Tuesday, January 31, 2012

How to become an outdoor family

At least once every couple weeks I talk to a friend or acquaintance who expresses interest in getting outside more, doing more adventures in the mountains as a family, and in general becoming an outdoor family.  I've been recently asked when is a good time to start hiking as a family and how old a child has to be.  I've also heard several moms express frustration when the whole family isn't 100% on board with the mission of being outdoors together; be it Dad who wants to relax at home after working all week, or a six year old who feels like the weekend is his or her only down time to sleep in, play with their toys, and have no schedule.

This is going to be a long list of suggestions (in no particular order of importance) but if you follow my blog regularly, you know that many of my posts are long, well researched and thought out stories that usually percolate in my mind for many weeks before I write them.  Grab a cup of coffee, glass of wine or whatever relaxes you and enjoy!

Find other outdoor families to help as mentors, teachers, guides and inspiration sources
  • This blog is a good start
  • Check out the other great family blogs on my blog roll that we follow.  There is a family blog dedicated to every outdoor pursuit imaginable from climbing, to biking, to skiing.  (note that each blog we follow, also has links to blogs they follow, so you can easily gather a list of great blogs for your research and inspiration
  • Join outdoor groups.  Meet-up.com is a great place to start and if you are in Calgary, the Calgary Outdoor Recreation Association (CORA) has family hikes planned every couple months aimed at school aged kids.  The Mountain Mamas group in Calgary plans hikes in the summer aimed at baby wearing moms.  They have no current events planned but if you contact the organizer, Shannon, she loves meeting new moms and babies.
  • Join my facebook community page:  Calgary Family Adventure Community.  There's a link to the page on my blog.  (look for the facebook icon)  I am incidentally always looking for more families to hike, camp and share adventures with so send me a message if you have a toddler especially.
  • The Alpine Club of Canada is a great group to join.  The Calgary Section typically has at least one family trip each summer and winter.  There's a family ice climbing weekend coming up and non climbers are welcome as I am assured they will  be focusing on much more than just climbing.
  • Look for an outdoor playgroup in your area.  Play dates will most likely be in the daytime so working parents will be out of luck with this one, but if you are able to go, you'll meet many amazing parents with the same commitment to outdoor play.  I've started a group in Calgary that you can find on facebook at this link.  If you want to be added to my e-mail distribution list, send me a message.  If you are not in Calgary, check out the Active Kid's Club Website for a list of playgroups across Canada and the United States.
  • The Outdoor Baby Network is an amazing information sharing website and a great place to meet other cool families.  You can join local groups too that target specific destinations or sports.
    There's nothing more fun than a large group hike with good friends.

Family trip with the Alpine Club of Canada

Find good family guide books for your corner of the world
My personal favorites for Kananaskis and the Canadian Rockies are below.  They should be in the personal collection of every outdoor family living in this area.
    Just another day in paradise
Don't compete against other families
I can not stress how important this will be to your sanity.  As you start reading other blogs you will feel the pressure to "measure up" and to do the same cool things other families are doing.   I feel this when I hear about another toddler, the same age as my son, already downhill skiing, riding a bike with competence, doing big expeditions across the wilds of Alaska, or able to hike more than 5km.

It's hard not to struggle against the unspoken competition that exists between outdoor families.  Many parents are driven to have their kids grow up as fast as possible; how quickly can we get our child out of the child carrier or ski sled?  How young can we get our child on skis?  How soon can we get out kid on the chair lift and off the bunny hill?  I struggle often with the pressure to push my son because I know that the other kids are all doing "it"!  It referring to hiking, skiing, biking, etc. - by self, as my son says.  Meanwhile my three year old is quite content to ride or be carried.  He likes being a baby.  Over the last week I've come to the revelation that I'm ok with that actually.  A child only has precious few years to be a baby.  Why rush growing up?  He has a lifetime ahead of him to do everything "by self."  For now, we are enjoying the fact that we can go for a 12km ski, hike or scramble together as a whole family.  There is plenty of time for toddler paced adventures in our very near future.

