With New Kids, Adventure Is All Relative

Think a baby is going to cramp your adventurous lifestyle?


Adventure as a new family becomes relative. Before having kids, adventure very definitively meant hours-long mountain bike rides exploring trails we’d never ridden, backpacking at 10,000 feet during the shoulder season and not flinching when three feet of snow fell unexpectedly, paddling class IV rivers so deep in canyons that burros are required to shuttle the gear to the put in. How about a full moon float down a remote river in the middle of New Mexico to a bonfire complete with fiddle playing and whiskey? Just another Friday night. We would take off for a long weekend trip at the drop of a hat. Our biggest concern: Was our destination dog friendly?

10 months after having a baby, it’s as if the world has shifted on its axis and suddenly “adventure” means driving an hour into the mountains from Seattle, where we live, for a four-mile day hike. Sometimes “camping” and “boating a river” grace our conversations (not our weekend itineraries yet), but “backcountry skiing” and even “long road cycling trips” are still longingly waiting in the wings. My husband just sold his whitewater kayak. We’re hoping our air mattress fits in the back of his new (family-size) pickup truck. You get the idea.

In the first weeks, outdoor success means taking a walk around a neighborhood block (with a nod to the fact that mama’s body is healing, too). Then slowly, over time, you start to add on another block, and another block, until it turns into a mile walk on a dirt trail, then two miles, and so on. In parallel with figuring out how to take care of your little one in life, you also decipher how to care for her outdoors: like nursing her on the trail, packing a baby-toting backpack with exactly what your baby needs, and learning how far your little one can hang — whether driving to an adventure or being on one — and respecting that.

If you set off on adventures with them from the beginning, it will just be a normal part of life for them — and it’s easier on you too because each trip is practice.

As you get to know your baby, you also start to redefine adventure for your family. Connecting with other outdoor families who are willing to dive into the great beyond with you can give you a support system and inspire you to get out there. And you’re doing the same for them. It’s a great reminder that we are all — no matter how badass another family seems — going through a lot of the same thoughts and experiences as new parents who want to spend time doing what we love outside and show our kids how fulfilling an adventure-filled life can be.

“We went on a five-day wilderness river trip on the San Juan when Pippa was 10 months old,” Katie Arnold told me. She’s the writer behind Outside‘s Raising Rippers column about bringing kids up in the outdoors. “I nearly had a heart attack in the days leading up to the trip, thinking I must be insane. But, the trip changed our lives.”

For Arnold’s family — which includes two girls, now four and six — it’s about following their motto, start off as you mean to go, which she uses in reference to her daughters’ lives. If you set off on adventures with them from the beginning, it will just be a normal part of life for them — and it’s easier on you, too, because each trip is practice.

Graham Gephart, marketing manager for Norwegian technical outdoor apparel maker Helly Hansen was in a constant state of motion before having a baby. Skiing meant dawn patrol, night sessions and backcountry laps when mountain passes became viable. He and his wife were logging runs all of the time. And if it wasn’t winter, they were backpacking, camping and hiking. “I had all sorts of ideas about what kind of amazing outdoor parents we would be, taking our daughter out skiing in the backpack with us,” says Gephart. “The reality is my own level of risk and caution changed. Certain things became harder. Backpacking became car camping more often. Eventually, we learned to go with the flow and settle into the space between a kid who benefits from exploration, but also clearly from routine and predictability.”

Which brings us to the gear, another piece that takes practice. There is just so much of it and, inevitably, after spending far too long wrangling it into the car, you usually forget an essential piece. For Arnold, her savior was lugging a collapsible pack ‘n play on raft trips so the baby could romp around in there on shore while her and her husband got camp set up. Gephart fondly recalls the 25+ nights he’s spent in a tent with his two-year-old. Her impression of sleeping pads? Pretty much the equivalent of a bouncy house with a self-mandated bedtime no earlier than 10 p.m. “But when she rolls over,” he says, “and cuddles you pre-dawn? That’s the best.”

If I had read this story pre-baby, I might think it sounds like a Debbie Downer. Like having a kid means “adventure” has to turn into “adventure lite”, and that’s no fun when you are used to the former.

Polar explorer Eric Larsen, who adventures into the world’s most remote places for a living, views his family outings as “keeping things simple” because his professional expeditions are so logistic- and gear-heavy. “We went to Mexico when Merritt was nearly five months old. Then we biked/drove/camped the White Rim Trail in Moab two months later,” he says, commenting on the first adventures he can recall with his now two-year-old son. “We started small so that by the time we were in really remote places, we had a good handle on what could go wrong.” But, the real upside? “The awesome new camp gear.”

For the rest of us who aren’t used to über-complex trip planning, taking babies backpacking on something like Mt. Rainier’s multi-day Wonderland Trail — a stroll for Larsen — sounds glorious, but usually results in a comfortable base camp, like a cabin with cruise-y day hikes nearby. Even the latter requires a glacier-long gear checklist.

If I had read this story pre-baby, I might think it sounds like a Debbie Downer, like having a kid means “adventure” has to turn into “adventure lite”, and that’s no fun when you are used to the former. That actually is what happens — everything mellows — but somehow, it’s okay. No, really, it is. I thought I would be aggro about being tethered to a nursing baby and not being able to get after it (I’ve been known to be cranky when I don’t get my workouts in), but somehow I just don’t care. Seeing the world, whether it’s a flat patch of grass at the neighborhood park or a not-so-challenging summit like seven-mile Mt. Constitution in the San Juan Islands, which Lucia ascended with us when she was seven weeks old, is equally rewarding through her eyes. I no longer feel the need to seek out remote locations to feel small in the world because every stick, flower petal, bird and tree branch moving in the wind is mind blowing to her. So, they are to me, too. And that makes the smallest of adventures feel wilder than you can imagine.

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