raising little ones in the great outdoors

Welcome…Now Imagine This.

by Steve Bohrer
Let’s just get this out of the way — getting outdoors with a family is HARD. You, the adult, will shoulder a Sherpa-sized load of extra gear, food and massive tents. The pace is glacial. Packing and unpacking take as long as the trip itself. A simple rain shower can turn into an epic, and odds are you’ll need to clean one or more disgusting bodily substances off your gear when you get home. So why? Why would a person willingly subject himself to that kind of “fun” in the outdoors? Maybe video games and youth sports aren’t so bad after all.

The fact is that now, more than ever, kids need the outdoors. Global warming captures national headlines, and my second grader has read about deforestation. Adults and children are more aware of the threats to the environment than ever before, yet we spend less time immersed in the natural world. Our children are growing up in an increasingly virtual world where unstructured physical activity outside the home is becoming the exception. Even when we are outside, many of us, adults and children alike, are tuned out to the world around us, absorbed by the ubiquitous iPods or cell phones that our society has dictated we must embrace. Our attention spans have collapsed; we’ve lost the ability to think.

steve-portAt the same time, the need for strong families has never been greater. So many of our society’s problems could be alleviated by strong, involved parents who make family a real priority. Having a strong family requires a strong commitment. Children can spot hypocrisy a mile away. Kids really want to talk to their parents. They want help dealing with their concerns. They want someone to listen to them. By default, a slower pace fosters togetherness. A lack of cell phone coverage encourages conversations.

For many parents, too much indoor time wasn’t an issue when we were growing up. My brothers and I spent most of our time outside. My brother was probably 10 years old the summer he vowed to sleep out every night until school started again, and he did it. My dad was in the Navy, so we moved around a bit, but we eventually settled in rural eastern Idaho. We didn’t do family backpacking trips, but my parents allowed us an incredible amount of freedom to explore and play outside. Even though that kind of childhood is becoming a thing of the past, we can choose to do something about it.

The good news is that nowadays we have more information available to help us. Parenting is the topic of innumerable books, magazines, TV shows, blogs, and podcasts. More specific to the outdoors, gear manufacturers have discovered the market and are producing high quality gear in children’s sizes. Guide services and outfitters specialize in family trips, customizing adventures to the various ages of the participants. It’s all a bit overwhelming, and can lead, I think, to an information-induced paralysis. With so much information and so many resources out there, it’s easy to be intimidated and feel that if we can’t do something perfectly now, we should study and learn and plan and buy until we can.

bug-netFortunately, there is a solution. Just take your family and go for a walk in a local park, but explore the overgrown areas off the path. Take a hike with your kids, and don’t worry that you don’t have official hydration packs for everybody. Work up to bigger trips and don’t be afraid to make mistakes.

Is all the effort and sacrifice worth it?

Picture yourself atop a granite pinnacle. The sun is low in the cloudless eastern sky. It shines warm on your face. A slight breeze ruffles your hair (if you have any) and brings the scent of sagebrush and mahogany up to your belay anchor. As your partner grunts and scrapes up the widening 5.7 crack you gaze out over the smaller rocks and over toward your campsite. You hear the clanking of climbing gear and soon see your partner’s helmet, then her face. Your daughter grins as she scrambles the last few feet to the anchor, relief and pride in her eyes.


It’s winter and you’re sliding up to the ski lift. It’s been a great day, blue skies and fresh powder. You get on the lift and make small talk with the skier next to you. You talk about the day, how great the snow is, what runs you’ve done, what runs you still want to do. Then you talk about other goals, adventures you’ve had, memories of time spent in the mountains. Maybe you talk about life in general, what you hope to get out of it. Finally you near the top (it’s a slow lift), and you remind your son to lift his ski tips.


You sit in a tent, rain pattering on the fly. Instead of a couple of smelly dudes, you’re surrounded by your smelly family. You’ve gotten out the Uno cards, or a book for Mom to read. Before long, the rain stops and you all walk out to watch the most incredible sunset together. Of course, you have to call the kids over and remind them to admire that sunset. Once the kids can’t see to play anymore, you get a campfire started and gather around its warmth. You imagine a day, 20 or more years in the future, when one of these kids will invite you to go camping with him and his kids. Then you’ll tell the story of this trip and many others, and your grandchildren will think you’re the coolest grandparent in the whole world.