Our big baby :)

Choose your focus
This is also key to your sanity as an outdoor family.  You can't do it all!  Not only is it expensive to decide that you are going to take up biking, hiking, skiing, paddling, climbing, etc., but it's also unrealistic.  If you are just getting into the outdoor scene, pick one summer sport and one winter sport.  We focus on hiking and xc skiing.   As an extension to our hiking or xc skiing, we also do a back packing trip once/summer or a ski tour into a back country hut or lodge.  That's it for us along with camping which serves as giving us a base camp for our hikes. 

We don't focus on biking, water sports or downhill skiing - at all!  And we don't stress about it.  We might take our son out for a downhill ski lesson this winter but it will be for the purpose of teaching him to be comfortable on skis.  We'll get him a bike this spring but it will be for city rambles.   Some day, I really want to try a family canoe or rafting trip.  However, it's not our focus!  As our son gets older we'll add to our focus areas because my husband and I both like scrambling and mountaineering.  My husband also likes climbing and I think it would make for fabulous father-son bonding.  For now, we keep it simple.

In my husband's words:  Have very specific goals about what you want to accomplish outdoors, and then tick off the list. You can't just vaguely say "we're going to spend lots of time outside this year" or you'll end up saying "too many things got in the way.

Hiking, our first and primary passion

Cross Country Skiing - our other passion
Start small
When is a good time to introduce hiking to your child?  Any time.  As soon as possible. 
Children that get used to spending lots of time outdoors will learn that that's just the way it is in their family.  They won't question why they are going to the mountains yet again (at least for a few years).
Hopefully, they'll even learn to like hiking. 

The key to introducing your child to hiking though (or any sport for that matter) is to start small.  Hike natural trails in your town or city and avoid the long drives.  You can work around naps and even go home for lunch or add a playground visit to your hike.  If the weather turns bad you can easily go home.  My son doesn't like pavement but he loves running down Nose Hill, one of our closest natural areas. 

Our family has also mastered the half day relaxed start.  We have  breakfast at home, play with toys, and get a very leisurely start to the day. We drive to the mountains while our son naps.  We have lunch there so we don't have to bother with packing one and then we go for a short hike or series of short jaunts.  We get home in time for dinner which if we were productive in the morning, is ready for us in the crockpot.  (or alternately, we say to heck with it, and go pick up a pizza)

There's a movement going on right now that encourages parents to make every day an outdoor playday
I think it's a brilliant way to introduce kids to the outdoors.  Start close to home as you explore your neighborhood paths, creeks, natural areas and parks.  You don't have to get out for epic hikes or adventures.  Your child can develop an appreciation for nature in their backyard. 

Just remember, no competition and no stress! 
  • Your child can still develop a love for nature even if they don't get outside every day, contrary to what I've read in other blogs.  (I didn't start hiking until I was 20)
  • Decide for yourself and your family what temperature you are comfortable getting outside in.  Some people are determined to get outside no matter the weather or temperature.  Good for them.  Doesn't have to be you.  It's not me.  Enough said.
  • Apparently 15 minutes a day is enough time outside for most kids.  Our family values exercise as much as getting outdoors so we usually go to the gym or an indoor playground if the weather only permits for 15 minutes outdoors.  That's us though.  Do what feels right for your family.

    Chariots are awesome for hiking with young toddlers or babies

Every child alive loves boardwalks and water - guaranteed successful hike!

Bring Grandma or Grandpa if you can.  They have more patience than most parents!

Take time to smell the flowers!

Kids LOVE rocks!

Any hike that leads to water will be successful

Bring a friend for happy hiking

Practice flexibility
Things happen and plans often need to change last minute either due to unexpected weather or a change in your child/children's temperament(s).  One of the best ways to salvage a day is to choose a destination that allows for multiple activities.  My best example is Kananaskis Village, close to Calgary.  There's a toboggan hill, skating pond, hockey rink, xc ski trails with a rental shop that even rents ski sleds for young tots, official snowshoe trails, playground, and a large fire-side room in the Delta Hotel if you need to warm up.  For Down hill ski enthusiasts, there's the Nakiska Ski Resort just up the road as well.  Pack the car prepared to play in the snow and choose what you'll do when you get out there. 

