Toddlers Rule!

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Family Vacations Guide

Toddlers Rule!

Sure you can hike, bike, sail, do all the things you used to do. Yeah, right. . . Just ask these parents.


Rugrat on a Roll

"Daddy, sit down!" The command is shrill and imperious, and I feel a tugging at my spandex shorts. I don't need to turn around to recognize the pip-squeak voice of my daughter, Fiona. And I can just picture the indignant three-year-old face under the ladybug helmet. Ever since she hit three, Fiona has been giving orders like a drill sergeant. Testing boundaries, shrinks like to call it.

But I can't answer her just now. I'm testing my own boundaries up this Cape Cod hill by pedaling a mountain bike loaded down with 20 pounds of gear and 30 pounds of toddler. The beach in the distance looks a long way off, but I'm determined to make it without walking.

Fiona and I have been biking buddies since her first birthday, when I strapped her into the baby bike seat and took off for the park. It took us two years to do the big bike-camping trip to Cape Cod my wife and I had been talking about since before Fiona was born. We finally settled on a three-day trip, basing ourselves at a campsite at Nickerson State Park, which is near Brewster and centrally located on the paved, 24-mile Cape Cod Rail Trail.

We figured we'd spend the first day in the 2,000-acre park getting Fiona used to hours in the saddle. But no matter how much we talked up the red cranberry bogs, all she wanted to do was go back to the tent and roast marshmallows--her conception of camping, thanks to Barney. When we nixed that, it was tantrum time, and when that didn't work, she did the old "Daddy, I have to pee" trick three times in 15 minutes in order to get off the bike. I decided to fight fire with fire: I told her Winnie the Pooh lived in these woods, and we should go look for him.

Despite a "Boy, that's mean" look from my wife, Cathy, the ploy worked, and we spent the day exploring Nickerson's trails and ponds without so much as a whimper. Around the fire that night, I told Fiona the little bear might be at the beach; in the morning, she was the first to grab her helmet. Of all the beaches we rode to, Coast Guard in Eastham was our favorite. Fiona and I spent hours bodysurfing, while Cathy made big alligators and dolphins in the sand. By the time we packed the car to leave (with Fiona asking me if I could please find Winnie now, and my wife giving me a smug, self-satisfied smile), we'd put 150 miles on the bikes. But next time, I'll bring a Pooh costume.

--Michael Verdon

Reserve campsites early at Nickerson State Park (418 tent sites, $12–$15 per night; 877-422-6762). If you don't want to bring bikes, Idle Times Bike Shop (508-255-8281) rents them right on the trail.



Three Tots in a Tub

There are three rules that must be followed when taking toddlers sailing.

Rule number one: Never, ever turn your back on a toddler when on a boat. That sounds reasonable enough, and on a 20-foot O'Day sailboat, you'd think it would not be much of a problem. My wife, Lisa, and I just want to overnight with our three girls on our little rented sailboat. Is that too much to ask?

We practice the day before the big outing, and things go reasonably well, except when the three-year-old twins lock their two-year-old sister in the cabin. We don't hit any ledges, and no one falls overboard. Best of all, Lisa and I are still talking to each other.

So, we set off the next day from Islesboro, a thin island in the western part of Maine's Penobscot Bay adorned with Taj Mahal–sized "cottages," headed directly into the wind. Not a big deal. The O'Day points pretty high, and we only have about four miles to go.

Anabel, Eliza, and Helen each have a bag of Goldfish and a sippy cup of juice. They're ecstatic and singing, "Sailing, sailing, over the bounding main." I think. Lisa is manning the jib sheets, and I've got the tiller. It's one of those new kind of summer days in Maine because of global warming--Mississippi hot and humid--and the breeze we're making tacking out of the harbor feels great. I decide it's a fine time to have a beer.

Rule number two: Never, ever decide it's a fine time to have a beer.

