Adventure Travel with Children Under Four:
Proper Preparation and the Right Attitude

by Jennifer Widom

October 1999

I recently read a book by Nan Jeffrey titled "Adventuring With Children: An Inspirational Guide to World Travel and the Outdoors" (Foghorn Press, 1995). Although my family hasn't yet spent months biking through Morocco or living in a remote Guatemalan village as the Jeffreys have, we've logged a fair number of outdoors-oriented, adventure vacations in various parts of the world, and we're certainly planning many more. I'm hoping this essay can convince parents like us of small children that family adventure travel is both possible and fun.

This essay focuses on traveling with very young children -- from birth to age four -- for one simple reason: our older child Tim is just four. Perhaps in a few years I'll write the sequel, Adventure Travel with Children Ages 4-8. (As it turned out I got impatient. Please see Adventure Travel with Children Ages 4-6: Expanding Horizons.)

My husband Alex and I were avid adventure travelers before having children. Our vacations were spent trekking in the Himalayas, scuba diving with hammerhead sharks off Costa Rica, scaling mountains in Borneo, that kind of thing. When baby Tim came along, friends and family assumed (perhaps hoped?) our travel adventures were over. Although we assumed we wouldn't be returning to the Himalayas or the hammerheads for a while, we didn't see any reason not to continue taking outdoors-oriented vacations to far-flung destinations.

Travel by Camper

When Tim was six months old we headed off to New Zealand and traveled by camper for two weeks. Renting a camper has turned out to be an excellent mode of travel with small children. You only need to unpack and pack once, your kitchen travels along with you, and children really enjoy the camper life. However, we certainly haven't used camper travel as an excuse to do a lot of driving. Long driving days are sometimes unavoidable in order to move between interesting regions, but without a doubt they are the low points of our trips. When we check the odometer at the end of a camper vacation, if we've averaged more than 100 miles a day over the entire trip then we've driven too much.

Adventurous vacations loomed as somewhat more difficult once we had two small children. We decided to start with a two-week camper trip to far Northern California when Emily was five months and Tim age two. It was the only trip where we thought seriously about turning back, perhaps in part because it was the only one where it was practical to do so. Several hours into the trip, we were still only an hour from home, parked behind a K-Mart tending to a screaming baby and an impatient toddler. We gritted our teeth and persevered, and it ended up being a greatly enjoyable, very wilderness-oriented trip. Having adjusted to the rhythm of travel with two small children, subsequent successful vacations in a rental camper took us to Australia (Tim age two and a half, Emily nine months), Alaska (Tim age three, Emily fifteen months), and various destinations in the U.S. and Canada.

One important aspect of our camper trips is that we don't spend our nights in American-style RV parks. More often than not we just find an isolated parking spot off a dirt road somewhere, which is perfectly legal and accepted practice on U.S. National Forest lands, for example. Also, we've found that foreign or very remote camper parks have a quite different feel and purpose to them than mainstream North American ones.

Developing Countries

In the initial couple of years we limited our travels with small children to first-world, mostly English-speaking destinations, but we were anxious to head to more exotic locales. When Tim was three and a half and Emily almost two, we chose Costa Rica as our first sojourn with children to a developing country. It turned out to be an excellent choice. We were a bit unusual traveling with children of that age and thus attracted some attention (starting with being whisked through customs at amazing speed), but we weren't so much of an oddity that we attracted the kind of attention we didn't want.

Our children stayed much healthier during their two winter weeks in Costa Rica than they do in day-care at home. We were overly-cautious with water and hygiene and cooked many of our meals ourselves, even bringing a fair amount of food with us. But we also shopped in small towns, ate out, and didn't hesitate to mix with the local culture. We did rent our own vehicle, and in general being as independent as possible is very important when traveling with small children. You just don't want to be holding up a group when your toddler decides he needs to use the toilet (or roadside bush) every twenty minutes.

Maintaining independence can have its obstacles in developing countries. We needed to hire guides for some trails in private reserves, for example, and there can be a safety issue in places. But as long as one can afford to be one's own "group" when groups are necessary (see the section on "Budget Travel" below), a fair degree of independence can be maintained.

Malaria, hepatitis, and other tropical and third-world diseases can be a concern. Because we visited rural and remote areas of Costa Rica, the three of us over age two got the new Hepatitis A vaccine (which lasts a lifetime, so it's a good idea for any traveler), while Emily received immune globulin. We also took chloroquine against malaria. Aside from the children protesting the bitter taste of the chloroquine, we had no problems. Mefloquine (Lariam), which is recommended against malaria in many chloroquine-resistant parts of the world, is more controversial and we're currently researching that issue for future travels that will take us farther afield.