Banff is another great destination.  The Town of Banff has walking trails (both natural and paved), snowshoe trails, xc ski  trails, two outdoor skating rinks at the moment, a fabulous toboggan hill and numerous restaurants in which to warm up.  Our favorite is the Tim Horton's in the Bus Terminal.  We also like the St. James Gate Pub which accepts children, has high chairs and kids menus.  A big Amen for a family friendly pub!  If you like downhill skiing, Mt. Norquay has ski by the hour rates and fabulous programs for kids.

Lake Louise is the third one-stop destination I'd recommend.  Again, there are xc ski trails, hiking and snowshoe trails, a cleared area of the lake for skating, and the Banff Springs Hotel is a great place to go if you want to warm up.  If you like downhill skiing, there's the famous Lake Louise Ski Resort as well.  If you time it right in winter, you can even take in the Ice Magic Festival.  (Ice Magic link will take you to an awesome review written by Calgary Blogger, Melissa Vroon.

Day trip in Banff

Sledding at Kananaskis Village

XC skiing at Lake Louise

Live close to where you want to play
The best thing about our neighborhood is its proximity to the mountains.  We can get to Bragg Creek in half an hour.  Fifteen more minutes and we are at hiking trails in the foothills.  When I was growing up, it was at least an 8 hour drive to reach the mountains.  They've since created a road from my home town to reach the mountains more easily but it's still a good 4 hour drive.  Today, that would not fly in our family.  Living close to the mountains is a non negotiable for us. 

Our neighborhood also has access to great natural areas.  There's a ravine within a five minute walk from our front door.  The ravine features a creek running through it and will provide for hours of natural play when my son is older.  Kids ride their bikes through it, play in the creek, and build forts.  It's truly awesome to be so close to a wild natural area.  Within a ten to fifteen minute drive we have access to at least three other great natural areas too that I've fallen in love with since having a child.

Hiking in Calgary

Running down Nose Hill, right in our city

Choose one special day per week that you will set aside for family outdoor adventure
If that doesn't work for you to dedicate four days/month to outdoor pursuits, then set aside one or two days/month.  The key is protecting those days with the same passion you'd protect your child from a cougar ready to pounce on them.  Maybe a little extreme but you get my point.  If you don't mark time off on your calendar for outdoor adventure, it honestly won't happen.  This is in addition to the "every day play" that you will hopefully try to fit in. 

Our family religiously sets Saturday aside as a Sabbath Day.  The idea is to do nothing that has to be done.  The day is devoted 100% to play and family time; almost always in the mountains.  There are exceptions of course; birthday parties we want to attend, family obligations, occasional girl's weekends away or a ski trip for my husband.  For the most part though, Saturday is our day to bond as a family and if you've ever invited us to an event on a Saturday, you know that we are usually out playing. 

I must add that it's important the whole family agrees on the day(s) you set apart for outdoor adventure.  If you honestly can't get your spouse interested in hiking, consider starting a mom's hiking group either mid week or on the weekend.  Alternately, practice good communication with your spouse and try to get to the root of why he/she isn't interested.  Maybe your spouse will warm up to outdoor adventure if you start slow (don't start off with a week-long camping trip) or start with something simple once a month.  Also ask your spouse what kind of outdoor sports they would be interested in.  Maybe hiking isn't their thing but they like fishing.  We have friends who are big into off-road motor biking and they go away for weekend camping trips with other biking enthusiasts.  The kids all run around together and have a blast I'm sure.

Mom and Tot day hike
Everybody's happy!

