Sitting on the balcony of a hotel in Costa Rica overlooking the Pacific Ocean, I sat down to write about traveling with my children. No, they were not here with me at that moment, as I was finishing a week-long business meeting, but as I watched the sun go down again, I pondered the many times I have been asked about our decision to travel with our kids. Half the time, the question comes from the parents’ sheer apprehension while the other half the questioners are genuinely amazed at the possibilities. For us, it has just been a part of our life, and our daughters — Kylie and Charlotte — don’t know it any other way.
To paint a picture of our lifestyle, while not luxurious and only explained to preface this story, we have made it one of our life goals to make our children as worldly as possible, and it started at an early age for them. We began traveling with Kylie when she was only a few months old. The trips were primarily to local destinations on the weekends, as money was short and my wife and I were still in college. As Kylie grew older the distances we traveled progressed as well. We would travel the southwest and central states, camping, hiking, fishing, and backpacking together. Kylie and I have summited mountains together, though I had the privilege of sherpa-ing her to the top of them in her toddler years. Most recently we scrambled to the top of a cinder-covered mountain in Iceland’s Fjallabak region. She was also the first person in our family to summit a Mayan pyramid. Charlotte, she’s a funny little lass. She weighs us down with the stones and rocks she collects wherever she goes. We started her outdoors life when she was 8 months old with a self-supported, multi-week trip through the deserts of Texas. When she’s not being a geologist she flips her profession to biologist, wanting to know all about the creatures native to the places we explore. Her lack of fear is encouraging, as she will get up close and personal with tarantulas in the desert, but it is also difficult because she made us consider postponing a trip to Africa due to her innocent, youthful wanderings. She is only five, after all.
My wife, Kacy, and I have had the opportunity to travel much of the United States, Mexico, Central America, South America, and Europe. Most of our favorite experiences and stories are set in amazing locations, from the lochs of the Scottish Highlands to dugout canoes in the Amazon. I have spent several summers in Costa Rica learning Spanish and working at a field station conserving the sea turtle population. I have degrees in hospitality management and geography and spent a lot of time exploring Mexico and Central America. My wife and I were both lucky to score positions within an international company which has afforded us even more travel opportunities. Now, I spend several weeks a year in Costa Rica, Mexico, and Brazil for work… but there are always “Scott Brown Adventures” to be had.
With the prologue out of the way, I want to share my advice on traveling with my kids, both domestically and abroad. Here’s a hint, it’s really not that bad!
When to start?
My wife and I are firm believers in not putting off major travel until the kids are older. The younger they start traveling, the better travelers they will be. Both of our daughters started their outdoor lives when they were a few months old. We are from the south and both kids were born in the spring… we don’t do much when it is miserably hot out. For us, we used general rules of thumb to determine our activities. Normally, when a baby can hold her head up (around six months), she’s ready to start venturing off pavement. We found our girls would sleep right through the moderate rocking of the vehicle as we traversed off-road trails. A difficult, and equally cute, age was the uncontrollable, mobile stage of crawling and walking, when they wanted to get into everything and put everything in their mouths. Once communication is established, life becomes a lot easier, but a lot of this suggested tranquility hinges on when the kids are started outdoors. We’ve camped with friends whose toddlers only first started camping around 2 to 3 years old and it was the proverbial nightmare. Of course, not all kids are the same and the parents should use their best judgment when making these decisions. But from our experience, kids are extremely resilient and the new experiences they have are rewarding and life changing.
Where to go?
Another common inquiry is, “Where should we take our kids?” Easier, and probably shorter to define, is my list of places not to take my children. Those places generally consist of electronics stores, china shops, and places with a high probability of kidnapping or terrorism. I would say that traveling with our kids has opened more doors than it has closed. Sometimes the attention the girls draw is a little overwhelming to dad’s protective nature, but no foul has ever come. On the contrary, we have had many rewarding experiences. Just recently in New York City we visited the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site and were offered an in-depth, behind-the-scenes tour into rooms not open to the public. We’ve also had the security guards (turned naturalists) of an ancient Mayan site in Belize guide us to a family of howler monkeys while simultaneously explaining the geopolitical conflicts of the region.
National Parks are great places to expand your child’s knowledge base. Every national park, and some state parks, offer Junior Ranger programs which challenge the kids to put down their techno devices and learn about the environment around them. The programs have ranger-guided discussions, movies, games, and tests to really involve the kid. Whenever our grade-school daughter travels, we employ another tactic: We require her to create a presentation of her travels for her class. Generally she focuses on the social, geographical, geological, and biological aspects of her travels and her teachers truly appreciate this. By the way, Kylie has never missed a day of school and is the only student among her peers to have gone north of the Arctic Circle.
We live in a world which decreases in size daily. Having exposure to different cultures at a young age promotes a much better understanding of our differences, and better yet, our likenesses of culture. Our world is troubled, and compassion at any level is necessary. The value of time and life is not learned in schools but in experiences in the world. Gaining one’s own opinion of the world is invaluable in today’s age. It is better to live and learn while we are young.
