Growing an Outdoor Family: A Hiker Reflects on Her Kids’ Relationship to the Outdoors

June 18, 2014
Kristen Laine Author Kristen Laine snapped this shot of her family on one of their many hikes up Mount Cardigan.

I took my daughter on her first hike before she was 6 weeks old. My husband, Jim, and I picked the shortest route to the summit of Mount Cardigan, the West Ridge Trail, which winds a mile and a half up through forest to sloping granite ledges and a view that sweeps across New Hampshire’s Lakes Region and the corrugated ranges of the southern White Mountains. Mount Cardigan is a classic family hike, though as dazed new parents we chose it because it was familiar, short, and—especially—close.

I strapped Ursula into a front pack, her back snugged against my chest, having already learned that she preferred to face out into the world. It was a pleasant midsummer day, a few fleecy clouds decorating the sky. We walked up the trail at a stately, processional pace, stopping often as other hikers greeted this newest member of the clan. Good for you, people said to me and Jim. You’re getting her out there right away. One spry, gray-haired woman leaned in for a better look at Ursula, whose face was shielded by a sun hat, then spoke as if to an absent friend, “‘Start ’em young,’ we always said.”

I was glad to be starting Ursula so young, because as a mother I was starting so late. In a few days I’d turn 41. My mother at the same age was getting divorced after four children and 20 years of marriage. She and my father had started my brothers and me young. They’d met on a ski trip in college, camped on their honeymoon—and when we kids arrived, simply gathered us up and kept going.

After I graduated from college, I traveled a different path, away from marriage and family. Over a dozen years, I spent thousands of hours in the outdoors, both on and off trails. At some point in my 30s, though, I stopped caring whether I climbed another mountain or took another backcountry trip. The path I most wanted then was the one I was walking right there, on that warm summer day.

I held out my index fingers so Ursula could clasp them. She pumped her legs up and down in unison as if they were attached to a pull-string. She’d been out in the world little more than a month, yet she already seemed at home in the outdoors. When she fell asleep, I kept walking, cradling her feet in my palms.

Later that summer we took her on her first backpacking trip. That winter, we snowshoed into Zealand Falls Hut, taking turns carrying Ursula bundled on our backs in the child carrier. The next spring, we were on Cardigan again. I pointed out trout lilies to her along the trail, her breath warm against my neck. I’d wanted us to be a hiking family, sharing together what I’d loved alone, and this was exactly what I’d imagined.

It helped that Jim and I already knew the hiking part. We both could read a map and compass, set up a tent, make meals on a camp stove. Like most new parents, though, we were still figuring out the family part.

To that “start ’em young” advice, we added other lessons from our own childhoods and from watching our peers raise children (one benefit of coming to parenting so much later): Listen to them. Take their needs into account. Don’t leave them behind. Bring them along, don’t drag them along.

Ursula made it up Cardigan under her own steam when she was 2 years old. Jim and I, meanwhile, gradually found our parenting legs. Our family life, just as I’d hoped, took on a seasonal rhythm similar to my life in the outdoors before children, and to my childhood before that.

Then we had a second child.

We learned right away that Virgil liked to be held close, facing toward us. From an early age, he loved words, numbers, games. He told his first joke soon after he learned to talk. He happily, endlessly, played board games. And as I learned during a camping trip the summer he turned 1, Virgil was a very different child in the outdoors than his sister. On the trail, he tried to wriggle out of the kid carrier as soon as we strapped him in. On the ground, he beelined to danger, cramming bark chips into his mouth, reaching for the scalding pot on the camp stove, continually crawling away from the campsite.

Even after he started walking, he showed little interest in hiking. We tried to walk up Cardigan with him at 2, as we had with Ursula, but he asked to turn around well before the summit. Where Ursula had spent hours outside—climbing trees, playing in puddles, finding special child-sized spaces, building “forts” and “fairy houses”—Virgil wanted to be inside.

We hiked less and turned around more, even as we continued to look for ways to motivate Virgil on the trail. We sought out short hikes with big payoffs. We invited friends along. We made up trail games. More than once we resorted to what we called the “Hansel and Gretel” ploy, sending Ursula ahead to place candy on the trail for Virgil to find. Bribery hadn’t been part of my parenting picture; I could imagine what my own parents would say.

For nearly my entire adult life I had pulled out guidebooks and maps each spring, planning that year’s hikes. Now I hesitated.

