So you want to take your kids outdoors
We’ve all heard the story before, you’ve spent your pre-kid life exploring the outside world and going to awesome wild places. You had the freedom, capability, time and the money for adventures. Then you had kids. The overnight wilderness trips stopped. The day hikes stopped. No more canyoning or kayaking. Now you dream of just being one of the tourists crowding at the lookout to get your dose of green, a long way from your previous wild self.
Now the kids are a bit older. They can wipe their own butts you want to head back outside to share the green space you’d come to love so much with these small people that we are trying to save the world for.
These are some of the ideas that help my family enjoy our time outside together. Our trips vary from a short 10 minute walk with the whole family, some are more challenging multi-day hikes and canyons and we’ve even bicycled across a continent.
1. Make adventure a thing
We’ve named playing and doing outdoors stuff. We call it ‘adventuring’. We all know what it is and more importantly look forward to it. I can often be heard saying “we’re going adventuring, what do you guys want to do?” By having a name and making it thing our family does together it’s not just an add on, but an important part of who we are. Together we call ourselves the Mallo Adventurers. The kids own it.
2. Plan more free time than structured time
Our best trips involve a short hike or bike and lots and lots of time exploring. We regularly head to a beach in one of our local National Parks where we spend 10 minutes walking and over 4 hrs of free play. There’s rocks to climb, a small creek with tadpoles to explore, sand to dig in, ridge lines to practice some off track walking and navigation on…
These types of trips always have the kids asking for more. To come back, to bring friends. So instead of planning a trip that has lots of walking and only a little exploring we reverse it.
3. Change your goal
Adventures go a lot better when they stop being about the objective. Instead of focusing on summiting the mountain, or reaching the waterfall the goal of any family adventure is to explore and have fun together. Some times this means getting to an ‘objective’, other times it doesn’t.
One of the best days we’ve had out was when we were snowshoeing into a blizzard carrying overnight gear. We’d only snowshoed about 1km and it was clear my son wasn’t looking forward to the remaining 14ks. Instead we found a rocky outcrop nearby and spent the day playing and exploring. We dug a snow cave (of sorts) and practiced self arrests with an ice axe.
4. Buy the right gear
Once we hiked to our ‘secret’ beach and one of the kids was wearing normal shoes. He slipped and slid down the short but steep track while the rest of us walked in just fine in our adventure shoes with lots of grip on the sole. He’s since got his own pair of adventure shoes. It doesn’t have to the most expensive gear and there’s a lot you can do on a budget. Our kids kits consists of:
- Trail runners — Such as Inov8 X-talon 212s
- Shell jacket — A waterproof breathable one (optional on good days depending on where you are heading)
- Hiking pants (board shorts in summer)
- Fleece or softshell
- Day pack — Such as Osprey Jet 18
For overnight trips we add things like a sleeping bag (eg. Mountain Hardwear mountain goat).
Recognise that some personality types also enjoy the gear. Choosing and using cool gear isn’t the focus of an adventure, but can add some enjoyment to many kid’s experience. Our kids like to take a pack each, even if it’s only got a water bottle in it.
5. Go outdoors regularly
You become comfortable with what you do often. By making a point of adventuring frequently your kids will learn some tricks to keep them more comfortable and it will be more enjoyable. They’ll look forward to heading outside and to taking their friends along on trips too to share their experiences and what they’ve learnt.
There is less of a hurdle to getting out the door yourself as you develop a food and gear system. By now, my eldest three know what to do if we head on an adventure. They get their adventure shoes on, bring a jacket, pack, water bottle and put on non-cotton clothing.
6. Find what type of adventures they like
Each kid has their own thing they like. They seem to be less goal oriented than their parents in completing a walk, or getting to a waterfall. I’ve found that they all like a sense of achievement (see the next point), but overwhelmingly they love just being in the outdoors. At the same location one of mine will spend hours looking at the rocks in the creek while another practices trail running and rock hoping.
7. Make it adventurous (hard)
Kids love challenges. We steer clear of the easy wheelchair accessible walks that are often seen as suitable for children. Instead we find challenging places to explore. Places that are near cliffs, involve scrambling, muddy sections and dense bush. No only are they challenged, but usually there are less crowds and we get to some pretty amazing places.
They like pushing themselves, especially when it comes to climbing. There’s nothing like a rock scramble to keep a walk interesting and memorable.
8. Let them take risks
Risk isn’t black and white. It’s not that it’s risky or it’s not, rather risk is a progression where are some point the value is less than the risk. So we can’t avoid risk, and as adventurous parents one of the things we want to teach our children is how to manage what risks they take themselves. Free play seems to be one of the best ways to reduce helicopter parenting and let children develop risk management strategies themselves.
9. Build experience and skills
There are a large number of skills that make being in the outdoors easier and more comfortable. Some of these are important the wilder the location. Things such as managing yourself and clothing when you get wet, being aware of your nutritional needs and hydration on various trips (and weather), keeping your gear in your pack dry and how you may need a warm jacket even when the weather is nice and warm when you first set out on your adventure. Add to that basic navigation and fire lighting and you’ll keep your kids busy for hours.
10. Plan for weather
As your kids learn how to best manage themselves outdoors they won’t be as happy as you to walk in rain and will likely not do as well on a really hot day either. Plan and teach them during these occasions. Knowing the weather and preparing for it can make a huge difference. I often carry a lightweight tarp for sun (and rain) protection. Remember the goal of the day is to have a good adventure not to summit the peak. Some days it’s good to get out, get wet and enjoy the world, but other times it may be better to postpone your trip.
11. Go with another family
Going with another family can make a trip easier and more enjoyable. You can learn new skills and find secret locations. Kids tend to be less prepared to complain when their friends are around. Once on a canyoning trip that various kids took it in turns expressing their dislike about the leeches, but they all helped each other through the trip.