that encourages my children to play outside.

    Reply
  3. Dear Michael,

    My name is Rhonda and I am an associate professor at Loma Linda University in the School of Public Health. I am currently working on a book for moms and was wondering if I could possibly get advice from you? Over the past few years I have been researching the childhood experiences of people who have reached 100 years in age (centenarians) living in the only U.S. blue zone region (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue_Zone). Since the centenarians were outdoors each and everyday, I am hoping to encourage parents and their children outdoors as well. Would you have any advice you can share with me on how to encourage parents outdoors during snowy weather, like that typically seen in the midwest? Any other advice you might share on encouraging families outdoors even if the weather isn’t the best (like rainy days)? And would you be interested in being quoted in my book? Thank you for your time and consideration.

    Best wishes,
    Rhonda

    Reply
  4. Michael, Thank you for sharing these tips. I will practice your tips this summer. I love my kids and I will bring them to nature with your tips.

    Reply
  5. Michael,

    I enjoyed reading this post and look forward to exploring your site further. I typically spend 25 – 40 days a year living out of a pack in the backcountry, with many additional day trips. My wife is currently pregnant with our first little one and I cannot wait to have a new adventure partner. Reading posts like this gets me even more excited. Thank you for sharing your experiences.

    PS. I am the other Co-Founder to SHRED DOG

    Reply
    • Hi Dallas, I feel liked I’ve been greeted by the Shred Dog inner circle! Thanks for the nice words and congrats on both exciting new developments in your life. Sounds like we lead similar lifestyles.

      I remember friends I know–who were expecting their first just months after our first was born–what I saw as the biggest change in my life when we became parents. My answer: “I suddenly have this brand-new, most-important person in my life.” It has really proven true over the years. Now my teenage kids are my skiing, backpacking, climbing, and paddling partners–and getting better than me at the technical sports.

      Have fun. As the late singer-songwriter Warren Zevon once said: “Enjoy every sandwich.”

      Reply
  6. Michael,
    I just discovered your blog and want to say kudos and thanks for writing it… really great site. I’m a dad as well and I recently decided to turn my personal passion for outdoor adventures with my son into a professional endeavor as well. I co-founded an outdoor apparel brand for kids aimed at delivering high-performance gear for more affordable prices (given how quickly they outgrow gear). We create our own content too, of course, but one part of the SHRED DOG brand is working to get more kids off the couch and into the outdoors and therefore we want to share and promote great resources where we find them (I shared this blog post on our company Facebook page today!). Again, awesome work, keep it up, and I look forward to future posts.

    Reply
  7. After reading you blog,I am kind of sad that I didn’t take me boys camping , hiking, and creating outdoor adventures more than I did. We did some, but now that they are adults, modern technology and everyday life keeps them to busy to relax and enjoy the outdoors. Maybe if we had done more when they were young they would make the effort to get out and enjoy the ourdoors!

    Reply
  8. This is a great list! My husband is super outdoorsy (me not so much) and we both are really committed to spending a
    lot of time outside with our son. We even gave him a middle name that means “lover of nature”! He’s 11 months now. I look forward to exploring your site more as I just discovered it today.

    Reply
  9. I have to agree that kids these days spend their time indoor with their electronic gadgets, which is a big setback on their physical and creativity development. Staying inside is limiting their imagination and movement, they can not be having any fun ideas outside their gadgets and they won’t need to move in order to play with their gadgets. I have to agree with you that it is the best to introduce them with how fun outdoor world can be since they are young. This is great tips for us who in an attempt to get their kids loving the outdoors. I started by “kicking them out of the house” and let them play in the backyards. Maybe you guys can start by getting them outdoor toys too since we can not travel all the time.

    Reply
  10. I love these tips! We are in Idaho, and have a 5 year old, a 3 year old, and a 1 year old. We have always loved hiking and getting outside, but we have only recently started to intentionally carve out regular time away from the busy everyday and get outside with them! I can tell starting young makes a difference, because the 3 year old and 1 year old are way less whiny than the 5 year old. 😉 On our last hike, we found ourselves without bribery and realized that in the future we will always bring M&Ms or Skittles, haha!