As soon as I scramble below, Eliza accidentally conks Helen in the head with some plywood. Helen runs to her mom and begins nursing, while Lisa tries to steer. And Anabel, who has sneaked up to the bow, is standing on the bowsprit, arms flung out Titanic–style. We're about to hit one of the ledges we missed the day before. Lisa manages to nurse Helen and push the tiller to the side, screaming at Anabel to get down. I grab the jib sheet to release it, only to discover a series of what look like a dozen figure-eight knots in the end of the sheet. There's no way that sheet is going anywhere on this tack.

I should do something, but I'm dumbfounded by the beauty of Eliza's knots and filled with pride (I love knots). By this point, all three kids are crying. Anabel's feelings are hurt, Eliza has fallen into the hold, and Helen has been jerked free from Lisa's breast. Somehow, Lisa makes the tack.

Rule number three: Always turn back when three toddlers are crying on a tiny sailboat. We did.

--Hodding Carter

Northpoint Yacht Charters in Rockport, Maine (207-594-1766), charters 20-foot O'Days for $500 per week.



Marshmallows for Breakfast

Our ambivalence about camping goes something like this: We love the idea of turning our two sons, Will, 4, and Griffin, 2, into brave, self-sufficient nature boys. But we hate the idea of trading the comforts of home for potential disaster: forgotten essentials, fear of the dark, lack of sleep.

Our most recent outing was typical of the way our family merely sticks its toe into camping--a one-nighter at Pantoll Ranger Station, a beautiful but not-too-remote 16-site campground tucked into a redwood forest on Mount Tamalpais, little more than a stone's throw from our home in Marin County. We arrived late in the day, so dusk fell just as we were finishing dinner. "I want to go home," Griffin announced as darkness crowded around our picnic table. Fortunately, Will began using his flashlight as a light saber, and Griffin, never one to miss an intergalactic battle, promptly forgot to be afraid.

At 8 p.m., we tucked the boys into their sleeping bags. They were still giggling two hours later, when my husband, Gordon, and I joined them in our three-person tent. Between Will's restless kicks and Griffin's flips and flops, we didn't get much sleep. But we did have a great view of the raccoons scavenging around the food locker at midnight, and Will couldn't believe his good fortune when we let him pee outside rather than taking him to the restroom.

Griffin awakened at 6 a.m. Too tired to worry about nutrition, we let the boys eat marshmallows for breakfast, then set off to hike the scenic Dipsea Trail. We felt the moss on the trees, pretended a fallen log was a spaceship, and wrote our names in the dirt with sticks. We had gone maybe half a mile when Griffin did a running face-plant that left him with a nasty goose egg on his forehead. We decided to turn back.

"At least no one got sick," I said to Gordon as we pulled onto the Panoramic Highway to head for home. Ten minutes later, Will, who is prone to motion sickness, threw up. As we changed his shirt, he said, "I want to go camping again next weekend." Inexplicably, I did, too.

--Ginny Graves

Mount Tamalpais State Park (415-388-2070) is about 25 minutes north of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. Pantoll Campground has 16 first-come, first-served campsites (Sunday–Thursday, $15 per night; Friday–Saturday, $16).


With four kids under the age of six, Brian and Julie Brockhoff are veterans at traveling with the wee set. Here's some of their field-tested advice:

  • Leave for road trips at 4:30 a.m. "We put the sleeping kids in the car and get a good three hours down the road before they start to stir," says Julie.
  • Schedule a longer layover than usual when you need to change planes. "Kids are happier travelers if you let them blow off some steam between periods of being strapped in," she says.
  • Don't mess with the established nap schedule. "Early in the game, I thought if I could keep my son up through the morning nap, he would take a longer afternoon nap on the plane," she says. "Wrong. I wound up with an overtired, crabby baby."
  • Surprise and reward them for good behavior. "I have friends who go to the dollar store, wrap their purchases, then hand a present out once an hour," Julie says. "I haven't gone quite that far, but surprise gifts are good."  --Lisa Twyman Bessone

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