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Start Easy, Go Wild!

By Kristi Streiffert - April 5th, 2000

My husband and I knew that parenthood was going to change our accustomed outdoor lifestyle, but was it going to be worse or better? Witness these two memories from our daughter's first year:

After a long day backpacking, I attempt to change Josie's diaper. She pulls away, as young toddlers often do, falls backward and cracks her head - hard - on a rock. Who cried louder, me or her?

Later, she gazes wide-eyed at her first frog, then picks up a rock and makes it her pet "...og", carrying it with her everywhere. Tom and I look at each other gleefully, realizing she is pretending for the first time.

Is taking the kids camping, mountain biking or canoeing worth the extra effort and planning?

Most parents and grandparents (and aunts and uncles) know that taking kids outdoors will make lifelong memories for everyone involved - the question is, will they be mostly good memories? Is taking the kids camping, mountain biking or canoeing worth the extra effort and planning? Will limiting our activities to those that are kid-friendly be worth denying ourselves our usual experience?

Those who've explored the outdoors with kids know: the answer is yes.

"If you are intimidated at the thought, the key is to start small," said Audra Sims who leads a seminar on children in the outdoors for "Becoming an Outdoors-Woman" weekends in Texas. "Start out with just three things planned... finding a site, setting up the tent and cooking dinner. You'll be less stressed this way."

And thankfully you can, for your own experience, jettison the memories of the sagging, molding canvas tent your parents had. Today's family tents are light, easy to erect and incredibly sturdy. A tent, a cozy sleeping bag for everyone, and you're set. Go in the summer, take a cooler full of no-cook meals, and, voila, you are camping. The stove, lantern, and all the other gear is optional.

Well, on second thought, lawn chairs are vital. You can sit and relax while the kids discover the leaf of an oak tree, the sound of cicadas, and the slow pace of camp life.

One of the biggest direct advantages to adults is the slower pace. Now you can appreciate factors you'd never notice without kids along. Individual rocks, individual leaves, sticks and especially dirt take on an fresh importance. And kids don't filter out bird songs, shadows, and insects like we do. With children along, your senses come alive.

After conquering the simple camp-out, the next step is a family hike. "Make it a scavenger hunt," said Sims. "Have the kids look for something bumpy, or something brown, or something that smells good."

Hikes can also be teaching opportunities. "Teach them to stay on the trail and why. It is for both their safety and the safety of the habitat and its inhabitants. Tell them that they'll be stepping on animal homes if they leave the trail. Teach them about poison ivy and show them what it looks like - other than 'leaves of three,' two of the leaves look like mittens, and kids get a kick out of looking at that."

How far can kids hike in a day? The rule of thumb is one mile a day per year in age.

I also learned the hard way to say "Do not run on the trail!" Rocky terrain once put a bump the size of a quail egg on my daughter's small forehead.

How far can kids hike in a day? The rule of thumb is one mile a day per year in age. We took our daughter on a week-long backpacking trip when she was three. We covered three to four miles a day - but not at the same pace adults would cover those three miles. We took the entire day, setting up the tent at noon for a nap. The slower pace was an opportunity to see things I would have marched past obliviously on a fifteen-mile-a-day pace. Things like bird nests, streams, and good nap spots.

Be creative in motivating kids down the trail. Reaching a destination has little appeal to children. Teach a new song ("The Ants Go Marching" is a good one). Or pretend you are horses on a cattle drive. Here's a sure winner: go a little ways ahead and leave treats in the trail.

Canoeing is another "made-for-kids" camping opportunity. No one has to carry any gear; you can drift into the backwoods. As the kids get old enough to paddle, you'll need one canoe for each kid and adult. Until then, young children can ride within arms reach of the bow parent, close enough for the adult to administer sun screen, sweaters, and animal crackers. Kids love splashing with sticks, throwing leaves in the water, and playing in the puddle that accumulates at their feet.

Once again, limit your pace. Whereas once we covered 20-25 miles in a long day, we now limit ourselves to 10 or 15. Everyone in the boat should wear life jackets, and the family should practice paddling with day outings. The boat will feel tippier when it is full of (tied-in) camping gear, so be sure to practice a few times with the full canoe on a local pond before you venture off camping.

