It's one subject that everyone seems to avoid in the back-country. I daresay it's even more controversial than bolts/chopping bolts, the purpose of 200 mile slogs, or the benefits/costs of Lake Powell.
Why is it so unpopular? Most of us have kids, and we all were kids once. Still, most outdoor peeps love a crag dog and will "oooh" and "aah" over an obnoxious pup getting tangled in their gear, but will groan when they see a few kids at a climbing crag. Even in Utah, other peoples' children are generally viewed as distasteful as the little bags of dog poop the poop fairy forgot to come back and pick up off of the trail.
Fortunately, kids are nearly as common.
"the backcountry parent"
"free range parenting"
"little training partners"
The titles we use are amusing and endless...
I have two kids. I'm a single mom. I love my kids, and I love being a mom in the wilderness more than anything else... But I am also familiar with seeking the refuge of the wilderness and coming upon a 4 year old amid a temper tantrum. I want to touch on two of the perks of being an "outdoor parent" I'm hoping will encourage parents to take their kids out. I've been hauling my boys camping and rock climbing since they were a week old. It's intimidating to take kids out, and it is a lot of work, especially when they are young. The benefits far outweigh the costs, though, so below are a few tidbits of advice for the newer back-country parent I've picked up hiking/ rockclimbing/ biking /canyoneering/ SUPing/ backpacking weekly with my two boys over the last 11 years...
1. The Bonds
When we are at our most vulnerable, we open up, and we bond. The back-country has a way of whittling us down to basic needs: food, water, sleep, surviving danger, peace. We tend to bond with those we are with, particularly through more "epic" times of risk or hardship. It is a particularly special thing to share that with your children. To see them overcome, to trust you completely, to encourage you creates unforgettable bonds and memories. Recently, my two boys did their first 3AII PG canyon.
Whilst in the canyon, I occasionally had to act as a human chokestone with my kids downclimbing to me, and then spotting one another below me (literally giving one another a hand). The most meaningful part of the day was a long section where I had to stem high with a gear bag, while my boys walked below. My eldest, seeing how exhausted I became, scrambled up some rocks where the canyon started to widen, so he was level with me. From there, he shouted encouragements to me, and once I was close enough, he came and took the bag so I could do the last bit of stemming without the added weight. A full circle drawn - my 10 year old helped me through a physically demanding and spooky part of a canyon.
2. The Future
These kids are going to be the ones preserving the places we love as we age, they will be the ones educating their peers on trail courtesy, the will be the artists using nature as their inspiration. In nature, we have less and we become more. While we may not always go to the wilderness for altruistic reasons, the meditative qualities of nature seem to make us more altruistic people. I feel it's opened my children's eyes to see how they can help one another, or me - and even more importantly, it's given them insight and perspective. It's given us time to talk about some of the hard things in life: divorce, being bullied at school, fitting in, introvert/extrovert, when others act out because they're hurt...
As a non-parent, even if other kids annoy you, and you retreat to the wilderness to be away from that "noise," remember that these kids will associate your interactions with them with their memories of wilderness. You have every right to play offensive music, do drugs, etc at the base of a crag - and I have every right to let my kids scream there for hours while you try to send. Neither of us want these things, correct? (and both of us can limit these things!) ;-) My boys will one day be grown-up stewards of wilderness and highly contributing members of society, and they should be respected as such. Sometimes a kind word to another's child, a smile, or mere courtesy goes a long way in encouraging kids little legs to accomplish big and difficult things.
Tidbits I hope are useful when adventuring with little ones:
- Lows are 0's and highs are 10, so keep perspective: I was told that with kids, your lows outdoors are 0s, and before they were only 2s. It's one thing to be out of food, water, and be miserable... And it's another to watch your child be miserable. Particularly memorable for me is a day climbing in Indian Creek, when one toddler got diarrhea (pack it in pack it out - guess who held little doggie bags all day?) and the other toddler peed on the bag of food for the day. The highs are 10s though - whatever exhilaration you feel running to the top of a mountain or exploring a new canyon - it doesn't compare to the feeling of doing that same exact thing with your child, with them on the same high you're on. Watching my son run as hard as he could up the summit of a 12,000 ft peak in the Tushars in the rain, pushing his limits, and witnessing his sense of accomplishment, is far more rewarding than performing well in a race.
- Assess the risks, know their limits: When you take kids into the wilderness, you are making the risk assessments for everyone involved. They aren't going to know if they're skiing in avalanche terrain, if the anchor is sketchy, if storms are brewing. Hopefully we can teach them these things, but you as their parent are the primary resource for their risk assessments. Also, help them to do activities within their physical abilities. Don't drag them up a mountain that's 4000 ft vertical gain and 14 miles round trip if they haven't been physically active, or don't try to have them ski or climb something way out of their ability levels. Have them workout with you, hike or bike, and build a bit of a base fitness so that when they do more physically demanding things, their little legs are at least a little bit used to it. I also always bring extra - extra headlamps, water, snacks, more snacks, and more snacks and layers for kids.
- It's all about the experience: The ultimate goal is that they will find a sport, and community, that they can have a long term relationship with in the wilderness. I don't want my boys to burn out, and I don't want them to feel like they have to excel to love what they do. Keep it fun! Bring suckers for summits, dance on the trail, make up mad libs while you hike, take breaks from kayaking to swim and splash, sit and watch the alpenglow. Help them learn to make it fun and love it.
- Long live the memories: Show them photos and reflect often on what they did. Teach them that they are strong and can do hard things. Remind them that things (like life) are difficult, and that they are strong and capable. Build their confidence - my boys take pride in the height of the peaks they've climbed; they love reading trip reports of adults getting spooked doing canyons they've done. It builds their self confidence, and gives them fuel for when things get tough on the next adventure to remember the times (and photos and videos) from overcoming obstacles on prior adventures.
- Use others experiences, but don't be afraid to try things on your own: I do a lot of research on kids who have done things I'd like to take my kids to do. I didn't grow up doing any of the sports I do now, so I don't have experience being taught it as a child, nor do I have experience interacting with the sports from a child's perspective. I use resources whenever I can find them - and when I can't, I try and learn on my own. This summer, I want to take the boys on a 3 day SUP/kayak adventure through a northern chute of Lake Powell, and since I personally have no experience doing this with kids, I'll be relying on words of wisdom from others and hopefully I'll convince some friends to come with us, because sharing the experience makes it more fun for all of us :)
Thanks to all of you parents who take your kids out, you inspire me.
It's scary and difficult! I love seeing kids on a mountain saddle, 10 miles from a road in the wind rivers, or warming up on my climbing project. A big thanks to you parents who are adventuring in the back-country with your little ones, because you in turn teach me what my kids are capable of, so I can teach them...