We’re an ordinary family with the same responsibilities and dreams that most families have. I certainly don’t consider myselfcity an expert in either the outdoors or as a parent. Most of what I know I’ve learned via trial by fire. I’ve read family stories in outdoor publications and thought, “That’s great, but I don’t know how our family could ever do that.” What I hope to convey through The Outdoor Parent is the joy of living an outdoor life with a family. There’s no competition here, every family can decide what they can do in their season of life, whether that’s a week-long backpacking trip or an afternoon poking around the edges of a park. No one should feel that their family’s outdoor experiences are being judged against anyone else’s. True happiness in life comes from being content with what we have and what we’re able to do.

As I said earlier, doing things outdoors with a family isn’t easy, and we all need the support of other like-minded parents. I hope that The Outdoor Parent will provide encouragement, advice, and humor. I hope you’ll share your thoughts and experiences, ask some questions, or just let us know what you think of the site. Now turn off the computer and go outside with your kids! Just don’t forget to check back here occasionally.

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14 Responses to “Welcome…Now Imagine This.”

  1. Danny says:

    Great article Steve! I’m sure looking forward to making those memories with my family as well!

  2. Andy G says:

    I couldn’t have said it better myself! Great article!

  3. Max says:

    Well said, Steve. My kids and I love to spend time outside as well. Some of our fondest memories come from our outdoor adventures and I anxiously anticipate many more. Who knows, maybe someday we’ll even reach that pinnacle of outdoor togetherness, a father-son/daughter Wasatch finish line!

  4. Ed M says:

    Good advice, and you’re right on with the Sherpa-sized load, and I’ve ended up with one of the smaller children on top of that! Our youngest son will be two this year, so he will be coming on one of wilderness trips for the first time. We’ll let you know how it goes!

  5. Maggie says:

    I love this article. I do a lot of reading on outdoor parenting, particularly on this growing disconnection between children and nature, and I’d like to share with you how my family has responded.

    We were living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and feeling the pressure and stress of our over-scheduled, hectic (i.e. normal!) lives. We made the family decision to sell everything and move to a rural town in Costa Rica with the goal to raise our children with a strong emphasis on natural experiences. We’ve now been here almost 4 years and have done exactly that!

    We’ve had howler monkeys for neighbors, dined with remote indigenous tribes, and had close and personal encounters with plants and animals that some people will never see anywhere other than the Discovery Channel. As for our boys, the type of education they’ve gotten here will undoubtedly stick with them far longer than any worksheet on primates, video on Indians or book on flora and fauna.

    With all these exciting and unique adventures under our belts, I created a website called Super Natural Adventures, (www.supernaturaladventures.com) which features videos about our amazing, exotic experiences with the natural world. Furthermore, the website calls for its viewers to head outside, enjoy the nature in their own backyards, and share that information with the global community by submitting a video of their own.

    I just thought you’d be happy to know that you’re not alone in your quest for outdoor exploration time with your family. Keep up the good work inspiring others to do the same!

  6. Steve–These words are SO important right now. Whatever we can do to get ALL kiddos outside and connected with the natural world is essential to the health of our kids, country and entire WORLD. As my four year old quips (the line stolen from “Madagascar”) “You can’t see THAT on Animal Planet!”–because you can’t. You have to get out there.

    That said, I appreciate the heck out of this site and what you all are writing about. Even though I have the rare opportunity to live in the woods–like many others, the day to day life of a working mom of two small boys leaves me frazzled and overwhelmed. And they feel it. And they react to it. And then they howl/scream/yodel/squash/thump/dismember (the house, each other, me) until we can triangulate/mash/pry/stomp/zip/shove (mittens, boots, hats, hoodies, jackets) and then literally EXPLODE out of the confines of the casa into the big, open, sunshine and air-filled world.

    And then we breathe, and walk, and explore, and love each other, much, much more.

    On a recent hike we had a memorable tracking encounter: sanbornwesterncamps.blogspot.com

    …plus some other articles that echo what you are saying! Thanks again–I’ll miss the winter adventures…but I won’t miss the missing mittens.

    • Nathan(8), Ella(2), Shane & Annie(35) says:

      I can’t help but notice that there are so many of us parents out there struggling to live a connected life. Most have grown so busy, disconnected or tired that they don’t share their family lives with others. We are left to find a way through life alone as a family.

      Our little family currently live in the middle of an Island off the coast of California. We are surrounded by nature…my 8 year old loves it, but takes it for granted. He wishes he had a neighbor, a friend. He loves going to town where he can leave his mountain bike behind and ride his skate board, on concrete!… Most of the time he plays alone, or with us…it;s a nice contrast from the city, where there are endless kids to play with, run themselves into a stupor in perfectly manicured grass parks…like I grew up. Like most of us grew up. Nature was something we traveled to, a park, ski resort or boat filled river/lake. Now, the beautiful, lonely trails go every direction, and we walk them alone. It is not bad, but the isolation can be hard for the kids, and sometimes my wife, who spends much of her day alone with a 2 year old.

