Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Adventuring with Kids

My kids at an age right now where it's a little tricky to include them in many of my outdoor adventures. They're too old to be carried in one of those baby-hauling backpacks, and they're too young to hike all day and put in big miles. But they're also at a crucial formative stage where they're building memories and gaining experiences which will help determine the kind of people they will grow to be. So I sometimes try to forgo my longer treks and plan something we can all do together.

Last week was National Park Week (9 days, actually), where all of the US National Parks had free admission. It was a perfect opportunity to load the family up to visit some places in the Rocky Mountain National Park that I don't get to very often.

Bringing kids along on a hike can be a lot of fun. It gives you a chance to experience the outdoors through a fresh set of eyes, as well as an opportunity to show off and pass on some of the backcountry wisdom that has been accumulating in your mind when you're out there alone. All it takes is a little forethought and planning, and everyone will have a great time.

On the Bierstadt Lake trail, RMNP, 2012-04-22

0. Be prepared.

Going out with children isn't all that different from going solo or with other adults, but there are some extra things you'll have to take along.

Plan to have a picnic while you're out. Kids aren't as good at postponing meals when you're on the trail. Also bring plenty of extra snacks help keep their energy levels up. These can also serve as motivators. Bring some wet wipes for clean-up.

Diapers and/or toilet paper are also an important consideration. Children are often unaware of their bodily needs until they're reaching the crisis stage. The chances of making it back to the trail head in time for a number 2 is pretty slim. Bring a large zip-sealed freezer bag to pack out any trash and waste.

Hiking toward Copeland Falls, RMNP, 2012-04-29
I have a bad habit of paying too little attention to the practical implications of what my 6-year-old daughter is wearing. On an ordinary day, that's fine. I'm happy to let her pick out her own outfits for school, and it's a delight to see what she comes up with sometimes. But we've been on a couple of hikes where I've failed to notice the shiny black slippers she has on her feet until after we've started hiking. This is an area in which I'm trying to improve.

Extra jackets and socks are always a good idea, too.

1. Scale it back a bit.

When you're used to going it alone, it's easy to forget what kind of physical limitations little ones are working with. So it's better to err on the side of caution and have fun than to be too ambitious and make everyone have a bad time.

This probably means forgetting about that favorite trail you've been dying to share with your family. It probably means car camping instead of backpacking. It probably also means keeping the trip close to home. Nothing kills excitement like a two-hour drive to get to the trail.

But it doesn't have to mean boring. Be creative when choosing a location, and the kids' excitement will be infectious.

F and friends near Copeland Falls, Wild Basin, RMNP, 2012-04-29

2. Have a goal.

Having some kind of goal for the outing - something that gets everyone excited and motivated - can work wonders. It might just be a great picnic spot, or it might be a mountain lake or a waterfall. I wouldn't count on the promise of spectacular views from a mountain top working out for my kids. I think it takes a long time of seeing the same old stuff every day before you really start to appreciate those kinds of rare moments.

Playing and making friends at Bierstadt Lake, RMNP, 2012-04-22
Other kinds of goals might include identifying plants or wildlife. A bit of research before hand could yield a checklist of things to look for. Some trails or parks may have such a list ready-made.

3. Be flexible and adaptable.

The whole point of taking children out on an adventure is to let them explore and discover. Your job is to facilitate that process and help keep them safe. So try to get comfortable in that role and set your expectations accordingly. Let them stop on the side of the trail when they see something interesting, or when they need to sit and rest for a minute. In a worst-case scenario, be prepared to take that goal we talked about a second ago and throw it out the window.

There are times I've changed plans at the last minute and gone to a closer trail when the troops were starting to get mutinous. I've had to abandon hikes altogether after getting no farther than the distance between the truck and the trail because it was too windy or cold. It's better to bail out than to give your kids a bad experience. And try to stay positive about it. No good can come of making them feel like it's their fault that things didn't work out.

Flexibility isn't all bad, though. It can be impulsive. On our way to the Bierstadt Lake TH in RMNP, we drove by a large stone outcropping on the side of the road. I quickly pulled off of the road (too quickly for C's liking), and we all got out and scrambled around on the rocks for a little while. It didn't delay our hiking much, and it was one of the highlights of the trip.

F climbing in impractical shoes, RMNP, 2012-04-22

4. Heap on the encouragement and praise.

Taking children out on an adventure of any kind is a lot of fun, but it also demands more from them than they're used to. Especially at the tail end of a long hike, they feel the pressure to keep going despite their exhaustion. It frustrates them. Be sure and let them know that they're doing a great job and that you're proud of what they've accomplished. Let them know that you're glad they're there with you. If you make it rewarding for them, they will want to do it again.

The family at Bierstadt Lake, RMNP, 2012-04-22

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