A Survival Guide For the Outdoors Lover Who’s a New Parent

By Michael Lanza

So, you’ve been an avid [circle all appropriate terms: hiker/backpacker/climber/trail runner/skier/kayaker] for years, and now you’re spending big chunks of your days changing diapers and your nights wondering when you’ll sleep again. You’ve never gone this long without getting out into the mountains, and you see no remedy for that shortfall in the foreseeable future. Your new baby is more wonderful than you’d ever imagined—and yet, you’re feeling a little despair over what’s missing from your life lately.

I know where your head is right now. And I have good news for you: I’ve seen the bright light at the end of the tunnel, and you can get there faster than you might think. Here’s how.

My family on a hike in Idaho's City of Rocks National Reserve.
My family on a hike in Idaho’s City of Rocks National Reserve.

First of all, I know it’s hard to take a long view when you’re so deeply buried in the day-to-day management of a hectic life. But as a father of two young adults, I can tell you that growing children race through development stages—each one very different—with blinding speed. While in many respects the infant and toddler years are the most demanding (and cutest), and can seem eternal at times, they do pass. In my experience, parenting keeps getting better.

But for now, you need some strategies for surviving the early years of parenting, when you face the greatest demands on your personal time—and your sanity.

The following tips reflect what I’ve learned from more than 20 years as a parent who has always strived to get outside as much as possible—dayhiking, backpacking, climbing, running, paddling, skiing—with my family whenever I can, but also, at times without them.

 


Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside, which has made several top outdoors blog lists. 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 to learn how I can help you plan your next trip. Please follow my adventures on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Youtube.


A young family at Skilern Hot Springs, Smoky Mountains, Idaho.
My family on an early backpacking trip to Skilern Hot Springs, Smoky Mountains, Idaho. Click photo to read my “10 Tips for Raising Outdoors-Loving Kids.”

1. Ignore the Naysayers

You’ll hear too many parents say things like, “Oh, you won’t be out backpacking/climbing/skiing anymore!” Don’t listen to them. These comments tend to come from people for whom getting outside isn’t as important as it is to you. They don’t understand your lifestyle or how much and how often you need to get out there—or how hard you’ll work at accomplishing that goal, no matter the obstacles.

When my kids were babies and toddlers I’d put them in a front pack or a child-carrier backpack and go for a hike by myself. My wife and I took them camping, dayhiking, skiing, backpacking, paddling rivers, and climbing from the time they were very young—even though it was a lot of work—because it gave us time outdoors and helped turn our kids into young people who now love backpacking, climbing, skiing, and paddling with us. She and I also took turns solo parenting to let each other get outside—for an hour, a few hours, a few days.

If you’re that type of person, that’s what you’ll do—regardless of what other people think or say.

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My kids inside a favorite rock formation at Idaho's City of Rocks.
My kids inside a favorite rock formation at Idaho’s City of Rocks. Click photo to see “The 10 Best Family Outdoor Adventure Trips.”

2. Hike Your Own Hike

That’s a motto among thru-hikers of long-distance trails, but the message applies just as well to raising children. Just as there are many ways to tackle a months-long hike, there are probably almost as many styles of parenting as there are parents. Just like setting out on a long hike, those first steps on the path of parenting can get bumpy. You’ll fall down and end some days bruised, sore, and wondering what the hell you’re doing.

Just figure out your own comfortable pace and what you need and don’t need; it doesn’t matter whether it resembles someone else’s approach. You’ll get there.

Kids on a five-day float trip down the Green River in Canyonlands National Park.
The pack of kids on a five-day float trip down the Green River in Canyonlands National Park.

3. Embrace Good Advice

As much as you must hike your own hike as a parent, you will also meet other parents—some with kids older than yours—who, by all appearances, are doing it right. They get out as much as they like. Their kids actually like getting out with them, and seem like great kids.

Get to know those parents; they just might know some tricks you will find useful. At the least, they’re probably fun to hang out with.

Don’t miss my popular “10 Tips For Raising Outdoors-Loving Kids.”

North Fork Cascade Canyon, Grand Teton National Park.
My daughter, Alex, age six, on a family backpacking trip in Grand Teton National Park.

4. Take the Kids Outside Often

Both of my kids went on their first hike—in a front pack on my chest—within a few days after they were born. That was merely symbolic, of course. But those short walks were emblematic of the philosophy my wife and I embraced from the beginning of parenthood: Our kids would learn that getting outdoors together as a family is normal.

