Outdoor Activities as a Parent

My husband and I are huge outdoors people. We always have been. Our first date was rock climbing (way back in the mid-90’s). We have grown together as a couple and as individuals as we have hiked, backpacked, and climbed our way around the western US (and Alaska! Italy! Switzerland!). As a competitive distance runner, my natural tendency is to drive hard. John supported me in that fully, and it was because of that support that I was able to run as well as I did, and for as long, while also pursuing MS and PhD degrees and having children. Likewise, John can drop 15 mile backpacking days back-to-back without batting an eye, and his ‘meandering’ hiking pace covers 4 miles per hour pretty easily.

We both love the feeling of having our legs burning and feet sore after hiking miles with a 40-lb backpack, slurping down hot cocoa before crawling into our backpacking tent somewhere in a mountain range. Becoming parents hasn’t changed that desire to be outdoors, but it has tempered how we actually act outdoors.

For the last 8 (nearly 9!) years, most of our outdoor activity has been at child-friendly pace, whether those children were on our backs in a pack, or on their own two feet. This means that we both have had to seriously dial back the throttle on speed, distance, and risk of our outdoor trips. There are times when this can feel that we aren’t going on a ‘real’ hike or ‘legit’ backpacking trip. When we realize that packing for a short trip with four people including two children is about 8x the mental load of packing for just us two adults, there are time we question whether it’s worth the time and effort involved for such a relatively small outing. 

We scrapped the planned hike in favor of climbing on rocks for 3 hours.

The biggest thing for us is that the small outing of hiking a few miles, or backpacking for ‘just’ one night is that these are huge adventures for our kids. It’s also a kind of magical realization that my parents were doing this for me when I was 4, 5, and 6 years old, and some of my favorite memories of ‘epic’ backpacking trips are trips I now realize we hiked a grand total of a mile before setting our tents up. However, my parents always made us feel that we were serious backpackers, and we did full trip planning, prep, safety, and fun.

We do most of our outdoor activities together, and this brings a few general guidelines to mind:

  • Be flexible: on timing, pace, destination, the ‘point’ of the activity, everything requires flexibility in mind and spirit.
  • Know your kids – individually and in a group: setting activities and making plans requires knowing the capabilities and comfort levels of your kids in that particular activity. It also requires you know your comfort level as the supervising adult. 
  • Clearly share expectations: when mixing abilities, planning together helps everyone know what’s going on, and in what style. 
  • Be optimistically realistic! Plan for the best and worst, and know that in the long term, you’ll get more great outings than terrible ones. It helps to look long term on this, knowing the intensity of planning and adventuring with small children evens out as they grow and become more independent and capable (& less completely fragile!)

For Divide & Conquer activities in particular:

  • Go overboard on the planning & use technology: Compare recent hike times for point to points, and compare how your kids did on similar terrain/distance/environment. If you’re planning a divide and meet up trip, utilize those trackers on GPS or phones. 
  • Be ready for things to break: biking meetup foiled by flat tires and you’ve run out of supplies? Be ready to call and know alternate meet-up locations – both adults need to know the routes in detail.
  • Time is fluid with kiddos: baby needs nursing five times during the drive? That’s a 2.5 hour drive instead of 1! Be able to communicate these delays to your partner and ready for a late rendezvous.
  • Let everyone shine: 4 year old is much better at balancing and sprinting, our 8 year old can grind up a mountain better than many adults I know (including myself, at present!)
  • Parents need to shine, too: sometimes it’s all kids for 1 parent, while the other has time alone as well. Sometimes, we just need to do things at ‘adult speed’ and then we either go solo, or fall back on childcare and our community of support people. This is harder to do during COVID times, but provides fuel for future plans!
Parents need time to adventure at adult pace sometimes, too! Here we are trail running near Telluride, CO last autumn.

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