      Society has separated us both from nature and each other. We don’t want to offend, bother or push each other. We don’t want to ask for help with our children. We work to give our kids the experiences that we wish we had, or if your lucky, had, and don’t want your kids to miss (I see this a lot with my friends who ski, and now that we are surrounded by ocean, surf). But we rarely have the opportunity to do it with others. Those fortunate enough to have that outlet, I envy you.

      I guess what I am saying is that if we as parents had a support group when we go out camping, hiking, climbing, etc it may not be so hard to do…if we help each other maybe we won’t come home from our camping/climbing trips completely exhausted, hoping that the kids appreciate it more than they let on. Our crushed ideals of what a vacation should be….our diminished bank account…”did we really spend $500 last weekend trying to keep our kids from bothering other campers?”

      I am here to support other parents in their efforts to raise connected children. If we can’t support each other physically, at least we can encourage each other to keep the faith mentally, spiritually…If we can get through the challenging (but equally rewarding) young years together we will be rewarded with our own personal outdoor companions the rest of our lives…

      I hope it doesn’t appear as if I am whining…. I have yet to figure out how to verbalize my thoughts on these subjects yet…life is good, just hard to explain…

      • I have a friend who asked me, shortly after the birth of my son, if I felt isolated out here (here being a 6000 acre camp/ranch in central CO). At the time, I was puzzled. We were Livin’ The Dream–an endless home playground for every outdoor pursuit imaginable.

        And now I understand what she might have meant.

        It’s not the concrete or the lawns we long for–though the decomposed granite makes for some wicked “first steps” terrain–it is the sense that maybe, “in town”, we might be able to catch a break and–with distance–appreciate it ourselves once again. The independent spirit so often associated with the West is, and has been, a blessing and triumph of freedom and open spaces–and it has also driven many mad….maybe because it isn’t easy. It always makes me laugh when I think about the term “settlers”–because, frankly, those women and men didn’t “settle” for anything.

        There is an old potato farm/homestead on the property that is spartan in every detail except for a giant, multi-paned glass window that faces the south. The original homesteader’s great-grandson told us that his great-grandfather put it in–even though it “leaked cold air like a sieve”–because his great-grandmother couldn’t tolerate the house otherwise. And, in the end, she moved back home to her family in the city anyway.

        It is easy to become nostalgic for our own childhoods because childhood–in its own right–should be a carefree time of adventure, mishaps, fun, unconditional love, learning, unstructured play, and friends and family galore. We were fortunate enough to have those experiences growing up, and we want the same for our kids…but we don’t necessarily have the proper paradigm to achieve that in the rather wacky world where we live today.

        It is not easy to be a parent, so we compound a job that has become one of the more anxiety-riddled occupations around with a culturally-induced Fear of Others and, on top of that, we make a choice to live in beautiful, yet isolated natural places because–somewhere within us–we don’t want to settle.

        We know the power and strength and wisdom that comes from perseverance–but that doesn’t make it any easier when I have to load two cranky kids into the car for the 2.5 hour round trip to the grocery store because we can no longer subsist on some sort of tomato/choose your bean/bread product/cheese concoction.

        Yet we are figuring it out–we are making the shift–we aren’t settling–and we are finding (through remote, complicated, isolating technologies…oh dear) connections with other like-minded, like-puzzled, like-inspired parents. And, if we can stick to it, I can only hope and imagine that a greater shift will occur and that both our families and the natural world will reap the benefits.

        Thanks for your words and thoughts–it is a conundrum that spans/encompasses quite a bit. But it feels damn good to know someone else wonders about this stuff, too.

        • seems like the community is starting to gather…there are days where I think the Internet is sucking the life out of me, but then there are moments where I can see what a powerful tool it is for bringing like minded individuals. I just wish all these conversations could be had around the camp fire. Thanks for commenting everyone.

  7. Nathan(8), Ella(2), Shane & Annie(35) says:

    Jonathan Richmond wrote a song once called “I want the city, and I want the Country too”…kind of our theme song right now.

    For now all our problems take a back seat to the thousand quail that are mowing our garden down to nothing…I would like to go mountain biking, but I have to build more cages for the peas and tomatoes…

    The firepit is waiting for anyone willing to bring their family to Catalina…let us play…

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