12 Tips for Enjoying the Outdoors with Kids: Don't give up the outdoors!

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I did not grow up in an outdoorsy family.  In fact, I don't ever remember a single outdoor exploration with my family.  My grandmother who lovingly raised us, discouraged any type of physical activity. I remember she took away my roller skates because she thought I was going to kill myself trying.  I am grateful though, the lack of physical activity did do some good-it allowed me to develop an overactive imagination.  Instead, my neighbor, siblings and I made a land of magical dimensions where we could escape and travel to far-off lands and do anything.  The far-off lands were sneaking into neighbors yards (which my overprotective grandmother also went crazy when we did). Joking aside, I also never saw myself as capable in regards to conquering the fear of the outdoors, or anything physical for that matter.  I always thought there was a "type" of person that could do these things, and that wasn't me.  Maybe it was my upbringing, or maybe it was my own misconceptions, but I really felt I could not do it.

Other than the yard and an occasional beach, there was not a great deal of nature exploring in my childhood.  When I became a teen, in the summers, I would occasionally escape with friends and my sister and go climbing up a small mountain trail in Spain.  I remember we always planned to get to this magic waterfall where we would swim all day.  When we got to the waterfall, it was actually a small creek, but we never remembered it that way.  We did the day-long trek year after year, summer after summer, because deep down the final destination or ending point didn't matter.  We would steal apples from neighboring farms and run like wild through the woods, it is one of my best memories as a child.  If you have ever seen the movie Stand By Me, this was the concept of this journey with our friends- (minus the dead body part in the movie). In all seriousness it was one of the defining moments of independence in my early years.

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When I first got married, I was very afraid of the wilderness. I married a service member, and my husband encouraged me to face my fear of the outdoors.  I began mountain biking in Mount Rainer in Washington State.  I remember every weekend we spent exploring different parts of the mountain, conquering our fears, getting great exercise, and forging new trails in the wilderness.  When we weren't biking, we were hiking through the woods and enjoying the serenity of nature.  We absolutely fell in love with nature, and then suddenly we left it.  It would take years before we returned.

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A few years later, we moved to Texas.  I remember arriving in Texas 7 months pregnant with my second child, and feeling the intensity of the heat.  The photo below is me pregnant with my second in the 100 degree heat.  When we first moved in 2009 there was a heat streak with 59 days of weather in the 100's.  It took me years to get used to the Texas heat.  The mountain bikes sat untouched in the garage for months, and before long, years.  I thought that I would never be able to go outdoors again.  In fact, after having kids, I began to believe that the outdoors wasn't meant for parents with babies or small children, and that it wasn't possible to go back out there until they were preteens.  I never envisioned how keeping up outdoor exploration could be possible. 

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Yet, after having 4 kids now, I realize that outdoor exploration doesn't have to be complicated, and it is accessible to all.  It took going back to nature to realize that with a few safety and practical things, I could enjoy the outdoors with the entire family.  The one person I can thank for getting me back into the wilderness is my sister, Sandy.  She has a free spirit and she reminded me that the kids would not die if they went into nature, and that in fact, I was depriving them of an important experience. 

 Sandy and I on one of our first hikes together.  I had just had baby 3, but she encouraged me to get back out there and see the beauty of nature again.

Sandy and I on one of our first hikes together.  I had just had baby 3, but she encouraged me to get back out there and see the beauty of nature again.

My sister also showed me that you could have fun with kids in nature.  Seeing my kids having so much fun hiking and doing nature trails with her, I realized that I had to face my fear and get them back out there.

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In the spirit of inspiring parents (and everyone who is scared like me), I wanted to share a list of ways to make the outdoors easier to navigate with kids.  

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1. Start around your neighborhood.  Just get out there on your first try.  Part of the way we slay a misconception in our life, is to attack it head on.  Get out on the weekend and do a small walk on an accessible trail ( around your neighborhood or a park) and you will begin to start a pattern of positive reinforcement.  Getting out in nature makes you see how enjoyable it is, and how easy it actually is to start.   For us it started with a green belt behind our home.  My sister took them out there and called it their "Secret Garden."  It was an adventure for us to take them there and it was just a small field.  In their child-like minds, it seemed much bigger.  To this day they still keep the memory of that "large" garden of wildflowers.  

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2.Scope out the hike first.  With kids in tow, you do not want surprises in the wilderness.  We will usually study the trail online ahead of time to avoid any trails with areas that are too difficult for the kids.  I stick to easy level trails when I have all four of them with us, and sometimes we do moderate trails with the 2 older ones.  Remember to bring a means of navigation, even the easiest trails can lead you to get lost (a compass, GPS device, phone, or for more advanced hikes a Personal locator beacon or alimeter watch).  Always, always have a map. 

Spend ample time studying the information in the trail head-as it will often tell you the difficulty of the trail and give important information before you head out if the trail is suitable for kids.  One trick if you forget the map, is to take a picture of the trail map at the beginning of the trial with your phone.  This saved us one time from avoiding a loop that was unexpectedly closed.  I can not give advice on super advanced hikes because we mainly do easy to medium ones with either paved or groomed trails, but there are many resources online.

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2. Bring sunblock, hats, and sunglasses. Since I will not go on a hike with the kids without certain items, I make it easier to remember them. I put a bag by the door and have it ready to go.  I usually keep both facial and body sunblock for both kids, babies, and adults.  For the adults, I tend to prefer the sports type, since we tend to sweat more.  For the kids, I use anything SPF 50-100.  I recommend going the highest for the babies or buying specific sunblock for their delicate skin.  I also pack facial sunscreen so it does not run into their eyes when they sweat. I make sure to have both types. I also keep sunglasses for all the kids (and parents), as well as hats in one "family sun bag" so it is easier to remember, versus reminding each person individually. 

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3. Keep a first aide kit in the car. We always keep a first aide kit in the car, and throw it into our hiking bag when we arrive.  You can also keep 2 (one in the car with basic bandaids and bactroban and a more complete kit for the hiking bag.  As a mom of four, I find it is best to bring this because if you are far from a doctor, at least you have some basic things to help the situation.  REI provides a great first aide kit list which you can put together your own. You can alternatively find a pre-made first aide kit for hiking at a sporting goods store. 

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4. WATER IS A MUST!  No mater how small the hike, always bring water.   There are several different ways to bring water depending on the type of outdoor activity.  If is important to make sure you have enough for the type of walk/hike/activity you are planning so keep it in mind.  If you are doing different types of activities or several hikes in one day, you might want to stow a cooler in the car. 

We used to take several water bottles.  For longer hikes, we finally upgraded the kids to hydration packs.  The kids actually prefer to carry a light backpack, and it makes it easier for them to stay hydrated.  We actually bought our hydration packs off-season during the winter at Cabella's and looked around to compare prices before buying them.  I saw some inexpensive ones at Sam's club this year in July.  Either way, try to buy these off-season or at a member's club. They are a great investment!  

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5.Don't forget baby/kid items. It may seem common sense of course not to forget the diapers, wipes, baby snacks and sippy cups, but with a long outdoor list, it is really important to remember the specific stuff the kids and/or baby needs as well.  What I like to do is to think of what the baby might possibly need on a hike.  I find it is easier to bring a cup he is used to for hikes, so I pack that.  I also pack diaper ointment and small zip lock bags for soiled diapers. I try to pick baby snacks that take him a awhile to eat and that won't leave crumbs (for example wagon wheels if they are old enough). 

6. Decide what type of insect repellant to use.  We lived in upstate, NY and during our time there Lyme ticks were a big problem.  In fact, my daughter had to go on antibiotics due to a possible infection when she had a tick attach to her head.  So I do take bug control very seriously. Yet, I do not let it interfere with out enjoyment of the outdoors.  EPA actually has a search tool that allows you to search for the best type of control based on the type of bugs and other factors.  See your doctor and ask for their suggestions if you have any concerns, especially if you have an infant or have specific skin concerns.  Below is some info from the CDC on control for ticks from their website: 

  • "Use Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-registered insect repellents containing DEET, picaridin, IR3535, oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE), para-menthane-diol (PMD), or 2-undecanone. EPA’s helpful search tool can help you find the product that best suits your needs. Always follow product instructions, especially with children.
    • Do not use insect repellent on babies younger than 2 months old.
    • Do not use products containing OLE or  PMD on children under 3 years old." 

- https://www.cdc.gov/features/stopticks/index.html

For bug spray, there are many different options these days.  If you are concerned about chemicals you can try Picaridin-based alternatives instead of Deet.  You can find a fact sheet about Picaridin and Deet from the National Pesticide Information center which gives info about each type.  Each type of repellant has pros and cons, but I think the important thing is to choose one you feel comfortable with.  Also, it is important to check for ticks when you are done exploring.  

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7.Shower within 2 hours of coming back from the outdoors.  According to the CDC, "  Showering within two hours of coming indoors has been shown to reduce your risk of getting Lyme disease and may be effective in reducing the risk of other tickborne diseases."  As a general rule, we put all of our gear directly in the laundry room and try to leave the washer empty before we head out.  This way when we get back, we can scuttle everyone to the shower and get everyone's gear washing. If you do find a tick, follow the CDCs directions for removal.

8.Bring Snacks.  For older kids, you can bring granola bars, nuts, fruit, or high energy snacks (think high in protien).  I usually put all the food in a large ziplock bag, so you can toss all used wrappers and fruit skins to take back home. Remember, you should leave no trace in the wild, and pack everything you brought with you-even fruit skins, etc.

9. Keep a change of clothing/socks/underwear in the car.  For the toddler and the baby I always keep an extra set of clothing in the car.  I have had them get wet or muddy on trails, and then whine the entire time after that, so I find it is easier to just come prepared.  For the older kids I generally don't do this unless it is a longer hike and they plan on swimming or doing a special activity. 

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10. Try different carriers.  I have found that baby carriers work well for unpaved trails, for paved trails we have a jeep style stroller we bought at a garage sale.  Carriers are really helpful on more difficult trails with toddlers, and they are a must for babies.  

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11.Plan for weather.  Be sure to check the hourly weather patterns before you head out.  Pack things like ponchos.  It is wise to keep a small set of ponchos in your  backpack in case the rain starts.  They take up minimal space and little to no weight.  Any level of precipitation can really ruin a beautiful hike.  This way, you can keep hiking and not get too cold.  

12.Extra socks.  It is never a bad idea to keep a pair of extra socks for the kids and yourself in your backpack in case their feet get wet.  Wet socks can really ruin your feet and make the next day horrible.  This is my husband's rule that he learned in the Army. Take care of your feet and they will take care of you.

Finally remember to enjoy the moment!  It can be very fun to do a hike with kids, and they learn so much by going out in nature. The memories will last a lifetime. 

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