As I unzip the tent and push back the door, a breathtaking view of turquoise alpine lake water and towering peaks greet me. I inch my way out of my tent, careful not to wake my sweet chubby-cheeked toddler and deeply sleeping daughter.
Quiet moments like these are rare on outdoor adventures with kids. So when the universe hands you one, it’s important to stop and savor it. It occurs to me that the view of my sun-kissed children inside the tent is every bit as beautiful as the snow-covered mountains outside of it.
“They” will try to tell you adventures like these come to an end after you have kids. “They” will take the form of society, other parents, your own family, and anyone else that feels the need to pass their opinion on to you. After over 10 years of backpacking with my babies and kids to wild places, I have a few slivers of wisdom to pass on.
First and foremost: Have a clear understanding of your “why.” Maybe long trail miles fuel your soul. Maybe outdoor adventures are one of your passions. Maybe unplugging from screen time and distractions is where you find freedom. Whatever it is, harness that why and hang onto it for dear life. You will need it when your kids collapse in a whiny pile on the trail, when you are up all night in a tent with a fussy baby, and when you spend the majority of your time following around a curious toddler to ensure they don’t run full speed into a body of water. Hard times on the trail with kids are inevitable. If you come to the table expecting them and armed with a clear purpose, enduring those tough moments becomes a lot easier. So when you find yourself in the middle of the night asking “why would we ever do this?” … you will already know.
Second, start them young! Establish a baseline of outdoor adventures that your kids learn to expect and look forward to. Backpacking has been a part of my kids’ lives since they were babies. For as far back as they can remember, hiking and camping have been the norm. They have their favorite spots, they have their preferred camp jobs, and they have become quite proficient in wilderness knowledge. By establishing this pattern early on, it has allowed us to build up to ambitious adventures over the years that have only gotten easier and easier to accomplish with kids. Start them young for sure, but no matter how old you or your kids are – it’s also never too late to start! You will simply start building that base and norm slowly from whatever stage you are at currently. It may be more challenging initially as older kids tend to have stronger opinions, but consistency and patience will win out in the long run. So will some strong incentivizing.
This brings me to my last piece of advice: Make it fun! You do not want your kids to associate the words “backpacking” or “hiking” with misery. Make those first few experiences magical and they will look forward to time spent outside. I do this by packing along special treats and candy. Incorporating things they already enjoy as incentives can be helpful too. My friend’s son loves Minecraft, so one time she packed in a diamond sword that was waiting for him at the mountain summit. He loved it. Scavenger hunts, audiobooks, s’mores, twinkle lights, and hammocks are all “extras” that can make the experience that much more exciting and fun for kids. Most children don’t appreciate the views, so finding something they DO like is so important. My son loves to fish so I always try to make our end destination near a body of water. My daughter has enjoyed learning how to start a fire so I always include her in that activity. You know your kids best, so you are the perfect person to craft adventures around their specific interests.
Back at the alpine lake, I hear stirring in the tent behind me. Giggles erupt through the silence and my quiet moment is unceremoniously ended. I head back towards the tent, ready to take on the camp chores and toddler chasing that await me. I catch my first glimpse of the kids playing a simple game of peek-a-boo in the tent. This. This is my why. The simplicity of outdoor moments spent unplugged as a family. It fills my cup, feeds my soul, and always has me coming back for more.