Road trips and flying
The third most common question involves the actual travel with kids, be it flying or long distance driving. The first times were always daunting tasks. Our younger daughter was four years old on her first flight, but she was a champ. Road trips with long stretches of interstate travel can be quite boring for all of us, but especially for the younger ones. Entertainment is key and, while some flights have movies for kiddos, be prepared with a variety of activities to keep them occupied. Activities should, of course, be relevant to the age of your child, but do avoid anything with small, complicated, or multiple pieces. We often pack activity bags with a few crayons, coloring books, and reading material relevant to the destination. We have a very strict rule regarding the use of electronics, but electronic babysitters like iPads are often a godsend. In the early years, I had a rule of no babysitters on a road trip, but considering we’re six hours of flat, monotonous highway from any location, I’ve forced myself to reconsider. The girls will now read, color, or I’ll learn every Disney lyric over the course of our travels. Why make things miserable?
Finding gear for the little people can sometimes be difficult. For camping, my number one suggestion is to always invest in high quality and comfortable sleeping arrangements. I’ve never met an individual who enjoys hypo- or hyperthermia. Your children should be privileged with the same comforts as Mom and Dad. This topic is one over which I have literally lost sleep. I constantly wake up concerned that my girls, sleeping between Mom and I, might be cold at night. I have slept much better since we invested in properly insulated sleeping pads and bags for them.
While the kiddos still rely on Mom or Dad to carry them, a comfortable kid-carrying system is key. We’ve experimented with a multitude of carrying arrangements ranging from top-end Kelty backpacks to simple cloth wraps. Obviously, each solution depends upon terrain, situation, and packing constraints. My favorite device was a Kelty child carrier backpack which distributed the toddler’s weight similarly to a proper camping backpack. This increased our hiking distances dramatically. Though the burden often fell on the less sure-footed Mom to carry extra gear in our camping bag, she trusted me to carry the human cargo.
The single most difficult task we have is feeding our children. When camping we often prepare meals which are simpler to cook and clean. Unfortunately, we’ve found these meals to be outside of what our girls are accustomed to. Take that idea a step farther by throwing in some unrecognizable and unpronounceable fare from a restaurateur in Iceland… and you can imagine the “hanger” that ensued.
The goal when traveling is to ensure everyone is properly nourished. Be sure to include some meals and treats that your children know. I don’t encourage Happy Meals, as that is not proper nourishment, but prepare and consume meals that your children enjoy. Don’t forget snacks, but always maintain control of portions. There has been more than one occasion when we’ve forgotten the bag of potato chips in the back seat… and they quickly disappeared. None of us is a fan of Harðfiskur, while Gellur was consumed with joy. Icelandic food is a wee bit different.
Parents of children with health concerns should plan their destinations carefully. Medical attention in developing countries usually lacks the quality we are accustomed to in the U.S.
While vaccinations have received quite a bit of negative attention in the U.S. recently, it is vital to protect yourself and your children with both the required and recommended vaccinations for the country of interest. If you go unvaccinated, there is the chance of catching a preventable disease, or just as bad, spreading something to someone else. Consult with a travel clinic to get yourself and the family immunized.
Furthermore, realize that food safety practices are much different or nonexistent in some locales. Our rule of thumb when traveling to developing countries is to only eat at the restaurants with the most locals… wait times be darned. I am a stern believer in this practice and can pointedly describe a time when I was unable to follow my own guidelines and paid the consequences.
Accidents and emergencies can happen anywhere. Consider preparing a first aid kit and gain the knowledge to treat minor to traumatic conditions. Also consider the ability to communicate (or not) with first responders. Will you be able to get your family to safety or care in the event of an emergency? Will you be able to treat or stabilize the conditions yourself before help can arrive? Having first aid training and supplies is invaluable in the parental role. If traveling abroad, consider travelers’ medical insurance with medical evacuation coverage.
I have found that children almost always mirror the parents. If Mom and Dad are calm and cool, likely the kids will be as well. On the flip side, the kids can also be panicky and afraid of things. While I am calm about the six-foot red tail boa hanging out on the deck of our jungle house in Belize, my wife is swatting at any flying insect that approaches her mop of curly hair. Guess who the kids are more like? I don’t want to name any names, but the kids definitely react more frantically. On the flip side, Mom’s patience has helped us through border crossings and big sister also enjoys that game. I’m easily frustrated by bureaucracy and wish I was gifted with my wife’s saintly patience.
In more practical matters, attitudes can set the mood for the day and the trip. Had we become ill-tempered when Charlotte developed a fever the morning of a mountain summit when she was 8 months old, we probably would not have enjoyed the views we did manage to find. By golly, the views were astounding. Take things in stride and maintain confidence in finding a resolution. Problems are only as big as you blow them up to be, and can be easily diminished if handled appropriately and with a smile.
Nurturing the Flame
The pinnacle of my many goals as a parent is to nurture the flame, my children’s desire to travel. I’ve had many proud moments when Kylie or Charlotte has said “I want to go to ____.” Kylie now has a “going to Australia” fund which was started by dedicating a Saturday to the selling of lemonade on our street corner. She is now $38 closer to visiting the Land Down Under. After watching every episode of Puffin Rock on Netflix, Charlotte had the joy of seeing puffins, seals, and crabs in the north of Iceland. The preciousness of her excitement fills my heart with joy at every thought of those moments. Seeing the girls catalog their experiences in their own ways has been one of the most rewarding aspects of parenthood that I’ve been granted so far.
As a father, I implore you to travel with your children. There are few better opportunities to provide quality bonding time, experience, and education as those found while in the bush or outside one’s own bailiwick. I have yet to find a regrettable moment while nurturing the flame.
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