COVID-19 is the frustrated parent who sent us all outside for the year. Despite the challenges, living with this virus has created additional incentives to get outdoors and stay out for longer periods of time.
If you have young kids, a wilderness adventure might seem like more trouble than it’s worth. But if you keep an open mind, have reasonable expectations, and follow a few simple guidelines, it is absolutely worth it, every single time.
Make it clear that your adventure is about having fun (without using the word fun)
“Doesn’t that sound funnnn?” If your kids are inherently resistant to the activity you’re planning, trying to explain why it should be fun is unlikely to convince them. Making the fun aspects of a new experience obvious will help your young child develop an imaginative and adventurous mindset, which will greatly increase your chances of a successful outing. And a first successful trip sets the stage for many more.
Plan your adventure with a friend, some cousins, or a favorite aunt or uncle. Involve your kids in the planning process, too. Pick a few locations you think will work well for everyone—whether it’s a short hike nearby, a weekend trip to an established campground, or a backpacking adventure at a more remote destination. Include everyone in the planning process so they can have a say in the final decision. Look at maps, devise a meal plan, and make a gear list together. Having friends join in the adventure makes it clear that this is a fun trip—without using the f-word. This will keep spirits high, even when someone inevitably gets tired, grumpy, or overwhelmed.
Keep up the energy
When my two kids were three and six, they barreled up a trail in Colorado’s Mount Zirkel Wilderness full of excitement. With dreams of a long day hike through a couple of alpine lakes, I made the mistake of calling them back, saying, “Save your energy kids, there’s plenty of hiking yet!” Buzzkill. I insisted; they listened. We were miserable the whole day because they decided they were already tired, constantly needed snacks, and complained that everything hurt. “Oh, look! I just tripped on a root!” Surely, we need to turn back immediately.
When you let your kids run ahead to peek around the bend, clamber around on boulders, hide in the bushes, and surprise each other along the way, your adventure might continue much longer than you imagined. Even if it doesn’t, you’ll have tons of fun along the way. Keeping the energy high is important for adventurers of all ages. Don’t kill the momentum. Stroke the stoke. When the enthusiasm bubbles over, more motivation and exploration ensue. If you kill the energy early in an attempt to ‘save it for later,’ that ethereal mist of excitement will quickly blow away in the morning breeze.
Comfort is key
Because your next adventure might already push the limits of you and your family’s comfort zone (can I really do this with them?), it’s important to find comfort in other ways. When we go on backpacking trips, my six and eight-year-old kids use 18-liter backpacks that also double as school backpacks. A small pack ensures I can’t overload it, and as the kids grow stronger, we strap more supplies onto the outside of each pack. This is an inexpensive way to let a pack grow with them for years.
For a summer adventure, stay close to water. A stream of any size doubles as a potential water source and an aquatic playground for kids (and adults) to cool down. Although our perceived needs have gotten more complicated, they really boil down to food, shelter, and water. Basing your first outdoor adventures around beautiful water sources can reduce stress and increase comfort.
During the winter, invest in a good hat. Long-time cross-country skier Sarah Forbes says, “The best gloves are a good hat.” Get some good gloves or mittens too, but it’s tough to keep your fingertips warm if your head is cold. If your child refuses to wear a hat, make sure they have a coat with a good hood that zips snuggly around their ears and chin. I always bring along an extra neck gaiter or two. These wonderfully versatile garments are like band-aids for any unexpected cold spots that pop up once you are out.
Make sure everyone contributes
On our first backpacking trip, my youngest child carried the tuna. They were just a few slim packets that slid easily into her pack, but she knew that she had everybody’s lunch and was contributing to the adventure. Over the course of two days, her nervous uncertainty at the start of the trip shifted to full-blown excitement and confidence in the fact that she was strong enough, big enough, and an important part of the crew.
Even if you carry most of the water and gear in your pack, let everyone carry a small water bottle to drink as they go. You can also break the tent package down into parts so everyone can carry a piece. Let everyone know their contributions make the whole trip work. And when everyone has an opportunity to pitch in during an outdoor adventure, some kids emerge as leaders. You may be surprised by the kids in your family or friend group who have the best attitudes when the going gets tough.
Less is more
If something feels like too much, it probably is. Forget the mountain top ascent, full traverse, or circumnavigation route. Celebrate getting outside with your family and take the time to enjoy it. If you only make it to the fork in the trail or a sunny spot along the stream, that’s more than OK. It’s more important to establish a sense of familiarity and belonging in a new environment than it is to tackle bigger goals. Start with something easy. Even a decade into our experiment of outdoor family adventures, we enjoy reveling in the process of our trips more than checking off accomplishments.
And finally, less is not more when it comes to snacks. Jackie Lambert, a long-time instructor at the outdoor education nonprofit Experience Learning, has guided hundreds of children on their first backpacking trips. Her best advice is to feed kids before they’re hungry. “If they get hungry,” she says, “it’s already too late. All your positive energy is gone.”
Once you get outside with kids, you’ll likely discover that they bring a new perspective to wilderness adventures. Kids don’t get distracted by all the tasks waiting for them at home, and they don’t worry about getting wet because it might make them cold later. If we take a step back, let kids lead, and open our eyes to what is right in front of us, we might find we’re on exactly the kind of adventure we were looking for—especially if we remember to bring along some dry clothes for later.
Katie Wolpert works for Experience Learning in Pendleton County. If she’s out of the office, she’s probably out exploring West Virginia’s wildlands with her two kids.