Editor's note: Experiencing the natural world, and specifically national parks, seems richer when you have kids who can share the experience with you. But how do you raise outdoors-loving youngsters?
Michael Lanza is a freelance writer and photographer, author, public speaker, Northwest Editor of Backpacker Magazine, and creator of The Big Outside where he blogs about his outdoor adventures, including many with his family. His most recent book, Before They're Gone—A Family's Year-Long Quest to Explore America's Most Endangered National Parks, winner of a National Outdoor Book Award honorable mention, chronicles his wilderness adventures with his wife and their young son and daughter in national parks threatened by climate change. Below are some great suggestions he offers for ensuring your kids love the outdoors as much as you do.
Traveler: What's a great first trip to introduce your kids to the outdoors/nature?
ML: That depends partly on their age, but you can keep it simple by finding a short hike near home. Choose a distance and difficulty level appropriate for their age, and if they're little, having a creek or lake to play in or by is a good payoff. Pick a hike that leads to a summit and you can give your kids a sense of accomplishment. If your kids are ready for something a little bigger than a local hike, go to a national park. Mountains, wild forests, wildlife, waterfalls and other natural features rarely fail to excite kids as much as adults, and most parks are actually set up to be relatively easy to sightsee in, even for young families. In Yellowstone, for example, you can see many geysers, waterfalls, and other features on 10- or 20-minute walks, or take somewhat longer hikes like the almost flat tour of less than six miles through the park's Upper Geyser Basin, home to one-fourth of the active geysers in the world.
For other family trip ideas, see My Top 10 Family Adventures.
Traveler: Some might say your family is exceptional, that to take kids as young as 7 and 9 on kayaking trips in Glacier Bay is too demanding. Is it?
ML: I would say my kids are exceptional, but I'm biased. The truth is that we started taking our kids outdoors before they could walk and made it a regular part of our family lifestyle, and once they were moving under their own power, we started very easy and slowly built up to bigger, more challenging adventures. Pushing them too hard is a recipe for disaster. The key is to understand what they're ready for and make the experience one they will enjoy, so that they want to go out again and again.
You mentioned Glacier Bay; my wife and I gave a lot of thought to whether they were ready for five days of potentially cold, wet weather in sea kayaks, and dangers like water cold enough to kill you within minutes if a kayak capsized, and camping in a wilderness inhabited by brown bears. Given that they were nine and seven years old, the question wasn't whether they had enough sea kayaking experience--they certainly did not--but whether they understood the need to follow instructions and would not be likely to hurt themselves through reckless behavior like just running and falling on rugged ground.
I also considered whether they were ready emotionally for scary situations--like a bear approaching us (which never happened)--as well as long periods of great discomfort, like having to paddle for hours through cold rain (as we did have to do). My wife and I decided they were ready for it because, by that point, our kids had rock climbed, cross-country skied through snowstorms to backcountry yurts, hiked up to 10 miles a day, and backpacked in the Grand Canyon and other hard places. They also knew and accepted that wilderness trips sometimes have difficult moments.
It turned out they did great and Glacier Bay remains a favorite all-time family trip for all of us. But part of the reason for that success was that we gave serious consideration to whether our kids were ready for it. If we had decided otherwise, we wouldn't have gone.
I offer much more advice along these lines in my article 10 Tips For Raising Outdoors-Loving Kids.
Traveler: How can you get your kids involved once they are "tweens" or young teens, if you haven't laid the ground work years earlier?
ML: That becomes more challenging sometimes, depending on the kid's personality, but certainly not impossible. My kids are now 12 and almost 10, and as they've gotten older, I've tried to involve them more in the trip-planning process, to hear what they want to do and accommodate their desires. That way, they have buy-in on the plan and are more likely to be satisfied with what you do.
A year ago, as we were planning a spring trip to southern Utah, my son said the one thing he wanted to do was explore a slot canyon. So we took the kids down a technical slot canyon in Capitol Reef National Park--"technical" in the sense that it required ropes, climbing gear, and rappelling skills. That was another adventure we thought hard about before attempting, including me discussing the route with a guide friend who knew it well, and looking at his photos of it, before we decided the kids were ready for it. And again, they did great.
Let your kids be involved in decisions about the trips you take as a family, but make them also understand that it's not entirely their decision. Most of all, find a trip that will excite them. Sometimes kids respond very positively to an adventure that really challenges them--it can provide the inspiration that makes them want to go out again.
I have a nephew who first hiked and backpacked with my family when he was 10 or 11--his first experience--and has since taken several hiking trips and gone whitewater rafting with us. He pleads with his parents every year to fly him out for another adventure with us. For most kids, of any ages, these experiences are inspirational.
Lastly, with teenagers, the golden rule is to invite one of their friends along.
Traveler: Any trips/adventures that you would set a minimum age limit on?
ML: I've partly answered that question above. But thinking more about it, I wouldn't insist on a minimum age so much as to suggest evaluating maturity level and a kid's physical ability to do something.
Some examples will better illustrate my point. When backpacking with our kids, I've been very careful to avoid making them carry too much weight in their own pack, and that was just a function of how much each kid weighed and how ready they were emotionally for that burden.
My 12-year-old son is getting more into rock climbing and wants to belay me when I lead climb; but he still weighs less than 90 pounds, so it might jerk his small body very hard trying to catch me taking a leader fall when I'm about 70 pounds heavier than him. There's also a question of maturity, which I think about on two levels: First of all, belaying is a huge responsibility that requires total attention, which is harder for a child than for most adults. Second, I don't want to put him in a position where he might make a mistake that results in me getting badly hurt--I don't want him to have to live with that guilt.
So I will be very conservative in determining when he's ready to belay. Whitewater rafting or kayaking poses hazards that are greater for children because of body weight (kids could more easily be thrown from a raft or pinned underwater) and maturity level, which is why guides generally require minimum ages.
But to flip your question around: As long as you're slowly building your kids up to bigger adventures, they will probably do fine. I have been repeatedly impressed by how well my kids do on challenging trips. Kids are amazingly resilient.