For the typical outdoor enthusiast, an extended trail run isn't an unexceptional way to start the day, and a multi-day backpacking trip is not an unusual way to spend the weekend. But how does that all change when you have kids?
For many new parents, it can seem daunting, intimidating, or impossible to bring a child along on a camping trip or backpacking adventure. And yet, there are plenty of inspiring parents who continue to do badass excursions even with infants and toddlers in tow. The secret, it turns out, isn't how much gear or experience you have, but more so about having the courage to take the leap.
Practical advice is out there though, and it does help. We recently sat down with four outdoorsy parents to get some first-hand tips and tricks for staying active outdoors when starting a family. The biggest takeaway: Despite it being pretty intimidating and sometimes messy, camping with kids always pays off. And don't be scared of catastrophe—camping with a kid will bring you (and them) outside your comfort zones, and that's where growth is found.
Pro Tips & Advice from Trusted Parents
Parent: Eric Hockman, outdoor industry professional and dad to Dean, age 1 ½
Packing and prep is key
The trick to having a successful and fun time outdoors is all in the packing and preparation—ensuring you don't forget something in the midst of your toddler running around the house while you're trying to collect things. "We've definitely forgotten a piece of gear on more than one occasion, but we figured out ways to adapt and it all panned out in the end. But candidly, the easy part is actually being out there—and that's where the prep and often chaotic packing pays off."
Start small, then build up.
"Experiencing nature can be done pretty close to home for most people. Go on local nature walks in the beginning, then tackle something that requires a little more commitment, and eventually, you can build up to longer hikes and overnight trips."
Keep them engaged with what they are seeing.
"Exploring nature on their level is a great way to build a stronger bond and interest in being outdoors." Everything is new and exciting. "Playing games like identifying things in nature by pointing out different bugs and wildlife, or even an impromptu scavenger hunt are some things we do with our kid and it lights him up to be involved."
Parent: Molly Stoecklein, runner, skier, backcountry hiker, and mom to Henry, age 11 months
Prepare for your solo adventures to change too.
"Going away from my son when I did my own excursions was tough. I need to still breastfeed on a regular schedule even when I wasn't with him," says Stoecklein, who had to find a way to pump as much and as often she would feed newborn Henry even in the backcountry. It is all about the gear—in this case, a good portable pump.
Anxiety around it all is normal!
"Once you do it once, it gets easier," says Stoecklein. "You will learn as you go and through trial and error what you do and don't need, what works and what doesn't. It is also important to keep carving out time to do your own adventures. It is heart-wrenching to leave your baby at home, but also freeing and will help you be more patient when you take them out."
Parent: Courtney Holden, road biker, backcountry enthusiast, runner, and mom to Charlie, age 6
Don't be afraid to start them early!
"We took Charlie hiking two weeks after he was born. First in a front carrier, and after his neck stabilized we progressed into the backpack carrier. We logged over 100 hikes in his first year. He just did his first 9.5 mile hike at age 6 and a lot of that was just not being afraid of getting out there and doing it."
Get your kid involved in the planning process.
This becomes important especially as they get older, Holden explains. "We give him two or three options so it's not too broad, but they can still feel like they are in control."
Sometimes plans don't work out, and that's okay.
One of the toughest things is dealing with meltdowns or not wanting to do something. It's important to hold plans loosely and not be afraid of turning back. "They won't always be happy all the time and it is good to push them a little bit and encourage them to realize that they can go a little bit further than what they think they can do, but also realize if you need to turn back."
Appreciation for the outdoors is learned.
"I want Charlie to enjoy the outdoors for the outdoors and a lot of that is just exposure. We try to get him excited about the outdoors and it is important to remember that you need to teach them how to appreciate beauty. Pause to look at rocks and observe colors."
Parent: Francois Lebeau, climber, photographer, nature lover, and dad to Enzo, age 3
Make your outdoor goals adaptable.
Having a kid means extra logistics overall. "It can restrict your ambition and you'll just have to get comfortable with taking it easier and establishing some boundaries. In addition, every age of the kid will bring different needs and challenges so it is about constantly adjusting and being flexible. A kid is very magical and there are obviously some compromises but you really can't beat seeing your kid happy in an outdoor environment."
Don't be afraid to make mistakes.
"Don't be afraid to just go for it. Ask your friends for advice but recognize that every experience is unique and you will need to do some trial and error."
Creating a sense of autonomy is key.
Even at young ages kids often like to have a say in things. "Give them choices: want to watch birds or collect rocks? Do you want to go down this trail or that trail?" You don't want them to feel like they are being forced so find ways they can self-motivate while still maintaining control.
Now that we've covered the advice, let's dive into some recommended gear picks from our above parents...
10 Gear Essentials for Outdoorsy Parents
Both Hockman, Lebeau and Holden mention the need for a good supportive backpack for the sake of both you and your child. "Having one on a tripod is nice," Lebeau says, because you can set it down and have it stand alone. One has breathable mesh paneling and hip wings for parents is crucial. It is comfortable to carry and will allow your kid to take a solid nap while en route.
Lebeau stresses how essential a change mat is. "Keeping them comfortable on longer trips or overnight camping is crucial." This one features a number of storage and transport options with its multifold design and easy-to-clean surface for whatever messes you may find yourself in.
A trailer is a nice addition for any bike adventure. The Burley Bee features a five-point harness system and full internal aluminum roll cage so you can have fun while making sure your kid is safe. "We have the double so there is room for books and toys and we can easily attach it to our bikes," Holden says.
For our nursing mothers out there, Stoecklein has gone through the trial and error of finding the best way to pump in the backcountry. This supportive sports bra is great for breastfeeding and allows you to pump hands free so it doesn't slow down your adventuring.
A first aid kit always lives in Hockman's pack. "It's a nice bit of assurance that you have some medical supplies on hand in case of a minor accident," he explains. This compact kit comes with all your basic wound cleaning needs as well as topical and oral medication.
Last but not least, you'll probably want to document all the excursions you have with your kids. Hockman makes sure to bring a camera with him on every outing, even if it's just a smartphone. "I am excited for my son to look back and see his childhood adventures as he is hopefully planning his own into adulthood." If you want more than a phone, check out our guides to the best film cameras and the best point and shoot film cameras.