Starting Out

Easy Family Outdoor Sports
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To Build a Fire

"No matter how wet and cold you are, you're always warm and dry on the inside."
— Woodsman's Adage

The outdoors is a great natural classroom. It offers unlimited opportunities for learning about every facet of life. With the coming of each season, the environment takes on a new and exciting look, all within the realm of discovery for those who venture away from home.

Outdoor activities contribute immensely to the mental and physical well being of children. Exercise is invigorating and exposure to nature is relaxing. For you, the outdoors is an escape from the stresses of everyday life; for your kids, it's just plain fun.

If you are a single parent who isn't the outdoorsy type, but still want your child to experience nature and outdoor sports, you can easily learn the necessary skills. The best way to learn is by doing. With adequate preparation, you can confidently take your child on almost any outdoor excursion.

All it takes is knowing where to go and what to take along. Talk to your children about what they would like to do, and make sure everyone is involved from start to finish. You might decide to visit a place that your child has studied in school — like a National Park or historic site. It will give greater meaning to your child's formal education.

Outdoor sports run the gamut from an afternoon bicycling to a week-long backpacking trip. Once you have the equipment, it's usually less expensive to go fishing or cross-country skiing than to take the kids to the zoo or amusement park. In fact, you probably have some basic equipment at home. Once at your destination, diversions like beautiful scenery, flowers, and wildlife are free.

Allow plenty of extra time for everything — packing gear, getting up in the morning, cooking, setting up the tent, and hiking. Enjoy the leisure time and avoid rushing to get things done. In fact, you might want to do a"shakedown" — a sort of rehearsal camp-out right in your backyard. It's a good practice ground for setting up a tent and learning how to build a campfire.

Anyone, of any age in reasonably good physical condition, can learn enough to have a good time. In many cases children, if allowed to explore and experiment freely, will discover fun things to do. There are few hard and fast rules, and nobody competes with anyone else. It's just for fun.

Outdoor Activities with Children

Car camping is a great if you're just getting started. Pack up and drive to a campsite. With a sport utility vehicle or pick-up and camper-shell, it's easy to sleep right in the back. However, kids feel more like it's "camping out" when you pitch a tent.

There are lots of nice camping spots in the woods, the desert, or on the coast. Once you have set up camp, take short day hikes from your car camp base.

Try public campgrounds in national parks, forests, other recreation areas, and state and county parks. Some are free, but often there is a nominal fee. Private campgrounds offer great get-away opportunities too. Many car campgrounds have restrooms and shower facilities, and some even sell firewood.

A hike is the easiest sport, and requires little equipment. A hike can take 30 minutes on a short nature trail or all day to reach a special viewpoint high on a mountain.

To keep your family's interest, make the hike a game of constant discovery. Using flower, geology, bird, or insect identification guides, make up a scavenger list of things to find along the way. There are many excellent pocket-sized field guidebooks on almost every facet of nature. The Golden Books and Audubon guides are easy to understand and have photos and illustrations.

A backpacking trip is just an extended hike, sleeping out at least one night. You'll need to plan carefully, because everything goes on your back. Be careful not to carry too much weight — about 20 percent of body weight is adequate. (A 100-pound person should carry no more than 20 pounds).

On a backpacking trip you have the chance to experience the natural world. It's also a unique opportunity get closer to your child without the distractions of daily life. After a few days of meeting personal challenges, both you and your child will gain respect for yourselves and each other. The accomplishment of crossing a stream or reaching a mountain top is well worth the effort.

If you plan to camp in a wet climate, you'll need more space in the tent to store gear. A tent with a vestibule — an extra outside covered space attached to the tent — is perfect for storing wet boots and backpacks, or the family pooch. A "three-season" sleeping bag is good for most conditions. Look for junior or short-sized bags for kids.  Down sleeping bags are fine in dry climates, but if there is a chance of much rain, opt for a synthetic, such as Hollofil.

Fishing is lots of fun. It can be exciting — catching a feisty bass from a little farm pond, or relaxing — casting for rising trout early in the morning at the edge of a deep blue alpine lake.

There are a few tricks to fishing. It helps if you are patient. Your chances of catching fish will increase greatly if you are observant and approach the lake or stream quietly. Remember, if you can see the fish, the fish can probably see you. You and your child can even attend a fly-fishing school, offered by a fly-fishing shop in your region or a well-known equipment supplier.

One cross-country ski trip on a crisp, clear sunny day in the mountains after a snowstorm, and you'll be sold on this sport. More than the exercise, it's easy, and the scenery is always beautiful. Animal tracks are easy to spot in the snow, and kids love to guess to whom they belong. This is another good place for a guidebook.

If you are an explorer, head for the National Forests or other public lands, such as those belonging to the U.S. Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management. There you can blaze trails in the snow to your heart's content — almost always for free. Groomed trails are easier to ski, and many private resorts offer this service, usually for a small fee.

Ski equipment can be expensive, especially if you have several children. Everyone with kids has the same problem — they grow so quickly and need new sizes almost every year. Consider outfitting the family in used gear by shopping at a ski swap. At a swap, everyone goes home with skis and outfits that fit reasonably well for at least another year, and often there is no additional cost when trading. Many sporting goods stores rent cross-country ski equipment, giving you a chance to try different kinds before buying.

There's nothing like a bicycle ride on a warm summer day. Pedaling along a bike trail through the countryside is fun and good exercise. It's a great coordination-builder too. Kids love biking because it's mechanical and they can do it themselves.

You can find information on bike trails from city and county parks or the local planning department. Some towns have separate bike trails off busy streets and highways. These are the best to travel — pretty and safe, away from traffic.

Bicycling equipment runs the gamut from simple to snazzy — just remember to always wear a safety helmet. In case you are out after dark, it's a good idea to have a light on your bike. Carry or attach a small tire pump to the frame; in fact a small maintenance kit can be a real lifesaver if you have to patch a flat tire. There are also lightweight water bottles that attach to the bicycle frame. If you are carrying much gear, panniers (they look like saddlebags) are a better way to balance a load than hefting a knapsack on your back.

In general, bikes are lighter these days, made of space-age materials like carbon fiber, aluminum alloys, Chromo-steel and CroMoly. You can choose from mountain bikes — which sport hefty, grippy tires and a sturdier structure for all-terrain traction, or road bikes — sleeker models, made for touring on paved surfaces. Both types offer a variety of gear options, allowing you to creep up the steepest hill.

All Original Material Copyright © Carolyn Z. Shelton.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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