Adventuring outdoors with kids: It’s not about the gear, it’s about connection


Motherly Collective

I’ll never forget the panic I felt on a mountainside with my newborn in my arms. It was May 2016, and he was 6 weeks old.

I entered motherhood as an experienced backpacker, mountain climber, backcountry skier and trail runner. I did not expect this moment to unfold like it did. I left the house to take a walk down the street, still recovering from my emergency C-section. But the mountains were calling, and before I knew it, I was hiking 2000 feet up a steep trail on the mountain behind our house. 

Halfway up, I caught my toe, startling Elliot awake. Then he had a diaper blowout. There we were, just the two of us, on the hillside, covered in poop. He was hysterical and starving but wouldn’t calm to breastfeed. His cries escalated my anxiety, and tears streamed down my face. I had the experience of a mountain athlete but had not yet found my flow as a mountain mama. I needed to calm my nervous system to co-regulate, but I wasn’t prepared. 

It didn’t matter how many mountain summits I’d stood on. It didn’t matter what carrier I was wearing or the breathability of Elliot’s wool onesie. Elliot and my ability to find our rhythm in nature hinged on my inward journey: one of reflection, healing and growth. Only then could I build a deep, connection-focused relationship with him, rooted in co-regulation, attunement and trust. In essence, to cultivate my “mama confidence,” I took everything I was learning about secure attachment parenting and brought it outside with me, one small step at a time.

“As parents become more aware and emotionally healthy, their children reap the rewards and move towards health as well.”

Dr. Dan Siegel, The Whole Brain Child

Eight years into motherhood, things look a bit different. I’m now a content creator known on social media as an “adventure mama,” sharing my own healing journey alongside the importance of emotional connection with children in the outdoors. We bike, ski, climb, backpack, camp and hike with Theo, age 4, Emi, age 5, and the now 8-year-old Elliot. Though I still have much to learn, I know this: adventuring outdoors with my kids is where I am the best version of myself as a parent. I’m more present and engaged. What gives me the confidence to step out of the house and into the outdoors with my kids is knowing I now have the capacity to emotionally show up for them, at least most of the time. And when I don’t, I trust our relationship and do the work to repair.

“When we put in the work to be connected to our children, we develop a kind of trust that makes the process of guiding them through life far easier and more rewarding for both of us.”

Eli Hardwood, MA, LPS, Raising Securely Attached Kids  

Through my storytelling on social media, I hope to create space for parents to engage in dialogue and glean insight into connection-focused parenting with the outdoors as our canvas.

I’ve grappled with the prevailing emphasis, both my own and others’, on gear. The pursuit of the perfect backpack or relentless search for the “best hikes for kids” post can obscure the underlying reasons for our hesitation to step out of the house and into nature. Parents care deeply about showing up for their kids and ensuring their safety. When we lack the belief in ourselves to provide the emotional and physical support they need, doubts infiltrate and whisper in our ear, Can I do this?… Don’t go!  

We want to know that when our child slips, scrapes their knee, and cries, “I’m done!” we’ll be prepared to sit down next to them, regulate ourselves, validate their emotions and help them take the next steps.

While gear and trail tips undoubtedly play a role, the foundation for feeling confident outdoors with our children parallels what helps us feel confident in parenthood: being emotionally healthy enough ourselves to show up for our kids with love and support when they need us. And the knowledge to keep them safe. When we know we can do these things, those doubts slip away. 

Below are some tangible insights I’ve learned that I hope will help you move from fear to confidence when it comes to getting outside in nature with your kids. 

Adventuring outdoors with kids is all about connection

Nature provides space for deep connection. Embrace it as your anchor in outdoor pursuits. Try this:

  • Go easy on yourself: The minute I get hard on myself, I trigger my own trauma and lose my ability to focus on connection.
  • Before you leave the house, remind them you are there to support them. This is your reminder too. It will help set the tone.  If they fall, get scared, feel tired— you’ll be primed to meet them with love. Listen; let them voice their struggles. It will help you attune to your own giving space for connection. Share a story of something similar that happened to you. This helps you regulate and helps them feel seen, heard and nurtured. 
  • Embrace spontaneity and curiosity. Leave behind agendas. So much of our lives are about efficiency and achievements. This is our chance to lean into the journey, not the destination. Let your kids lead and experience nature, letting nature in and your inner child out. When I do this, it helps me embrace the ups & downs that inevitably come when adventuring with kids.
  • Acknowledge your emotions alongside your children’s during challenging and joyful moments. Kids are tuned into our emotions, so connect in the shared experience. By naming and regulating your own feelings, you model emotional intelligence and provide a safe space for connection and repair.
  • Find your balance between lending a helping hand and encouraging them to do it on their own with you by their side: This concept is called “scaffolding,” one of many to add to your connection-focused parenting toolbox that will help you feel more confident.

