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Kids and the Outdoors: 10 Tips

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It was getting near midnight on February 6, 2005, when my life changed forever in a hospital room on the banks of the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis. Her name was Gwendolyn Mia, and at 9 pounds 3 ounces my new baby daughter signaled the end of an era for me as a lifelong connoisseur of all things outdoors.

The preceding summer and fall, in anticipation of a five-year sentence of diapers and cribs, I’d run a marathon, climbed Mt. Rainier, led an adventure-racing team and snuck away to Utah for a week of canyoneering in Grand Staircase-Escalante. Cram it all in while I still could, I’d reasoned.

What I didn’t know at the time was this: While children can slow you down, they hardly have to end an adventurous lifestyle. Indeed, since Gwen’s birth — and then Charlie, our second child, born two years later — my wife Tara and I have discovered new ways to keep active, fit and in touch with the outdoors, even with two munchkins in tow.

Father (Stephen) and daughter (Gwen) hiking in Norway

In truth, introducing our children to the outdoors — be it during one of our countless weekend getaways or on the nine-day road trip we took through Norway and Sweden — has been enlightening. This winter, Gwen learned how to ski. Seeing in her eyes the utter joy and exhilaration of gliding fast on snow brought me back to when I first fell in love with the sport.

And that’s only one example. Over the past four years, our kids have camped, traveled, biked, hiked (alone and in carriers) and climbed outdoors and in gyms. They’ve also sampled more obscure sports, including ski-joring and orienteering, which are two of daddy’s current obsessions.

Stay adventurous and your kids will likely follow suit. I hiked off behind my dad into the woods three decades ago. Today, Gwen wants to run trails, bike and climb mountains “way above the clouds” with her dad just as soon as she can.

Rub off your love of the outdoors by keeping yourself and your children involved. Here are 10 points my wife and I have employed — some tangible tips, some unorthodox bits of advice — to keep our kids safe, interested, happy, comfortable and always amazed in the world outdoors.

Tip #1: Normalize the Outdoors
I know adults who — sadly — have never slept outdoors in a tent or under the stars. Thankfully, my kids had become camping veterans by six months of age. We are purposefully raising Gwen and Charlie in an environment where adventure is a given and the outdoors is a natural and fun place to play. Our hope is that they won’t ever think that sleeping, eating, cooking and playing outside is beyond the norm. And it’s not just us. Anyone can teach their kids to appreciate being outside, starting at the playground or in your backyard, and moving on to camping trips, canoeing and beyond.

Tara and Charlie heading into a cave

Tip #2: Get Quality Kids’ Gear
Want your kids’ gear to perform as well as your own? Several outdoors companies now make products for kids with quality standards formerly found only in adult-oriented gear. Take the CamelBak Skeeter, for example. This kid-size hydration pack holds 35 fluid ounces of water and employs the same reservoir and bite-valve as mom’s race pack. Consider, too, the Julbo Looping sunglasses. This pair of 100% UV-protective shades is made for the under-3-years-old crowd. Gwen and Charlie have both sported these symmetrical Julbos, which can be worn right side up or upside down. Bonus: The glasses have a no-hinge frame that’s nearly unbreakable and tested in our household to be baby-proof. For older kids, the Novara Pulse 26’‘ Kids’ Road Bike has Shimano components, 16 speeds and 26-inch wheels for maximum efficiency and speed. Those are just a few examples.

Tip #3: Slow Down
If you used to hike 10 miles in a morning without children, cut that figure in half (or more) once you strap a little one to your back. My wife Tara and I still hike in the same areas as we did prior to Gwen’s arrival. But now we might take the two-mile loop instead of the five-mile one. Kids weigh you down. You’ll need to stop often. And if they’re walking, their curiosity will be insatiable — they will stop and inspect every stick and overturned stone along the way.

