As outdoor natives, we spurn anything that keeps us from getting outside. Work. Injuries. Weather. Deadlines. The flu. Societal norms.
However, not all of these are doomed to be obstructions to your adventures. A finger injury while climbing can lead to trying a new activity. A bad weather window can push you to explore a new park or trail. With the right mindset, these roadblocks can transform the way we experience the outdoors for the good.
In this edition of Therm-a-Rest Beta, Dream Teamer Kathy Holcombe shows us how the birth of her daughter had a positive impact on her adventure lifestyle and gives us her tips for taking kids into the backcountry.
My entire adult life has revolved around time spent in wild places; and when we weren’t actually in the wilderness, we were either planning our next expedition or reminiscing about adventures past. When our daughter Abby was born in 2004, we solemnly vowed that no matter what, our days of adventure in the backcountry were just beginning. Fourteen months later, dazed no doubt by the inevitable exhaustion that plagues all new parents, we wearily persevered on our mission to continue into the wild as a family.
However, gone were the days of throwing our packs and a couple of Clif bars into the back of our Subaru and heading out to our local crag for a carefree day of climbing. Our one year old, 20 lb. bundle of joy seemed to require a metric ton of gear just to leave the house: diapers, wipes, a Pak-n-play, baby backpack, toys, books, sunhat, snacks… One fine Saturday, after over an hour of loading the car with the “bare essentials” we headed out to go rock climbing at our local crag.
The entire 45 minute drive we resorted to ridiculous antics to keep our nodding toddler awake. By the time we pulled into the dirt lot, Abby’s eyes were drooping and her head starting to bob. If we could just make it through the half mile hike to the base of the cliff before she drifted off, we might be able to pull off an uninterrupted afternoon of climbing – just like the good ol’ days. As we lifted her out of her car seat, the fresh air and sunshine served as an energy elixir and Abby insisted on hiking on her own to the crag – a monumental undertaking for a yearling. Two hours and a half a mile later we finally arrived at the base of our targeted route, and after another 45 minutes we had cajoled our miniature adventurer to sleep.
Success at last – and it was only noon! I carefully tiptoed through a mountain of gear to the base of the route fearful that the slightest sound would interrupt the peaceful slumber of our sleeping babe, tied into the rope and stepped into the blissful world of verticality. For fifteen uninterrupted minutes, my consciousness was focused purely on moving from one hold to the next. As I passed the crux move sixty feet off the ground, I paused for a rest and discovered Peter juggling my rope in one hand and a very awake Abby in the other – nap time was over! Somehow he managed to read a book to Abby and lower me back down to the ground in one piece, and we sat in frustrated silence at the base of the cliff, both of us salty that our day of climbing was hijacked before it ever really got started.
Exasperated, I glanced at Abby and noticed her intently exploring a pile of climbing gear. She meticulously inspected each and every piece: feeling the texture, banging the metal against a rock, opening and closing the gates of our carabiners. It occurred to me that she might love climbing at this young age as much as we did if given the opportunity. So we took a piece of webbing, fashioned a makeshift harness that we put on her babydoll and showed her how the baby could climb up the cliff. In a flash she was reaching for the rock face and hoisting herself up on micro holds chasing her dolly up the cliff. Proudly, we plucked her off the rock before she could escape our reach, and spent the remainder of the afternoon chasing her up and over boulders watching her confidence soar with every successful “route”.
That moment served as a paradigm shift for us: it was no longer Peter and I trying to steal away on an adventure while she slept on the sidelines. Abby was an adventurer in her own right. And the next time we went climbing, instead of packing teddy bears and storybooks, we threw in a harness and climbing shoes just her size so that she could experience rock climbing for herself.
While we only managed to climb a grand total of 90 feet that first day, it marked a significant turning point in our family adventures. We learned that while some adventures were for adults only, much of what we wanted to do in the wild could be accomplished as a family by simply modifying our expectations and adding a few pieces of vital equipment. Here are five tips that have served us well over the years to us raise a kiddo who is completely at home 30 miles down the trail, a thousand feet off the ground or immersed in whirling torrent of rapids down a remote river.
1. Go into the backcountry with the attitude that every single moment that you spend off the beaten path is a gift of quality time together, and an investment that will lead to bigger and better family adventures down the road. Give yourself (and your family) permission to take it slow and go at an age appropriate pace that builds skills, confidence and fitness along the way (here are some tips to keep your kiddo moving when the going gets tough on the trail).
2. Give them authentic adventures as soon as possible. When Abby was 4, we decided to take her on a 30 mile backpack traverse through the Rawah Mountain Range in Colorado. Not only was our route rugged and remote, but we also had a pretty significant elevation gain over two mountain passes to deal with – a massive undertaking for a small child. To make it manageable for her, we spread the trip out over 4 days and brought along a couple of llamas to help lighten our packs. One of the llamas was willing to carry a passenger which gave Abby an option to ride instead of walk if she got tired. We set the goal for her to hike 4 miles, and then she could ride as much as she wanted to after that. By the 4th day, she was so proud of how far she could hike and was having so much fun along the trail, that she hiked the entire 8 miles all by herself. By giving her a goal and the option to take on more, we built up her confidence and motivation so that she could achieve a huge accomplishment without any pressure from us.
3. Be sure they have high quality gear to keep them safe and comfortable. Finding gear that fits is critical to the success of any backcountry adventure. Here are a few of our favorite kid friendly companies that make gear in just the right size.
• Climbing and canyoneering: harness – Black Diamond, shoes – FiveTen
• Kayaking: boat – Jackson Kayak, drysuit and lifejacket – Kokatat
• Backpacking: pack – Deuter, sleeping bag and pad – Thermarest (we always used a
women’s small bag with a rubber band around the bottom to size it properly, so she didn’t
have to heat more area than necessary)
• Clothing: Patagonia insulation and outerwear
4. Be intentional about what you ask your child to carry into the backcountry. When Abby started carrying her own backpack (age 5), we kept it light, but did require her to carry a few critical items. Her gear list included her own snacks and water, one small toy and the family first aid kit. She carried her own food and water for two reasons. The first was that we chose together what she would eat for the day and then she got to choose when and where she ate them. This seemed to eliminate any pickiness about food – if she was hungry she ate what she had. Secondly, since she had the responsibility to access her own food and water she was therefore less likely to whine along the trail. Carrying the first aid kit gave her a sense of importance in being responsible for such a critical piece of equipment that the entire family needed. She still talks about what an honor it was to carry the first aid kit at such a young age.
5. Create a safe environment for them the test their skills and excel. Abby started kayaking in a lake at age 4 and tested her whitewater prowess at age 5. The whitewater that she was kayaking at first was barely more than a few riffles, nonetheless, we gave them daunting names such as “Devil’s Drop” and “Death Canyon”. That way, she had something brave and bold to talk about around the campfire with other paddlers that filled her with a sense of accomplishment and adventure. It also prepared her for the ominous names of the actual rapids she would encounter as her skills progressed.
Now, twelve incredible years later, it is my adventurous daughter who is leading me through difficult rapids or bounding ahead up a steep trail with a fully loaded backpack. She no longer needs cajoling to hike for hours on end and she greatly appreciates the power and beauty of wild and remote places. Her skills in the backcountry are now comparable to mine, although I would never admit it, and occasionally she is the one soothing me when I venture into an situation beyond my comfort level, often using the same strategies I used on her when she was younger. As her skills and fitness surpass my own, I hope that she will remember all of those magical moments in the wild that we spent together when she was younger and give herself the permission to take it slow and savor every single moment spent together as a family in the wild.