Budget Travel

We have not tried to keep our travels with children at the shoestring level, but nor do we splurge on upscale hotels or porters at the airport for our mountains of duffel bags. Since many of our trips have been by camper, the costs are very contained: plane flights, camper rental, gas, and groceries. Camper rental generally runs $100-150/day. Gas mileage is appalling, but the remaining costs are minimal.

On non-camper trips we've stayed in small, mid-level accommodations. We always opt for something with a kitchen when possible, and free-standing places such as cottages or cabanas are ideal since we don't need to worry about bothering the neighbors if our children get a little noisy. We've generally found our hosts at such places to be very hospitable, genuinely charmed by our junior travelers.

We are willing to pay a little extra to maintain our independence. For example, with small children if it's affordable we'll hire our own boat and guide for a trip upriver in the tropics rather than pile in with 20 adult eco-tourists. The costs can begin to add up, but these excursions tend to be very successful and memorable since they are customized to our interests and tailored to our pace -- worthwhile splurges on a modest trip. Also, we've generally chosen to forgo public transport and rent a vehicle (which can run $80/day or even more for a reliable four-wheel-drive in a developing country), which admittedly diminishes the cultural experience but makes it easy to dash to the nearest store.

Hiking

Hiking is an ideal travel activity with small children. They tire quickly of vehicles, with the possible exception of trains or boats (and even on those an hour or two is plenty), but they never seem to tire of the outdoors. They are intrigued with everything that passes by on a hike: forest, streams, rivers, oceans, other hikers. They particularly love spotting insects, reptiles, larger animals, and exotic birds. A hike through a rainforest with leaf-cutter ants underfoot and toucans overhead just can't be beat.

Day-hiking is the staple activity on all of our trips with children. On some trips, such as to the Canadian Rockies or Southern Utah, we've spent every day hiking. At home we hike nearly every weekend with the children, and have done so since they were a couple of weeks old. As a result, long day-hikes are a way of life for them. As they grow older they walk more and ride in the child-carrier less, but the only practical way to take a long hike with a child under four is for the child to ride in the child-carrier a good part of the time.

Many parents have told us that their children are too impatient to ride in the child-carrier for hours, or that the parent can't shoulder the weight. The first issue can be remedied by starting young, and by being creative with games, stories, songs, and snacks on the trail. The second issue is best dealt with by carrying the baby a lot when he's 10 pounds, so you don't notice as he grows slowly to 35 pounds or more. Currently on a day-hike I carry about 45 pounds, which includes Emily, some water, and various supplies. Alex carries 55 pounds, sometimes more. A few years ago we would have claimed loads like this to be logistically impossible, but as with many seemingly impossible activities with children, with perseverance and optimism they become possible.

Backpacking

Before having children we frequently took short wilderness backpacking trips, as well as the occasional longer one. One baby didn't pose much of an obstacle to our short trips. I carried Tim and a little bit of stuff, Alex shouldered the rest. Alex's load on a three-day trip with Tim was similar to his pre-baby load for ten days, but it worked.

When Tim was a year old we spent two weeks hiking from town to town in the Swiss Alps. Although we were prepared and able to carry all of our belongings on our backs (including Tim, of course), it turned out we could usually send our backpack by train or bus to the next town, which was convenient since Tim's sibling was on the way and I didn't mind minimizing my load.

Two children posed new challenges to wilderness backpacking. In our first attempt, we decided that I would carry Emily, Tim would walk, and we'd be very modest in our distance. Tim ended up perched on top of Alex's 60-pound pack. In our second attempt, I carried Tim, while Alex carried Emily in the front pack in addition to his hefty backpack. This configuration was manageable but awkward, and we knew Emily would grow out of the front pack. Ready to give up, we realized that if we limited ourselves to dirt roads and smooth trails, we could push the children in jogging strollers and each carry a portion of the gear. It's turned out to be an excellent compromise. Although we're fairly limited in where we can go, the logistics are straightforward and distance is not an issue.

In the Bay Area, two perennial backpacking favorites are Angel Island and Henry Coe State Park. Angel Island involves a short ferry ride and a short hike to the campsite, with fabulous views of San Francisco, bridges, and the bay. Once we've established camp, we set off for longer hikes around the island, which is threaded with roads and trails suitable for jogging strollers. Henry Coe Park, southeast of Morgan Hill, is remarkably large and remote. It too has numerous dirt roads, wilderness camping is allowed anywhere, and people are few.

Backpacking with jogging strollers prohibits trips in the Sierra Nevada and other rugged areas, and two people carrying gear for a family of four (not to mention the accumulation of diapers to lug out) prohibits trips of more than a few days. Nevertheless, short trips in very nice areas can be undertaken easily, and every aspect of the backpacking experience can be a thrill for small children.