    Reply
  11. Hi JZ, thanks for writing and I’m glad you found my blog. It sounds to me like you have the right attitude about getting your daughter outdoors, and that’s as important as any of these tips. Keep in touch and good luck!

    Reply
  12. I can’t believe I didn’t find your site before today! Thankfully, you ranked pretty high on my last google search. 🙂

    My wife and I had our first child in 2014, and 2 months later, we moved to Sydney, Australia. We are constantly amazed with how much we CAN do with a baby/toddler!

    We haven’t been able to completely ditch our stroller, but it certainly gets less use than our backpack carrier or her own two feet. Overall, we find the stroller far too constraining, especially with how much we rely on public transport and bicycles.

    This reliance on public transport forces us to have at least some agenda, but we found success through minimalist planning. We plan to catch our train back from the mountains, we plan to have food, and most importantly, we plan to have a long stop for her to play and explore.

    As she grows, I keep dreaming of the day when she will carry a bit of the load, but I think your advice is solid. I will wait until she asks to carry a pack.

    Now, I will add your site to my blog feed, and see how long it takes to digest all of the information.

    Cheers,
    JZ

    Reply
  13. What a great article. I’m still at the beginning of this journey with my 18 month-old; so far we’ve hiked the Tour du Mont Blanc (when she was 8 weeks old), most of the Dingle Way in Ireland, and last summer we did Breckenridge to Aspen in the 10th Mountain Huts. I’d say the one thing that has helped me more than anything to get out on hiking trip is…to get out on trips. Even if it’s just an hour after work on a regular basis, it means they consider that to be ‘normal.’ My daughter loves the ‘ba-pa’ (backpack), but I’m looking forward to encouraging her to walk more on the trails over the next few months. We blog about our adventures at http://www.NotJustForChristmas.net. Thanks again for the great post!

    Reply
  14. This article should be shared to every parent who are much too protective and afraid of having their child in the outdoors, saying that going out is dangerous for them. When given a chance, their child will not only express interest with the nature when they grow up, they’ll also learn to trust and be independent.

    Thanks Micheal! I really loved this.

    Reply
  15. LOVE the article! Will definitely firward this to everyone I know. When we moved to Alaska last summer, everyone said we were crazy for driving the Alcan with our nine month old (and two cats) in tow, while five months pregnant, but we had the most amazing trip! Camped every night, and hiked every day. There is nothing more satisfying than watching your son take his first steps on a glacier way up in the mountains of British Columbia. Both of my boys took their first hiking trips before they were a week old, and they both LOVE being outside! It is a lot of work with two babies, but we have never regretted hiking with our kids. I consider it a point of pride that my older son learned to use a camelbak before a sippy cup lol!

    Reply
  16. We have six kids, who all really enjoy trips outdoors. Some other good tactics are the “WE DID IT” celebration pictures at the end. Cheering for yourselves gives kids a sense of accomplishment and also makes them more able to see achievement in others. Take friends for your kids – we have a 15-passenger van so everybody gets to bring friends on suitable adventures. Try to shelve NO unless it’s really important. Do the kids want to yell “JELLYFISH SNOT” and throw pieces of dead jellyfish at each other on a deserted beach? As long as there’s no tentacles, why not? We take a yearly “anything goes” adventure where we drive somewhere new with no agenda and everybody looks for something they want to do and then we stop and do it. We’ve ended up in some beautiful and unusual places that way. Everyone (even the dogs) feel better after an outside adventure.

    Reply
  17. Great article! I’m amazed on how closely our parenting has mimicked your 10 tips! It’s refreshing to see that there are others like us out there. We’ve been hiking with our kids since they were infants, and now they are 6, 4 and 3! It’s not always easy, but very worth the effort now. It warmed my heart when my kids play “hiking & camping” together on rainy days when we can’t get outside! As much as I don’t want my kids to get bigger, I can’t wait until they are older, and we can go on even bigger adventures! Thanks for sharing your experiences, and your beautiful photos!

    Reply
    • Hi Jessica, thanks for writing and congrats on being such a good influence on your kids. You’re right, it’s not always easy, but your youngest is within just a few years of turning the corner and being able to do increasingly more. Both of my kids (now 14 and 12 and very experienced outdoors) started doing “real” dayhikes and backpacking with us at age six. Yours are close enough in age that the youngest will probably learn to keep up. You’ll find lots of trip ideas at The Big Outside, but look in particular at the “family hiking” and “family backpacking” tags in the Tag Cloud (left sidebar of every page) if that’s what your family likes to do. Good luck and keep in touch.

      Reply
  18. Thank you for sharing! Raising my girls to love the outdoors is definitely a goal of mine. For them, it seems to be coming naturally but I plan to include as many outdoor-geared trips as possible in their childhood. Enjoy!

    Reply
  19. I love all the comments and your 10 pieces of advice. We have always lived outdoors. My kids say “I’m Bored” when stuck in the house at -40. Comment about #7: we gave our kids small camelback packs, and asked them to only carry their water. The more we were out and about the more they started asking to have their snacks, etc in their packs. Those small camelbacks are amazing!!

    Reply
  20. Love this! I feel like the advise can be translated to parenting in general!

    One question: when you say ditch the stroller: what about jogging stroller? Bike trailer to get longer distances without the car? We’ve also used this to walk or xc ski when it’s cold (terms or lower).

    Reply
    • Thanks Emily. And I agree, much of what we do to teach our kids to enjoy and love the outdoors really does apply more generally to virtually all parenting situations.

      When I suggest ditching the stroller, I don’t mean to literally imply that you should never use a stroller. My wife and I used a regular stroller with babies and a jogging stroller for a while. They certainly have a purpose. We also used a child-carrier sled for cross-country skiing when our kids were really small–it’s a good way to keep them warm and they enjoyed the ride (no doubt more than I enjoyed pulling it!).

      My point is that it’s easy to overuse a stroller and continue using it long after a child is walking. (I’ve seen parents put four-year-olds in strollers, but my point applies to much younger children.) What I’m saying is don’t give in to habit of whipping out the stroller at every opportunity. It’s convenient, sure, because your toddler is a slow walker and you don’t always have time to be patient. But by weaning the child (and the parent) off the stroller, we teach him/her that they will walk instead of being carried. They get used to the idea of walking everywhere, which is the attitude you want to foster as you begin hiking with the child and letting him/her walk as much as possible instead of being carried in a backpack.

      Plus, you make a child a stronger walker at a young age than if they’re always being carted around in a stroller. I can remember numerous occasions when my kids hiked a surprising distance for their age, and not because my kids are superhuman or outstanding athletes; they were just used to walking. Many times, they walked farther in miles than their age in years (for example, hiking five miles at age four, or 12 miles at age 10).

      Ditching the stroller isn’t some absolute rule; it’s a guideline. Strive to use it less and less once your child is walking. The day will suddenly arrive when you realize you don’t need that thing anymore, and your past patience will be rewarded by having a kid who hikes with you.

      Good luck and keep in touch!

      Reply
  21. ou 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.

    Reply
  22. What a great post! I was raised by parents who took me camping on a regular basis and I am so grateful for it. Looking forward to doing the same with my kids! Thanks for the tips Michael!

    Reply
  23. Great stuff! Thank you!

    We’re getting a really late start! Our son is 14, he has autism and loves Earth science… we’ve done museums and science centers and children’s museums ad nauseam. So with the ups and downs of this past winter we started looking at outside options that would be interesting and educational and really fun… the Junior Rangers program for National Parks really caught my eye so on our already planned umpteenth visit to DC, we bought a National Parks pass and J earned 5 Junior Ranger badges. What a wonderful experience!

    Now we’re planning– with his help– a cross county trip (loosely following the Lewis and Clark trail to OR, down to UT and back to OH). We’ll be doing shorter day hikes and working on Jr. Ranger books throughout the trip… maybe next summer we’ll try a back country trek!

