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.
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 teenagers, 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 my 17 years as a parent who has always strived to get outside as much as possible—with my family whenever I can, but also, for many reasons, often without them.
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.
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 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.
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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. These parents just might know some tricks you will find useful; get to know those people. At the least, they’re probably fun to hang out with.
Don’t miss my “10 Tips For Raising Outdoors-Loving Kids.”
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.
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 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 we give them credit for.
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.
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 looked at 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.”
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.
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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.
Lie down in the grass with your kid and watch the clouds pass by. You might be shocked at how much fun it is.
Tell me what you think.
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