In a world dedicated to screen time and school-based learning, there’s nothing like an outdoor adventure to reinvigorate your family holiday. From epic desert dunes to mysterious caves and lapping oceans, nature is a ready-made playground for all ages, and a breath of fresh air helps everyone reset.
The key to the perfect escape is choosing what’s right for your family. Despite what the likes of Instagram might tell you, you don’t have to bungee jump into crocodile-infested waters with your two-year-old to fulfil the brief of ‘family adventures’. So whether you and the brood want to bask in nature or seek thrills, let our breakdown of outdoor activities be your guide. Whatever you do, do it your family’s way!
A simple off-the-path approach
For many kids, nature is the destination, and the sting of saltwater or first ascent of a larger-than-life boulder are powerful experiences. Going off the path is all about pacing (slow!), location (is it accessible?), and a free-flowing, ambling purpose (to climb, find, touch, and otherwise be outdoors without a whole lot of agenda). No matter your location or itinerary, the beauty of this approach is that you can always discover features of interest, be it rocks, sticks or glorious mud. In other words, all it takes is carving out time for an aimless wander.
Scope out tide-pools after visiting state-of-the-art aquariums on Ireland’s west coast, or stop at shallow tributaries to dip feet in currents en route to Iceland's iconic waterfalls. Even bustling cities offer greenways, gardens and parks in which to romp and roam. Take advantage. Off-path meandering allows our littlest travellers to not just look at but touch and play freely in open, natural spaces. That breeds appreciation.
Happy campers: on a recent trip to Yellowstone, the campground meadow where their imaginations went wild left a lasting impression on our young ’uns; the wait for the Old Faithful geyser to erupt did not. Consider camping on your next visit to a state or national park; the proximity cuts travel time for sightseeing and leaves room for personal interaction with the environment.
Dwell (well!) in nature
If sleeping with a thin piece of foam separating you from the ground is not your thing, you’ll appreciate the myriad other abodes inspired by the spirit of camping, but designed with more comfort in mind. The tree house concept evokes all the hideaway appeal of childhood. Depending on your taste for luxury and locale, your family could rest perched above wildlife in Africa, amidst snow-capped treetops in the mountains or under the starry night skies of Australia.
The extra amenities of the Mongolian-style yurt have turned many a camper into a glamper. From simple to decadent and distant to convenient, yurting tucks visitors neatly and unobtrusively into their surroundings. If you’re seeking an experience steeped in the history, culture and nature of a place, imaginative options abound; renovated Hungarian gypsy trucks, hand-painted tepees of North America, a portable surf hotel in Portugal and artfully sculpted ice hotels in Sweden give the idea of camping a playful twist.
Amenities vary: at the risk of showing up empty-handed or over-burdened with duplicates, make your packing list and check it twice. After snowshoeing to a backcountry yurt, we were grateful for extra headlamps and lanterns when our solar-powered lighting failed – sure wish we’d brought a more pleasant brand of toilet paper for the outhouse, though.
Pedestrian-powered exploration – by foot, bike or other means – results in a satisfying sense of earning it. Using those muscles forces you to pay attention to the journey over destination. Think bike sojourns along the cliff-side harbours of Newfoundland, kayaking around karst monoliths in Southeast Asia, or cross-country skiing around Norway's national parks. A little physicality mingled with climate and culture makes for a vibrant, self-paced, self-determined experience with a whole lot to see, hear and smell. The reward for effort is an intimate connection – think hill-crested vistas or idyllic beaches for your eyes only and a deepening appreciation of place.
The relationship is mutually beneficial for parents, too: adults sometimes let physical pursuits devolve into being all about reaching the finish line, but with kids in tow, who force you to slow down and stop at regular intervals, the challenge becomes a process of more relaxed exploration. And the great thing about hoofing it with kids is that they’ll slide right into the action if you start small and reward big. Remember how kids like doing stuff? Voila.
When the going gets tough for little legs? Try a temptation bundle. Eventually, kids will learn to appreciate the inherent rewards of ‘earning it’, but external benefits help. Let kids select all the superhero-, unicorn-emblazoned gear they want. Pit stop (a lot) for curiosity’s sake. Splurge on sweets you’d otherwise avoid. Absolutely allow a prized souvenir. It’s not bribery if it keeps you moving; it’s temptation bundling! And it works for adults, too.
Carried away in the elements
Luckily, it doesn’t take death-defying feats to excite kids, and nature provides plenty of unique rides for both the tame and wild at heart. For your little birds in training, what about an Appalachian hot-air balloon ride, a dizzying intro to Mayan history atop ruins in Guatemala or flying down zip lines in Costa Rica?. For the speed demon, try downhill skiing in New Zealand, sand-dune sledding a Peruvian desert or whitewater rafting through America’s ‘Wild West’.
Aqua tots will easily take to snorkelling, diving, paddleboarding and surfing in paradisaical locations like Fiji, Australia or Thailand, where the surrounds are as mesmerising as the activity itself. You may even be able to find introductory courses or taster sessions at your local watering holes. Your animal-lovers can also learn valuable lessons in trust and handling atop or behind camel, reindeer, dog teams or horse.
Do your homework: careful research and communication can help secure a ride appropriate and safe for children. We were lucky our trail guide was not only willing to tow our six-year-old daughter’s horse through steep mountain climbs, but also play captive audience to her stories. Not every outfitter can accommodate little ones. Factor in age, size, ability and temperament when considering options.
The unplugged holiday
Unplugging could be the result of an adventurous trek to a remote location, or simply a conscientious decision to turn off devices. Either way, when combined with the power of nature, it raises your powers of perception. The initial hump of – dare I say – boredom creates room for openness, which leads to curiosity. The wash of colours on the horizon or waft of exotic flora suddenly have the potential to entrance and mystify.
In the end, whether it’s unplugging along Croatia's cyan coast or amidst the bracing Scottish Highlands, what matters is the magic that happens when you remove artificial barriers to the moment, people and place. For bigs and littles, satisfaction comes surprisingly easy in nature, and bonding follows.
Find your spot: our family’s summer go-to is a pocket of forest that offers no service bars but plenty of lodgepole pines and trails that skirt riverbanks. Between river play, board games and hot chocolate by an outdoor fire, unplugging is no longer a novelty, but a necessity.
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