EXPLORING THE OUTDOORS AS A MUM
You won’t believe what kids are capable of in the outdoors. You especially won’t believe what their Mums can do; what you can do. My body isn’t especially fit. I’m round-ish, have plantar fasciitis and heel spurs in both feet, plus a dodgy left knee.
I never considered myself an adventure Mum before setting off on a six-month, 3000-kilometre trip to walk the length of Aotearoa/New Zealand in 2021. It was an incredible experience to share with my husband, Tom, and our three kids: Juno,12; Joplin, 10; and Goldie, 5. Along the way, I also wrote a blog for Sea to Summit about how to feed 5 a family of five.
WHY WALK THE LENGTH OF A COUNTRY WITH THREE KIDS?
During the first round of 2020’s COVID lockdowns, in our then-home on Sydney’s Northern Beaches, we spent mornings hiking in our local bush and evenings playing board games; dreaming of a new normal. You may have felt it too—life slowed down.
Over the winter months, we agreed to pack up our lives (holy moly!), sell most of our stuff, and move to my homeland, Aotearoa/New Zealand. We’d kick off our new life by walking for six months along the Te Araroa trail, which spans the length of the country. What better way to lay down some roots and connect with the people and the land. I mean, how hard could it be?
Well, safe to say it was damned hard; but, it was also the best thing I’ve done yet. If you’re also dreaming of adventures in the outdoors with your family, here are some things I learned along the way that I hope will help you explore the outdoors as a Mum.
INVOLVE YOUR KIDS
Walking outside is one of my favourite ways to feel a part of something bigger, and to quiet the nagging anxiety that I often experience. Whilst sometimes I just can’t be bothered, I know it always makes me feel better.
When Tom and I had kids, they motivated me to get out there even more and it seemed natural to strap them in for the ride. We walked our local streets, around parks, and to the beach, and grew to enjoy longer walks in national parks.
When the kids were a bit older, we got them headlamps for Christmas and discovered how exciting it was for them to walk in the dark—even when it was pitch black, which they often found scary to start with. We loved to stay out for sunset and walk back in the fading light, and even started getting up early for sunrises; waking up in the dark and using headlamps until the dawn would break and light our way.
We’d choose trails we had already explored, so we had an understanding of the terrain and distance and didn’t get ourselves stuck in any risky situations. Having good gear and plenty of water and snacks made it enjoyable, too. I always carry a comfortable backpack with rain jackets; a warm layer for everyone; drink bottles; food; and a small first aid kit with plasters, antiseptic, anti-itch cream and Rescue Remedy.
REWARD YOUR KID'S EXPLORATIONS
If your kids are really struggling, there are a few tips and tricks that can help, depending on what motivates them. Of course, different things work for different kids and you know yours better than anyone. Personally, we find distraction is key during tough movements on trail: when the going gets tough, telling each other stories and asking questions about something they love works wonders. And, if all else fails, you can always try to gamify your adventures! As you’re walking, you can decide on the rewards—what appealed yesterday might not be the draw card you need today. For us, we could never get past delicious food rewards—great motivation for the whole family.
When we started to plan our Te Araroa adventure, we knew we’d be aiming to cover around 20 kilometres a day. At the time, we had no idea what that kind of distance really felt like, so we started doing a walk every weekend; slowly increasing the distance. We went from 5 kilometres to 18 kilometres over the span of a few months, rewarding ourselves with fish and chips, milkshakes, and other tasty treats as we hit different milestones.
Ultimately, finding what works for your family and your budget is the most important thing.
START BUILDING UP YOUR GEAR
Good gear is not essential, but it definitely makes outdoor adventures more safe, more fun, and more achievable. Thankfully, there are plenty of options for every budget.
Here in Wānaka, NZ, you can pick up well-priced, quality gear from second-hand stores—you just need to frequent them and know what you’re after. We find kids grow even more quickly when they’re small, so their gear can easily cycle through a lot of hand-me-downs. Good quality gear will last longer, of course, and it’s better for the environment. We like to buy gender-neutral equipment and clothing that everyone can use, and then it gets passed on to friends.
It can be intimidating to know where to start. Firstly, research the gear everyone will need for an overnight hike, and slowly build up your kit based around that. In particular, we found good shoes and socks made a big difference to how the kids felt on a walk. Blisters are a bummer for everyone and shoes that have good grip save you from unnecessary slips and falls. Choose shorts and t-shirts made from fabrics that keep you warm and dry (cotton can be a complete nightmare!), a variety of layers for warmth, and the best quality rain jacket you can afford. Kids hate wearing rain jackets that are heavy or don’t breathe, and, while getting wet is not much of an issue on short walks with a warm car at the end, the risk of hypothermia on overnight trips is real.
STAY ENGAGED AND CONNECTED
It’s funny remembering how we downloaded a whole bunch of podcasts and audiobooks on our phones in hotel quarantine, dreaming of hours spent with our earbuds on the trail. How wrong we were.
We quickly realised that we needed to always listen out for the kids or any possible hazards. A cry as someone fell, a truck on the road, water coming too close, weather approaching, or their latest find or invention!
We listened out all day; sometimes chatting away, singing when we needed a boost, or distracting each other with stories. We also enjoyed plenty of silence. Occasionally, frustration would mount and one of us would need to storm ahead to get some space and vent.
It’s a rollercoaster ride of energy and emotions out there and one of the beautiful things we all learned was how to enjoy the ride.
YEP, IT’S WORTH IT
As a Mum, I found our trip both incredibly challenging and rewarding. I craved a moment to myself; a cup of tea in bed with a good book or a decent sleep! Truthfully, I didn’t once sleep through the night or feel well-rested when I woke on trail.
Honestly, my feet never got used to it and the pain at night kept me awake at times. There were sections when we needed to carry 12 days’ worth of food and, in one section, we needed 20 litres of water. As I’m sure you can imagine, it’s a challenge climbing hills with 25 kilograms on your back.
I once explained this to a friend; exploring the outdoors with your kids is a bit like childbirth: you glaze over the painful parts because the good parts are just so good. The overwhelming sense of purpose and wonder takes over. I’ll never regret spending six months with my family for almost every moment of every day. We got to know each other in a way that feels whole and connected, and we learned how to back each other in the most tremendous ways.
We’re trying to hold onto that connection now that we’re back to normal life. We still love heading out into the mountains to escape for a few days, and we dream of doing other long-distance trails. We didn’t decide to live in a tent though; we’re very much enjoying having our own space and time with our mates.
The kids were capable of so much more than we ever got to experience in our normal lives. It’s quite remarkable to see what they’re made of when you give them the opportunity to just have a go.
We all grew in more ways that we could have imagined. Now that we’re back in real life, we often talk about those times on the trail when we were faced with extreme physical and emotional challenges and how, if we could do that, then we can surely handle anything that life throws at us.