As the Northwest Editor for Backpacker Magazine, Michael Lanza has seen how climate change is affecting our environment, especially our national parks. In an effort to share these special places with his young children before they’re changed forever, he spent a year exploring the most threatened places with his family and chronicled their adventures in Before They’re Gone: A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks. We asked this daring dad for advice on getting kids excited about the great outdoors. —BBL Editor
I have a favorite photograph of my son, Nate, hiking across the granite slabs of Lembert Dome in Yosemite National Park: arms swinging, legs striding with purpose, looking very much like an adult intent on reaching the summit. He made that climb of about a mile and a half and almost a thousand feet uphill—then fell asleep, so I carried him down. He was just shy of his second birthday.
In fact, I have many pictures of him and my daughter, Alex, two years younger than Nate, from countless family hikes and other outdoor adventures. What most surprises people about these images is how young they are for what they’re doing.
My kids have many times hiked more miles in one day than their ages in years (most recently, a 12-mile day while backpacking in Grand Teton National Park, with Nate age 10 and Alex eight). The year they were six and four, we cross-country skied three miles through a snowstorm to a backcountry yurt, rafted the Green River for five days through the wilderness of Canyonlands National Park, and hiked in the Scottish Highlands.
Honestly, I never push them; I believe that’s the best way to condition your kids to dislike the outdoors. Instead, I try to make it so much fun that Nate and Alex ask when we’re taking our next trip. Just this past March, when my wife, Penny, and I asked them what they wanted to do over their spring break, they suggested backpacking and exploring slot canyons—those deep, narrow crevices in rock carved out by flash floods. So we went to Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park, backpacked for three days, and spent one day descending a slot canyon that involved four rappels and a long section where we squeezed between walls less than two feet apart. Alex and Nate loved it—and beamed with pride over doing it.
I think that raising kids who are enthusiastic about the outdoors comes down to a handful of basic guidelines.
1. Take baby steps. Don’t push kids too hard. Start small, with short hikes, and work gradually up to longer outings. There are times when a little encouragement will coax a child forward and times when you have to realize that this adventure will have to wait for another day.
2. In parenting, bribery is legal. Bring along motivators like their favorite candy bar and stuffed animal. Give kids their own gear (headlamp, walkie-talkie, etc.). Remember: a kid who looks tired and grumpy is often just hungry; take a break and shovel food at him.
3. Tear up your agenda. Taking children outdoors does not always follow the script. You want to hike; they want to throw rocks in a creek. Let them. Let your teenager bring a friend. Don’t be wedded to your plans. Still, don’t relinquish all control: Tell your kids that there will be time for playing, but also a time for hiking (or whatever the activity).
4. Talk and listen. Establish a rule: no whining. But also discuss with your kids what you will be doing, so that they feel like they’re part of the decision-making process. Talk about upcoming trips—it builds anticipation and sets up a positive experience. Tell your kids they’re good hikers, skiers, cyclists, etc., and they will take pride in that.
5. Walk the walk. The most active kids I know have parents who make outdoor recreation not just the occasional thing they do on vacation, but part of their lifestyle. That’s the best way to instill that same passion in your children. Plus, it’s a great life.
Need more inspiration? Watch Lanza’s video about his book: