A longtime backpacker, climber, and skier, author Michael Lanza, along with his nine-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter, embarked on a year-long trip through our National Parks.
It was an ambitious adventure, designed to immerse them in the natural world and to learn more about the effects climate change was having on these important landscapes.
He chronicled the journey in his book Before They’re Gone—A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks.
Here, he shares five ways to encourage the next generation of outdoor adventurers.
1. Encourage outside play.
A slew of experts agree that regular, unstructured outside play is critical for a child’s healthy development.
To that end, “Kick them out of the house,” advises Lanza. “Kids today often want to play indoors where the electronics are. Insist they play outside—but also, give them the freedom to roam within boundaries appropriate for their ages. That way, they can explore and not get bored.”
It also helps to plan regular activity as a family: cross-country or downhill skiing, hiking on local trails, biking, even walking around your neighborhood or local community, Lanza advises.
2. Start slow.
When the time is right for adventure, take baby steps. “Begin with short hikes and gradually work up to longer outings,” advises Lanza, who gathered personal experience as a field editor with Backpacker magazine. “Evaluate your child’s readiness for something new based not just on its physical difficulty, but how well your child handled previous experiences that presented comparable stress.”
Lanza’s year–long trip included sea kayaking and wilderness camping in Glacier Bay, Alaska. He determined they were ready for such an outing because they had previously backpacked, rock climbed, floated and camped on a wilderness river, and cross-country skied through snowstorms.
“They had managed stressful situations well and understood the need to follow instructions and that trips have uncomfortable moments,” explained Lanza. “Despite how wet and raw it was, they loved Glacier Bay.”
Lanza believes in one important rule: no whining. “Tell your children they can talk about any situation they’re not happy with, but draw the line at complaining just to complain. Everyone will be happier.”
At the same time, he advises including them in the decision-making process, so they have a sense of control over their own fate, which, he says, goes a long way toward relieving stress, no matter what our age.
“Welcome their questions and address their concerns,” Lanza says. “Make sure they know that you won’t ask them to do anything they are not comfortable with, and that you will provide whatever help they need.”
According to Lanza, Grand Teton National Park, Yosemite, Zion, Glacier, and Rocky Mountain National Park all offer hiking and backpacking options that are ideal for beginners and families, with easy to moderately difficult days and simple logistics.
4. Be flexible.
Whether rock climbing in Joshua Tree National Park, cross-country skiing in Yellowstone or canoeing in the Everglades with his kids, Lanza made a point to be flexible.
Taking children on an outdoor adventure, especially younger ones, does not always go according to plan. Young kids want to throw rocks in a creek and play in the mud.
Lanza’s advice: “Let them. But, explain that there will be time for playing, but also a time for hiking.”
Meanwhile, parents should “focus on the journey rather than the destination,” advises Lanza. “And have Plan B at the ready.”
5. On the trail with teens.
No matter what kind of trip is planned, allowing a teenage son or daughter to invite a friend along is often a good strategy. It can be a little trickier when planning an outdoor adventure. “You want to make sure he or she is up to the challenges the trip may present,” explained Lanza. “It’s a good idea to talk with the parents ahead of time and perhaps plan a practice outing.”
Whether it’s a mountain climb or rafting a river, finding a shared goal that will challenge and excite your teen is a great way to open new doors within your relationship and to the natural world, offers Lanza.
Michael Lanza also offers outdoor adventure tips and strategies on his website The Big Outside.