By Michael Lanza
In the Digital Era, the idea of families spending sustained time outdoors—actually taking trips built around some outdoor adventure enjoyed together—can feel like a wonderful aspiration that’s awfully hard to achieve. But that lifestyle is a reality for many families—and always has been for mine—and one that brings parents and children together for long periods of time (hours or even days!) in beautiful places in nature for an activity that’s genuinely fun and, most importantly, unplugged.
How do you create that kind of lifestyle for your family? As the father of two young adults who are avid backpackers, skiers, climbers, paddlers, and intelligent, fine young people who make me proud, I believe this goal remains not only entirely feasible today, but all that much more critical—especially for kids.
And when it’s done right, you and your children will consider the time you spend together outdoors some of the best you share as a family.
For this story, I’ve synthesized the biggest lessons I’ve gleaned from two decades of parenting outdoors as often as possible—and four decades building my life around outdoor recreation, including formerly a field editor for Backpacker magazine for 10 years and even longer running this blog—into seven tips that will help set you on the path to wonderful family experiences.
Click on any photo to read about that trip. Please share your questions or your own tips in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments. Click on any photo to read about that trip.
Table of Contents
No. 1: Don’t ‘Wait Until They’re Older’
For starters, abandon any misguided notion that you should “wait until the kids are older”—that’s a formula for winding up with a ‘tweener or teen who’s not interested in any of your wild-eyed notions about spending family time outdoors.
My initial motivation was admittedly somewhat selfish. One lesson I learned soon after becoming a father was this: If I wanted to keep getting outside—and especially on big trips—as much as I had before parenthood, I would have to involve my family in the activities I love doing. (That’s why that tip ranks no. 2 in my “10 Tips For Getting Outside More.”) But I also understood that making that effort when they were small would pay dividends as they grew older and more capable.
As I urge in my “Survival Guide for the Outdoors Lover Who’s a New Parent,” take your kids outside often, beginning when they’re too young to remember it—then their oldest memories will include being outdoors with their family. They will learn that getting outdoors together as a family is almost as routine as dinner.
That’s not to say it’s ever too late to start, of course. It’s never too late to spend quality time together.
Want to take your family backpacking? See these expert e-guides:
“The Best First Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon”
“The Best First Backpacking Trip in Yosemite”
“The Best Backpacking Trip in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains”
No. 2: When You Need It, Get Expert Help
You want to get your kids outdoors more, exploring nature, and enjoying the myriad experiences available in local, state, and national parks; but you and your spouse lack the skills and knowledge to even know where to begin, never mind keep everyone safe. That’s not an obstacle—everyone begins as a novice. There are free programs, many of them family-oriented, available on public lands all over the country, and numerous paid guide services—an abundance of expertise available to help you acquire experience and skills.
As just one example, when planning a visit to a national park, search the park’s website for ranger-led activities, like hikes, that are usually free or low-cost and ideal for families and beginners; you’ll find them at virtually every national park and many other public lands. Those websites also list guide services and outfitters that are licensed to operate in that park.
For instance, you can find guided tours of all kinds in Yellowstone, guided hikes in Glacier National Park, river trips through the Grand Canyon, and climbing guides operating in Grand Teton National Park and on Mount Rainier, and ranger-led tours and interpretive programs in almost any park, including Yosemite, Carlsbad Caverns, and an adventurous, ranger-guided tour of the Fiery Furnace in Arches.
See all of the stories about family trips listed at my Family Adventures page at The Big Outside, including stories about guided whitewater rafting Idaho’s Middle Fork Salmon River and Utah’s Gates of Lodore section of the Green River in Dinosaur National Monument and the Green River’s Desolation and Gray canyons, climbing Mount Whitney, guided hiking and slot canyoneering in Capitol Reef National Park, sea kayaking in Alaska’s Glacier Bay, and kayak touring in the Everglades.
See also my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can help you plan your next family adventure..
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No. 3: Talk and Listen to Them
From the longer perspective of a father of young adults, of all the advice that I offer in my popular “10 Tips For Raising Outdoors-Loving Kids,” I think the two best nuggets of hard-earned wisdom are simply “talk and listen” and “work your P.R.”
When planning a trip, make your children feel like they’re part of the decision-making process. Welcome their questions, address their concerns, and give them some say in what you’re doing. They will be more emotionally invested in making it a success.