    Reply
      • I just finished looking at pictures of our National Park visits. When our youngest was three or four, he was going on short hikes. He’s 18 and loves the outdoors! We also brought my children’s friends with us. They always remember those trips and still talk about them.

        Reply
      • Update: He’s 17 now and after doing a 5 week cros-country NPS trek 3 years ago, we took up Kayak camping at National forests. He loves white water and has a natural ability to read the current. Kayaking gives him independence that he can’t have in town because of his autism. Getting outside has given him real freedom. So thankful that we got him outside! Thanks again for your article!

        Reply
  24. Great article. My son and I are have started blogging our hikes at kidsandtrails.blogspot.com We’re having a blast and hopefully entertaining some folks with our stories. I particularly like the part about giving the stroller away. I’m probably guilty of ‘riding’ kids when they could be walking, purely for the convenience of it. We’re working on that. Thanks for the article. Looking forward to more.

    Reply
  25. I loved this! Great advice. My son is 8 months old at the moment, and I know this will come in handy.

    I have a blog link-up on Fridays, called Free to Talk Friday, I hope you’ll come and join; I think my readers would enjoy this post. It will be open late tonight at dreamingofperfect.weebly.com

    Reply
  26. hello !!!!! i am a continue user of your site. thank to give so beautiful advice.. here i got so useful information and i want to say that the planning step can be viewed as a tedious exercise, especially by younger children. You should find ways to keep the children involved at each step in the planning process. Allow them to work through the calendar with you and discuss the factors such as weather and seasons. Let them look at the trail maps to understand distance and elevation. visit this also…. http://physictourism.com/category/adventure/backpacking/

    Reply
  27. Hello! this was a great blog post. I have two boys, ages 8 and 4, and a lot of your points resonated with myself and my husband. I laughed out loud at number 1, because we joke in our house that the stroller was only used for carrying luggage through the airport. 🙂 We’re fortunate in that we live in the PNW so we just have to step outside our front door for great hikes and outdoor adventures. And you are right, we have very specific mom adventures and dad adventures (in fact, the boys look forward to dad canoe camping trips and mom hiking trips!) Thank you, i’m definitely bookmarking your blog for further purusal! Do you mind if I link this to my blog? I plan on doing a post soon on outdoor play with your children, and I think this would be great.

    Reply
    • Hi Alex, thanks, I’m delighted that you enjoyed this article and want to link to it from your blog. You live in a beautiful part of the country, and one I plan to visit this summer with my family.

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  28. A trick we’ve used to get our three kids out is to let them invite some of their friends on trips. We’ve done birthday parties on the trail and made some great adult friends after short hikes with parents.

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  29. Excellent article! I started taking my kids out when they were infants, and never stopped. You are right on about starting small and keeping it fun in the beginning. Now my kids are 10 and 7 and are able to do adult hikes. We still rest about every hour, and there are copious bribes and special treats we don’t get every day. Finding other kids to hike with has been super challenging, but now we know some adults who enjoy going with us occasionally – and they have dogs, which is almost as good as children! I also got a PLB and a smart phone that has GPS so I can call for help in case of emergency, so I feel more confident venturing farther from the city by myself. My kids have had a lot of fun time out in the wilderness, and crave it. They aren’t long-distance hikers like some other famous hiking kids, but they know they can access nature for their mental health, and I’m glad they still like to come with me. I do occasionally need to take my own trips without them, and that helps alleviate the frustrations that come with harder and slower kid trips. I’m looking forward to exploring your site more.

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  30. This is the best blog out there! I love reading all your post, but I keep coming back to this one. I’ve shared it a few times and found out about it from our Family Nature Group we camp and hike with regularly. I can only dream that we can aspire to become an outdoor family such as yours. I was so inspired by your writing and this post that I took my hand at it. Feel free to critique or suggest anything. I did link up to this post on there as well. The photos, locations, activities, gear, and family fun you write about is really wonderful and I hope that when they are older we can take off for a few months and travel as you did. Thanks for writing as you do. Here’s my post: http://homegrownurban.blogspot.com/2013/05/the-adventures-of-camping-with-kids.html

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    • Thanks, I’m glad you enjoy my blog. Good on you for your Family Nature Group and getting your kids outside. Thanks for sharing your own adventures through your blog, too.

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  31. This is a great article. We try to get our kids out as much as possible. I’m the guilty parent that tries to push our kids at times mostly for my own gain (the destination, not the journey). My wife is great with just allowing them to enjoy it. I’m going to take a lot from this and implement it.

    Question about your mention of doing a trip for yourself. You mentioned that you and your wife (especially when the kids are younger) take trips separate from each other because that’s just the way it is. Do you have a post about how you handle that? Do you keep track of each other’s trips to make sure it’s fair? Do you have a set amount of trips that you set aside for each other each year? What about duration of your solo trips away from family? This is always a hot debate at times between my wife and I and we could really use some tips.

    Thanks again. Looking forward to reading more.

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    • Hi Tyler, thanks for the nice words. To answer your questions, my wife and I don’t keep score on our own trips without family, we just strive to let one another go whenever it fits into our family schedule, and we both try to not be away too much. Those are personal decisions that only a couple can work out, and I’ve seen other couples struggle with it when they don’t see eye to eye about how much time away from family is reasonable. Our solution is to give the other person something he or she wants in exchange for your time, and each be willing to sacrifice. It gets easier as kids get older, too, and I think the kids enjoy the occasional change of pace of having just one parent around.

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  32. Michael,
    I would have loved this advice when my kids were younger but we learned through experience. We now know that my daughter (12) will complain mightily for the first mile of a backpack trip, then proceed to pull us up every hill afterwards! We have had a lot of great trips in the Sierras with them and they both love the outdoors.

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  33. I have to agree my children were and still are outside people. They were raised in the North. Snow days were filled with sliding down a snowy hill, ice skating in the pond and ski-doos in the woods. Spring was the exploration of an awakening forest, summer swimming was a must in the nearest lake and ocean and fall was hiking and picking apples and pumpkins. My youngest loves the outdoors so much became a geologist for a career. My daughter has carried on the tradition to the grandchildren. Very happy and calm children.

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  34. Great advice! Seems to be the way my parents raised me, but even I sometimes find it a struggle these days to raise my own kids this same way. Thanks for reinforcing the values I so believe in.

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  35. Hi Michael, Love your blog and this post in particular. So important to get out regularly and not give in to occassional whines, or “I don’t feel like it.” Love how many cool adventures you’ve already done with your kids. We’re on the same path. Nice to find a kindred spirit : )

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  36. Hi guys – so many of you have wonderful stories! Is there anyone reading with hints on how to get out with my 3 year-old-son when my partner isn’t interested? I love hiking and grew up doing a lot – nothing super-difficult, but plenty of weekend hikes, canoeing and sailing – as did my husband. The problem is that he says now that he knows how much work it is he doesn’t want to do it. My son and I have started trying to go once a week to local bush areas for an hour or so, and we both have a great time, but I don’t know how to transfer to longer and more adventurous holidays. A lot of the issues I’m aware of other people have raised, such as the difficulty of finding other people who are interested and how great it would be to have groups of children involved, not just he and I. I visited some local bushwalking groups a few years ago and was frightened off by how intense and hard-core they were – I doubt I could keep up on my own, let alone with a littlie!

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    • Christina, have you tried having a hear-to-heart conversation with your partner about how important this is to you? If that doesn’t work, perhaps the outdoors becomes a shared activity just between you and your child, which can be nice, too. I’ve hiked for years with my mom, even though my dad has only occasionally joined us.

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  37. Hello, great story, love the tips. My only question is in the first photo you said it was taken in
    Skillern Hot Springs, Smoky Mountains, Idaho, but I know the smokey mountains are in Tennessee. Could you please clarify where this photo was taken?

