Sharing a wilderness experience with your kids can lead to a lifetime of great memories or can quickly spiral out of control to become your worst nightmare. After 11 years of family adventures in the backcountry, we have experienced it all from screaming tantrums to uncontrollable, hysterical laughter and everything in between. Through it all, we have learned a number of strategies that make our time in the wild extraordinary. Here are our top five tips for getting kids outdoors, creating wonderful memories and outstanding family adventures.
5 Tips for Getting Kids Outdoors & Loving It
1. Make “training” a normal part of everyday life
From the day our daughter Abby could walk, we set the expectation that she would walk a distance equal to her age. When she was a year old, she could and would walk a mile 4 to 5 days a week. So instead of using the stroller for the half mile jaunt to the park, we all three would walk instead. It was certainly not the most efficient method of travel, because we would stop and look at absolutely EVERYTHING along the way, but it certainly set the stage of independence while at the same time building fitness.
2. Spend unstructured time outdoors
When given an opportunity, kids will find wonderful ways to entertain themselves outside, from climbing on rocks, to throwing pinecones and chasing sticks down creeks. The importance of this became obvious to me at Abby’s seventh birthday party. We invited 10 first graders to a local mountain park for a couple of hours in the woods. I mistakenly assumed that they would all entertain themselves for the first half hour of the party before we had cake and presents. Abby and another boy (who camped all the time) spent the half hour seeing how far they could throw pine cones, searching for bugs, climbing rocks, etc., while the rest of the kids swarmed me saying they were bored and asking for something to do. It was a poignant lesson that kids desperately need an abundance of unstructured time outside to learn how to entertain themselves.
3. Play make-believe to help pass the time and the miles
When Abby was three, her favorite movies were The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Bridge to Terabithia (minus the really sad ending). Both were wonderful movies about adventurous kids in imaginary worlds. We tapped into both of these storylines to help pass the time on long hikes or bike rides. Our yellow Labrador became royalty the moment we stepped onto the trail as the highly revered Aslan—King of Narnia, who’s leadership led us down many paths to adventure. The squirrels in the trees became squarauts—evil soldiers of the wicked queen. We would run down the trail and hide behind rocks or trees the moment we spotted these perilous invaders. The rocks on the trail became lava fields that could melt your shoes with a single miss-step. And on really tedious stretches of trail when motivation was waning, either Peter or I would spot the fearsome White Witch baring down on us. A single glimpse of this evil sorceress would send us screaming and running at top speed down the trail to escape her wicked wrath. I am certain that everyone we encountered on the trail during one of these escapades truly thought we were insane, but Abby absolutely loved every moment we spent in the National Parks of Narnia or Terabithia.
4. Kids need warm, dry, high-quality gear
Abby’s first camping trip was when she was three weeks old, and in her first year she logged over 60 nights in a tent. We learned right away that as long as she was warm and dry, she loved being outside. We invested in a high quality, 20-degree down sleeping bag the first year and used a webbing cam strap to close off the excess length. It lasted until she was nine and was one of our best investments to ensure outdoor family fun. Once she was two, she got her own Therm-a-Rest sleeping bag (just like ours) and slept better in a tent than she did at home.
5. Break down challenging tasks into manageable segments
A special treat goes a long way to boosting morale during a challenging adventure. When we elected to take on a particularly ambitious adventure, whether it was a 30-mile backpacking trip over four days when she was four, or a 1000-foot rock climb when she was seven, we let her know upfront that is was going to be a tough day and talked to her about landmarks to help her see she was making progress along the way. At each landmark we would give her an incentive to keep going. On the climb, we brought along a really special snack (M&Ms) that we would eat at the top of the crux pitch. She knew that once she made it through the hardest part of the day, she would have a reward. It helped her push through the difficulties and to share the pride of such a big accomplishment, which also carried her through the rest of the day. On the backpacking trip, we brought along rewards for the person who hiked the best for each day of the trip. At the end of each day we would sit by the campfire and talk about all the great things she did that we wanted to see more of and awarded her the prize for best hiker. (The prizes were things she could use and enjoy the rest of the trip—a pair of toy binoculars, a field guide to bugs, etc.) Yes, it is bribery, but it allowed us to reinforce the positive attitude we wanted to see more of and motivate her to have fun on long challenging days.
These tips, coupled with plenty of rest stops and great snacks, have become the foundational principles that have allowed us to enjoy many, many incredible family adventures together in the backcountry. We hope you find them as helpful as we have and we would love to hear other ideas you have for keeping adventurous kids happy!