Our family life was changing as well. With both children in school, lessons and activities ate away at the time we had for hiking together. Virgil discovered screens and became obsessed by the games he could bring to life with only a few touches or taps. His disinterest in hiking turned to outright resistance. On the trail, he whined and flopped down in protest. He seemed headed for a life indoors, the stimulation of electronics and games drawing him more powerfully than nature. How could a few hikes and one or two nights of backpacking in a year compete against their insistent pull? Where, in our daily ricochet from school to lesson to practice to homework, had we left either of our children time simply to be outdoors?

Frustrated and missing my own time on the trail, I wondered if we had lost our way.

I began to see my parents’ dragging me along in a new light. As a busy family, we would always have reasons to stay home, or indoors. I told the children, Hiking is something we do as a family. I returned to dreaming over guidebooks in the spring, insisted on Mother’s Day hikes, maintained our summer backpack tradition. But we also carved out time from our regular routines for Ursula and Virgil simply to be outside.

Then I screwed up. I assumed that Ursula, of whom I had once written, “She seems to have been born to hike,” would be delighted to go on a nine-day backpacking course with other almost-teens. She might have been, had I asked. Instead, after the trip ended, she declared that she hated hiking, especially backpacking.

To her, I said, We are a hiking family. But I didn’t press my point. Instead, for the first time since becoming a parent, I went on backpacking trips separately with old friends. I saw that I could say, Hiking is important to me, and I can do it on my own.

Maybe I wasn’t leaving my children behind. Maybe I was releasing them, and me.

We had let our kids negotiate with us; now we negotiated with them. Two years after Ursula’s backpacking course, I planned another family trip. This time when I brought out guidebooks and pulled up websites, I went over them with Ursula and Virgil. Ursula grudgingly allowed that she was willing to carry a backpack and to hike, but held the line at elevation gain. I found a coastal hike: 9 miles, two nights, basically flat. Both children agreed to it. That trip turned into one of our best family vacations, perhaps because we were all in it together.

My perspective shifted on Virgil’s reluctance as well. I remembered a family hike during a summer trip to the White Mountains when I was about his age. As a Midwestern kid, I’d never hiked uphill before. I lagged far behind, complained bitterly, sat down on the side of the trail and swore I couldn’t go another step. I probably sounded a lot like Virgil. In a moment of parental double vision, I realized that I, too, might have become an indoors kid if I’d been left to my own devices. My parents dragged me, prodded me, yelled at me, but they also didn’t give up on me. By insisting that I join them in the outdoors, they gave me a base to build from, a path to take toward my own life in the outdoors—a path that started to look far more similar to theirs than I’d once imagined.

I started listening more carefully to what Virgil was telling us about himself and the outdoors. He’d begun talking about living in the woods, alone or with friends, using only his wits and his skills. At first I’d dismissed the notion as a fantasy he would soon drop. But he hadn’t dropped it: He’d expanded it, returned to it, liked reading about kids who’d survived in the woods, about campcraft. I felt the shock of recognition. As a kid, I’d whined my way up trails, but I’d also imagined myself into books like Heidi and Swiss Family Robinson. Long before I began my own adventures, those internal explorations had created a place for me to grow into. Virgil’s imagination, my own experience suggested, held the power of transformation.

We think that change is already taking place. Virgil is still a happy warrior of the Internet and player of indoor games. But sometimes he and his friends head to a nearby park, where they explore its wilder edges, climb trees, and act out complicated adventures. He’s excited about the trips we take, even if he flags before we’re done. For the past couple of years he’s begged us to send him to a traditional summer camp, willingly agreeing to their no-electronics guidelines and eager to be old enough for their Junior Maine Guide program.

Ursula, a sophomore in high school now, still climbs trees. Her confidence, her ability to orient herself in the world, her joy: all seem grounded in her sense of herself as a child of the outdoors. She recently surprised us by hiking up a 4,000-footer with high school friends. She seemed proud to be the experienced leader in the group.

Lately I’ve come to another realization. All the time I said, We’re a hiking family, I should have been saying, We’re an outdoors family. I’m proud of having taught Ursula and Virgil the basics of hiking and camping, of having created a family hiking tradition. But I’ve learned from my children that far more important than miles hiked or trails explored is making space for a deep connection with the natural world.

As it happens, parenting and the outdoors work together. A few years ago, reading about environmental issues, I came upon research showing that the biggest single predictor of whether children will grow up to feel a sense of environmental stewardship is that an adult—parent, grandparent, teacher, friend—spent time with them in the outdoors, teaching them to care. We nurture what we love.

We’re still navigating the terrain, but I think we’re on the trail.


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Kristen Laine

In 2013, Kristen Laine won an EXCEL gold award for outstanding feature writing for her work in AMC Outdoors.