How to Get the Family Outdoors

by  Paul Eisenberg | Apr 19, 2011
Family on the beach
Family on the beach / monkeybusinessimages/iStock

My kids are fairly dependent on wireless gadgets and DVR, and I’m almost ashamed to admit that they’re learning by example. Vacations bring the promise of curtailing these weak pursuits. But after our family swim, beach time, or other low-intensity outing, we’re unwilling to resist the hotel room TV that’s inevitably far bigger than the one in our living room.

And then there was the time last summer when I realized that my daughter and I had spent more than an hour in a hotel lobby completely absorbed by what was happening on our side-by-side computer monitors. You’d think that would have been the time to look away from my screen and tell my daughter that it was time to stop the madness. But it was too easy to keep doing what we were doing.

And that’s part of the problem with introducing outdoor activities and sports on vacation. There’s a certain aspect of it, at least to me, that feels like it’s going to be torture or too much of a production with three kids of mixed ages.

Never afraid to admit that I need professional help, I sought out father of two Eugene Buchanan, a 25-year outdoors journalist and author of Outdoor Parents, Outdoor Kids: A Guide to Getting Your Kids Active in the Great Outdoors (

While Buchanan and his family were catching their breath between a ski hut vacation and a sea kayaking trip, I asked him, how does a family work sports into their trip, especially with young kids? He cited an Outdoor Foundation study revealing that kids list biking, hiking, camping, and fishing as their favorite outdoor activities, and suggested that that wasn’t a bad place to start.

“Those are probably the easiest [activities] to get going on with your own brood,” he says, adding that, “hiking is by far the simplest, requiring little more than a pair of shoes, proper apparel, water,” and other provisions if you’re planning a longer trip. "Biking’s fairly simple also, and you can often rent bikes for the whole family (and even rent a trailer-bike for younger kids) at most locations. And don’t overlook fishing – it can be as simple as wetting a line in a local pond.”

As for how long to stay out, “let your kids’ attention spans be the judge,” Buchanan says, “but I’d say an hour or so for any activity is fine. And hopefully if you do it right, your kids will want to stay out longer.”

Of course “doing it right” is easier said than done, and if you’re doubting your ability to pull together a fairly straightforward outing or would just rather leave it to someone else, there’s no shame in going “with a local outfitter who knows the area and has all the gear,” he says.

The key to a successful outing, ultimately, is keeping it fun. If you and the brood want to take a hike, “search out the interesting places to go by asking around – the local chamber of commerce is a great place to start,” Buchanan says. “If there’s a great waterfall or swimming lake nearby, make that the destination for your hike. Play games along the way – for example,  play hide and seek or leave Hansel and Gretel crumbs on a hike – and don’t be afraid to embrace the bribe. The promise of an ice cream cone at the day’s end can be a great motivator.”

Should you be motivated by this outdoorsy advice but still find yourself in need of more encouragement, Buchanan reminds us that June is National Great Outdoors Month. And if you missed availing yourself of the free admission in many of America’s national parks this week, keep in mind that many will be free again on the first day of summer, June 21.

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