Your children crave your attention; shower them with it, especially positive reinforcement. Compliment kids when they do well and encourage them when they’re challenged. Tell children they’re good hikers, skiers, climbers, paddlers, or cyclists, and they will take pride in that. You will help them self-identify as a kid who likes being outdoors.
I can help you plan the best backpacking, hiking, or family adventure of your life.
Click here now to learn more.
No. 4: Take One-on-One, Parent-Child Trips
When my son and daughter were both very young, I established a tradition of taking an annual father-son and father-daughter backcountry trip, getaways that have become known as our “Boy Trip” and “Girl Trip.” (At a young age, my daughter gave me a waiver for my gender.)
By launching this idea when they were young and eager for entire days of one-on-one time with me, I created a tradition that my kids would look forward to as much as I did.
While most of our trips have consisted of backpacking and rock climbing in our home state of Idaho, I’ve also backpacked in the Grand Canyon with my daughter and climbed Mount Whitney with my son (click on the photos above and at left to read about either trip).
But it matters less what you do or where than simply that you do it, give your child your entire attention, make it fun, and demonstrate your commitment to it—so that, as your child gets older, the shared commitment remains strong.
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No. 5: Blow Their Minds
Taking outdoors trips with little kids can, at times, create that defeated feeling of herding cats; but in some ways, it’s easier than when they get older, because you’re still in charge while they’re young. As they get older, they not only want more say in decisions about family outings and vacations, but they tend to come down with a chronic case of cynicism—everything is potentially “boring.”
Solution: Overwhelm their cynicism with trips so irrefutably fun that your offer becomes one they can’t refuse. One of my “10 Tips For Getting Your Teenager Outdoors With You” is: Do something really cool.
As our kids grew older and more physically capable, comfortable with bigger challenges, and self-confident, we took them exploring slot canyons, including two non-technical, family-friendly slots in southern Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and a technical slot canyon that required four rappels in Capitol Reef National Park.
We rafted and kayaked whitewater rivers like Oregon’s Grand Ronde, Utah’s Green through Dinosaur National Monument, and Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon (and we have our third trip scheduled—for which my entire family is very psyched). We’ve backpacked and trekked hut to hut in amazing landscapes from the Tetons and Glacier National Park to the Tour du Mont Blanc and Italy’s Dolomite Mountains. I regularly take them rock climbing and skiing.
No, it doesn’t have to be totally hard-core, involve international travel, or cost a small fortune. The point is simply to be willing to rise to the challenge of motivating your kids when they’ve grown a little tired of the same old. The fact that they want to step up to a higher level of outdoor adventure means you’ve been successful.
Make your kids want to go again. See “The 10 Best Family Outdoor Adventure Trips.”
No. 6: Recruit Another Family
From the first river trip we ever took as a family—a beginner-friendly, five-day float down the Green River in Canyonlands National Park—to hiking in Yosemite, backpacking Paria Canyon and the Needles District of Canyonlands, and skiing to backcountry yurts, as well as other trips, we have frequently brought other kids, another family, or multiple families along for the adventure.
Not only do the kids get energized by more peers, but it’s more social and fun for everyone—and adds the benefit of spreading the work out among the adults (when children are too young to be much help). Bring another family regularly into your trips, and you create more voices motivating the movement toward always planning the next one.
Get the right backpack for you and your kid.
See “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs” and the best ultralight backpacks.
No. 7: Pick a Shared Goal
When my son was 15, I proposed to him that he and I (for our annual Boy Trip) climb a mountaineering route up the highest peak in the contiguous United States, California’s 14,505-foot Mount Whitney, to raise money for an organization that introduces kids his age to the outdoors. He leapt at the suggestion.
Motivated by this goal, he joined me in spending the next several months training for it. After we successfully reached the summit, in our tent that night at our base camp at 12,000 feet, he told me it was “the best trip we’ve ever done, and it makes me excited to do bigger ones and climb more mountains like this.”
I told him I would love that.
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Bonus Tip: Don’t Worry, Just Take It Slow
If your family is entirely new to hiking or any outdoors endeavors, it’s okay. You have time. Take baby steps, learn as you go, and follow your gut instincts in choosing what’s right for your family. Seek a balance between encouraging everyone to try something new and not pushing so hard that anyone gets discouraged.
The only important goal is to keep making the effort to get out there. The rest will work out.
See more tips about walking that fine line in my “10 Tips for Keeping Kids Happy and Safe Outdoors” and “The 5 Best Tips For Hiking With Young Kids,” and my story “5 Questions to Ask Before Trying That New Outdoor Adventure.”