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    • Hi Megan, there are Smoky Mountains in central Idaho, too. Not as well known, but very pretty. They are west and north of the Sun Valley and Ketchum area.

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  38. Excellent article! Followed the same ideas with my kids. Just two added thoughts. Make sure they have a good time on those first adventures, even if you have to change plans. Then as you go on more trips, you’re building a stockpile of good memories so when there’s a challenging one, they have all these other good memories to offset that one difficult trip. I have seen several kids whose parents took them out one time, turned out bad and they ended up giving up because the kid had such a bad experience. I start out small and sure-fire successful, especially on river trips where they can get scared,splashed,surprised, then build up from there.

    Also, when they are really not motivating to get up that hill, M&Ms placed on rocks, and tree stumps by an adult going ahead up the hill is a quick motivator for those little ones.

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  39. Michael, would you mind telling us about the special camera lense you used for capturing these incredible photos?

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    • Susan, I shoot with a Nikon D09 and two lenses: a Nikkor 18-200 zoom and a Sigma 10-20 ultrawide zoom. I consider both indispensable, but I use the 10-20mm zoom more and more because I love the perspective and depth it lends to scenic and action photos.

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  40. Great tips, ideas, and fantastic trips Michael! But don’t forget to pack the safety net; a copy of “Felix the Sugar Glider Be Safe Hike Smart” (Amazon) and a compass! Before you go, be sure to calibrate your compass for the declination at the location where you will be hiking. Go to: http://magnetic-declination.com We often camp and day-hike with the little guy. Now at age 5, he is very good with a map and knowing where he is; on the trail or in the city because he pays attention to the position of the sun and to landmarks to know direction. Day-hikes can be the most dangerous because hikers usually carry minimal supplies never expecting to spend the night outdoors. Would you know how to get rescued if the unexpected happened on the trail? Could you find your way if you didn’t know the trail? The ability to know your way and know where you are is something we all need in any survival situation not just while hiking. Learn to stay found by using a compass and paying attention to your surroundings. A compass doesn’t need a signal or batteries and works in all types of weather but you need to know how to use it and “Felix the Sugar Glider Be Safe Hike Smart” (Amazon) makes learning how to use a compass easy. Felix! explains how to orient yourself using a compass, a compass and a map, a map and no compass, no compass and no map. Anyone wanting to feel more confident about orienting ourselves outdoors will enjoy learning from this book. To refresh our skills, we read thru this book with our kids before every hike – it’s only about 34 pages and illustrated. Felix! teaches the reader how to know where you are, what to pack for a day-hike, how and when to take breaks, trail ethics, what to do if you get lost or scared, how to get rescued, and survival packing (for the car and for the trail). Look for it on Amazon, “Felix the Sugar Glider Be Safe Hike Smart.”

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  41. Thanks for the positive spin on what can be a real challenge for families. Our family took a big step this year in selling our very nice camper and committing to more backpacking. Our teenagers were more engaged, shared in tasks and pleasant to hang out with on backpacking and car camping trips than when we brought our camper. I think we underestimated what they were able and willing to do!

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  42. Thanks so much for the tips! Our boys are 1.5 yrs and 1 month old, so we can start ’em when they’re young! We’re looking forward to many fun adventures with our family and I want our boys to enjoy them as much as we do.

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  43. This makes me very happy – I will certainly share! It looks like I’ve followed most of your process with my boys (10 and 6) without even knowing it, and I have lots of new tips from you as well. As an added incentive, we’ve started geocaching too – everybody loves a good treasure hunt 🙂 Thanks again!

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  44. Great stuff. I take my kids out often and they love being outside. I’m interested in learning how other single parents manage trips-I’d love to get farther afield than car camping (albeit in remote locations) but without a second adult (and expensive super-lightweight gear!) I don’t feel confident that I can actually pull it off.

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    • Sasha, good for you getting those kids out. You’re right, though, that it’s tough backpacking with kids before they’re capable of carrying much on their own, when the kids outnumber the adults, because you just can’t carry all the gear and food. Recruit an adult friend to help you, if you can. Even with two kids, my wife and I did a lot of dayhiking with them when they were preschoolers. But getting them on the trail will help excite them for backpacking and they’ll be able to carry their own clothing and sleeping bag/pad by age 9 or 10, and more very quickly as they get bigger.

