Yesterday in honor of U.S. National Parks Week, I reviewed Michael Lanza’s new book Before They’re Gone: A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks. Written in part to inspire parents to get outside with kids, the book is a travelogue and a memoir, but it is also a carefully researched description of what is happening to some of America’s most beautiful wilderness as global warming changes the temperature of our planet. Today Michael has graciously agreed to answer some of the questions that reading his book brought up for me – including tips you won’t want to miss about getting your kids out in nature. Thanks Michael, for writing such an important book, and for taking the time to share your insight here.
I loved your description of landing in Orange County and your children being congratulated that they were going to Disneyland (especially since I think the chapter on Joshua Tree may be the most poignant in the book). Do you and your wife ever take your children on these kinds of more traditional family trips, or do you pretty much limit yourself to wilderness experiences?
We’ve never been to a Disney or any other big theme park – my wife and I both loathe them, to be honest – though we do give in and bring the kids on day trips to local water parks and such. But Nate and Alex are used to us always taking outdoor trips and they get really excited about them – they’re always asking when and where we’re going next. I believe it’s simply because our kids have so much fun on them.
One example: Their spring break was the last week of March, and when we were discussing what do to that week, both of the kids insisted, “I want to go backpacking.” I can’t tell you how much that warmed my heart. They also wanted to explore a slot canyon. So we went to Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park, backpacked three days, and made a technical descent of a slot canyon, with four rappels and a long squeeze chimney that we had to accordion our bodies into and traverse for about 100 feet. My kids not only styled it without a hitch, they loved it. (I’ll write about that trip and post photos and a video soon at TheBigOutside.com.)
I don’t think Disney can match that experience!
Can you offer tips for a family that has never camped or gone on any kind of wilderness experience? Where should they begin? What can parents who don’t have the kind of expertise that you have do to get their kids out in nature?
I know many parents don’t know where to start or worry about safety or how well they and their kids will handle a trip they fear might be too rigorous. The good news is that there is so much nature that’s relatively accessible and beginner- and family-friendly.
With the proliferation of information resources today, parents don’t have to look far, actually. Start on the Web or at a magazine stand. Many state and national parks are set up for inexperienced outdoors people, with abundant information on scenic, interesting hikes of all lengths and difficulty levels, and trails that are well marked. Yellowstone, for example, is a perfect park for a family new to the outdoors, or a family with young kids who can’t walk very far, because so many of its thermal features and other attractions require walking only 20 to 30 minutes from a parking lot.
In many communities, there is a nearby trail system, park, nature center, or other place where parents can take kids for an entry-level outdoor experience. From my house in Boise, I could walk 20 minutes with my kids to a cliff where great horned owls nest every spring; local residents reliably post on Facebook when they see the owls have retuned and hatched more young. Parents will also find local outdoor clubs, conservation organizations, school-based groups, and gear retailers that offer clinics, organized hikes, and other events where you can meet other families.
Learning anything is a process. Parents shouldn’t feel that they have to figure out all the answers before they try something. As they spend more time doing this stuff, they’ll grow more comfortable and independent, and have experiences that are all the more rewarding. No better time to start than now.
You talk about Americans having low expectations when it comes to children’s physical endurance, and over and over again in the book you mention situations where you think your children aren’t going to be able to finish a hike or climb but then they do. What kinds of things do you do to make sure they can finish? Do you do any kind of training or preparation with your kids at home before you go on these longer trips? Has there ever been a time when you have had to turn back or not finish?
I write a little in the book about my strategies for making sure my kids are doing well physically and enjoying themselves. To offer a few tips along those lines:
- Bring along motivators for young kids, like their favorite candy bar to eat halfway through a hike, or a stuffed animal.
- Encourage kids to voice their concerns or tell you when something’s bothering them, but establish a rule up front: no whining. Create a dynamic in which a child understands you care and will listen, but that complaining will get him or her nowhere. Everyone will be happier.
- I’ve been reminded time and time again that a visibly tired kid is often just a hungry kid. They don’t have nearly the fat reserves and muscle mass that adults have, so they need to rest and refuel with food and water much more frequently than adults, sometimes every hour. Look for signs of their gas tank running low—grumpiness, a slowing pace, growing quiet, or a faraway look. Remind them frequently to take a drink. Many times I’ve seen a kid turn 180 degrees in energy level after just a ten-minute rest and a fat chocolate bar.
- Use positive reinforcement: Compliment them when they do well, encourage them when they’re challenged. Tell your kids they’re good hikers and they will take pride in that.
- When your child is a teenager, invite along his or her friend who’s interested in the outdoors.
I also like to talk about our upcoming trips with my kids as I’m planning – it gets them excited, building anticipation and setting up a positive experience. But it also engages them, letting them feel like they’re part of the planning process, which helps get their buy-in with the plan. On our recent trip to Capitol Reef National Park my son told me he had one request: “I want to go into a slot canyon.” So we did, had a blast, and he was satisfied that we respected his wishes.
Our kids are a little young to be interested in anything that smacks of “training,” but we try to make sure they’re active. They play soccer in spring and fall, and as a family we do a lot of cross-country and downhill skiing, hiking on local trails, and biking and walking around town. Of course, we limit their screen time and encourage them to play outside with friends. When kids go outdoors to play, they will naturally be more physically active than when indoors.
Yes, we’ve certainly turned back, especially when my kids were younger. But not often, and that’s because I take the precautions outlined above and because I try to set realistic, age-appropriate goals for what we can do.
Lastly, don’t be too wedded to an agenda. Whether you’re hiking with kids or on a serious mountain climb, I think people get into trouble most often because they focus too much on the destination, overlooking that it’s really about the journey.
Many of the environmental consequences you warn about in your book are pretty dire; many seem inevitable. How much of that information did you share with your children? How do you communicate with them around the issue of potential loss and also what role they might play in preventing it?
We talked about the impacts of climate change on the parks quite a bit before, during, and after the trips and still do at home. I try to explain the consequences of energy use at a level they can each understand. And they’re very interested in the subject—in part, I think, because they associate it with these places where they had such visceral, inspirational, and memorable experiences. Both of them have surprised me with their observations about climate change, their depth of caring and understanding about it.
My son, who understands this better because he’s older than his sister, and who’s very interested in science, has told me more times than I could possibly estimate about green technologies he intends to invent that will transform society and solve the world’s climate dilemma. I think he has been inspired.
What do you hope readers take away from your book? If someone reading it wants to take action, what would you recommend that action be?
I hope readers, first of all, are inspired to embark on their own outdoor adventures, with kids if they have them. As for climate change, I hope my book helps motivate people to make personal choices to reduce their energy consumption, such as walking and biking local errands instead of driving whenever possible, turning down thermostats and using less air conditioning, driving more efficient vehicles, and insulating their homes better. There are certainly many steps we can all take and a wealth of information out there about what to do.
But we must go beyond personal steps. We have to insist that our elected leaders take aggressive action to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels at a societal level. We have to write letters and vote for people who understand how important this is. Without that level of change, we cannot possibly bring emissions down enough to avoid catastrophic climate change.
But we can accomplish that, and we must. Otherwise, the day may come when we have to explain to our children why we failed.
Read my review of Before They’re Gone, purchase the book, or find more information on spending time outdoors with kids (including recommendations for gear and lots of photos) at Michael’s blog TheBigOutside.com.
All photos courtesy of Michael Lanza.