Among friends and family, it's no secret that my two boys, Blake now 21 and Kyle now 23, out fish, out hike, and out hunt me on the regular. And, while I would love to take credit for their success as accomplished outdoorsmen, they've earned those titles due to their own passions and talents.
My role was simply to expose them to the environments, teach them what I could, and provide them the access and opportunity to build a love of their own, much like my dad did for me.
I definitely didn't do it all perfectly, but I did learn some things along the way. With that backdrop, here are ten tips that will help you bring your youngsters into the outdoors – whether that be hiking, camping, hunting, or fishing.
1. Make sure they are comfortable. Nothing wrecks a fun hike like blistered feet, a promising fishing outing like leaky waders, or an opening-morning sit like frozen hands. So, do your best to make sure your kids are as comfortable (and appropriately outfitted) as they can be. That isn't to say "baby" them – as we all know a little suffering is part (sometimes the most memorable part) of most outdoor adventures – but be realistic about it. And realize that they will likely get tired, sore, bored, and cold before you do. So the trick is to find the balance. Push them to endure without making the experience miserable and something they never want to do again.
Another comfort tip: snacks. Snacks can be a life saver when it comes to keeping kids engaged – not to mention an often-easy cure for tiredness, coldness, and boredom. In my early adventures with the boys I made sure sure to bring a few of their favorite snacks along and would dole them out in much the same way I do for myself still today. IE if you sit for 30 more minutes you can have that candy bar, when you make one more mile on the trail you can have some gummy bears, etc. No matter your age, it's always nice to have something to look forward to, and rewarding small achievements can be a powerful motivator. Bring the snacks, and make sure you save a least a couple for yourself.
2. Let them be part of the process. The reality is most kids want to do "grown up stuff" but as parents we often hold them back because we either deem it unsafe (which it sometimes can be – don't tell mom), or we worry it might not be done as well or the way we would do it (spoiler alert – it probably won't be, and that's okay). But letting your kids be part of the outdoor process causes them be that much more engaged. And, like adults, sometimes the best way to learn is by doing. So let them build the fire ring, gather and split wood, help gut a deer, carry their own pack, bait their own hook, cook some food, pitch a tent, drive the quad, glass with the binos, filter the water, and look for frogs, their way (with appropriate supervision, of course).
To take it step further, include them in making decisions. I remember when Blake was really young he had an obsession with fishing tackle of any and all kinds. If he ever had a few extra dollars, that's where it went. He had a tackle box that would put many veteran anglers to shame. Some of the lures he purchased made me roll my eyes - seriously dude, what the heck is that? But he was excited about it so what did I care? One of the most ridiculous lures (in this dad's opinion) he ever purchased was a bumblebee. I still remember the day he decided to tie it on, much against my knowledgeable advice, and proceeded to land a whopper bass on his first cast. That crow was delicious (and not the last I would eat). My point is this – let your kids be part of the process and let them make some of the choices – it's a great way for them to learn and, who knows, you might learn something from them too.
3. Don't let the goal (your goal) take away from the experience. I remember early on in our hunting adventures my dad and I and sometimes my uncle and cousin would rent a small cabin for a weekend and bow hunt the public land nearby. The deal with the boys was as soon as they were old enough to make it through the night without any "accidents" they could come along on this "guys trip" – so that meant both boys joined me at camp when they were around two.
The cabin was situated on a river that offered easy fishing from the banks and it was a great place for them to be part of the outdoors and this adult ritual. They would bang around in the woods with us, shoot toy bows, "help" with the campfire, fish, and catch critters.
When they were real young, one of us (dad, uncle, or me) would sometimes stay back and do other activities with them while the rest of the group hunted, but as they got older they began to come along on a few of the actual hunts.
I remember one in particular. I grabbed my bow, dressed the boys in their camo, and we embarked upon a "stalk" through the woods. Needless to say we weren't the most stealthy bunch, but we made our way to a brush pile not far from a field edge and sat for a bit. Surprisingly a few doe ended up working out in front of us and into range. This amped up the excitement level, but, in their excitement, the boys made a little too much noise and spooked the deer off. I ended up getting mad and giving them both a good scolding about being quiet while hunting. As a dad my goal was to have them witness the harvest of an animal, and because I was so focused on that, I ended up ruining a cool experience.
So, put your parent expectations in your back pocket for a while - whether that be a milage goal for a hike, a certain method for fishing, or the perfect stalk on an animal – and just take in the experiences for what they are. Trust me, everyone will enjoy it more.
4. Choose opportunities for attainable success. After all, a boat day without fish, a hike that's just too dang much, or a long sit without seeing an animal is painful, even as an adult. And it's worse for kids. Sure, failure is part of the outdoor experience and kids will need to learn that part too, but I've found that it's best to start with small attainable bites that provide some measure of accomplishment along the way.