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  45. Great tips. My own dad did a lot of this with myself and my 2 sisters when we were little. Our camping trips were often with my uncle and his 3 girls, so how could we not enjoy sleeping in a tent with our cousins and playing with flashlights!? On hikes, my dad always brought a package of peanut m&m’s on our hikes all over Washington state and the Columbia River Gorge. We would take breaks to eat “energy pills” and it seemed so cool and was such a treat. We loved to climb, so he would stop along the walk to let us explore or climb up a hill and would call us “mountain goats” and comment on how we were such great climbers. Of course, WA weather is sometimes very cold and rainy so I didn’t like all of our camping and hiking trips and never got into the skiing. However, today I still love and crave the outdoors and am thinking of doing the walk to Santiago (30 days of hiking)! I’m also trying to get my husband more into the outdoors and have taken him hiking, introduced him to kayaking, horseback riding, and he has experienced his first bonfire and smores. 🙂

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  46. well written article. at 2 yrs old, we have taken our son on numerous multi day backpacking trips, cycle touring trip, canoeing trips. he started out in an Ergo carrier on my front and is now being carried by mom in a Sherpani Carrier and I carry all of the gear. we give him as much time as he wants walking the trails on his own. We moved to New Zealand and backpacking trips are almost monthly. I will keep this article for encouragement to other parents. Thank!

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  47. What a great way to alleviate NDD, Nature Deficit Disorder, in kids (& their parents).

    Another wonderful life activity to get your children involved in is Volunteering. Look for a volunteer group that works with the Forest Service, Park Service, BLM, Fish and Wildlife or a state/ county parks administration. They are always looking for volunteers and will welcome your kids when you’re there to supervise them and keep them safe. The San Gorgonio Wilderness Association has monthly clean-up events in a picnic area along a creek. The real small kids make and decorate a “Trash Monster” out of a paper bag and then walk around with Mom & Dad feeding the monster. Older kids pick up trash or help remove graffiti on the rocks along the creek.
    Work and play go hand in hand and it begins to instill a sense of pride and ownership of our public lands. With agency budgets being reduced each year we _need_ more people to help nurture and maintain the wonderful resources that belong to all of us.

    Thanks for a great article!

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  48. good article

    My 4 year old daughter sumitted Mt Whitney in a 3 day backpack, after hiking happily on her feet 20 miles of the 22 miles in 3 days. Yep, the trail was full of gummy worms that came up at just the right time, and chocolate and other goodies. We talked about the trip and trained for it months in advance. And she was excited. And after the trip, she was even more excited as people were taking pictures of her.

    But then,,, she was on top of Baldy at 10 months, and 2 years, San Gorgonio at 2, in a kayak at 10 months, on first backpack trip by 1, white water rafting at 2 etc.

    Her little sister was in a kayak at 1 month, and is a veteran camper, and backpacker ( on parent’s feet) at the age of 1 ….

    Our goal is to take other families with kids into the great outdoors… Check out the family oriented trips of Sierra Club Angeles Chapter Little Hikers.

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    • Silvia, my daughter had similar adventures since being a baby – hiking, biking, canoeing, backpacking before she could walk. But I think our kids are a huge minority, few and far between being raised that way, at least here where I live in PA. We can’t find families like us to join us, so my girl is always alone in the experience and I can see how big detriment that is. Only on few occasions there was another kid on a trail to keep her company and provide peer motivation. And it makes a huge difference. Last year, when she was 5, we hiked half way down Grand Canyon and back up, 7 miles total. On the last mile up she met a girl, few years older, befriended her and holding her hand raced that last mile! We were amazed.
      Yes, we can find groups who do some things with kids, but that is mostly: short walk in a park (not scaling mountains), camping on campgrounds (not backcountry), canoeing on small lakes (not multi-day trips in Everglades), gym-climbing versus rock-climbing, etc. We are seriously considering moving to the west coast for that single reason – to find other families like us and friends for our girl.
      I wonder if anyone would have any tips on how to solve that problem?

