We stood on sloping slickrock ledges at the top of a 100-foot rappel into an unnamed slot canyon in Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park, about to commit ourselves to a technical descent that we knew involved three more rappels and a horizontal chimney traverse between soaring canyon walls about two feet apart. I’ll admit: I felt a little nervous. My wife, Penny, appeared even more anxious than me. She gave me her serious look and asked, “Are you sure about this?”
Neither of us was worried about our own ability to get through this challenging slot canyon. With us on this trip in the last week of March were our 11-year-old son, Nate, and just-turned-nine-years-old daughter, Alex. The horizontal traverse through the claustrophobic narrows below us would require the rock climbing technique known as “chimneying,” where you press your feet, hands, and back against opposing rock walls, and meticulously and reposition feet and hands to inch slowly forward.
Also with us was my good friend Steve Howe, who lives in nearby Torrey, Utah, and runs the guide service Redrock Adventure Guides. Steve had made probably the first-ever descent of this slot canyon just months ago, and went down it most recently just two days ago. He described the narrows section as a “butt-crack slot”—meaning it continues narrowing as it drops deeper. Someone losing their grip on the walls could fall and become wedged in.
So it was not to be taken lightly. But Steve had led us on a six-mile, mostly off-trail dayhike in Capitol Reef the day before—exploring an otherworldly terrain of sandstone domes and remote canyons hidden behind walls of spires. After seeing how Nate and Alex did on that outing, he had assured us, “Your kids can handle the slot canyon.” Having discussed with him the difficulty of it and looked at his pictures of it, I agreed.
Now I told Penny again that I thought Nate and Alex would be fine. And the kids insisted they wanted to make the descent. Penny gave me her look that says, “You’d better be right about this.” But she also believed it would be a wonderful experience for Alex and Nate—as long as we could get through it safely.
Whatever their comfort and skill level outdoors, all parents have to make subjective judgments about what their kids are ready for. It’s a question I have wrestled with many times every year since my children were born. It’s a delicate balance, choosing adventures that can excite them through challenge without pushing them too far or scaring them. Choose wisely, erring on the side of caution, and you may find—as we have—that your kids will constantly surprise you with their enthusiasm and stamina.
Since they were little, I’ve strived to think about what would engage them at every age. Figuring that out is often as simple as looking at natural environments through the eyes of a child. Kids like standing, moving, or falling water, big rocks to scramble on or squeeze between, or a patch of forest to dissect. My kids have never met a stick or stone they didn’t like. They enjoy seeing wild animals, a new activity that feels adventurous, and long periods of uninterrupted personal attention from their parents.
We’ve cross-country skied through a snowstorm to a backcountry yurt when Nate was six and Alex was four—just a few months before taking a five-day float trip down the Green River through Canyonlands National Park with a few other families. My kids both rock climbed their first 150-foot cliff at age six. For my book about taking them on wilderness adventures in 10 national parks facing different threats from climate change, when Nate was nine and Alex seven, we sea kayaked in the wilderness of Glacier Bay, Alaska, for five days, paddled past alligators in the Everglades, and backpacked among grizzlies in Glacier National Park. A week after my daughter’s seventh birthday, we finished a four-day backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon with an eight-mile, 4,000-foot uphill hump.
I’m certainly not trying to suggest making outdoor adventure as hard as possible; that’s a formula for disaster. When contemplating a new trip, I always consider whether my kids have previously done something that was comparably difficult physically and emotionally—and enjoyed it. But every family must choose the doorways to the outdoors that are best for them. Just taking a walk along a creek is a magical journey for a young kid and a parent. My point is just that, as parents, we tend to worry a little too much about whether our kids are capable of doing something. As a culture, we tend to underestimate the physical abilities of children. They are resilient and endlessly curious; we just have to encourage them.
People sometimes ask me whether I ever worry about my children’s safety when we go on wilderness adventures. My answer is, yes, of course. All parents worry; it comes with the territory.
But I worry much more that they will not spend enough time outdoors. We live in a society today where everyone spends less and less time in nature, especially children, who will glue themselves to an electronic screen for several hours a day if permitted to do so. My kids are no different.
We descended that unnamed Capitol Reef slot canyon without another anxious moment. For Nate and Alex, it was thrilling, mysterious, and constantly surprising—all the qualities of a great adventure. Afterward, I told them how impressed I was with how well they handled it, and they both beamed with pride.