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A dad’s guide to mountain adventure with little ones

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By Luke M. Lynch Contributor

Was the curious chipmunk at the summit of 10,741-foot Jackson Peak the highlight of Max’s day in the mountains? Or the extra dose of tasty snacks? It really didn’t matter – the day was an unqualified success, and one of my most memorable experiences last summer.

Not only did I get a good workout lugging my son up the trail, I also enjoyed his colorful commentary. A 3-year-old brings his own perspective to the mountains, and even small adventures can become big ones – that day in August we found a small patch of snow and had a snowman-building extravaganza.

Neither my wife Kathy nor I are giving up our kid-free outdoor pursuits anytime soon, but we love including the little ones whenever possible. This summer Max will be 4, his younger brother Will, 2. Adventuring with them takes more work, planning and gear, but it’s worth the effort.

For us, spending time in the mountains with our children is both gratifying and fun – plus, when one of us takes them out, the other gets some valuable personal time. Ultimately though, we hope our kids will share our passion for these wild places, and help preserve them for the next generation.

Planning and executing a mountain day trip with kids

Go short to go long

Big goals are probably the number one enemy of success with wee ones in the outdoors. Sure, we’ve gotten in some bigger days with kids in tow, but we’ve also stopped a quarter mile from the trailhead and played in falling aspen leaves, eaten some snacks and called it a successful day. If the little dudes have fun, they’ll crave the next adventure. The boys and I name the “peaks” we climb, a fun way to remember a good day, no matter how big or small the objective.

Kids respond the way you do

Freaked out by rain? Your kid will be, too. Stoked on getting to wear your raincoat and test if the Chariot stroller’s cover is really waterproof? Your kid will be, too. As you know, children watch their parents and friends to learn how to react.

When our older son Max was about 18 months old, he’d get very nervous whenever it was windy. It put quite a damper on our outings. My solution: bring along a small kite. Now he relishes the wind – a steady breeze has him doing fist pumps. Last summer we shared a splendid afternoon on Sheep Mountain, flying a kite at 11,000 feet in the Gros Ventre Wilderness outside of Jackson. Kite-flying in the high alpine is one of life’s under-appreciated joys.

By age 3, kids are also learning from their peers. It can be fun to combine forces with another family, especially one that provides a good example and some healthy peer pressure. I make sure to communicate goals and establish a plan with other dads to maximize success; other times, I’ll go with the kids solo, finding it nice to have special time just with them.


Having a variety of interesting things to eat is a critical element for a successful journey. I pack dried fruit, pretzels, dried seaweed, nuts, granola bars, trail mix, crackers, cheese and jerky. In the winter, I add a vacuum bottle of hot chocolate. The little dudes burn hot and fast and bonk hard if you don’t keep them eating. Keep their engines stoked, and they’ll have more fun. We have a few staples in our house that the kids only get to eat when we’re out in the mountains. Max calls them “Dada’s biking snacks,” and they’re good motivators.

Start early

You probably don’t need an alpine start for the adventures you can do with children in tow, but it helps. Moms are right about this one: Little ones do better in the morning. Fewer bonks, better energy, more enthusiasm.


Every parent handles naps differently; in fact, this is probably the main topic of parenting disagreement in our family. Luckily, toddlers that really need naps are good at getting them in a pack or stroller. If your destination includes a drive, that’s another opportunity. I refuse to be taken hostage by nap schedules, but I do occasionally suffer the consequences of an over-tired little one.

Bonks happen

It won’t always go well. I’ve been five or six miles from the trailhead with an unhappy toddler. It’s not fun. But it usually works out fine, and I try to learn from my mistakes.

Chariots, packs, boats

The mode of transport is key.

A Chariot stroller that can be pulled by a bike or skis, or pushed like a stroller provides valuable versatility in a mountain town. Expensive, yes, but necessary, as far as I’m concerned. Used ones sell quick, so if you find one, buy it. Spare 16-inch and 20-inch tubes, a hand pump and tire irons should be added to any kit when in bike or run mode. A flat tire and no way to fix it, far from the car with crying kids isn’t my idea of fun. On the way home, I’ll plan-in a quick swim, or a stop to throw rocks or visit friends.

A kid-carrying pack, like the Osprey Poco, is also clutch. I’ve loaded ours up with binoculars and scouted for elk in the high country, and wade-fished remote creeks with a kid in tow. Sometimes, I strap it to the Chariot, tow that behind my bike and ride to the trailhead. This winter, I hauled Max, skis and all, up the ski hill, and we skied down together. It’s a great workout, and Max loves the attention. When my exertion dictates one-word answers, he’s got a captive audience for his fanciful tales of deer and dragon hunting, and flying over mountains in his imaginary friend’s spaceship.

Canoes, drift boats, rafts and open kayaks are a great way to travel, as well, especially for kids that are too big or won’t tolerate a pack or Chariot; or if they’re too little to make much headway walking, skiing or biking on their own. Throw in a kid’s fishing pole and some toys, and strap on a PFD and explore the area’s lakes and gentler rivers.

Light and right

For peak ascents and bigger days, pack light, but still bring the essentials. If your kid isn’t potty trained yet, a couple diapers and a few wipes are necessary. For bigger kids, extra socks and pants weigh almost nothing and are helpful if they get cold after a romp through a creek, a monster puddle jump, or a muddy trail. A special stuffed animal or lovie can also be good for morale. Oh, and don’t forget the sunscreen – your wife may only buy the windburn story once.

This story was first published in the summer 2013 issue of Mountain Outlaw magazine.

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