We plodded slowly up a rocky trail at 10,000 feet in Grand Teton National Park. My wife, Penny, and I carried heavy backpacks; our kids strolled along at their unhurried pace. One after another, small knots of dayhikers and other backpackers coming down the trail stopped in mid-stride at the sight of us, as if they had stumbled upon a moose or a bear or maybe a talking gibbon juggling coconuts. Usually, they grinned at our kids. Some stared, perplexed.

“How old are you?” they invariably asked. Our son, Nate, eight years old, holding his favorite stuffed dolphin as we hiked, and our daughter, Alex, age six, clutching her stuffed dog, would politely answer each time, though visibly bored with this line of inquiry.

Over the years, we’ve encountered this reaction more times than I could count. Often, as on that trip in the Tetons, Nate and Alex have been the youngest children we see out there, or among few kids on the trail, or the only children. Whatever this says about us as a culture, adults are not accustomed to seeing young kids deep in the wilderness—even many adults who are parents themselves.

While backpacking the West Rim Trail in Zion National Park, on a gorgeous weekend in early October just two months after that Tetons trip, a few hikers looked at our kids with expressions of grave concern and notified us that “it gets really cold up there at night, you know!” (In fact, the low temperature would be a pleasant 50° F.) But the reaction of other people was perhaps best summed up by an old friend of mine, an experienced backpacker who joined us on one of Nate’s first backpacking trips, in Idaho’s Pioneer Mountains before his first birthday (he rode in a child-carrier pack). My friend kept staring at Nate and saying, “Seeing a baby out here just seems so out of place.”

Why is it so unusual to see young kids in the wilderness?

I think it’s simply that we as a people tend to think of children as fragile and capable of much less than they actually are. In effect, we set low expectations of our children. The broader reverberations of these assumptions touch on serious issues, like the growing epidemic of childhood obesity in America (as my good friend, public health, planning, and transportation consultant Mark Fenton, so persuasively works to combat); the sharp decline in the amount of time children spend playing outdoors, illustrated by the term “nature-deficit disorder” coined by Richard Louv, author of The Nature Principle and Last Child in the Woods; and even the caliber of graduates emerging from America’s high schools. But those are subjects for other articles.

My point is this: Our children are more capable than we often tend to give them credit for, and their lives and ours are made richer when families get out on wilderness adventures.

Of course, ours is not the only family doing these things. Many of our friends take ambitious outdoor trips with their young kids—backpacking, kayaking, backcountry skiing, climbing. But as someone who spends a lot of time in the backcountry (partly for my work), I can say that I don’t run into a lot of children out there.

My kids are now 11 and eight. Besides numerous backpacking trips, they’ve hiked up to 12 miles in a day, rock climbed 300-foot cliffs, and cross-country skied through blizzards to backcountry yurts—some of these things as young as four, under their own power. They climbed 4,000 feet uphill in one day in the Grand Canyon when Nate was nine and Alex a week past her seventh birthday. I don’t say that to boast; I think it’s unfortunate that these things shock many people. I say it only to make the point that our kids have done so much in large part because we did not accept the assumption that they couldn’t.

I’m actually very conservative when choosing a trip for our family. I believe in taking small, incremental steps in terms of challenge. I meticulously research every trip, gauging its difficulty, assessing its hazards and how well we can control or avoid them. I consider my kids’ emotional comfort level just as much as their physical ability—whether an activity or environment might make them uncomfortable. How much Penny and I project a sense of calm and control also affects their perception of being safe.

We’ve always been sensitive about not pushing them too hard—we want them to first and foremost enjoy these experiences. I let my sense of what they can do be guided by what I’ve seen them do, and they consistently respond positively to our outdoor travels. The truth is that many of Nate and Alex’s fondest memories are from these family adventures, and they get as excited as I do whenever we’re planning another one.

So when we embarked on 11 ambitious wilderness adventures in a one-year period for a book I was writing about national parks and climate change, we did so with a little nervousness—that’s natural for any parent—but much more eagerness and confidence. With Nate nine years old (he turned 10 halfway through that year) and Alex seven, we backpacked in six national parks from Olympic to Glacier to Rocky Mountain. We sea kayaked for five days in Alaska’s Glacier Bay, where orcas patrol waters cold enough to suck the life from an adult in minutes, and grizzly bears prowl the same beaches where we camped (we abandoned one campsite after discovering huge griz prints and fresh scat). We paddled among alligators in the Everglades, hiked to Yosemite’s biggest waterfalls, ski toured into the frigid backcountry of Yellowstone, and rock climbed at Joshua Tree.

Not only did our kids manage all of these trips physically, but we could see in their excitement, hushed awe, and gushing war stories afterward that they not only exulted in these experiences, but through them learned much about our world and themselves.

My wife and I are, we readily confess, motivated quite a bit by self-interest: We’re not willing to sacrifice an aspect of our lives—getting outdoors—that is one of our greatest sources of pleasure and was one of the main attractions that brought us together in the first place.

I’ve met many couples who have said the same thing to me: “We used to hike a lot before we had kids.” I understand how that happens: Having a baby or toddler consumes so much time and energy that it’s hard to think about planning an outdoor trip and making the substantial effort to pull it off with little kids. I’ve been there. When our kids were young, we took many camping trips that were more work than fun. But I always looked at that effort as an investment in the future: we were nurturing their love of the outdoors.

I’ve seen how a rushing creek, a mountain lake, or a pine forest engages my kids endlessly, never boring them like our yard or the school playground. Like us, they find something that’s hard to explain but irresistible in the complexity and stimulation of a natural environment, something that’s missing from the urban environment where we live. I believe Nate and Alex are discovering what I’ve found: the satisfaction of moving under your own power, at human velocity, through a place crowded not with people, artificial noise, machines, or flashing lights, but the abundance of nature.

John Muir said, “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.”

With our kids, I think that’s exactly what we’ve found.

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