Inside the Sawtooth National Recreation Area office outside tiny Stanley, Idaho, I told a ranger that my son and I were setting off on a three-day, 18-mile backpacking trip in the Sawtooth Mountains, where we’d camp by remote mountain lakes and cross a pass at over 9,000 feet. He turned to size up my six-year-old son, Nate, who stood quietly holding his stuffed dolphin. Frowning skeptically, the ranger said to me, “You know, that’s a pretty rugged hike.”
I tried to reassure him that this little boy—who weighed less than the hefty pack I would carry, which contained all of our gear, food, and clothes—had already, as a kindergartener, probably hiked more than most Americans ten times his age. But I think we left there with that ranger feeling certain he would find us days later with our bones picked clean by coyotes.
Nate and I survived without incident, of course, and had a memorable adventure. On our first night in the backcountry, we laid with our sleeping bags side by side, listening to one tectonic rumble of thunder after another and repeatedly exclaiming, “Wow, did you hear that one?!” Hiking over that high pass on day two, I saw the glassy look of weariness in his eyes; but when we reached a campsite near Toxaway Lake that afternoon, I watched how the sight of a creek flowing past our camp suddenly rejuvenated him. He played in it for two hours, while I set up camp and made our dinner.
That evening, we huddled together on a granite slab beside the lake. With my arm around his shoulders, we talked until long after dark about space travel—both of us planning to do it—and which dinosaurs would have beat other dinosaurs in a fight.
More than a decade has, somehow, slid past since that trip. Nate is now 17, and our daughter, Alex, is 15. They have backpacked, skied, rock climbed, and paddled sea kayaks, canoes, and whitewater kayaks in more national parks and wilderness areas than they can remember, going back to an age before they could form memories that lasted for more than a day.
It has certainly not always been easy—especially when they were very young. But backpacking, climbing, skiing, and paddling had been central to my wife, Penny’s, and my lifestyle for years before we became parents. When babies came along, I suppose we were too stubborn (or arguably too naïve) to give up what we loved doing.
And somewhere between the long nights of toddlers vomiting into sleeping bags in a small tent and our school-age son forgetting to bring a fleece and a rain jacket for a five-day backpacking trip (guess who gave up his down jacket), our children grew into eager and experienced backcountry adventurers.
Our kids have seen more places than I knew existed at their age. They have stood atop peaks from Mount St. Helens to Mount Whitney and many in between. They have gazed in awe at sea lions, seals, bald eagles, and calving glaciers while paddling sea kayaks in Alaska’s Glacier Bay, and at numerous exotic birds and alligators while paddling canoes in the Everglades. They’ve laughed through many big rapids on whitewater rivers.
They’ve backpacked in the Grand Tetons and Grand Canyon, Glacier and Olympic, Sequoia, Zion, Canyonlands, Mount Rainier and other national parks and wilderness areas. They have trekked hut to hut through Italy’s Dolomite Mountains, Norway’s Jotunheimen National Park, and around Mont Blanc. They have ski toured in Yellowstone and, many times, carried backpacks skiing to backcountry yurts. (Several of those are on my list of “The 10 Best Family Outdoor Adventure Trips.”)
I don’t mean to brag about my kids. I actually think it’s unfortunate that what my children perceive as “normal” shocks many people. The truth is, our kids have done so much mostly because we did not accept the assumption that they couldn’t.
And now, even as teenagers with a normal surplus of cynicism, they still excitedly anticipate each upcoming trip. That may seem amazing to some parents. But it comes as no surprise to me.
How do parents raise children like this?
Ideally, you begin when your child is young, but it’s not too late until they’ve grown up. In one of the most popular stories at my blog, “10 Tips For Raising Outdoors-Loving Kids,” I lay out some hard-earned lessons I’ve gleaned over the years. But I think the two most important tips in that list are “Tear Up Your Agenda” and “Talk and Listen.”
Young children thrive on the attention of their parents. Even teens want your approval, no matter how hard they try to avoid you. Give it to them in an outdoors setting, and they’ll associate the outdoors with the reward of your attention.
Our kids have blossomed into experienced and eager backpackers, climbers, whitewater kayakers, and skiers, exceptional students, and fine young people with diverse interests, abundant curiosity, and nice friends. I’m certain these experiences instill in them tremendous self-confidence that translates to all aspects of their lives. Their grounding in the outdoors is molding them into better people and informed citizens—a resource we can certainly never have too much of.
But here’s the single greatest benefit of our family time outdoors: We have only nature and each other. That’s it. No distracting electronic devices. No other commitments. On our family wilderness adventures, we spend hours a day talking, telling stories, sharing our thoughts, and laughing.
That, to me, is irreplaceable, especially today, when so many of us, adults and kids, spend so much of our time on devices instead of interacting with family members in the next room. As I wrote in this story at my blog: I’m convinced that the outdoors is saving my kids’ lives.
I’ve thought many times about that Sawtooths trip years ago with Nate—including last summer, as he and I spent a day rock climbing together at Idaho’s City of Rocks National Reserve.
After topping out on our final route of the day—a 150-foot pitch that he led—Nate and I stood together atop a granite spire, admiring our 360-degree panorama of hundreds of rock towers rising above the high desert, and creek bottoms greened up by conifer and aspen trees. Then he turned to me and said, “Isn’t it great that you and I can do things like this together, just the two of us?”
He meant that we could now share adult-scale adventures like rock climbing—and I told him emphatically, yes, I love these times. But my mind scrolled through memories reaching back through the years of countless such moments with my family, each of them a small piece of gold.
Then Nate threw an arm around my shoulders—mimicking what I’ve done many times to him—and said, “Yea, me, too.”
Photo credit: Michael Lanza
Additional Reading & Resources
Read more of Mike’s writing on his blog, The Big Outside
CAMPING WHILE PARENTING: A Mother-Son Adventure
TOGETHER IN NATURE: The Impact of the Family Nature Club “Family”
MOTHER’S DAY: Mom’s Gifts of Nature
Force of Nature: Putting Women Front & Center Outdoors – REI.com
CHOOSE NATURE, TOGETHER: And Know When to Press Pause
Family Nature Clubs
Nature Clubs for Families Tool Kit
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