Recently I told Mason I wanted to take him on an adventure to backpack. He bounced up and down around the room and saying, “Yay, yay, we’re going backpacking!”
Here’s the thing: This will be his first actual backpacking trip ever. If you knew me, you might be surprised to hear that because, if you follow us on Instagram or Facebook, it looks like we sleep outside all the time. Sure, we sleep in tents, but have yet to try backpacking with our now 5-year-old because it always seemed like it would just be too hard.
Then I went backpacking with a single mother of five. Autumn started backpacking with her kids, who range from 4 to 12 years old, because she wanted to make sure they got to experience nature as she did when she was a kid. She doesn’t travel far – maybe two miles at the most from the car – and has only been for one night at a time. Regardless, she’s still doing it.
Since having Mason, I’ve done what I call “redefining adventure.” To me, this means building up an adventure base first with Mason … to help him understand and love getting into the outdoors. Then I will push it further.
For some people, getting out backpacking early on might be what they are comfortable with. But for Mark and I, backpacking is something we’ve done a bit, but not tons of, so thus far it has just felt easier to car camp and go rafting. Or we just do day trips. But all of this counts toward instilling adventure in our son in my book.
Through any kind of exploration of nature and giving children the opportunity to take the lead, I feel, with even a mile out, you can teach trail awareness; sleep under the stars; respect land, water and animals; and more. But gauge what works for you and your family makeup and really consider your kids. Push them a little, but not too hard so that you turn them off from the outdoors forever. The key is always to start them as young as you can.
For my family, not pushing Mason too hard means we’ve carried Mason long past when many people felt we should be carrying him. But this has allowed us to hike 5-10 miles, where he can experience being deep in the woods all day. I feel, for us, this gentler approach to adventure helped turn Mason into such an outdoor fan. When I say “Let’s go for a hike,” he doesn’t pause a beat but is already getting his shoes on before I’ve even picked the trail, regardless if five minutes earlier it was all about the latest episode of Octonauts.
It’s easy to get caught up in feeling like your kids should love the outdoors if you can’t imagine anything more fulfilling than getting out into nature. It’s also easy to turn your kid away from the outdoors when you try too hard with long hikes, bad weather and pushing them when they aren’t interested.
Want your kid to love adventuring? Here are a few suggestions:
1. Pick your adventures wisely. Just because you are excited to go backpacking to a cool lake you did pre-kiddos, it doesn’t mean it’s kid-friendly. I have definitely returned to adventures that I did pre-Mason and thought they were kid-appropriate only to discover that I forgot about the long, boring 2-mile approach in on a trail that can kill a little child’s enthusiasm to get to the good stuff.
2. Ask friends for recommendations on what adventures they’ve been on with their kids. You’ll get better backcountry advice from friends who have tried out trails over following suggestions online. While online guides are stacked full of great information, this information is often not geared toward families. And if it is, a young child may not have been taken into consideration when considering “family” dynamic.
3. Don’t cheap out on kids’ outerwear! This is not to say you need to go buy high-end products, but pick your gear carefully for kids. It may seem like it’s hard to find quality goods, but if you tap into groups like Hike it Baby, Adventure Mamas and all of the local outdoors communities, you can find little known brands that work well like My Mayu and Muddy Buddy. Or look for used big-name quality brands like Merrell, L.L.Bean and Columbia that you know can stand the test of rough and tough kids. Also consider what gear you’ll need for the season.
4. Do test runs when going for it! If you are planning to get into backpacking with kids, start small. Pick a 1/2-mile hike in with your gear and pack like you’re going for a few days so the family can feel what that’s like. Make sure you’re within walking distance of the car so you can hustle out to get things you forgot. Or you can take a quick jaunt in the car to get ice cream as a reward for your kiddo.
5. Go with others. Kids help kids adventure further. Backpacking with a group can make a journey (and carrying things like tents, pots and pans, food and a stove) easier if you have a little group joining you. Also when you forget something, another parent is bound to have remembered the forgotten item.
6. Download a map so you don’t have to rely on cell service. It’s always good to find a map of the places you are adventuring. That way you’ll know the distance you’ll be going and what features are in the area.
7. Pay attention to adventures your kid seems to enjoy and replicate more of those. If your kiddo loves splashing in creeks, look for more creek hikes. Or find campgrounds or backpacking spots with water features to splash in.
8. Don’t skip seasons. Try to get out a little bit every season to help encourage kids to think of the outdoors as a year-long goal versus something you just do in the summer.
9. If you are trying something totally new to you, do your research and check the weather. Getting out there on a sunny day that suddenly switches to a lightning and thunder storm can scare a little kid away from the outdoors because they will pick up on how nervous you are.
10. Pay attention to changing of the seasons. First snow, leaves falling and massive flower fields exploding are all great ways to teach your child about nature. It helps get them excited about seeing the trails or campground in a different way. Plan your adventures around those key weekends so that kids are extra delighted with a beautiful landscape.
How does your family redefine adventure? Share with us in the comments below!
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- 5 Ways to get kids outside during the school year
Photos by Arika Bauer and Melissa Hollingsworth.