Smart small, build up

Muscles take time to build, including the brain muscle responsible for emotional awareness and regulation.  Just like them, you may be getting familiar with new activities, gear, outdoor apps, which can feel overwhelming alongside regulating kids. My advice? Start small. Build up gradually. 

  • Keep it simple: Begin by easing into the “elements” and learn together. This takes the pressure off feeling like you need to be an “expert” to adventure outdoors. While also models it’s okay to take time to learn new things. A nature walk through a local park is a great start and just as valuable as summiting a mountain. Remember, keeping it simple is always a wonderful tool, no matter your level of experience.
  • Focus on emotional cues: Instead of solely focusing on developing physical prowess, prioritize your ability to pick up and respond to your children’s emotional cues. Being attuned and ready to co-regulate is essential to building a strong relationship in the outdoors, and it takes time and practice to hone this skill. 
  • Gear considerations: Try on your gear and their gear at home. Get familiar and make it fun. Add a special patch to a backpack to make them feel excited and involved. When it comes to carrying a pack, let them start with minimal weight or carry it empty. If they get tired, there’s no need to push too hard too soon. Gear mishaps will happen, so model resilience by laughing off the situation and being gentle with yourself when facing challenges. When I turn my frustrated growl into laughter not only does it settle my nerves but it makes the kids bust out laughing every time.
  • Explore outdoor apps for preparation and assistance, especially for medical support. 
    • Weather and medical:  GOES Health is a weather and medical resource app that is transforming accessibility to medical support in the backcountry. It’s now my go-to for weather, location, air quality, risks to consider, and their 24/7 medical support from real Wilderness Medical Doctors is unparalleled. It’s like having an ER doctor with you at all times—perfect for when my ER doc husband is not with us.
    • Location and maps:  ONX Backcountry is the most versatile GPS navigation app I’ve found, with features that I find easy to use like making maps available when offline, waypoint marking, fire mapping, detailed trail info, and trip planning. 

That said, don’t feel pressured to rely solely on technology. Trust your instincts and prioritize authentic experiences with your kids, knowing the apps will be there when needed.

Prioritize teamwork

  • Involve your kids in trip planning: Engaging them in discussions about the trip and planning it together ahead of time will help you when you’re out on the trail. Look at maps, photographs, share local lore—whatever engages your kids—so they feel like they are part of the team.
  • Build your village.  Team up with parents who want to adventure with their kids. Supporting each other not only helps logistically but also provides a sense of solidarity in navigating the nuances of being outdoors with kids. You can learn from each other and laugh together. Most importantly, friends (theirs and yours) can often make everything better for both you and your children.

Last week, for the first time, Elliot carried himself on his own two legs up that same 2000-foot mountain where he had the poop blowout when he was 6 weeks old. Together, we prepped our backpacks with snacks and water and that special treat we might need along the way. We gazed at the view and the flowers and explored the bushes for animals and fairy homes when we needed breaks. We talked about Pokémon, Ninjago and Minecraft as we traversed the hills. We snuggled together at the top, taking in the view.

If I’m not sure what to do, I ask myself, what do my kids need from their parent? They need to know I’m here for them and I believe in them. That they are safe with me. I try to act and speak in a way that helps them feel exactly that. I don’t always do it perfectly, but I’m learning, and they are teaching me, too. 

Sources:

Harwood, Eli. Raising Securely Attached Kids: Using Connection-Focused Parenting to Create Confidence, Empathy, and Resilience. Sasquatch Books, 2024

Siegel, Daniel, Bryson, Tina Payne. The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind, Survive Everyday Parenting Struggles, and Help Your Family Thrive. Bantam, 2012

This story is a part of The Motherly Collective contributor network where we showcase the stories, experiences and advice from brands, writers and experts who want to share their perspective with our community. We believe that there is no single story of motherhood, and that every mother’s journey is unique. By amplifying each mother’s experience and offering expert-driven content, we can support, inform and inspire each other on this incredible journey. If you’re interested in contributing to The Motherly Collective please click here.





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