Packing

I've never been a major fan of packing, considering it an unfortunate necessity of travel. When we took our first trip with a child -- a four-day visit to Yosemite when Tim was three months old -- I was overwhelmed by how much more complicated the task had become. Not only were there many more things we needed to bring, but I felt that forgetting something would be more disastrous. Since that first trip we've found that the best way to manage the packing task is to maintain detailed, comprehensive packing lists: a list for backpacking trips, a list for camper vacations, a list for short trips by plane, etc. Each vacation requires some amount of list updating and customizing, especially since children's requirements change rapidly as they age. But working from a list makes the packing task feel more manageable, and it reduces the chance of forgetting a crucial item. Still, packing for a two-week outdoor vacation to a distant destination is a six-hour task at minimum, one that I usually spread over a couple of days.

The volume of stuff one can end up bringing along is amazing. Our days of self-contained wandering through Switzerland with one child are long past. For our trip to Costa Rica we brought two child-carriers, two car seats, one portable crib, one bed rail, a clip-on eating chair, a duffel bag of snorkeling equipment, a duffel bag of favorite foods, a supply of diapers, full rain gear for everyone, four pairs of hiking boots, and clothes for multiple climates. Obviously we could have cut down our gear at the expense of some inconveniences on the trip, but we found that all of these items were worth the effort. Luckily, we're already seeing that as the children grow older, their required battalion of support equipment diminishes considerably.

Is it Really This Easy?

So, is adventure travel with small children easy? Of course not. Just getting out of the house and to the airport can seem as challenging as our Himalayan expeditions of yore, but it always gets easier once we leave our house behind and settle into the spirit of family travel. There are very few moments of relaxation in the type of travel we do with our children. Long airplane rides and waiting periods here and there require being on top of things every single minute when small children are along. With two children it's not easy for parents to take turns. And when things get hectic, they get unimaginably hectic.

Alex and I have always traveled "hard", in the sense of packing as much into each day of our trips as possible. What we've discovered with small children is that we still travel hard and pack in as much as possible, but the amount we actually do is perhaps half of what it was before children. We haven't, however, found that our children are affected by rigorous travel or that they need slow days or periods of rest, as long as they can snatch naps in the child-carrier or on the road as need be. Our children like to be on-the-go during trips just as much as we do. Of course there are many things that we simply can't do with children along, or that we parents have to do by taking turns: scrambling up precipitous peaks, for example, or taking a small boat onto the open ocean to swim with dolphins. One also needs to expect plans to be derailed by events as varied as an emergency doctor visit or the sudden appearance of a tempting playground.

Traveling with children is a fragile undertaking. When things go wrong with travel logistics, as they invariably do on any long or complicated trip, the children seem to take it in stride. But when things go wrong with the children themselves -- illness, injury, over-tired -- then the entire enterprise can go downhill very fast. I recall a very tedious (to say the least) backpacking experience where Emily whined almost the entire time; we later learned she had the onset of an ear infection. Also, if one parent becomes injured or ill, the other parent must heroically attempt to manage the whole operation, including dealing with the incapacitated parent. Perhaps our worst single travel experience with the children to date was a two-day period in a remote area of Alaska when Alex was stricken with a debilitating flu and it rained incessantly. Luckily, such low moments are few and quickly forgotten when things get back on course.

Many parents have suggested that long plane trips, such as the fourteen-hour flight from San Francisco to Sydney, or complicated overnight flights such as the multi-hop route to Costa Rica, simply are not manageable with small children. Certainly such trips are not easy by any stretch of the imagination, and it's important to bring along plenty of snacks and toys. (We always buy a couple of new toys and books to surprise the children with during a long plane trip.) But if the parents are mentally prepared and able to be "on" every minute, then plane travel can be tolerable for everyone, and even enjoyable a fair part of the time. After all, children do love airplanes -- the only problem is that they're usually done loving them after thirty minutes or so.

Summary

In summary, outdoors-oriented travel in various parts of the world is eminently possible with small children. There's no question that trips of this nature can be a wonderful experience for the children in many ways, and they can be a wonderful experience for parents too with proper preparation and the right attitude:

As rigorous as it can be to travel with small children, memories of the hard work and occasional really difficult moments quickly melt away as one witnesses the joy and excitement in the children, and as one listens to them reminisce about trips for months and even years afterwards.


Published Article, Addenda, Travel Log and Photos, Travel Favorites

This essay evolved into an article about our family travels by Alice Cary in the Great Outdoor Recreation Pages online magazine (www.gorp.com). Two years after writing this essay I wrote two addenda: Adventure Travel with Children Ages 4-6: Expanding Horizons, and Bareboat Cruising with Young Children: A Novice Sailor's Perspective. Since then, my essays haven't kept pace with the ages and travel activities of my children, although I did quite a bit of travel-blogging during our Year Off for Travel.

Here's a log and some photos from our travels, a list of off-the-beaten-path travel favorites, and a travel quote I really like.


widom@cs.stanford.edu