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  49. Amazingly well written article. You find bits and pieces here, but you always have to patch them together to get a method that works. These 10 steps encompass everything that works. My son (7) got to a point where he only wanted to play video games. We took them away. Eventually, organically, he started going outside more, this transitioned into him asking when we could go hiking next. I will be sharing this article for sure.

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  50. Michael – This is awesome! As a father of 2 small boys (ages 2 and 4), I’m always looking for ways to be able to get them outside. Though Minnesota winter doesn’t always allow for this, your tips here are sure to get us on the right foot on warmer (that is, above 0!) days. Thanks so much. Totally subbing you.

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    • Thanks for the nice words, Zeke. You’re starting at a good age–get them excited now, rather than waiting until they’re older and harder to convince.

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  51. I have seen a couple of your posts and am delighted to find others who share a belief in sharingy the wonder of the outdoors with their children. I am looking for a good 2-3 day outing with my kids backpacking. They are still backpack beginners, but we would like to go about 5-10 miles RT. We are based in SLC and want to do a spring outing in southern Utah. Any suggestions?

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  52. Excellent article!! I wish I was your kid! Seriously, though, while my family hasn’t done the variety of adventures that yours has, I can’t imagine a life without the outdoors. Our children are 8 years apart, so we had a big change/challenge going back to having a little one, but we’ve started back small and love it. Thank you for taking the time to write this article and for your excellent advice.

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    • Thanks Rebecca. Age split between kids definitely affects things, even the two and a half years between my kids. Sometimes I do things individually with each kid, sometimes we’re all together. Thanks for commenting.

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  53. So much great advice in this post! Love it. I do have a slightly different perspective on #7 though. We have had our kids carry their own small daypack since quite young. They only have water, a snack and maybe a raincoat in it. The main reason is for safety. If (somehow) they managed to wander off, slip down a cliff edge, or any other scary situation – at the very least they would have water with them.

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    • Agreed, SquiggleMum. We’ve always done the same, having our kids carry a small daypack. When I referred to carrying “weight,” I meant a backpack. Thanks for pointing that out.

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  54. Michael, I have to say that most of your advice is dead on what I always tell others on that topic :). I have only one thing to add, which you’ve mentioned in one sentence, but I think it’s very important – ‘go small but often’. Besides few big trips/ adventures a year we try to do something every week (or more) just to spend as much time outdoors as possible as a family. If we have only an hour or two we’ll go to nearby park to roam the trails (snowshoe in winter), half a day – small hike or bike rails-to-trails (x-country). When my girl was baby and toddler we would do a lot of camping with small hikes, just to get her used to the idea that outdoors = lots of fun! Great for that age were also biking with a trailer and canoeing, because it wouldn’t make her tired.

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    • Hi Kamila, that’s a smart, specific suggestion to add and I agree completely. We also try to get out with out kids at least every week. Frequency is important. Thanks for writing.

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  55. Oh my goodness was I thrilled to come across this! (Thank you Julia Grant!) I was thinking 12 and 9 & 1/2 – how the heck did that happen! I couldn’t see them do anything BUT follow in your footsteps. Great blog, Mike. 😀

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  56. Wonderful tips! Our family also benefitted from story-telling, especially during long final day packouts. My husband was the pied-piper with 3 kids stomping on his heels to hear his version of the Wizzard of Oz on one very long trek out of Goat Creek, Sawtooth NF. The time vanished! As kids got older, we turned it into group made-upstories, with each person creating a section of story, then handing it off to the next at a crazy or exciting juncture.

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    • Good advice, Kay. We also play a “story game,” where we each take turns adding onto the narrative of a made-up story as we hike. Really keeps the kids engaged.

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  57. Great advice, Michael. I wish I’d done more of those things with my kids when they were young. My wife has a childcare business and I’m recommending that she forward a link to this post to all of her clients.

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