Cycling trips are possible with a child seat for helmeted youngsters on easy trails, paved roads or two-tracks. Tow-behind trailers offer kids move flexibility than behind mom (or dad) child seats, but very young children might feel lonely stuck in a trailer. You may need both. We've found that cycling is very relaxing for active preschoolers, who zone-out with the constant motion. There is an in-between stage where family biking seems near-impossible. The kids are old enough to ride a bike, but the pace frustrates the most patient adult. Some families take a break from family bike trips till the children are older; others purchase expensive kits that allow a child to pedal from the back seat of an adult's tandem bike.

Instead of dressing in tee-top and shorts, try light-colored long pants and sleeves.

Hunting, fishing, birding, swimming, stargazing... the range of outdoor activities kids can pursue seems endless. But certain considerations will keep the family safe and comfortable no matter what outdoor activity you pursue. Sunglasses (with UV protection), sunscreen and a hat should become habits. At first the kids may resist, but your insistence and good example will make this attire natural.

Instead of dressing in tee-top and shorts, try light-colored long pants and sleeves. You'll be surprised how comfortable they are even in the sun, and how convenient it is to apply less sunscreen and bug spray. Avoid DEET insect repellents for young children. Many parents have had good luck with commercial herbal concoctions, containing mostly witch-hazel (avoid contact with eyes; it stings). Long white knit pants, tucked into socks, long sleeved, lightly-woven knit turtle necks, and a hat will keep repellent requirements to a minimum, except in the most extreme circumstances.

Speaking of extreme circumstances: plan for them. They may never happen, but if at home you say to yourself - "what is the coldest weather we could have?" and pack accordingly, you will always be assured of being comfortable. What if it rains every day? (If you are car camping, there is no shame in packing up and going home, you know.) What if one of the kids gets lost? (They should wear a whistle around their neck and hug a tree, i.e. stay put.) What if someone gets hurt?

A well-thought out first aid kit is a necessity. "Have older kids make their own first aid kit," suggested Sims. "Get a first aid book and study it together. Take a first aid course. This will be fun for the kids, plus, they'll be thinking about safety issues." Be sure to include plenty of colorful small bandages for the under-ten set. These will ease any number of tense moments.

Yes, you'll need to consider the extreme possibilities and plan for them, but don't let them keep you home. After all, the kids want to remind you of a few things, like how to play in the rain... watch butterflies sip nectar... and find animal shapes in the clouds.

Kristi Streiffert's work has been featured in national and regional magazines and major metropolitan newspapers. Her work has been published in National Wildlife Federation and National Audubon Society national publications. Her articles appear often in Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Living Bird, and in Texas Parks & Wildlife and Canoe & Kayak. She is a regular correspondent to a number of newspapers in Washington. A sampling of other credits include: FamilyFun, Backpacker, WildBird, SeaKayaker and Outside Online.

Streiffert's past accomplishments have included: an award-winning essay on outdoor risk-taking for parents, a legislation-spawning news report on wildlife mortality in oil pits and a groundbreaking women's column in a national watersports magazine. Her writings are included in text of the George Washington University course, "Ecotourism Planning and Management."

Tom Streiffert's photographs illustrate many of this husband/wife team's work. His travel/action photos have appeared in Wildbird, Living Bird, Texas Parks & Wildlife, Canoe & Kayak, Spokesman Review, Wenatchee World and Yakima Herald Republic, among others.
Kristi's Gear List for Camping with Kids:

  • Tent ( carries the Armadillo 5-person that looks good)
  • Kids Sleeping bags
  • Adult Sleeping bags
  • Sleeping pads (keeps everyone warmer and more comfy)
  • Kid's clothing
  • Cooler (full of pre-cooked food)
  • Camp Chairs
  • Kid carrier ( lists a great Kelty model)
  • Flashlight
  • Sunscreen (I've tested the sunscreen on a clip and rope that carries and think they are great for family outings)
  • Non-DEET Insect repellent
  • First aid kit ( has lots to choose from - be sure to include your own lollipop and colorful bandages for boo-boos)
  • Guide book to plants (so you can show the kids how to identify poison ivy)
  • Camping with Kid's video
  • Whistle for each family member

The Best Book on the Topic:

  • Kids in the Wild, by Cindy Ross (Mountaineer Books)



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