On our way down from Noble Knob in the Norse Peak Wilderness
How to Get Your Kids to Love the Outdoors

Allow me to gloat for just a moment. Recently, my kids completed their first-ever backpacking trip, and they did great! They loved the mountain views, wildflowers, and even the challenge of hiking with a backpack. Sure, there were a few low points (more on that later), but overall they loved it and begged to spend two nights out next time.

Last week, we went surfing on the Oregon coast. We like Nehalem Bay State Park for the camping and Oswald West (Short Sands) for the surfing. In the campground there’s a playground, bike paths, and tons of kids for them to meet and play with, plus sand dunes and a gorgeous, wild beach with clear water and soft sand. On this trip, my oldest daughter paddled our old longboard out on her own and caught several whitewater waves all by herself. I watched her, anxious that she would forget all the lessons I’d taught her about safety and timing. But as she took the board from me in the waist-deep ocean she said, “Don’t worry, mom, I can do it.” My youngest, who is timid and two years ago would only wade ankle-deep, rode a wave with Kurt, squealing with joy.

Their success is no accident. My husband and I have been working for years to build the kind of life we want to enjoy with our kids. We started small and slowly added more pieces to our adventures. I’m no parenting expert, but here are some things that seem to be working:

1. Get your kids the right gear. Nobody is going to have a good time if they are uncomfortable.

If you surf in cold water, buy your kid a wetsuit that fits, not some hand-me-down from cousin Fred that is 10 years old. Wetsuit technology is improving all the time, becoming more flexible, faster-drying, and warmer for its weight. A new or lightly used suit will give your kids the comfort they need. We love Cleanline Surf Shop for their friendliness, fair prices, and generous trade-in policy. Last year we traded in my older daughter’s suit and got her a new one at half price. We also got our oldest a pair of wetsuit gloves. A lot of people wouldn’t go this extra step. She wanted a pair so she could spend more time in the water. That was all the justification I needed.

For our backpacking trip, we bought our girls “real” internal frame packs. Elsa’s is a XS women’s Gregory we bought online, and Lauren’s we bought at REI. From my former life as a NOLS instructor, I knew how to fit these, which came in handy because the salesperson we talked to didn’t. Both girls carried about 20 lbs; Elsa didn’t complain once, Lauren I had to lighten her load about ¾ through the hike, which gave her the extra oomph she needed to make it into camp.

2. Pick a great spot.

If you surf, pick a destination with other amenities besides perfect waves: a pretty beach with tide pools, or with a creek to explore, or that has great sand for building sand castles. The point is to enjoy the whole day, whether they get in the water or not. My husband and I traded off playing with the kids for years before they ever asked to go in the water. We both believed never to push them to surf. They either would be interested or not. Laird Hamilton once told me that kids will be drawn to surfing when they see you surf and “come back with a big smile on your face.”

For our backpacking trip, I agonized over where to take them. I wanted a place so beautiful that they would be inspired, but not so difficult that they would get discouraged. I once overheard a colleague tell our boss, “I expect my kids to walk their age.” This seemed too far for our first trip (my kids are 6 and 9…I didn’t want to walk nine miles. Or even six). We live near the Olympic Mountains, which are stunning but most hikes are either long slogs up forested valleys, or steep, hard climbs. I remembered a hike I had done years ago to an old fire lookout that has constant, drop-dead-gorgeous views of Mt. Rainier. Bingo! It was 4 miles and had minimal elevation gain. After we checked out the old lookout site (a knob with 360-degree views of Mt. Rainier, Mt. Baker, Glacier Peak, and the Stuart Range) only a half-mile descent stood between us and our sweet alpine lake campsite. The hike, which would have taken me a little over an hour, took us 6. We swam in the lake, explored the shores, and told stories in the tent as the dusk faded into night.

3. Let them have a say.

Full disclosure: I’m a bit of a control freak. I’m guided by the idea that there’s a “right way” of doing something and it’s hard for me to let go. So, when one week before our backpacking trip I announced that the three of us were going on a walk in the woods (an easy 4-mile practice hike to make sure they were ready), and my youngest came down dressed in a skirt and ruffly shirt, I was seriously conflicted. Who in their right mind would hike in such a getup? But I realized that I had to value her choices, even though my brain wanted to tell her to change into the quick-dry, easy-wash nylon shorts I’d set out for her. Turns out she was perfectly comfortable, and I learned to bite my tongue.

When we surf, it’s time to go when they say so (though maybe not right away). We don’t get to surf very often, so every time we go to the beach we try to squeeze in as much water time as we can. We do our best to prepare for their needs: sunscreen, hats, beach toys, yummy food, water, and activities. But some days they still poop out early. On this last trip, after going down to Shorty’s two days in a row (it requires a 10-min hike with each of us carrying everything) they asked for a day off from surfing. My husband and I were surprised and a little hurt. But we listened—they wanted to just hang out in the campground and ride bikes together, play on the beach and have ice cream in town—and turns out we had the best day ever. There’s a little voice inside my head telling me that the days where they want to hang out with me are limited; these sweet memories are tucked away to savor.

Whatever your passion, sharing it in small doses over a long period of time seems to be a good formula. This is good news for people who believe they have to “wait until they’re older” to start adventuring. Start now! Take mini trips and build up as your kids gain stamina. It shows your kids that adventures are valued. And that they are sometimes messy and don’t always go perfectly. That’s been my favorite lesson of all: experiencing the messy joy along with them.