These tips come to us from Michael Lanza, who is a writer, outdoor photographer, speaker, Huffington Post blogger, and Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine. We’re sure these tips have been field-tested and approved, because Michael spent a year hiking, climbing, canoeing, and kayaking with his wife and young kids in national parks threatened by climate change. From these adventures, Michael wrote Before They’re Gone, which received an Honorable Mention from the 2012 National Outdoor Book Awards. Michael also wrote the “10 Tips” article for his blog The Big Outside.
The first five tips are posted here, but we think Michael’s blog is worth a gander, so you’ll have to visit The Big Outside for the final five.
by Michael Lanza
After they were out of earshot, Alex turned to me, wanting to clarify a point: “You didn’t get us to do this,” she told me. “We wanted to do it.” Her words, of course, warmed my heart. But her comment also spotlighted the biggest lesson for parents hoping to raise their kids to love the outdoors: Create experiences that make them eager to go out again the next time.
I’m no authority on how to raise kids to love the outdoors, and all kids are different. Offering advice to parents on how to raise their kids treads on dangerous ground—kind of like telling members of my extended Italian-American family how to make pasta sauce. But my wife and I have had good success so far. Our kids are now 12 and nine-and-a-half and look forward to our regular backpacking, paddling, skiing, and climbing adventures. They also have an impressive list of pretty hard-core trips on their wilderness CVs already, from sea kayaking in Alaska’s Glacier Bay and descending a technical slot canyon in Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park to numerous backpacking trips in national parks like Zion, Olympic, and the Grand Canyon.
I think much of what we’ve learned could be helpful to most families, and it boils down to 10 basic rules.
1. Give Away Your Baby Stroller
As soon as your toddler can walk, give some friends that stroller and let your child walk everywhere you go, whether around town or on a trail. Sure, walking with a little one requires patience. But it turns children into strong hikers at a young age and gets them used to the idea that they will walk rather than be carried.
I preferred a child-carrier backpack to a stroller, even in urban settings, for those occasions when my kids needed a break from walking. It gives you exercise, is more convenient on stairs, and helps communicate to kids that our family carries packs—that we’re hikers.
2. Don’t Give in to Frustration and Apathy
Let’s face it: Hiking, camping, or doing almost anything outdoors with babies, toddlers, and preschoolers is often more work than fun. Don’t get discouraged; take them out anyway. If you wait until they’re older you may find that your child isn’t interested. Introduce children to the outdoors while they’re very young and make it part of your family lifestyle, so that you nurture in them a long-term love for it.
3. Take Baby Steps
Don’t push your kids too hard. This one’s especially hard for parents who have always been very active, but pushing them risks creating a negative association with the outdoors. Start small, with short hikes, and work gradually up to longer outings. Think of it as pulling them along rather than pushing them. This also helps prevent the need to abandon plans, which is sometimes necessary (see tip #5) but can be disappointing for everyone involved.
What’s familiar and easy to you may seem scary and intimidating to a kid. Evaluate your child’s readiness for something new based not just on its physical difficulty, but how well your child handled previous experiences that presented comparable stress.
Example: When I considered taking my kids, at age nine and seven, sea kayaking and wilderness camping for five days in Glacier Bay, Alaska, I figured they were ready for it because they had done several backpacking trips, rock climbed, floated and camped on a wilderness river, and cross-country skied through snowstorms. They had managed stressful situations well and understood the need to follow instructions and that trips have uncomfortable moments. Despite how wet and raw it was, they loved Glacier Bay.
4. Employ Bribery Strategically
Bring along motivators like their favorite candy bar to eat halfway through a hike and a favorite stuffed animal. Do things that create positive associations for kids, like giving them their own gear (headlamp, pack, walkie-talkie, etc.), and letting them be the hike leader or take charge pitching the tent.
Remember: What a child says now does not necessarily reflect how she will feel 20 minutes from now. I’ve been reminded time and time again that a seemingly tired kid is often just a hungry kid. They don’t have nearly the fat reserves and muscle mass of adults, so they need to rest and refuel more frequently, sometimes every hour. Look for warning signs: grumpiness, a slowing pace, growing quiet, or a faraway look. Remind them frequently to take a drink. A 10-minute rest and a fat chocolate bar can swing a kid’s attitude 180 degrees.
5. Tear Up Your Agenda
Whether hiking with kids or on a serious mountain climb, I think people often get into trouble simply because they focus too much on the destination, overlooking that it’s really about the journey. Don’t be so wedded to your agenda that you fail to see when it’s time to switch to Plan B.
Taking children outdoors, especially younger ones, does not always go according to plan. Adults hike for exercise, the views, and to get somewhere; young kids want to throw rocks in a creek. Let them. Explain to kids that there will be time for playing, but also a time for hiking. Encourage your teenager to invite along a friend. Find a balance that makes everyone happy, giving children some say without relinquishing all control.
To see the second half of Michael’s 10 tips, visit his blog The Big Outside.