The 9 Hardest Lessons for Parents Who Love the Outdoors
A Manual for Staying Sane Through the Greatest Adventure of Your Life
By Michael Lanza
Raising children is a lot of work—any parent knows that. But for people who love the outdoors, combining parenting with their passion for hiking, backpacking, skiing, camping, climbing, kayaking, or other outdoor activities poses added challenges.
In many ways, at least when children are young, what you do outside with them is both easier than what you did outside before you had kids (you regress to beginner level) and exponentially harder (for all the cat herding and stuff-management involved). The rewards can seem elusive. You may wonder whether it’s worth the time and effort. The Complaint Department stays open 24-7 and you’re the embattled manager.
Well, I have good news for you.
After two-plus decades as parents—including my 10 years as the Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog—my wife and I have taken our kids on more outdoors trips than we can count over the years. And those adventures have proven wonderful and brought us closer as a family.
I’ve put together what I consider the nine hardest lessons in parenting for parents who love the outdoors. While the title sounds ominous, I believe you will find the following tips both a manual for managing your family outdoor adventures and a self-help guide to preparing yourself—as much as is possible—for an alternately dizzying and delightful journey and the greatest adventure of your life.
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1. Stop Believing You Will Be on Schedule. You Never Will. Ever.
With the steadfast and laudable optimism of someone who has often known success outdoors, you will plan ambitious trips with your family—including a specific departure time. You might as well try to predict when the next asteroid that wipes out most life on the planet will collide with the Earth.
You could plan a departure time for every trip your family takes, for years, and never meet it. You could double the amount of time you reserve for packing and double it again; and just when you think you will get out the door at the appointed time, someone’s diaper needs changing, or someone can’t find gloves, or someone just discovered the boots/jacket/pants (fill in the blank) he or she wore on the last trip don’t fit now.
Or while one preschool child has taken 25 minutes to put his clothes on inside out, the other will insist she was never told to get dressed. Or the kids that weren’t hungry when you said, “Eat now,” are suddenly acting as if their last meal occurred days ago.
Accept this brutally honest advice: Scrub the concepts “schedule” and “on time” from your mind—at least during those early years. Set your expected departure time for a broadly approximate window, like “morning,” or more safely, “afternoon.”
You are playing with forces far beyond your control; do not delude yourself into believing otherwise. Sometimes lowering expectations makes life easier and reduces stress more than anything else you can do.
Want to take your family backpacking? See these expert e-guides:
“The Best Short Backpacking Trip in Grand Teton National Park”
“The Best First Backpacking Trip in Yosemite”
“The Best Backpacking Trip in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains”
2. You Will Amass Way Too Much Stuff
No matter how many children you have—one, two, or more—they do not merely increase the work of organizing and packing for a trip in proportion to their number; they magnify it exponentially. In a world that follows the physical laws that you have always known, it will not seem possible that packing up a family can require so much more stuff than you needed before kids. But there it is.
You and your spouse may reminisce nostalgically, with amusement, about a pre-children summer spent living out of a little car and sleeping every night in a small tent while hiking and backpacking around the West. (Did that.) Or how you existed perfectly comfortably on everything you could fit inside two backpacks while trekking for weeks through some Third World country. (Yup, did that, too.)
But you are not those people anymore. The total worth of your possessions may, in fact, exceed the GDP of a Third World country you once visited.
And there’s no turning back (not until your kids are grown, anyway). This is your life and it fills a small warehouse. Deal with it.
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3. You Will Forget Important Stuff
With maddening consistency—and in spite of your numerous checks before leaving home that everyone has everything they need—you will get 15 minutes down the road and realize you’ve forgotten a critical stuffed animal, piece of gear, or child’s jacket or sunglasses. And you will turn back and retrieve those forgotten items because keeping everyone happy ranks higher in importance than what time you reach your destination.
Do not be shocked to find yourself hours from home, driving up a dirt road to a trailhead where you will begin a family backpacking trip, and suddenly realize that one child has somehow left at home every article of insulation and outerwear he was supposed to put in his backpack—even though you had made sure he had them all out and ready to pack when you were at home. (Been there, done that).
But going against all rules you have always followed, you may go right ahead and press on with this trip, because the forecast looks good—and you know full well that when your child needs a rain jacket during a sudden thunderstorm or a down jacket in camp, it is you who will go without them. And you will survive and be glad you did it.
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4. The Wilderness is Not Child-Proof
When our first child was nearly a year old, we spent a couple of months hiking and backpacking around the U.S. West and Canadian Rockies with him. Even though he would not remember a thing, it seemed to us a good way for our son to spend the first summer of his life.
For the most part, we had a wonderful time—even laughing about how much less ambitious this trip was compared to the extended summer road trips my wife and I took pre-children (which now seem like another lifetime).
That summer on the road with our infant son, like NASCAR pit crews, my wife and I quickly became pros at ripping off a loaded diaper and slapping on a freshy while gale-force winds blew through a mountain pass. I’m not sure how many times we caught him looking like he had a mouthful of grapes as one of us changed his diaper on the ground, prompting the other to dig a finger around inside his mouth to excavate the stones he’d stuffed in there.
I don’t know how he stealthily loaded pebbles into his mouth under our watchful gaze. But he may have consumed enough stones that summer to cover a small beach on the coast of Maine.
