How am I ever going to keep climbing / backpacking / skiing / camping / biking after I have kids? I can’t push myself as hard as I used to or go as far as I used to now that I’m pregnant! It will never be fun again! My friends / coworkers were right, I’ll never do anything outdoors again! Life is over!
Obviously most of that is not true, exploring the outdoors with kids is amazing. It is just a lot different - sometimes much harder and sometimes way better. Here are some tips on adjusting to being an outdoor parent:
Preparation while pregnant or waiting for adoption:
How to adjust to doing things with babies:
How to adjust if you waited until the kids are bigger before getting back out:
How to find time to do things without the kids:
But whatever you do, don't listen to the naysayers who think that the outdoor life is over once you have kids. It may take time to adjust, but that is just part of becoming parents. Keep getting out there and it will keep getting easier.
In a perfect world for most outdoor families our kids walk or bike (or ski) to school each day. We don’t want to strap them into cars for the short journey to school, or we want to bike commute ourselves. This is great when the weather is perfect and the sun is out, but then there’s the rest of the year. And many of us (ourselves included) are part of a two working parent family, so the kids are in after school programs or all-day daycare/preschool and have to be picked up when it's dark out.
What are the best ways to get the kids to school and home as safely as possible, while minimizing whining?
Make it a habit:
Make it fun:
Keep them visible:
Set up an organization system for the gear:
Here are some tips on gear to use:
Other references for good tips on bicycle commuting in the winter:
Bike touring can be a really fun way to explore new places with kids, including small kids. Our biggest concern was to find a place with bike paths or roads that we felt were safe enough to take kids on for longer distances. Ideally we wanted a place where we could go camping as well.
Since we were visiting family in Europe, we decided to try bike camping in France, which is famous for bike camping on the canals. We spent 10 days bike camping in Brittany, with a 3 year old and a 6 year old and all four of us had an amazing trip. I don’t know of places to do this in the US, so I would love suggestions if there are good places to do it closer to home.
Here are our tips on how to go bike camping with kids:
First, figure out the kids transportation method:
This is the tagalong we used that had a rack on it.
Next, figure out where to go:
Finally, figure out gear:
Extra considerations for trips far from home:
Details of our trip:
The biggest challenge to hiking or backpacking with kids is keeping them moving. It's so important, because we all need to be able to count on completing our hikes before dark or making it to our campsites in time for dinner. Here are the tips we have compiled over the years of hiking with our kids and with our friends:
Get the right pacing and timing of breaks:
Be prepared with multiple options of entertainment (rotate through these as needed):
How to avoid stopping in between designated breaks:
Our biggest advice is to keep experimenting and keep getting out there! We believe that you will eventually find something that will work for your family. If you have any specific questions, feel free to reach out to us. And as always, please give us more suggestions of things to add to this list.
Backpacking with small children can try your patience, but keep getting out there because each year gets easier! We started with our kids when they were able to hike a mile or two. This meant that for us we had a “gap year” in our family backpacking journey, between when we couldn’t carry them any more and when they could walk on their own. Here are our tips to make it work:
What can your kid carry: (Note: these are rough suggestions, adapt them to your kid’s size and ability levels and consider starting with less stuff when they’re older if they’re less experienced)
Kids backpacking gear:
2 yo enjoying her Big Agnes Little Red
Key items for the parents to carry:
How to pick a good backpacking route for kids:
The final thing is to find lots of creative ways to motivate your kid to keep moving down the trail. I have a lot of ideas on this one, so I'll save them for a future post.
Taking your baby on a backpacking trip is a great introduction to outdoor parenting. We took our daughter on her first backpacking trip when she was about 9 months old. It was only one night and just a two mile hike but we loved being able to give her the experience of being in the backcountry with us from an early age. Here are some of our tips on how to make it happen:
Recommended age/weight for these trips:
Key equipment for parents:
Time of year/weather:
Tips to find locations:
How to handle multiple kids:
What are your tips for going backpacking with babies? Do you have any suggestions on good places to backpack with babies? Please share your feedback so we can make this page more helpful and comprehensive.
**Take your baby backpacking before you hit the “gap year(s)”! This is the time when the baby is too heavy to carry and too young to hike 2 miles a day.
One of the challenges of using a Toyota Sienna as a ski van is how to fit all of the gear in the car while sleeping in it. It’s also important to minimize the time needed to move gear around while switching from driving mode to sleeping mode.
We do this by using a trailer hitch storage box like the Stowaway2 and a ski rack on the top of the car.
We fit the bigger skis on the roof and the little kid skis in the trailer hitch box. Other items we put in the box are food, helmets, poles, backcountry gear (skins, probe, beacon), and ski backpacks.
For storage inside the car, the big thing we did to make it easier was remove the console between the front two seats. We covered the hole that was left with a custom piece of carpet that we bought online in a color to match the car. We added two D-anchors in case we wanted to anchor anything between the seats and these are bolted down to the anchors that held the console in place.
Inside the car we keep clothes bags, any personal items (books, flashlights, etc), and ski boots, to keep them a bit warmer at night. During driving mode, these items are right behind the driver and passenger seats and anchored down with an elastic cargo net that clips onto the attachment points for the cargo seats (that is left behind after we took the cargo seats out of the car).
When we switch to sleeping mode, this stuff can be put between the two front seats, on the seats, or in front of the seats. Usually we put the car seats on the front seats first, then put the items in the spaces around them, before setting up the cot.
With this plan, the amount of time spent moving stuff around for set up and take down of the beds is minimized, and we've been able to fit in everything we need for a full week-long trip in the van.