Make it fun
  • It has to be fun for the whole family so ask each member of the family what would help them to enjoy an outdoor adventure.  Maybe your kids don't like hiking but would be interested in trying climbing in the evening once a week so their weekend is still set aside for free play at home.  Maybe mom can be convinced to go if there's a coffee stop on the hike (possible if you go to Kananaskis Village).  Bribe the kids with candy or ice-cream (again easy if you hike around Kananaskis Village).  Take Dad to a family friendly pub at the end of the day.  Whatever it takes.
  • Go with other families.  Kids have more fun when they are chasing their friends along the trail, camping with other kids, or trying to out-race their best friend.
  • Again, short drives folks!  If you want to go to Lake Louise, stay overnight in a family room at the Lake Louise hostel or rent the family cabin at the Mosquito Creek Hostel.  (check out my story on our weekend at Mosquito Creek).  Even consider staying at the Delta Kananaskis or the Kananaskis Hostel which has three private rooms.
  • Add something special to the trip.  Think hotsprings, a ride in a gondola, eating out at a restaurant, etc.
  • Allow for lots of free playtime!!  Do a short hike up to an alpine meadow and let the kids run free.
  • Try different sports and activities until you find something the whole family likes.  If it's not possible, consider dividing once a month for a girl's trip and a guy's trip.  Mom and daughter can go hiking while Dad and son go climbing or fishing for example.
    Overnight trip at Mosquito Creek

Camping with friends

Backpacking with friends is especially easier than going solo

What would you add to my list of suggestions?  What do you find makes it easier to get outside as a family?


  1. The only thing I can add to this is to make sure that everyone has the right gear and clothing. Adventures when you're cold and wet aren't much fun.

  2. I find your blog very inspiring :D I have passed it on to many adventurous people I know :D

    p.s. I tagged you in my recent post: http://ruffruminations.blogspot.com/2012/02/eleven-eleven-1111-ruff-ruminations.html

    Please play along :D

    1. Thanks Leslie for your kind words. And thanks for passing on my blog to your friends.
      I'll check out your recent post.

  3. Tanya, I am one of those people who knows the need for getting my toddler outdoors but am not good on follow through. It was never a priority when I was growing up and I am a major home-body. This last fall I challenged myself and anyone who wanted to join me to take my son outside everyday for the fall season. I did much better than I normally do because I had made myself publicly accountable. However, when some of the other moms wanted to continue the challenge into winter it was too daunting for me to think about getting outside in the cold everyday. Sounds terrible, right? Anyway, I joined your FB group but Max has been sick so we haven't been able to join you yet. Hopefully we can meet soon and some of your get up and go will rub off on me.

    Also, I love the half-day relaxed start idea! Right up my alley! :)

    1. Misty, I hope to meet you too at our outdoor playgroup.
      We don't get outdoors every day either. I'm not one of those "must get outside every day" super advocates. All in balance. As I said, kids can still grow up to love nature even if they don't get outside every day. Some kids go crazy if they don't get outside and others seem quite content inside.
      The half day start has become very popular in our house.

  4. This is so inspiring! I really like the part where you said that the key is to set specific goals that are focussed around one activity. That makes a lot of sense. I think your advice to block of a series of days ahead of time for an outdoor activity is a great strategy. I am going to use your advice and block off days to use our new bikes/chariot this summer!
    Have you thought about posting this on Family Fun Calgary?
    Also..if you're looking for a new lunch spot in Banff, try Coyotes. I've got a post about it on my blog (www.diningwithkidsincalgary.blogspot.com).
    I really enjoy this blog and thanks so much for the motivation!!

    1. Glad I could help with motivation Erin. It's about 80% why I write. I'll write something on chariot hikes, biking trips and backpacking trips closer to spring.

      I've posted stories on Family Fun Calgary before but haven't submitted this one yet. Thought I would submit a shorter version for them but haven't done it yet. I did write a story for Family Fun Canada yesterday on moms making time for themselves; hobbies, passions, time away...

      I will check out your blog - always looking for great places to eat out with our son. And will try Coyotes some time.

  5. Love your blog!!!! Looking forward to joining you on some hiking adventures this summer and your photos are awesome:)

    1. Looking forward to summer adventures as well Kathy.