The 9 Hardest Lessons for Parents Who Love the Outdoors

A Manual for Staying Sane Through the Greatest Adventure of Your Life

By Michael Lanza

Raising children is a lot of work—any parent knows that. But for people who love the outdoors, combining parenting with their passion for hiking, backpacking, skiing, camping, climbing, kayaking, or other outdoor activities poses added challenges.

In many ways, at least when children are young, what you do outside with them is both easier than what you did outside before you had kids (you regress to beginner level) and exponentially harder (for all the cat herding and stuff-management involved). The rewards can seem elusive. You may wonder whether it’s worth the time and effort. The Complaint Department stays open 24-7 and you’re the embattled manager.

A 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. Click photo to read my “10 Tips for Raising Outdoors-Loving Kids.”

Well, I have good news for you.

After two-plus decades as parents—including my 10 years as the Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog—my wife and I have taken our kids on more outdoors trips than we can count over the years. And those adventures have proven wonderful and brought us closer as a family.

I’ve put together what I consider the nine hardest lessons in parenting for parents who love the outdoors. While the title sounds ominous, I believe you will find the following tips both a manual for managing your family outdoor adventures and a self-help guide to preparing yourself—as much as is possible—for an alternately dizzying and delightful journey and the greatest adventure of your life.

Please share any thoughts, tips, or questions you have 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 (most of which require a paid subscription to read in full, including this story).

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A young boy backpacking the Olympic coast near Strawberry Point, Olympic National Park.
My son, Nate, backpacking the Olympic coast near Strawberry Point, Olympic National Park.

1. Stop Believing You Will Be on Schedule. You Never Will. Ever.

With the steadfast and laudable optimism of someone who has often known success outdoors, you will plan ambitious trips with your family—including a specific departure time. You might as well try to predict when the next asteroid that wipes out most life on the planet will collide with the Earth.

Young family at Skillern Hot Springs, Smoky Mountains, Idaho.
My family on an early backpacking trip in Idaho’s Smoky Mountains.

You could plan a departure time for every trip your family takes, for years, and never meet it. You could double the amount of time you reserve for packing and double it again; and just when you think you will get out the door at the appointed time, someone’s diaper needs changing, or someone can’t find gloves, or someone just discovered the boots/jacket/pants (fill in the blank) he or she wore on the last trip don’t fit now. 

Or while one preschool child has taken 25 minutes to put his clothes on inside out, the other will insist she was never told to get dressed. Or the kids that weren’t hungry when you said, “Eat now,” are suddenly acting as if their last meal occurred days ago. 

Accept this brutally honest advice: Scrub the concepts “schedule” and “on time” from your mind—at least during those early years. Set your expected departure time for a broadly approximate window, like “morning,” or more safely, “afternoon.” 

You are playing with forces far beyond your control; do not delude yourself into believing otherwise. Sometimes lowering expectations makes life easier and reduces stress more than anything else you can do.

Want to take your family backpacking? See these expert e-guides:
The Best Short Backpacking Trip in Grand Teton National Park
The Best First Backpacking Trip in Yosemite
The Best Backpacking Trip in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains

Woman and two young children backpacking the West Rim Trail in Zion National Park.
My wife, Penny, with our kids, Nate and Alex, on a family backpacking trip in Zion National Park.

2. You Will Amass Way Too Much Stuff

No matter how many children you have—one, two, or more—they do not merely increase the work of organizing and packing for a trip in proportion to their number; they magnify it exponentially. In a world that follows the physical laws that you have always known, it will not seem possible that packing up a family can require so much more stuff than you needed before kids. But there it is.

You and your spouse may reminisce nostalgically, with amusement, about a pre-children summer spent living out of a little car and sleeping every night in a small tent while hiking and backpacking around the West. (Did that.) Or how you existed perfectly comfortably on everything you could fit inside two backpacks while trekking for weeks through some Third World country. (Yup, did that, too.) 

But you are not those people anymore. The total worth of your possessions may, in fact, exceed the GDP of a Third World country you once visited.

And there’s no turning back (not until your kids are grown, anyway). This is your life and it fills a small warehouse. Deal with it.

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A teenage boy and tweener girl standing on the crater rim of Mount St. Helens, Washington.
My son, Nate, and daughter, Alex, standing on the crater rim of Mount St. Helens, Washington.

3. You Will Forget Important Stuff

With maddening consistency—and in spite of your numerous checks before leaving home that everyone has everything they need—you will get 15 minutes down the road and realize you’ve forgotten a critical stuffed animal, piece of gear, or child’s jacket or sunglasses. And you will turn back and retrieve those forgotten items because keeping everyone happy ranks higher in importance than what time you reach your destination.

Do not be shocked to find yourself hours from home, driving up a dirt road to a trailhead where you will begin a family backpacking trip, and suddenly realize that one child has somehow left at home every article of insulation and outerwear he was supposed to put in his backpack—even though you had made sure he had them all out and ready to pack when you were at home. (Been there, done that).

