Written by contributor Tiffany Larson.
When we had children, we knew we wanted to introduce them to our love for the outdoors by including them in our adventures on the dirt, in the water and on the mountain. With each season of their growth, the activity may change a little but over the last five years, we’ve continued to bike, ski, wake board and camp, bringing our children along with us.
If you love outdoor sports and have young children, I encourage you to get out there and get your sport on. It requires a little more planning and preparation than you used to do, but it’s worth it. Here are a few things we’ve learned along the way:
- Decide what you would like to accomplish. Answering this question first will dictate many of the other decisions you need to make when planning. If you are introducing your children to the outdoors or a new sport, you probably won’t take them on a fifteen-mile bike ride the first time out. However, if your children have been riding bikes with you since they could walk, a fifteen-mile bike ride isn’t out of the question.
- Decide who is going. We often choose the sport depending on who is available to go. If our toddler is staying home, we have more options. If there are other families involved, we have fewer options.
- Decide what sport to do. Fortunately, we live in a city where there are an abundance of outdoor activities. The decision is often based on a combination of weather, who’s going and the availability of activities.
- Decide the best time of day to go. Our children are at their best in the morning so we often venture out by 8 or 9am to get in a couple hours of fun.
- Decide where to go. Because we want to spend as much time outside as possible, we stick to places within a 30 minute drive. If you need ideas for local outdoor sport locations, check out trails.com.
- Involve the kids. Preschool age and older kids may have an opinion (or two). Ask them where they want to go. What sports do they want to try? Is there a friend they want to go with? The more involved in the planning, the more the kids will want to go and hopefully, the more your plan will work out!
- Prepare for the worst. You may plan to be gone for an hour or two, but it’s inevitable with young children that something always comes up. A hungry kid or a small “boo boo” can derail a short hike in two seconds flat.
- Bring a backpack. As much as my oldest would like to bring her own backpack, I know that I will eventually end up holding it so we only allow adults to bring backpacks. In it, we pack extra clothing for accidents and warmth. For cold weather, we bring hats and gloves. For warm weather, we bring sunscreen and sunglasses. I throw in a small first aid kit, just enough for the inevitable scratches. For babies, we bring diapers and wipes are always helpful – baby or not. And no trip with children is complete without food and drink. Lots of it. We load up on snacks because frankly, that may be just what gets us over the last mile of our hike. Good options are fruit (both fresh and dried), crackers and cheese, granola bars, trail mix, or cut veggies. We also bring a water bottle for each person on the trip.
- Layer, layer, layer. If you’ve ever been the outdoors type, you know the cardinal rule is to layer. If there is any chance that the weather will be over 60 degrees, I always start with a tank top, followed by a short or long sleeve top and a light coat, if necessary. For colder weather or rain, I also wear a fleece coat with a shell over it.
- Gear up. There is a lot of gear for children and outdoor sports are no exception. Some of it may be a waste of money but some of it may just save that cross country ski trip you’ve been planning for two months. Of course, there are always the necessities like helmets or life jackets. You can save money by borrowing from other families, renting or buying used from Craigslist, eBay or a local used sporting goods store like Play It Again Sports.
- The #1 thing that will most affect the outcome of your trip is to have realistic expectations. No three year old is going to hike ten miles, your toddler isn’t going to learn to ski the first time and some kids just hate bike trailers.
- Start small and build up. If your kids have never played in the snow, chances are you will take them up skiing and all they want to do is make snow angels. I know, I’ve done that. Take them to make snow angels the first time. Then try sledding. The next trip might be snowshoeing and then try downhill or cross country skiing.
- Try, try again. Just because you had a miserable first trip hiking doesn’t mean it will happen every time. You know your kids, some days are just off days. Choose a new trail or a different time of day and try again. If hiking doesn’t work, try a water or snow sport.
Children of all ages can go hiking. If you have an infant, a front carrier or sling would be great to carry them along. Toddlers can ride in a child carrying backpack, we use a Kelty purchased very inexpensively at a children’s consignment event. Preschoolers and older can walk. If it’s appropriate, you could also bring their balance bike, pedal bike or scooter, particularly if you are walking a paved trail. When our children were still able to be carried, we could hike as long as we could carry them. Now that we have a 4 year old, we hike just a couple miles unless we bring her bike which allows us to hike a little farther.
We often pack a lunch to picnic in the middle of the hike. It’s a great way to break things up and gives the kids a chance to run around and play for a bit. We also play games like “I Spy” where I ask them to find a red bird or three sticks or something else along the path.
Once your child reaches 12 months old (and not before), strap on a helmet and put them in a bike trailer or bike child seat and take them around the neighborhood. Throw in some toys and snacks and get them comfortable and familiar with the trailer and motion. Once they are, start building up your mileage.