Short day hikes will lead to longer hikes and eventually ones that involve a small pack. Bringing the kids along to scout for deer sign, help with a tracking job, and short sits will pique their interest and lead to longer outings together and eventually sits on their own. Bobber fishing for Bluegill off the dock is a blast and offers fun (usually quick) rewards, that may evolve to a spin rod in the boat, and eventually a fly rod in the river.
As their skills, strengths, and patience grows, encouraged by small successes along the way, their interest will grow too and eventually those "failures" won't seem as much like failures as learning experiences.
I remember when Blake was younger the boys and I would go out into the woods, often in the winter, and just hike for miles and miles (probably too long IE not attainable success). Eventually his then-small legs would tire out and any level of "encouragement" I might offer fell on deaf ears. At that point we'd head back to the truck to warm up and have a couple snacks (remember the trusty snacks!).
But, those hikes came full circle when Blake and I went on a backpacking trip to Wind River Range a couple years ago. We both had decently heavy packs (mine slightly more so) and we had planned 14 miles for the fist day to get to our desired camp area. At about mile 12 or 13 I was smoked. The route had several elevation gains and losses and, despite my training for the outing, my legs just didn't seem to have anything left (or so I thought). I wanted to stop right there and set up camp. But Blake kept encouraging me that we could make it to our (attainable) goal. He grabbed my heavier pack and strapped it on, and I took his, then we finished the last of it, together (followed by a snack). I never could have made it without his encouragement (and pack carrying) and as a parent that was a pretty special moment 18 years in the making – a lesson in attainable success and incremental steps to bigger challenges.
5. Let them fail. following up on the previous point, failure is part of any outdoor adventure (or at least the PERCEPTION of failure – because any time spent outdoors can never really be labeled a failure, can it?). But it can feel that way to kids – especially if they feel the weight of parent's expectations.
I had a buddy in high school that was a tremendous golfer (he ended up winning the state title our senior year with a broken hand), but his dad put so much pressure on him to "not fail" that it took all of the fun out of the sport, and after high school he quit playing completely. What a waste.
So do what you can to take the stress (and expectations) out of your kid's outdoor experiences. Teach them that it's great to set goals, even lofty ones. But it's also okay to come up short, to enjoy the experiences without the expectation of a certain outcome, to chalk up things that didn't go according to plan as learning experiences.
I remember Kyle's first youth hunt. He was 12 and we set up two hang-on stands in adjacent trees in an area on public land that had produced for me in the past. That morning was one for the books having four decent bucks all pass within viewing distance. The last, a nice six, worked his way right down a run and into range. We both saw him coming. Kyle drew back as the buck crossed into the shooting lane. I grunted him to a stop, and he let an arrow fly. Unfortunately the shot fell short and the deer bounded safely off. Kyle was devastated at his "failure" and I could see the tears welling up in his eyes. But, we talked through it, figured out what went "wrong," and then basked in how truly special that morning was – still one of the greatest hunting experiences of my life.
Kyle has gone on to become a very accomplished hunter, but the lessons of that morning still follow us. In fact, it leads me to my next small point on this topic, which is that your kid's will eventually realize that you aren't perfect either (it certainly didn't take long for my boys to figure out) and it's okay to let them see you fail too. What matters most is your response to those moments because, trust me, kid's learn from it.
A couple years ago I had the chance to join Kyle in Montana, where he was attending college at the time, for a mule deer hunt. I ended up missing a buck I wanted pretty bad (more than once actually) and I was frustrated. Very frustrated. But Kyle reminded me that it doesn't always go as planned. We figured out what went "wrong," and then I basked in the time together in the mountains with my son, eventually filling my tag later that hunt.
6. Encourage independence. "I can do it myself!" If you are a parent, it's likely a phrase you've heard a time or two. Our family's particular version of this was "Kyle do it!" and he was adamant. Both of my boys have always had an independent streak, and prefer to figure things out on their own. And, for the most part, I not only went along with this independence, I encouraged it, even if I knew it might not turn out well (as long as I was confident they wouldn't get seriously injured). Like I said earlier, I believe experience is the best (though sometimes hardest) teacher, and self-sufficient kids are rare these days.
One exception to the "we-want-to-do-it-ourselves" mindset the boys had was anything related to the dark – from walking out to the hunting stands alone in the dark to camping in the dark, it never really was their thing. So, for many years, I would walk them both out to their stands and make sure they got in and safely tethered before heading off to my own spot. Eventually, I made them do it on their own – facing their fears – but still made sure to have them send me a quick message when they were safely strapped in.
I still remember Kyle's first "backpacking" outing in Northern Michigan, not far from the family cottage, without me there. He and his cousin Josh hiked back in a little ways to a small lake and set up camp for an overnighter. Well, Kyle didn't sleep much that night because every little sound set him on edge. Fast forward a few years and now the boys wander off to chase elk in the middle of Grizzly country and sleep in their hammocks.