But going against all rules you have always followed, you may go right ahead and press on with this trip, because the forecast looks good—and you know full well that when your child needs a rain jacket during a sudden thunderstorm or a down jacket in camp, it is you who will go without them. And you will survive and be glad you did it.

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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 (also shown in lead photo at top of story).

4. The Wilderness is Not Child-Proof

When our first child was nearly a year old, we spent a couple of months hiking and backpacking around the U.S. West and Canadian Rockies with him. Even though he would not remember a thing, it seemed to us a good way for our son to spend the first summer of his life.

For the most part, we had a wonderful time—even laughing about how much less ambitious this trip was compared to the extended summer road trips my wife and I took pre-children (which now seem like another lifetime).

That summer on the road with our infant son, like NASCAR pit crews, my wife and I quickly became pros at ripping off a loaded diaper and slapping on a freshy while gale-force winds blew through a mountain pass. I’m not sure how many times we caught him looking like he had a mouthful of grapes as one of us changed his diaper on the ground, prompting the other to dig a finger around inside his mouth to excavate the stones he’d stuffed in there.

I don’t know how he stealthily loaded pebbles into his mouth under our watchful gaze. But he may have consumed enough stones that summer to cover a small beach on the coast of Maine.

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Two young kids backpacking at Upper Lyman Lakes in Washington's Glacier Peak Wilderness.
Alex and Nate at Upper Lyman Lakes in Washington’s Glacier Peak Wilderness.

5. You Will Survive a Torpid Hiking Pace and Mind-Numbing Games

You might insist to yourself that your family will not greatly affect the pace of adventure you enjoyed pre-kids. Unfortunately, your young children will not sign up for that program.

Young boy and man in a slot canyon in Capitol Reef National Park.
Nate and our guide Steve Howe, in a slot canyon in Capitol Reef National Park.

You will hike at a slower pace than you’ve ever imagined possible. If backpacking, you will walk that slowly while carrying a pack weighing approximately as much as a bison calf—and because of that, you may come to appreciate the frequent stops to let your children throw stones in a stream, or hit a stone with a stick (or a stick with a stone), or give you a detailed explanation of how to weaponize any object found in nature.

To help your child pass the time while hiking, you will play a game. Some of these may be fun, like the Story Game, where everyone takes turns adding to the plot of a made-up story—which then takes many humorous turns. I also spent untold hours playing a game with my young daughter that we called the Number Game, in which we took turns guessing which number between one and 20 we were each thinking of. This could entertain my daughter for hours beyond the point at which I had grown bored—but it kept her engaged and happy so I did it.

This can be an especially difficult truth for parents who have been hard-driving, Type-A outdoors enthusiasts and struggle with the notion of slowing down. I know—I went through this arduous transition and it took me years.

But I can tell you this: When you finally learn to enjoy the slower pace, you may discover that the joy is truly found not in the destination, but in the journey.

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and “The 25 Best National Park Dayhikes.”

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See all stories about family adventures at The Big Outside, including:

A Survival Guide For the Outdoors Lover Who’s a New Parent
10 Tips For Raising Outdoors-Loving Kids
Why I Endanger My Kids in the Wilderness (Even Though It Scares the Sh!t Out of Me)
Boy Trip, Girl Trip: Why I Take Father-Son and Father-Daughter Adventures
The 10 Best Family Adventure Trips

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4 thoughts on “The 9 Hardest Lessons for Parents Who Love the Outdoors”

    • Yes, Patti, thanks for asking. That’s because this story, like many at my blog, is partly free for anyone to read but requires a paid subscription to The Big Outside to read in full. A subscription gives you full access to all of my blog’s stories, including the trip planner section in stories about specific trips, where I share details of the itinerary and other logistics and tips on planning a trip, plus you get access to member gear discounts. I hope that’s helpful to you.

  1. Hilarious and so true. I can’t even get a 100 yards down the trail before my 2 year old informs me it’s “chocolate time.” I should definitely own stock in Kit Kat. I am almost sure that I alone keep them afloat. Even though it is frustrating for me, who is like you said a type-A personality addicted to adventure, seeing the smiles on his chocolate-stained face as we sit in the dirt drawing with sticks makes it all worth it. It makes me realize that there is no place in the world I’d rather be in that moment than sitting in the dirt with my little buddy…with the truck still in sight. I try to take him out at least 3 days a week hiking and biking. He is already biking over 1 mile at a time on his balance bike without any help at the age of two and now he wants to go “kayaking with daddy.” When he rolls over in bed at night when I think he is asleep, hugs me and says, “you’re a good hiker daddy, let’s go hiking tomorrow and find some deer,” the tears in my eyes let me know that I’m doing something right.

    Thanks for the article and the assurance.

    Safe adventures,
    Slade Smith

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