Our two kids, ages 18 months and 4.5 are good for 15-20 miles of riding. Of course, we’re not power pedaling 20mph and we definitely stop once or twice (or more) along the way but we expect to. We still get outside to enjoy the weather, the scenery, our family and we get to introduce our love of cycling to our children.
A bike trailer is a great alternative to a jogging stroller, particularly when you are in the market for a double jogging stroller. Many of them convert so you can push them, without being attached to a bike. It does double duty, saving you from buying two expensive pieces of kid’s gear.
Once your child can ride a pedal bike, the next step up may be a trailer bike. I find this to be of great use when riding where there might be traffic or in large groups of cyclists. This summer, our family will have mom toting the bike trailer with our toddler and dad will have the trailer bike with our 4.5 year old.
One of my favorite summer sports is wake boarding. There is something about the wind in my hair and the water at my feet that truly makes me feel alive. My husband enjoys it, too, so we pack the kids along and they love the boat. We are often on the water for 2-3 hours at a time so we always prepare with food, water and sunscreen.
We often dock, go to shore or stop in the middle of the lake to relax and swim. We have kick boards, noodles and swim toys. It gets the wiggles out and makes boating a family activity. When they are older, we’ll invite them to ride the inner tube behind the boat with us.
Canoeing / Kayaking
Flat water kayaking or canoeing may sound a little daunting with young children but with a few key tips, you can make it work. We have one adult for every young child. That allows us to keep our eyes on just one child. It goes without saying that everyone wears life jackets. If I have to jump in save a child that falls out, I’m going to be much better off if I have my own safety device. We also only go in warm weather, if anyone falls in we don’t want to worry about hypothermia.
Because it is not easy to get in and out of a canoe or kayak in the middle of a lake, with two small children, we don’t. We stay along the shore allowing us to quickly get out of the boat if we need a potty break or a have a restless child that wants to play in the water or on land.
The great thing about surfing is that it’s done at a place where most children are content to play the day away: the beach! As with many other sports and activities though, children either need direct adult interaction if they are learning to surf, or they need someone reliable to watch them on the beach. Preschoolers (or bigger kids) who are comfortable in the water can start learning to paddle or to ride in on the whitewash on their tummies, or can even go tandem with an experienced mom or dad.
For younger kids, the best option is a playgroup that splits the babysitting responsibilities. Our own editor, Nicole Bennett has founded a website, Surf Mamas, that helps moms coordinate meeting up locally to surf and swap beach babysitting.
Snowshoeing and Cross Country Skiing
Snowshoeing is similar to hiking in that you can take kids of all ages. We packed our 4 month old on an hour trip around a lake and four years later, she can snowshoe herself. Our toddler son can ride in our child carrying backpack, packed around by my husband. We don’t stay out long because walking in the snow is hard work, particularly for a four year old. Any time you are in the woods, you want to bring along a backpack full of food, water, clothing and some survival gear like a compass, whistle and first aid kit. And we always bring our phone. Not because we want to talk to anyone, but if we need help for any reason, it’s nice to be able to get it quickly. Like any trip, a few stops for food and play, can not only extend the trip but end it on a good note.
Cross country skiing is the next winter sport I want to try with my family. Sleds are considered the safest option for toting children along while cross country skiing. You pull them behind you and children can get on and off, at their leisure. Perfect for those kids that want to snowshoe or ski along for awhile and then tire out. And like snowshoeing, make sure to bring a full pack prepared for anything that might happen in the cold, winter woods.
I grew up skiing and the thought of my little tykes following me around on the mountain makes me giddy. We took our daughter skiing the first time at 3. She’s always been strong at sports and I knew she had the strength and coordination for it. Every time we went up to the mountain, she wavered between skiing and playing in the snow. Because we were prepared and didn’t expect a full day skiing blue runs, we came home happy. It wasn’t a wasted day.
Most mountains offer skiing for preschoolers for free. They may have an all mountain or beginner run pass for free. They may even offer a free lesson or rental package. The first couple times you go up on the ski hill, you might try a professional ski lesson. Even though my husband is an expert skier and has a lot of patience, we know that ski instructors are trained to know exactly how to teach children to ski.
Ski equipment for children can be found most inexpensively on eBay, Craigslist, a used sporting goods store or a local ski swap. In fact, summer is a great time to buy ski gear at a discount. We picked up a pair of skis with bindings for $50. They’ll last a season or two and then we’ll pass them on to our other children.
These tips are what has worked for our family of four over the past five years. With some experience, you will find what works best for your own family. You’ll build years of memories and hopefully, a life long love of the outdoors.
What outdoor sports do you share with your child? What tips can you share that make it easy and fun?