Tip #4: Stick to Appropriate Activities
I dropped ice climbing from my repertoire of winter activities once our kids were born. Cold conditions and falling ice did not gibe with toddlers exploring the nearby woods in snowsuits, and Tara couldn’t hold one of them while I was on belay. I have switched gears with other pursuits. My weekly outdoors schedule now reflects more inclusive and easier-to-approach activities. Tara and I run in the city or bike with the kids in a seat or tow-behind. Hiking works with kids of any age. Instead of ultra-light backpacking, we now car camp more often. Scavenger hunts replace map-and-compass games for the little kids. Yes, we’ve made some compromises, but the alternatives so far are not bad at all.

Gwen at Lake Superior

Tip #5: Find Some Alone Time
I am fortunate to be able to still have adult adventures at least a couple times a month with friends. A gracious wife, as well as grandparents in town, have offered much-needed time away to climb, mountain bike, adventure race and participate in those activities I do not want to drop. As the kids get older, I see them joining me on the singletrack outside Moab, mountain climbs in the Cascades or orienteering races in the woods of northern Minnesota.

Tip #6: Optimize Air Travel
Many outdoors adventures begin with a flight. With kids, some extra consideration and planning can make air travel much more smooth. Tip number 1: Book a row of seats. If possible, get the bulkhead row, where you’ll find more leg room, no one in front of you (just a wall), and a nice floor area for the kids to roam when the “fasten seatbelts” light is not illuminated. We flew an 11-hour Minneapolis-Newark-Stockholm route when Gwen was six months old and got the bulkhead. A flight attendant even had a nifty bassinet we could attach in front of the seat. Gwen slept, graciously, “like a baby,” for much of that flight. Two other tips: Kids under two often can fly free as long as they sit on a parent’s lap (which is where they will often be anyways). Finally, consider purchasing late-night or redeye tickets and your kids might snooze the whole way home.

Tip #7: Make Car Travel Fun
Want a quick way to wreck the first couple hours of a car-camping trip? Start with temper tantrums and breakdowns in the car. Been there, done that. Or, instead, plan ahead. Ready your kids’ toys, books, drawing pads and stuffed animals. Plan your drive around nap time. Bring snacks. Stash water bottles and spill-proof sip cups. Play games in the car — “20 Questions,” anyone? Last resorts include one parent buckling in between the car seats in back to entertain and comfort. Final straw: Break out the portable DVD player and let them watch “Dora the Explorer.” The sing-alongs might drive you mad. But we’ll do almost anything to keep our kids from crashing and burning on a long trip.

Gondola ride at Lutsen Mountains, Minn.

Tip #8: Bring the Kids
My day job as a freelance writer has me traveling at least once every month. When and where I can, I bring the family along. The key is planning ahead and balancing my work — often day-long trips to cover an event or activity — and spending time with the family. On a recent week in California, I balanced family beach time and hiking in the Santa Monica Mountains with a mountaineering trip run by REI Adventures in Sequoia National Park (an adventure I was covering for GearJunkie.com). Everyone’s situation is different. I have friends who once or twice a year stretch business trips over a long weekend, bringing the family along or meeting up with them later for some after-workweek fun.

Tip #9: Sleep Soundly
My brother has a huge tent, and he totes a portable playpen to set up inside the shelter for stashing his baby in as she drifts off to sleep. This works best for infants or toddlers under two years old. Alternatively, my wife and I have long adopted the “cocoon”-style sleep system, which entails both adults and a small child or two snuggled together in a double-wide sleeping bag. (We are used to kids in our bed at home, so the strategy transfers easily to the outdoors.) Our sleeping bag of choice has been Big Agnes’ Dream Island +15 Double, which measures more than 50 inches wide — just enough room for a snuggled family sleeping warm through the night.

Tip #10: Be Ready with Snacks
Few things gain kids’ attention — and offer a moment of quiet — like a treat. On a hike, I often bring raisins, granola bars or kid-oriented energy products like Clif’s Kid Organic ZBar. Mention a snack and kids’ focus and attention will change. Food can be used as a motivator or reward on a hike. Hate to say it, but we’ve bribed Gwen more than once to help her push her limits a little with a dangled treat: “Hike up this last hill and we’ll give you a bite of a ZBar.” Make it a tasty and healthy food combined with a healthy activity, and there are no hard feelings in the end.

—Stephen Regenold writes a daily blog on outdoors gear at www.gearjunkie.com.

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