We dragged the kids out camping, cross-country skiing, mountain biking, dayhiking and backpacking, paddling rivers and climbing (when they expressed an interest in the latter)—doing everything we liked to do with our kids, even though it often meant going much slower when the kids were little, and involved much more work. Even at home, whenever we had to go somewhere in town within biking range, in reasonable weather, we biked there.

If you want your children to share your passions, start them young and do it with them.

I can help you plan the best backpacking, hiking, or family adventure of your life. Find out more here.

Deep in the backcountry of Utah's Capitol Reef National Park.
Alex, age nine, getting lowered off a cliff in Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park.

5. Stop Worrying So Much

Before they were out of grade school, our kids had backpacked in parks from Grand Canyon to Olympic and among grizzly bears in Glacier; sea kayaked through wet, raw weather and camped on remote wilderness beaches in Alaska’s Glacier Bay; paddled among alligators in the Everglades; trekked through cold rain and wet snow in Norway’s Jotunheimen National Park; rock climbed 150-foot cliffs and rappelled into and crawled through slot canyons; and cross-country skied through snowstorms to backcountry yurts miles from the nearest road multiple times. (My award-winning book Before They’re Gone chronicles the year my family spent backpacking, rock climbing, paddling, and cross-country skiing in 11 national parks facing major threats from climate change.)

Bad parents, right?

Yes, we worry like any parents. We’re hyper-conscious about safety and ask a lot of questions. We’ve always tailored family activities to suit their ages and abilities. We’ve abandoned plans and turned back on trails when necessary.

But every time we’ve worried that we’re pushing our kids beyond their abilities, they have risen to the challenge and loved it.

It doesn’t matter whether your family tries to do what my family (or any other family) does; establish your own comfort zone. My point is this: Don’t over-worry about the kids. They’re often more resilient and adaptable than adults give them credit for.

Plan your next great backpacking adventure in Yosemite and other flagship parks using my expert e-guides.

The West Rim Trail in Zion National Park.
A family backpacking trip on Zion’s West Rim Trail.

6. Find Other Parents Who Are Like You

Before your kids reach school age and start choosing their own friends, their friends will consist primarily of the children they meet through you—the children of your friends.

Seek out and cultivate friendships with people who share your interests and have kids the same age as yours.

Do things with families like that and your children will likely become good friends, which helps facilitate getting all of you outside more—and which becomes more valuable as your kids get older and want to have peers joining your family on outdoor adventures.

 

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7. Negotiate With Your Spouse

You and your spouse may not always land on the same page when it comes to decisions over how much time you each want to spend solo parenting while the other gets outside, or even the return on effort invested to spend a weekend outdoors with little kids. Discuss these issues together, respect one another’s needs, and figure out where you can meet in the middle to achieve results you’re both happy with.

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

Campsite in Wild Basin, Rocky Mountain National Park.
My kids on a backpacking trip in Wild Basin, Rocky Mountain National Park.

8. Sleep When You Need To, Play When You Must

Sure, over time I’ve come to the acceptance that I can pass on an outing when I really need some sleep—and it’s okay to do that. But on many occasions, I’ve squeezed in a fun climb, hike, trail run, or dawn patrol ski tour because I got up really early and knocked it off before my family had finished breakfast. I’ve always been an early riser and viewed the hours when my kids are sleeping as belonging to me, and I like to make good use of that time, whether at home or when we’re on a family trip somewhere.

“Get Up Early” is one of my “10 Tips For Getting Outside More.”

Backpacking to Hawkins Pass, Eagle Cap Wilderness, Oregon.
My kids on a family backpacking trip in Oregon’s Eagle Cap Wilderness.

9. Accept the Occasional Disappointments

Kids get sick. Your spouse gets sick or has to work late. Kids have myriad special events you don’t want to miss: games, performances, school meetings, unexpected stuff. It never ends, it merely occurs in unpredictable cycles. You will occasionally miss planned and impromptu opportunities to ride, hike, run, climb, ski, paddle—the very moments you look forward to, that bring you deep and powerful feelings that your life is moving in the direction you prefer. That’s naturally disappointing.

Get over it and move on. Rather than dwelling negatively on what you missed, look ahead positively to the next opportunity to get outside—it will come. The right attitude really does make a difference. And the happy times of parenting outweigh the disappointments.

Planning your next big adventure? See “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips
and “The 25 Best National Park Dayhikes.”

 

My family on a multi-day hut trek through Norway's Jotunheimen National Park.
My family on a multi-day hut trek through Norway’s Jotunheimen National Park.