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5. You Will Survive a Torpid Hiking Pace and Mind-Numbing Games
You might insist to yourself that your family will not greatly affect the pace of adventure you enjoyed pre-kids. Unfortunately, your young children will not sign up for that program.
You will hike at a slower pace than you’ve ever imagined possible. If backpacking, you will walk that slowly while carrying a pack weighing approximately as much as a bison calf—and because of that, you may come to appreciate the frequent stops to let your children throw stones in a stream, or hit a stone with a stick (or a stick with a stone), or give you a detailed explanation of how to weaponize any object found in nature.
To help your child pass the time while hiking, you will play a game. Some of these may be fun, like the Story Game, where everyone takes turns adding to the plot of a made-up story—which then takes many humorous turns. I also spent untold hours playing a game with my young daughter that we called the Number Game, in which we took turns guessing which number between one and 20 we were each thinking of. This could entertain my daughter for hours beyond the point at which I had grown bored—but it kept her engaged and happy so I did it.
This can be an especially difficult truth for parents who have been hard-driving, Type-A outdoors enthusiasts and struggle with the notion of slowing down. I know—I went through this arduous transition and it took me years.
But I can tell you this: When you finally learn to enjoy the slower pace, you may discover that the joy is truly found not in the destination, but in the journey.
Planning your next big adventure? See “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips”
and “The 25 Best National Park Dayhikes.”
6. Sometimes, You’re All Alone
Your kids will gang up against you when they don’t want to do what you’ve planned. Your spouse will run for the hills to avoid fighting that battle with kids. Or your partner may be away and your children—because they are evolutionarily closer to our primate cousins than adults are—will instinctively recognize their numerical advantage and stage a successful coup without a drop of blood shed.
Planning a backpacking trip? See “How to Plan a Backpacking Trip—12 Expert Tips”
and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.”
Sometimes, you must simply confront the cold truth and retreat to survive and fight another day.
7. Sometimes, It Just Isn’t Fun…
Unlike when you were young, single, childless, when you strummed guitars, sang, and drank around a campfire and thought you all sounded really good (you didn’t), when your children are really little, going camping is often much more work than fun.
You may be slow to come to this realization, actually going so far as to believe it’s a good idea to drive with little kids on a Friday night to a distant campground, arriving near midnight with children now so wired (they didn’t sleep in the car as you had laid out in your brilliant plan) that they stay awake, crawling over you to hurl themselves against the tent walls, until an hour when you’re long past exhaustion.
See my “10 Tips for Taking Kids on Their First Backpacking Trip”
and my very popular “10 Tips For Raising Outdoors-Loving Kids.”
8. … But You Will Do It, Anyway, and It Will Pay Off
You will do it because—in your heart and your gut, in the marrow of your bones—you must get outside for your own health, happiness, and sanity. You will do this with your children not just because you believe it’s good for them, but because, otherwise, you would get outside less often—and that is simply not an acceptable vision of life to you.
And miraculously, your persistence and determination will pay off.
You may begin to see a change occur in children early in grade school, when they cross another threshold of physical development every year and they can do more. They steadily gain the emotional maturity to get through the discomfort of a hike.
Your kid may even pick up an outdoor sport that’s outside your experience base, like climbing or whitewater kayaking, and dive into it with an enthusiasm that makes you smile uncontrollably (even as you worry about for his/her safety)—and maybe even take it up yourself.
And you will discover, to your surprise and delight, that experiencing a place familiar to you becomes new and awe-inspiring again when you relive it through your children.
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9. You Will Actually Miss This Craziness
You will stumble upon a photo of your children from five or seven or 10 or 15 years ago and marvel over the metamorphosis they have gone through in a period of time that feels impossibly short to you.
They will grow increasingly more independent (even as they still rely on you for so much). And you will inevitably watch them drift away, like a piece of paper snatched up by the wind and carried off before you can grab it.
A truth then reveals itself to you: Unlike that paper flying off, these years are not an object you can possess—they are an ephemeral time of life and you are just a passenger on a journey over which you exert limited control.
As my kids now chart their own paths into young adulthood, even as I’m happy for and proud of who they have become, I miss, just a little bit, that craziness of backpacking, skiing, climbing, and paddling with them while they were young and brimming with wonder and joy—when having the undivided attention of their parents mattered most to them.
Time for a better backpack? See my picks for “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs” and the best ultralight backpacks.
That’s the hardest lesson of raising children.
But I also see how much all that we did outdoors as a family has formed who they are today: How both of our kids chose to attend a college near mountains. How challenges a rigorous hut trek through biting, fierce wind and an unexpected June snowstorm in unfamiliar peaks thrills them. How they still long, as much as ever, to take family adventures together.
Embrace these truths, because they will help you grasp the urgency of seizing every opportunity you get to spend a week, a day, an hour, or a few minutes with your child—outdoors whenever possible, but indoors, too.
In the long run, you will never regret whatever you pushed aside for those fleeting moments.
You live for the outdoors. The Big Outside helps you get out there.
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See all stories about family adventures at The Big Outside, including:
“ A Survival Guide For the Outdoors Lover Who’s a New Parent ”
“10 Tips For Raising Outdoors-Loving Kids”
“ Why I Endanger My Kids in the Wilderness (Even Though It Scares the Sh!t Out of Me) ”
“ Boy Trip, Girl Trip: Why I Take Father-Son and Father-Daughter Adventures ”
“ The 10 Best Family Adventure Trips ”