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 reached 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.

Please share your questions or tips in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments. Click on any photo to read about that trip.

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-books to classic backpacking trips. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip.

A baby girl in Skillern Hot Springs, Smoky Mountains, Idaho.
My daughter, Alex, at Skillern 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.

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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 last one)—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.

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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.

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

  1. I like this post, and it is realistic.

    Our first backpacking trip together was 1.5 miles, 3.4, and then the 4.9 back and the last 1.5 (after we’d revisited our first night’s campsite) required a lot of encouragement. And snacks were all they ate the whole time, because yeah, apparently I need to figure out how to freeze-dry pizza. But then on the very last little bit going down to the parking lot, there was a sign for a 7-mile trail, and they said that’s what we should do next time.

    • That’s a great story, Tam, thanks for sharing it. And it’s an excellent illustration of something I learned when our kids were young: How they feel at any moment about what’s going on is temporary and their mood can turn 180 degrees on a dime. Often, parents can control that shift and make their kids’ experience swing positive through small efforts: a strategically timed chocolate bar, some personal attention when needed, a promise of ice cream after the hike as a reward for the kids doing so well on the hike.

      Parents shouldn’t be concerned or discouraged because kids have bad moments on the trail. We all have bad moments, kids just often express themselves in unrestrained ways. It doesn’t mean they will wind up with a negative impression.

      Thanks, Tam.

  2. 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.

    • 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.

  3. 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.

    • 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.

  4. 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!!

    • 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.

  5. 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.