The Art of the Day Trip


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Cramming a whole lotta adventure into one day doesn't have to be a sufferfest. Photo: Katie Arnold

We recently took the kids to see a Brazilian jazz band perform outside at our local college on a hill above town. You can probably picture the scene:  Everyone brings a picnic and sprawls out on the grass and parents try not to lose their children in the sea of blankets as toddlers trip over open containers of hummus and no one actually listens to the music. In other words, it’s like any summer outdoor concert anywhere in the country. It’s perfect.

But getting there, with food and daughters and bike trailers in tow, felt harder than mounting a three-day expedition to Marfa, Texas, in our rattletrap Airstream with random parts flying off. Call it the picnic paradox: Shorter outings close to home are not always simpler, or easier.

That’s why, when plotting adventures with kids, it’s tempting to get ambitious and think you need to do a weekend trip to make it worth it. There’s all the gear to organize, little bodies to outfit, food to pack, routes to plan—you might as well stay in the backcountry as long as possible to suck as much enjoyment out of the experience. No wonder day trips get a bad rap: So much hassle, so little time. Wouldn’t you be better off saving your sanity for truly epic family objectives like rafting the Middle Fork of the Salmon or hiking Mount Whitney?

But the truth is, if done right, an adventure day trip can be just as satisfying as a bigger mission. If not, it can be way more stressful. To make the most of your summer, you’ll want to plan a few ambitious day trips (lest you spend every Saturday watching your kid ride his bike around the same 1/16th-mile lap in the park). But you gotta be smart—and organized. It's a little bit art, a little bit luck, and a lot of science. Here are a few simple tricks of the trade.

Whether you’re hiking a big peak or rafting a Class II river or sea kayaking the bay, the goal is to get out the door with as minimal fuss as possible. Start by keeping your gear organized or, better yet, packed between trips. I discovered this through dumb luck a few weeks ago. We’d come home from a Memorial Day float on the Rio Grande and, exhausted after putting crispy, overtired kids to bed, I was too lazy to unpack our dry bag. There it sat, filled with the usual stash of just-in-case gear—rain jackets and pants, fleece jackets, an extra set of long underwear, towel, hat, sunscreen—for two long weeks, until it was time to go rafting again. Voila, one less thing to pack. Alpinist, writer, and longtime Outside contributor Mark Jenkins built gear shelves for his daughters in the basement for all their own outdoor gear—day pack, windbreaker, survival kit, fleece hat, sun hat, everything. “For a day trip, they can be packed in five minutes, rather than scrounging through the entire house trying to find things,” he says.

Let them drink juice (and eat chocolate). Photo: Katie Arnold

Whether you want to hike a 4,000 or 14,000-foot peak with your kids this summer, start with short hikes and build up to increasingly longer routes. Even if your kids are too little to hike and are still riding in a baby carrier, you’ll still want to train them to ride for several hours in one go, without fussing to get out every five minutes. If your kids are big enough to walk, choose routes that suit them, not you. “Kids always love wildlife,” says Jenkins. “If you can go somewhere to see something: a beaver building his home, a moose and calf, a coyote or fox, they'll be more into it. The main thing to remember is that kids often are not goal oriented. They're just into the moment, checking out bugs on the trail, flowers, rocks. Kids are natural outdoor animals. They’ll just poke around discovering things. It's parents that turn a day trip into the Bataan Death March.” Same goes for paddling, rafting, climbing, and pretty much any other activity: check river flows, tides, trail conditions, and weather reports before you go. If your kids are tired, scared, or too far out of their comfort zone, the day will be a wash for everyone.

On Sundays in the summer, we like to go rafting with our daughters. But, after a busy week, we also like to lounge in the garden reading the paper and being aimless. So all too often it’s 10 a.m. before we pack the boat, the gear, the girls, and get on the road. But last weekend, we invited a friend and his kids, and he suggested we leave at 9. Brilliant. Why hadn’t we thought of that? Having a deadline made our morning more efficient: The raft was packed, the cooler filled, the girls fed and lathered with sunscreen, and it wasn’t even 8:30. It was still nearly noon by the time we stopped for burritos at Bode’s in Abiquiu, drove to the Rio Chama, stashed a shuttle bike at the Big Eddy take-out, drove to the put-in, rigged the boat, and launched, but that extra hour made all the difference. We weren’t rushing or worrying about afternoon thunderstorms (well, it was a cloudless day) or feeding starving kids lunch at 3 p.m. I caught up on the Sunday paper on the drive home. (Steve, alas, still hasn’t read it.) The lesson? Leave at least one, preferably two, hours earlier than you think you need to. Double that if you’re hiking a peak where mountain thunderstorms are a possibility. Most kids are early birds anyway. Helen Olsson, author of The Down and Dirty Guide to Camping with Kids, gets a jump on the day by feeding her children breakfast in the car. “The most important meal of the day can eat up valuable outdoor adventure time,” says Olsson. Kids are pokey; that’s a fact. We pack bagels in paper towels and grab juice boxes. Of course, my minivan is totally revolting as a result, but it’s worth the time saved.”

Wildlife as the ultimate distraction; Quandary Peak, Colorado. Photo: Katie Arnold

Hungry kids are whiney, tired, I-wanna-go-home kids. No fun for anyone. Bring a lot of snacks and dispense frequently. If you’re anti-sugar at home, rethink that policy when you’re on the trail or river. Trish Ellis Herr, author of the new book Up, whose daughters bagged all of New Hampshires’s 4,000-foot peaks by age six, carries chocolate at all time. So does Michael Lanza, who spent a year exploring the national parks with his two kids and wrote about it in Before They're Gone. “The chocolate is good energy, and little kids run out of reserves quickly,” says Lanza. Salt works, too—if there’s ever a time and a place for Pringles, a hot day on the river is it. Bring more than you think you’ll need, and lots of variety, but an epic mountain hike is not the time for taste-testing new seaweed chips. Please. “Bring food your kids like and will eat,” says Jenkins. “Don't force gorp or granola on them.”

This is sort of like the picnic paradox: Extra kids sounds like extra work, but bringing a couple of your kids’ besties along could actually make the day easier. Peer pressure works wonders for motivating little ones to hike farther than they might otherwise want to, and it’s way more fun to shoot water guns on a raft when it’s your best friend you’re soaking. Ideally, you’ll want to bring their parents, too, especially on water. For safety and sanity’s sake, it’s never a good idea to be outnumbered. Rafting last Sunday with our friend and his kids, we notched our first ever no-cry river day, which, when you’re dealing with a 23-month-old and a 3-year-old, both of whom missed their naps, felt like a rare celestial event.

—Katie Arnold