Parenting in the Great Outdoors

What outdoor family time has taught me about being a better dad

My most vivid childhood memories are of 

family camping trips. These experiences shaped my love for the outdoors and gave me the confidence to take risks and overcome challenges. 

Over the past 15 years, my wife and I have made every effort to get our children outside as much as possible. Our family trips started small, with our daughter strapped to my back in the baby carrier for short walks on the trails of Pocahontas State Park, around Belle Isle, or other parks in the Richmond area. When our son was five, we went on our first multi-night trip, camping in Big Meadows Campground and hiking to Lewis Falls in Shenandoah National Park. Since then, we have taken many family trips to the Blue Ridge Mountains, White Mountains, Acadia National Park, and beyond. 

The biggest challenge, of course, is making time for the outdoors. Between school, sports, work, and social activities, it is easy to let life take over and to set aside what is really important. I know our family is not unique in this regard, and I certainly don’t claim to have all the answers. However, after thinking back on 15 years of parenthood, there are some key lessons that I have learned to help make the most of the time our family does find to spend in the great outdoors.

Don’t be “that Dad.”

No one likes a know-it-all. I can also get a bit carried away with my passion for the environment and current events. I have come to realize that after I convey what I know regarding a particular subject to my kids – the most important thing I can do is shut up and listen. Fortunately, my children are now old enough to tell me outright when I am being annoying. They have proven time and again that they sometimes need time to process things before, more often than not, they come back with questions and thoughts of their own. As parents, the best thing we can do is to foster these discussions and provide them with experiences that help them to connect the dots between themselves and the world around us. 

What is the worst thing that can happen?

95% of the time, the worst thing that can happen is not that bad at all. As humans, we all learn by making mistakes. It can be nerve-wracking for parents, because in the outdoors, mistakes can often result in scratches, cuts, bruises, or worse. When our children were very young, it was hard not to hover over them to shield them from any stumble. I quickly realized that approach was preventing me from getting to truly know both of my kids. 

This became crystal clear to me during one of the very first mountain bike rides I went on with them in Deep Run Park. At the time, my son was five, and my daughter was eight. From the beginning, my son wanted to be in the lead, while my daughter preferred to be in the middle of the pack. 

The ride was going just fine until we reached the first downhill. Before I could provide any direction, my son took off down the hill. He picked up too much speed and lost control, and his front tire ran directly into the tree. He shot almost straight up off his bike, bounced off the tree, and landed flat on his back. 

As I raced toward him horrified at what I might find, he jumped right up and said casually, “Next time I need to remember to use the brakes.” 

It’s about the journey, not the destination.

Sometimes I can get so caught up in the big attraction or final destination of a trip that I lose track of all the steps in between. One of the highlights of our first big family trip to Shenandoah National Park was a three-plus mile loop hike to Lewis Falls. Three miles isn’t a long hike, but at the time our kids had pretty short legs, which can make three plus miles of hiking pretty intimidating. Both of our kids knew it was going to be the longest walk they had ever been on. They both made it the full way with energy to spare and even logged their first steps on the A.T. during the hike back. This was the first great outdoor journey for both our kids. To this day, when they talk about that hike, it always brings a smile to their face, and I am amazed how they both can recall the details of what seems like every step they took. The splendor of Lewis Falls rarely comes up in these discussions. It was the journey itself that mattered most to them. 

Think and dream big.

This is such an easy thing to do, yet it can be so difficult. My children, like most, have big dreams, and new ones come up each day: thru-hiking the A.T., visiting Yellowstone, seeing the northern lights. One of the things that sucks the worst about being an adult is how difficult it can be at times to think the same way. Many times, I have been too quick to focus on the challenges and obstacles to achieving a goal rather than opening my mind and dreaming along with my kids. It wasn’t until they started to point out that I was being a downer that I realized that I needed to stop thinking like a grumpy old man. 

John Muir once said, “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” Time spent in the outdoors provides us all with an opportunity to free our minds from the day to day, to appreciate the world around us, and to dream big dreams about what could be. We just need to be open to letting that happen.  

Ryan Link lives in Richmond, Virginia with his wife, son (12), daughter (15) and their labradoodle, Mavis. In the periodic moments between his grown-up responsibilities, Ryan documents his thoughts and narratives on growing up, fatherhood, productivity, and the outdoors.

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