Ease Your Kids Into the Outdoors


HIking at Bishop Peak near San Luis Obispo, California

For parents, few joys compare to sharing a favorite activity with their kids—of rediscovering a thrill through a child’s eye. This especially rings true with outdoor experiences, where a budding adventurer might need a little nurturing to bloom.

Take backpacking, for example. I think it is one of the most sublime activities. I love the escape, the simplicity, the exertion, the views! But if you’d tried to drag me out in the backcountry at a tender young age, I probably would have resisted a bit. To help kids discover the romance of the wilderness, it’s best to ease them into the experience—lest they get spooked by blisters, bears or boredom.

To learn more, I sat down with my coworker Craig Mackey, who is Outdoor Industry Association’s director of recreation policy. This guy lives and breathes the outdoors. He’s been with OIA for three years. He helped write the original Leave No Trace principles. He spent 18 years working on public land issues for clients such as Outward Bound, American Alpine Club and American Mountain Guides Association. He’s got outdoor recreation in his blood.

Craig loves to backpack. For him, there’s nothing like the solitude, the scenery, and the satisfaction that comes from busting your tail up a mountain pass to earn a view.

Everyone knows there’s a bit of work to exploring the backcountry. But that’s also the appeal. Your existence is simplified to basic tasks of pitching a tent, fashioning a rain tarp, cooking a meal, watching the stars. Free from distraction, you’re forced to live in the moment and enjoy the company you keep.

Craig has taken his family on many backpacking trips over the years, starting when his kids were in middle school. They love it. His son packs a fly rod. His daughter photographs critters and flowers. They pitch in with cooking, pumping water, building fires. It’s a great family experience, and everyone relishes the feeling of accomplishment. After all, no fish tastes better than the one you catch yourself.

What’s the secret? According to Craig, it’s breaking in the kids slowly, and making sure they know what to expect. He took his kids on plenty of day hikes before ever attempting an overnighter. They went car camping. He made sure they were really comfortable outdoors. Before the family’s first backcountry adventure, he described what it would be like.

“Kids have to anticipate what’s coming,” Craig told me. So true. Too much of the unexpected can lead to temper tantrums. No one wants that!

His children are now 20 and 18, and the whole family still goes backpacking together. That’s a good sign—when your kids are old enough to do whatever they want, and they still ask to go camping with you.

I asked Craig to tell me about any family backpacking disasters. There’s nothing like a little adversity to build character, right? Lord knows I’ve had my share of blunders—excessively long slogs to campsites, running out of food, leaky tents, inadequate clothing, poorly chosen routes. But Craig just gave me a long pause. He couldn’t think of any big mishaps! One time dinner for five ended up all over the ground. But there were no tales of being ill-prepared or caught unaware. That’s the Boy Scout in him. And it makes for a more predictable, enjoyable experience for kids.

For those kids whose families aren’t outdoor-inclined, there’s no need to despair. The Outdoor Foundation is a non-profit established by Outdoor Industry Association to grow future generations of outdoor enthusiasts. The Foundation’s Outdoor Nation initiative is all about reconnecting youth with the outdoors. This year Outdoor Nation is hosting 10 youth summits to cultivate youth ambassadors, with more planned for next year.

Be it a parent with kids or an Outdoor Nation ambassador leading outdoor excursions, the mentorship chain is so important. Do you know someone who could use a little boost? Take some time to share your love of the outdoors. You might just be surprised at who gets more out of it—you, or the one you take outside.

Ease Your Kids Into the Outdoors ,


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