BIKING Seriously, ixnay on the training wheels. Instead, get your tot a pedal-less balance bike like the wooden Skuut ($100; skuut.com) or the aluminum (and sturdier) Specialized Hot Walk ($175; specialized.com), which help kids figure out how corrective steering and shifting their weight can keep them upright and coasting. When they're ready to roll with the big kids, every children's bike made by Trek is designed to allow size adjustments in key spots like handlebar height and pedal position to accommodate growth spurts (trekbikes.com).
SKIING Those old mini-skis in your garage? Inspect the bindings carefully. "Kids' bindings are years behind adult bindings in terms of how they release," says Robin Bousquet, a physical therapist at California's Sports Medicine Center for Young Athletes. If they look like relics, take them to a ski shop for a professional opinion. Another smart tip: place inserts, like Superfeet's trim-to-fit insoles (from $40; superfeet.com), into kids' ski boots to help stabilize ankles and minimize injuries.
SNOWBOARDING Ten years ago, conventional wisdom was that you didn't teach kids to snowboard until they were six or seven, when their fine motor control was sufficiently developed. No longer. Thanks to redesigned pint-size boards like the Burton Super Hero Smalls (from $220; burton.com), which are shorter, softer, and more convex (making it harder to catch an edge), you can now teach them starting as young as four.
PADDLING Because they have more padding around the torso, providing extra warmth and comfort, a Coast Guard– approved Type III vest is your best bet, according to Jeremy Oyen, a former director of safety education and outreach at the American Canoe Association. Type II–style PFDs, those orange, horseshoe-shaped ones with the thick neck flap, are perfectly safe, too. Just be aware that they're more restricting. Junior's ready to paddle? Don't hand over yours. If it's too long or the blade's too big, it can cause shoulder stress.We like Sawyer's red cedar Kids Clearwater Paddle ($160; paddlesandoars.com). And Old Town's Heron Junior Kayak ($299; oldtowncanoe.com) is built to track efficiently with a 50- to 100-pound paddler inside. It also has a built in tether system so you can conveniently drag junior when he gets tired.
To make it (a little) less nerve-racking, your best strategy is to spend as much time as possible charging alongside your kid, so you both become confident in their abilities, then give them increasing amounts of independence.
"Letting them go in incremental steps can help make the consequences of messing up smaller, too," says Eugene Buchanan, author of Outdoor Parents, Outdoor Kids. While skiing, Buchanan would let his child hit one run alone while he and his wife took another, then they'd all meet up at the chairlift. Each time everything went well, the leash grew a little longer, until skiing a whole morning solo became no big deal. "Doing it like that isn't just good for kids," he says. "Parents also need to learn to let go."
There's no magic formula for deciding when your child is ready to go it alone, but a key indicator is when they start voicing what they're not ready to handle. "It's a sign of maturity, knowing when to say, 'That's too dangerous,'" says Kristy Sturges, co-owner of Otter Bar Kayak School.
Ultimately, proffers big-wave surfer Laird Hamilton, whose daughter Reece, now nine, has recently taken a liking to cliff jumping, raising adventurous children is a bit like being forged into a sword. "Your kids heat you up, beat you with a hammer, then stick you in a bucket of cold water, over and over again," he says. "Eventually, you get tempered."
I became a father in May 2010 with the birth of my son, Jim. Like many fathers before me, holding my boy in my arms brought back memories of my own dad. When my father decided to instill in my two brothers and me his love for the outdoors—a love that he developed during a two-year camping trip in Europe known as World War II—he did so with an intractability that you might get from cross-breeding a drill sergeant with Timothy Treadwell.
He made me prove I could swim by throwing me off a dock. If we went camping and used a tarp to get out of the rain, the next morning would bring an hours-long seminar on drying and folding tarps in the precise fashion normally associated with flag ceremonies. One time, we built an ice-fishing shanty on the lake in front of our house. When it got stuck in the snow and ice, my brothers and I weren't allowed to come inside until we freed it up. By then I had frostnipped fingers. I was six years old.
My father died in 2002, and since then my brothers and I have hashed out over dozens of campfires how he affected us. My feelings have ranged from anger that he could never just let us enjoy the outdoors to incomprehension about why he did what he did. Now that I've brought my own son into the world, I'm beginning to at least understand his motivations. He didn't want to raise a thin-skinned softy who couldn't handle hardship and who didn't respect the value of his equipment.
In the end, my father's approach worked. My brothers and I can survive in Alaska's backcountry for extended periods; we know how to fix things; we can handle the cold. But I'm hoping to find a way to impart that knowledge to Jim with more patience and less danger, and to create a future that we can remember with fondness. Plus, a little hot chocolate never hurt anyone when frostbite is about to set in.
Correspondent Steven Rinella is an author and the host of the Travel Channel seriesThe Wild Within.
You hear guys say it all the time: "I used to bike/ski/paddle/travel; then I had kids." The notion that becoming a father means giving up sports and adventure may sound reasonable—There's just not enough time!—but it actually removes the factor most likely to spur your children to grow into active, healthy adults: your example. A 2010 study by the nonprofit Outdoor Foundation found that 75 percent of kids aged 6 to 12 who participate in adventure sports are simply copying their parents. Which means your first act as an awesome outside dad is to walk out the front door. Then what? Follow these six steps.
SLACKLINE Walking across a slackline—a piece of nylon webbing tensioned between two anchor points—demands balance and spatial awareness, both of which will come in handy when your kids take up skateboarding or surfing. Gibbon's Funline X13 ($80; gibbonslacklines.com) is kid-friendly—extra-wide, with grippy rubber print for traction.
TREEHOUSE Instead of purchasing a plastic prefab play structure, build your own. David and Jeanie Stiles's book Treehouses and Other Cool Stuff: 50 Projects You Can Build ($15; amazon.com) has some of the simplest, easiest-to-follow instructions we've seen.
IGLOO Our favorite winter toy is Grand Shelter's Icebox Igloo tool ($180; grandshelters.com), a lightweight, packable snow mold for building icy forts. The instructions are somewhat involved, but once you figure them out, you and the brood can construct a sturdy igloo in an afternoon. Extra credit: build a backyard ice rink. It's easier (and cheaper) than you think. All you need is level ground, PVC piping, and something to protect the grass. NiceRink sells fancier thermoformed side barriers ($32 each) and durable liners starting at eight cents a square foot (nicerink.com).