What it really comes down to is that our children are often far more capable than we give them credit or opportunity for, and that is unfortunate. Whether it's for our own egos, or maybe just because our society has become so soft, we want to do everything for our children – thus the terms helicopter and snowplow parenting. It's not healthy. Give them some freedom and watch what they can accomplish.
7. Be honest. I'm not sure about you, but among my boys one of the most frequent questions on outings was "why?" Why do we have to be quiet? (because it will spook the deer if we aren't). Well, why will it spook the deer? (because they are afraid of people). Why are they afraid of people? (because people often mean danger, certainly not the two of us as we sit here and debate the topic using our outdoor voices but in general). You get the joke; kids's have a lot of questions.
And, at some point among this barrage of questions you might be tempted, as I sometimes was, to resort to that age-old parent answer of "just because" or even better, "because I said so," – you reach a point in which you're either sick of the talking, embarrassed that you don't have the answer, or both. Resist that temptation, and embrace the opportunity to talk with your kids – I can promise you some day you'll miss it.
The reality is there is a lot of innocence (and often wisdom) in our kid's questions, and they are sponges for information (and apparently curse words...but that's another topic), so it's important to be patient and honest – about what you know, and even more so what you don't. Those "don't-know" moments are perfect for learning together, and "I'm not sure, let's look it up and find out" is a great opportunity to grow together and continue the conversation.
8. Don't let "adult" thinking get in the way of "kid" thinking. With age comes wisdom, but sometimes as adults we can get stuck in our ways or fail to see things from a different perspective.
For example, I often find myself not casting to certain runs while fly fishing because "I've never caught a fish there" or "it doesn't look fishy." But, I can't count the number of times my kids have pulled fish out of places that I wouldn't have even tried, simply because my "adult thinking" got in the way (remember that bumblebee lure?).
I'll admit it, I'm a process guy, a routine guy, a stick-with-what-works guy, some might say an inside-the-box guy. But when I get outside my "adult thinking" and embrace "kid thinking" sometime a box can be a lot more than a place to store things...it can be a great sled, or a fort, or a shield, or all kinds of other interesting contraptions if I am willing to look at things a little differently. So, next time you're out with your kids, put away those adult biases and perceptions and learn to look at things more like a kid. It will make it more fun for them, and for you.
9. Make it fun. Obvious, right? You'd think so. But, how many times as adults have we turned our hobbies and interests into work rather than just enjoying them for what they are, which is a shitload of fun? I'm certainly guilty of it.
I can't count the number of times I have found myself suffering through the miles on a hike rather than soaking up the scenery and fresh air. Or how many times I have gotten frustrated with my "performance" while hunting or fishing rather than being thankful for the experience and simply having FUN.
So here's my challenge to you. Embrace the present and resist the urge to "measure" outcomes when you are out with your kids (or maybe ever). Take to the outdoors with the eyes and enthusiasm of a child. Share their excitement, and just have fun - after all that's what hobbies are for!
10. Last, create traditions. There's something about traditions that kids latch on to. You may not realize until you fail to incorporate that tradition for the first time and then get to hear about it for the rest of the day.
My buddy Ozzy and his son Wil have built a turkey hunting tradition that always involves them camping out together the night before the hunt, a fire, and then story time. Even as Wil has gotten older, the tradition lives on, and has become as much (if not more) a part of the experience as harvesting those big ole Toms.
With my kids we had a few traditions too, one of which was the weekend following Thanksgiving was always reserved as "kid's camp" among my hunting buddies. We'd save the not-always-PG gun-camp for when they got a little older, but the weekend after Thanksgiving was always a time that all of us would bring our kids along. We'd focus on their hunting, we'd make their favorite foods, we'd watch the movies they chose after dinner, we'd play the games they wanted, and we'd let them just have fun together - quads, snowmobiles, shooting handguns, etc. It became a tradition, and one that I miss.
We also have a number of traditions that are still part of our annual Ontario pike camp. From where we stop for breakfast and what we order, to where we purchase our licenses (and incidentals IE snacks) on the way, to how we arrange camp, the games we always play, special foods that always get packed, and our daily routines – they are all traditions established over time that we look forward to.
There are plenty of others, from first night of backpacking customs to opening-day-of-deer-season rituals. Special foods, maybe a certain song or movie that you always incorporate, a game you always play, a ceremony you hold. It can be anything really, but building traditions into your outdoor experiences adds to the fun, builds anticipation each time and, hopefully, ensures that the experiences live on well beyond the young years.
While this isn't included in the list, it's vital for us to teach our kids to respect the environment and the tools that are involved with the outdoors experiences. Simple things really. Leave a clean and natural camp, pick up the trash along the river, treat the animals you hunt with the dignity and respect they deserve, follow the rules, understand and be careful with weapons. These examples start with us as parents and will hopefully be modeled by our children, ensuring a healthy future for our planet and the outdoor pursuits we all enjoy.