Wilderness With Kids - Ugh?
Floating a lazy section of the Arroyo Seco River
One of my closest friends and her family joined my family for a car camping trip a couple of weeks ago. Things did not go exactly as either my friend or I had hoped.
The trip included car camping, as mentioned, and also floating down a not-so-lazy river in the Los Padres National Forest in Central California. My family had done this trip before, in 2016, and loved every second of it. The float down the river is a bit intense in that it's a combination of small rapids and deep swimming holes, and it involves floating on pool tubes down said rapids.
GoPro video of my step-daughter and I floating the river.
Inevitably, people get tossed into the river, which is half the fun. But the river is shallow, so banged shins and bruised ankles are sort of par for the course. And, of course, there is a small element of real danger -- someone could bang a head or twist an ankle. The river is in an impressively deep canyon, so you can't just climb out and be done with it halfway through - once you're in, you're in.
Popped pool floats are a guarantee. And while we always carry an extra, deflated float, it's inevitable that someone will end up having to walk in the river at some point, which also results in possible scrapes and bruises.
Don't get me wrong, though: this trip is sublime. The river and its canyon are wild, scenic and pristine. Once you leave the main swimming areas, seeing other people is rare. There are slot canyons and cliffs to jump off of and lazy swimming holes with beaches to relax in. The water is a crystal clear, emerald green oasis on a hot day. The car campground is clean, comes with hot showers and has a good amount of shade. It's the perfect place to try out a more adventurous trip, though, because it's easy enough that our children did it (ranging in age from 6 to 10). Actually, the children had a much easier time than us adults!
My step-daughter takes a break on the river
And yet, as I mentioned, things didn't go as well as planned, and this is what I want to write about and try to figure out. I can't stop thinking about it from multiple perspectives. And if I want to inspire other parents to venture into the outdoors more often, this is something I need to be able to work through and understand.
Much, but not all, of the issues stemmed from having our kids with us. I worried extensively before the trip started that the river might not be safe enough for the kids this year, given all the rain CA received over the winter. After my stepdaughter and I tested the river on our own, prior to the others arriving, I determined it was, indeed, "safe". But I wasn't sure how my friend and her husband would feel about it. Safe is a subjective word! And their youngest child is 6, while mine is 10.
And so I struggled with stress ... worrying that I would let down my friends or, worse, put their children in a situation they would not be comfortable with. I also worried about my friend. She always has very high expectations for trips, events and activities, and this trip was no different. It was their first family trip of the season and their first camping trip in quite a few years. I worried some aspect of the trip would not meet her needs.
From my friend's point of view, a few things were stressful. There were a lot of very aggressive mosquitoes ... the kind that bite through clothing and seem to be unaffected by bug sprays lacking in sufficient quantities of Deet. She was bothered by the bugs. We all were, but she was more sensitive to their impact and could not recall bugs being an issue when she was a kid and went camping frequently (I assured her, they were!).
Her children had a hard time sleeping in their borrowed RV. It was too hot. And really, it was too hot! We were suffering through a record-breaking heat wave with temps over 100 degrees. The RV took a long time to cool down at night and so the kids struggled to sleep. And, as any parent knows, when your kids can't sleep, YOU can't sleep! And so she and her husband (and the kids) were a bit sleep deprived. This made the trip harder for my friend to enjoy.
Another issue with the kids was that they seemed to be bored. All of them quickly tired of riding their bikes. They quickly tired of wiffle ball, football, ladder ball and Frisbee throwing. They all wanted to be on their devices, which we had pretty much banned. This led to all of us parents being frustrated. We, of course, wanted to relax, make meals, sit around the fire and chill out. Hard to do with whiny kids! Kids today seem so unable to enjoy the outdoors like kids of yesteryear, but that's a whole 'nother blog post ...
The river itself was fun, but I knew my friend didn't fall in love with it the way I had. Sure, she could appreciate its obvious beauty, but half the tubes we had were too big, which made for an uncomfortable ride. Also, she took a pretty hard hit from a boulder right to the tip of her ankle bone, which smarted real bad. A couple of tubes popped, as expected, and she and I were the ones left wading through the river (and its rocky bottom) for the last quarter mile or so. This meant we were slower and the going was a bit rough. Lastly, I think it took a lot longer than she had expected to go a measly 1.5 miles (although I did warn her).
The Arroyo Seco from the top of the canyon
My friend couldn't help but to compare this experience with her memories of her own youth. She went camping a lot growing up and, as is common with memories, she only remembers loving every second. She doesn't recall bugs. She doesn't recall being bored. She doesn't recall arguing with her parents, grandparents or her sibling.
Of course, there is no way she was always a perfect angel and no way every trip was perfect. Surely she drove the adults in her life nuts sometimes. Surely they were impacted by having a kid around while camping. Mosquito bites must have happened. This is just what our human brains do with memories. It's called nostalgia, and it can negatively taint our current experiences.
Her stress and inability to fully enjoy herself, in turn, caused me some level of stress. I planned this trip so I felt responsible. And when someone else isn't having fun, I feel the need to "fix" it.
