An interview with the parent-stars of the new television show “Big Crazy Family Adventure” about how to roam with children without going insane
Traveling with kids gets a bad rap. It's easy to knock it for the associated headaches, the high costs of air travel, the long days dragging little ones around, and that feeling that you'd have been better off staying home.
But setting forth with spawn in tow doesn't have to beat you into the ground. On the contrary, says Bruce Kirkby and his wife, Christine Pitkanen. The veteran adventure travelers recently took their two sons, Bodi (seven) and Taj (three), on a 96-day, 13,000-mile oversea and overland journey from British Columbia to India. Despite weeks spent at high altitude, a trans-Pacific voyage aboard a container ship to South Korea, and a 115-degree night in the sweltering basement of a Ganges river boat—in the middle of a mayfly hatch, no less—the adventure brought them closer than they'd ever been.
The trip, the subject of the new Travel Channel series, "Big Crazy Family Adventure," which premiers June 21, "changed our lives," says Bruce, who has traveled to more than 80 countries and plotted horse trekking with baby Taj in the Republic of Georgia and camping in Patagonia. Whether you're going around the world or just across the state, venturing into the unknown can radically up the amount of quality time in your family, too. As long as you don't believe the hype. Let’s dispel those ugly myths about family travel.
Myth 1: Travel Brings Out the Worst in Kids
Kirkby: The modern belief is that travel with kids is a necessity and something that has to be endured or avoided. I've had such a different experience. When I travel with my kids, I'm so present, and they respond in a positive way to that. Of course there are tantrums and meltdowns, but overall our kids behave better on trips because Christine and I are there for them 100 percent. This is especially true outside, in nature. People often take kids places full of sugar and candy and bright lights and wonder why they're misbehaving. We lead such a distracted life here in North America. When we are fully present, their behavior actually moves in a different direction.
Myth 2: Children Don't Do Well with Change
Pitkanen: Getting out the door is the hardest part but it's not so much the kids who make it hard. It's more parents worrying about this and that. Once you get out the door and commit to it, within a couple days' transition, you're well on your way. Kids are super adaptable. Bodi is on the autism spectrum, and he needs quiet time on his own everyday. So we tried hard to balance local exploration with downtime.
Myth 3: You'll Probably Get Sick
Kirkby: Before we left, I don't think I met anyone who thought what we were doing was a good idea. Everyone will tell you you're out of your mind. They say, “Our kids cannibalize each other when we drive to Grandma's. How can you go halfway around the world?” People focus on risk, which is extremely hard to evaluate. There's the fear that you're going to get sick and get diarrhea. As a climber, I'm a conservative adventurer, and for this trip with kids we thought through all the aspects of risk and stayed far within what we were comfortable with. When it came to vaccinations, we got everything. We just weren't going to take any chances.
Pitkanen: We needed to make sure we had a good source of water—which we usually purchased, or when we were trekking, filtered. We wanted the kids to try different foods, but we did make sure they weren't eating anything raw or vegetables you couldn't peel. We all got diarrhea once, but the amount we got sick while traveling was no more than we were at home.
Myth 4: Going Overseas Is So Hard
Pitkanen: The challenge is always getting adequate food and sleep. It's the same at home as it is on the road. We're really anal about making sure they're well fed and rested and hydrated, and not out in the heat of the day.
Kirkby: I think our challenges in traveling with kids in North America can be exacerbated by domestic air travel. The people you're traveling with are tired and stressed, too, so they have a reduced patience. Perhaps some of parents' stress comes from other travelers' responses to them. You don't get that in other countries.
Myth 5: Your Kids Will Fall Behind in School
Pitkanen: Because we left in May, Bodi only missed two months of school. We did a little homeschooling, and took a grade workbook. He did a page a day. We didn't put that much effort in. But in terms of what he was learning, with language, geography, capitals, and countries, he was getting so much out of the trip. We gave him local currency and told him what it was worth in Canadian dollars. This really helped him with his math. When we got home, he fit right in again at school.
Myth 6: You Need to Bring a Ton of Gear
Kirkby: The tendency is to try take everything you think you might ever need. We do the opposite: We only bring the things we absolutely have to have. Hair cutting scissors? You can buy those in Bangkok. An extra sweater? You can pick that up on the road. We went as light as we could. A lot of gear is harder and more time-consuming to pack and exhausting to carry. I knew I needed to be able to carry everything for all of us, so Christine could hold the boys close in congested places. I had 150 pounds in two duffles, one on my back.
Pitkanen: Our essentials were water, snacks, sun hats, and wipes. We always let our boys bring a special stuffy, a little piece of home, and a couple books. And they each brought a pencil case full of whatever toys they could fit in it, which were mostly Legos. On the ship, I had a little activity bag full of new little things they could pull out everyday. Afterwards, I left it on the ship for the crew to give to their kids. We also had a little reward system for good behavior, and when they got to five points, they got local currency to buy something. This made them very interested when they went to markets.
Myth 7: Real World Travelers Carry Backpacks
Kirkby: It's so much easier to load a duffle than a 95-liter expedition backpack. Things sink to the middle of the packs, and then you're rooting around. We had two extra-large duffles, one with backpack straps. We knew we'd be trekking, and duffles are easier to lash onto animals' backs. They hang better than a backpack.
Myth 8: You Have to Map It All Out in Advance
Kirkby: Trying to plan a 96-day trip will paralyze you. There were some pinch points we had to figure out. Crossing the Pacific was one of them. And the only land border open crossing the Himalayas, through Tibet. The rest of the time we followed our nose.
Myth 9: To Travel Pure, Leave the Screens at Home
Pitkanen: We purchased an iPad for the trip. If we had a 12-hour drive, we would load it up. We had good intentions—no phone, just the iPad. And when it ran out of batteries, they played with their Legos.
Myth 10: The Kids Are the Only Ones Who Grow
Pitkanen: I learned as much about myself as I did watching the boys experience new things. I was surprised by my level of patience. You really have to keep yourself together, you have to be the leader. I realized that if I show those negative emotions, like stress, it's not so great for the kids.
Kirkby: I felt like I was a bigger person than I knew I could be. We had taken the children on this trip. We'd made this choice. I wanted it to be educational and enjoyable. I felt very calm the entire 96 days.