Just like most of you, we love to go on short weekend camping trips between busy work weeks, especially when we can get out with other families. But nothing ruins a short weekend of camping more than starting it off leaving late Friday night because packing takes too long. Then you can end up getting stressed out, yelling at your kids, and fighting with your spouse. Which never happens to us....
What follows are our recommendations for avoiding that.
Our high level recommendations:
Our packing list:
The packing is divided into 3 sections:
Using these tips, we can usually pack for a weekend trip in less than 1 hr ahead of time plus 30 min the day of and then unpack in less than 1 hr.
One final note: when you're packing for a short trip, don't spend too much time ensuring you have every single item on your packing list (except of course for any especially critical or life-saving items). The extra time required to go from 95% correct to 100% correct can be 1-2 hours which isn't often worth it for a short trip. If you do forget something, use it as a teaching opportunity for the kids to learn how to live without having everything. We have a long list of items we have forgotten on trips and it makes for good stories. (Like when our daughter had only climbing shoes instead of regular shoes for an entire weekend, or when we forgot the fuel last weekend.)
Our biggest concern about sleeping in a van during ski season was staying warm, specifically keeping the kids warm.
We considered propane heaters, both portable ones (like a Mr Buddy heater) and permanently installing one in the wall of the van. We also found one that runs on the car’s gasoline. However we were very concerned about carbon monoxide poisoning, especially if the car gets covered in snow.
We looked at electric blankets hooked up to a big battery, but it seemed that it might not last all night and we’d be constantly recharging the battery. And we couldn’t recharge it in one day from a small solar panel on the roof.
In the end we just decided to see how warm we could stay without extra heat during the night. We figured we could ease into the ski season by starting when it was still warmer weather and if we found the weather getting too cold we could drive 45 min down the mountain to where it’s warmer and sleep there overnight.
Our plan was to have everyone sleep in sleeping bags. We heated up the car as much as possible before bed (after inspecting the exhaust pipe to confirm it wasn’t blocked). We bought a carbon monoxide detector just in case and attached it to the inside of the van. In the morning if it was too cold we could make sure there was no new snow and then turn the car on to warm it up before getting the kids out of bed.
The sleeping bags we used were all 10 to 17F (-12 to -8C) bags in good condition, except one 20F (-7C) bag in poor condition which was for an adult who claims not to get cold easily. We also insulated all the windows. We bought a Weather Tech windshield cover. We made custom covers for all the other windows using Reflectix that was cut to fit the window. Then we covered one side of each piece with black Gorilla tape. This makes one side good for hot weather (reflecting the sun) and one good for cold weather (absorbing the heat) and also makes the pieces stiffer so they fit in the window easier and last longer. Also when the black side is facing out it makes it less obvious that someone is sleeping there. We usually parked the van between other cars in a sheltered location, to minimize the impact of windchill.
The result was that we were usually about 15F (9C) warmer inside the van in the morning than it was outside, so we ended up staying pretty warm. We believe that this is in large part due to good insulation in the van walls, along with the window insulation, and also because of the small space with 4 people in it. We have been comfortable down to 10F (-12C) in the van. The coldest night we have spent in the Van was -19F (-28C) outside -5F (-20C) inside, and we decided that was way too cold.
Interestingly, we did spend one night without the kids and found the temperature difference from outside to inside was only a few degrees F (1C) so the kids are important to keeping the van warm.
I started playing with temperature loggers to document the temperatures we are seeing. Here’s a graph of outside vs inside the van overnight:
The one other backup we bought but haven’t used much are some electric hand warmers. They are nice in the sleeping bag if you put them in a sock so you don’t get burned. Unfortunately the -19F (-28C) night we didn’t have them with us and they definitely would have been nice to have.
Next up, how we store all of our gear in the van, both for driving mode and sleeping mode.
Details on the sleeping bags we use:
The key to sleeping 4 people in a Toyota Sienna is to take advantage of the space over the front seats. We fold down the front seats, put the car seats on the front seats, and set up a custom made cot on top of the front seats. Here is what it looks like from the side view:
The front of the cot rests on the dashboard. Here is what the dashboard piece looks like, with three cutouts for the cot bars, and a shape that fits over the "hump" in the dashboard behind the steering wheel:
The main part of the cot is cotton canvas sewn over three bars, and one end of each of the bars have end caps that hook over the front of the dashboard piece:
The rear part of the cot is three legs with a cross-bar that it tensioned after installation with parts from a pipe clamp:
The climbing holds were to help the kids climb up into the bunk and the wheels help slide the rear post when setting it up.
The cot is definitely a tight fit for the kids and we will need to find a way to lower it when the kids get bigger, or raise up the roof of the van. Right now the kids sleep with their heads towards the back of the van where there is more space so they make it work. Here’s how the kids look when they’re in the top bunk:
The two adults sleep in the back of the van, after folding down the rear bench seats. (We remove the captains chairs from the middle of the van when we are using it as a camper van). Our feel go under the kids bunk, so it’s pretty roomy for us:
We bought custom cut pieces of 4” foam and sewed a cover for them to make two beds, each that folds up. When they are folded down they make a bed for the two of us that fits perfectly in the back of the van. (Note that the bottom third of the mattresses have a gap between them - this allows the middle post of the legs to fit.)
When folded up the bottom third of each bed fits together to make a neat stack that fits perfectly behind the rear seats, when the seats are set up.
More details to come on how to stay warm in winter while sleeping in a van!
Two Silicon Valley engineers who have had a love of the outdoors since childhood. Parents of two small kids, spending our free time exploring the outdoors with them.