We debated and philosophized these feelings, stresses and frustrations as they were happening. We wondered aloud about the validity of her fantasy-like childhood memories. We debated possible camping-specific parenting styles that might ease the stress (or cause more?). We caved in and let the kids have a bit of time on their devices (moderation, right???). We problem-solved the sleeping issues (a combination of damp towels as blankets for the kids and sleep aids for the adults). The kids did seem to eventually relax into this new, temporary lifestyle.
As a result of a combination of factors, the third evening and night were pure bliss (no doubt helped by the fact that we drove into the Carmel Valley for lunch and got away from things for a bit).
Preparing to jump! Photo: Matt Land
But I can't stop thinking about this trip on multiple levels. What was the difference between my experience and my friend's experience? I loved pretty much everything about the trip; she struggled with enjoying much of it. Ironically, I never once camped growing up (that I recall anyhow) whereas she grew up camping. I knew what I was getting into, having been there before; she was only going off of a few videos and my stories. My family camps pretty regularly; hers hadn't been in a few years. My family camps and spends vacations with my parents. Her family has been fortunate enough to vacation at gorgeous resorts and timeshare properties. How much does each of these differences shape our experiences in the outdoors, if at all? And what control do we have over how we feel in the outdoors?
The saddest moment, for me, came when my friend declared that perhaps she just wasn't camping material anymore. Perhaps, for whatever reason (or all of them), it was not her cup of tea. The kids made things a little hard, but even without the kids being there, I don't think she would have adored it.
Let's face it - camping, even car glamping with all the accouterments, isn't home. And it's no 5-star resort. There are bugs; you can't escape the weather; the beds are never as comfy as one would like; kids get bored, kids argue, kids can't sleep; hiking can be painful; and tripping, falling and banging into rocks in a river doesn't feel great.
One of my biggest desires is to encourage other moms (and dads) to get outside more; to carve out time to be in the outdoors, both with and without the kids. I strive to find ways to realistically encourage moms of infants to get out for walks and hikes in the wilderness as a way to stay sane and healthy. I believe all kids should be exposed to camping, hiking, nature, rivers, lakes, wilderness areas, etc. I know that, for many families, these experiences have to be force-fed to their kids -- I tell my stepson that hiking with us is medicine: he may not always like it, but he has to take it because it's for his own good.
But if it's just too stressful and difficult, it won't happen. Women (and men) will opt for Disneyland and all-inclusive beach resorts instead of exposing their children to our wild areas. There's a place for these family-friendly vacations, but I hate to see them become the default.
Many things we adults do for our kids aren't entirely enjoyable, but we do them anyhow. I have never been one to enjoy school recitals and plays. They bore the hell out of me. But, of course, I go to each one and cheer and clap with all the other parents. It's important for my child that I be there and feign interest. Of course I would rather relax at the end of a long day of work instead of helping my son with his homework, but I don't. I dutifully help because it's important and it's my job.
Me, wading through a swimming hole. Photo: Matt Land
Perhaps we parents need to look at wilderness family adventures as something we do for the sake of our kids, and not so much for our own enjoyment. Maybe we need to set our expectations at a more appropriate level. Maybe we need to be honest with ourselves that parts of the experience might suck for us (and possibly for our kids, too!). As I mentioned, I tell my son that hiking is like medicine, so maybe we adults need to think of camping and other wilderness adventures with kids in that way as well.
This doesn't mean we can't find any enjoyment in these trips. Put the kids to bed and viola! Heaven. Camp fires, star gazing, adult conversation - pure magic! If we relax our rules and expectations of our kids, we might find some peace. Do our kids who shower at home every single night really need to do the same in the wilderness? Do we care if they make their "beds" while spending time in a tent? Do we really need them to pick up every toy before retiring for the night? Must their hair be perfectly coifed, their clothes clean, their teeth brushed, flossed and mouth-washed twice a day? Lord knows my own rules for myself are relaxed when camping.
The wilderness is many things for children, including a place to explore, find adventure and spread those budding, independent wings. I suggest you let your kids fly a bit. Let them try things and do things that are a tad outside of your comfort zone. As adults, many of our most amazing experiences in life come when we push ourselves and get out of those comfort zones. Our kids should have the freedom to do the same.
In our daily lives, we worry about everything - let some of that go (as dictated by age and ability). Let them climb that tree. Let them chop a piece of wood with a hatchet. Let them light the fire (and show them how to do it properly). Let them ride bikes throughout the campground unchaperoned. Let them explore a bit on their own.
I'm still not entirely sure what went wrong two weekends ago. It was, of course, a great trip with many great memories made, but I'm still trying to put my finger on how it could have been improved and how I can encourage my dear friend, and many others in her same position, not to give up on Mother Nature. I know not everyone loves adventuring as much as I do, but I strongly believe it IS for everyone in one way or another. My parents didn't take me camping, but they did expose me to plenty of nature through trips to national parks and other wilderness areas with stays in lodges and motels. That was obviously enough to spark my love for the Great Outdoors, so perhaps something like that is the answer for some folks. Thoughts?