10. Most of All, Enjoy It

This time is fleeting and changes happen rapidly. While that’s true of all childhood—and becomes ever more apparent when they reach their teen years—children grow and develop with blinding speed in those early years. If you work or go away too much, you’ll miss out on entire stages of physical and emotional growth in your kids. Neglect to give them your attention, especially when they need it, and you may end up like the father in that old Harry Chapin song, “Cat’s in the Cradle,” with a son who grew up just like him—and now has no time for his dad.

I remember friends—who were expecting their first just months after our first was born—asking me 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 kids are my skiing, backpacking, climbing, and paddling partners—and better than me at the technical sports.

Lie down in the grass with your kid and watch the clouds pass by. You might be shocked at how much fun it is. As the late singer-songwriter Warren Zevon once said: “Enjoy every sandwich.”

 

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8 thoughts on “A Survival Guide For the Outdoors Lover Who’s a New Parent”

  1. This brought back many happy memories. My tip is you don’t have to be an expert guide like Michael to take tiny ones outdoors. Like you, we exposed the kids to the smells, sounds, sights, and joys of the outdoors with short backcountry camping trips and Baby Bjorn hikes within weeks of their births.

    We tried to keep things easy and make every outing a rousing success. Made it only 1/2 mile before the kids and little friends decided a picnic and tag were more fun than getting to any planned destination? Success! Found the one-mile backpacking trip to an alpine lake that 3 year olds could complete with many breaks to eat treats that elves had mysteriously left on boulders or logs? Success!

    We did shorter, easier adventures as they grew up, with incrementally longer backpacking trips to a basecamp, easy cross-country skiing to yurts, and a paddle thrown in here and there. Food, stories, games, and laughs tended to be more important to them then than any destination or goal. But they loved being outdoors. And they also would write in school essays that they liked backpacking because it was hard.

    Now, as young adults, one is working raft trips on the Middle Fork and the other is signed up for NOLS in Patagonia (COVID permitting). A long ways from dayhiking in the Sierras with one on my wife’s chest and the other on my back while we sang “The Bear Went Over the Mountain” 900 times.

    Reply
    • Great stories, Anthony. You clearly got the formula for success right: Make sure it’s fun for them, whatever the age. We’ve tramped over some of the same ground, I suspect, geographically and certainly emotionally. Thanks very much for sharing that.

      Reply
  2. Wow. This hit really hit home.

    I have a 3 year old and a 6 month old. We’ve made it a point to take them on as many hiking trips as we could using front carriers and backpack carriers. Starting them young and getting used to being outside is absolutely key if you want to do it regularly with them later on.

    And you’re right, everything does get easier (except when they reach the upper limits of the backpack carrier). We live in the Northeast and the weather can be challenging at times, but we make it a point to get outside. We even did some camping in Franconia Notch, NH, early on with our first-born. He was a 1.5-year-old and, even though it was summertime, the first 2 nights were below freezing. We knew that it was going to be cold and our parents tried to talk us out of it, but we were equipped with the right gear (0° double-sleeping bag and layers) and it was an absolute blast!

    There’s nothing wrong with “making things work” either. No matter how difficult it may be to get out, if you love being outside and you share it with your family, you will look back fondly on those sweet tender moments that we all take for granted. The frog that jumps out and surprises everyone. A unexpected trip and dip into the river. Watching the sun set and chasing fireflies.

    The most important thing I’ve learned during my short tenure as a parent is: “love is being present”. Leave all work and other obligations out of your mind and focus on your kids. Don’t just be there with them, be present with them and live in the moment! Time waits for no one.

    Reply
    • Thanks for stating that as well as anyone could, Geoff. I could not agree more strongly. And as challenging as some outdoors parenting experiences can be, it all does pay off and your kids will appreciate all of these times together as they’re happening and even more so as they mature.

      Good luck and keep it up.

      Reply
  3. Yep, great advice! Our sweet spot with our 2 kids was way less than yours, Michael. But, both are now graduated from college, and have a special love of the mountains. And they consistently blow me away with the level that they take their pursuits! One runs marathons, and the other is 600 miles into the PCT, as we speak. For me, it’s the truest measure of our success at parenting!!

    Reply
    • Thanks for sharing your experiences, Tom, and congratulations on raising two young people who sound like high achievers. I can’t imagine a greater accomplishment in life. I’m sure you’re very proud.

      Reply
  4. As a father of a 2 month old girl I totally get it… the day they got released from the hospital we didn’t drive, we walked the longer way home even though it was windy and cold. And she’s been spending time outside nearly every day since. Obviously I’ve had to adjust my expectations but I’m (so far) doing fine with small steps.

    Nearly everyone will say you’re crazy. But those same people consider riding a bike in anything but perfect warm weather as crazy.

    Reply