Adventuring with Kids

This article was published in June 2021 on EddieBauer.com via their content series: The Elements of Adventure with Matt Walker – the original piece can be found here

All images documented by the talented and creative Andrea Laughery @laughclan

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Adventuring with Kids

Keeping it fun, engaging, curious, and just the right amount of challenge.

One of my greatest joys is sharing the outdoors with my children. Kids can show unfiltered enthusiasm and excitement for the unknown, the challenges, and the adventure. When a new tent arrived last week, they wanted to unpack it, set-it up themselves (I noticed they didn’t look at the directions – just dove right in!), and sleep in it that night in the backyard – and they did!

And…one of my biggest challenges as a parent is in sharing the outdoors with my children. While the experience is deeply rewarding, it can be a significant challenge to plan, prepare, and execute an adventure while holding space for uncertainty, setting them up for success, and managing the whole scene.

Regardless of the length of trip, level of difficulty, and environment, guiding children on an outdoor adventure demands massive quantities of patience, the ability to be aware of the needs of all participants, and vision. Not to mention a solid sense of humor!

Here are a few steps I take to create a win-win experience for my family:

Everyone is Involved

I approach each outing as a complete experience: a beginning, middle and end. When everyone knows the entirety of the adventure, then we can relax into it, be playful, have fun, and bring our curiosity. The anxiety and uncertainty dissipates and everyone can be present. It’s so much better!

One way to do this together is to make all the general details clear and invite everyone to have a role and be actively involved, regardless of age of skill.

Dial in the details: where are you going, how long will it take to drive to the trailhead, what is the weather forecast, how long is the hike, how much elevation gain and loss, what are the landmarks along the way, what is the objective, is it an out and back hike or a loop, consider all of the unique travel details, write them out, and talk about it.

Make it a family meeting (that’s fun) with maps, photos, and the opportunity for everyone to weigh-in with their excitement, concerns, and questions. Being in the know and having input makes all the difference – everyone feels part of the team.

The family adventure meeting is also the time to get additional buy-in by creating roles for everyone – snack management, break and hike timer, photographer, etc. Be creative and playful!

Pack Smart

Set yourself up for success: pack right and the trip will unfold with ease. Be sure everyone has the right gear for the environment and any potential weather issues. Don’t forget the environmental challenges that can make or break a trip: bug spray, sunscreen, and a first aid kit.

Additionally, be aware of the duration of your trip and everyone’s need for snacks and water. No reason to create an experience of unnecessary suffering out there!

I like to up the ante a little bit as well and create opportunity for surprises, especially for the little ones. This sometimes includes gummy bear hunts while on break, sneaking a few of their favorite small figurine toys in my pack and then hiding them on the trail (stop for a wildlife sighting and “find” the toy), you get the idea – be creative and create memories.

Set the Pace

Set the pace that matches the sweet spot between being a drill sergeant on a mission and a wanderer without a care in the world. Somewhere between these two, is the tone and pace your family will need to have success while keeping smiles and awe at the forefront. Each family is different and each day is unique.

As the parent and trip leader, the most significant challenge may be finding the balance between destination mindset, noticing the details and wandering pace. Be aware of the need to continually balance your agenda and the reality of the situation, and the opportunity to see from their level – sometimes literally!

Plan, Enjoy, and Reset During Breaks

Breaks can be the full reset experience we all need while on the trail. I tend to lean towards a model of 30 minutes on and 10 minutes off – give or take a bit depending on the possibility of taking breaks at vistas, next to water, or at the top of a big hill. Using this model allows everyone to fall into pace, know they will be moving for a bit while also having the security to know there is a break coming up, snacks, and playtime.

I treat breaks as the reset time as well – bathroom stops, changing layers, adjusting gear, etc. When everyone knows that travel time is for travel and break time is for personal needs, this keeps the train moving efficiently and break times are then the opportunity to stop and address personal needs and play. Travel time is travel time – break time is break time.

Celebrate

I like to set-up a post-adventure celebration. This can be cold drinks by the river afterward (hint: pack the cooler ahead of time so treats are waiting upon your return), a family dinner at a fun spot everyone enjoys, an ice cream stop on the way home…whatever works for your crew, but the emphasis is on celebration!

Praise is big here. Mark the challenges, note the confidence or determination they had in meeting difficulties, share your favorite moment and the time you felt was the most difficult (it’s good to mark both and let everyone share the experience). I like to ask: what was your favorite part of the trail? It’s an open ended question and the answers can be fun and interesting: I loved the fairy garden we passed next to the giant roots, or the section when we could look down at the river, or the view at the top…an open ended question lets the kiddos lead and share their experience.

Another reason to celebrate and shift into the positive experiences? You can tee up the next question, when there are smiles, and good memories – so, where should we go for our next adventure?