Boise-based outdoors writer Michael Lanza’s recent post on The Big Outside website explained his approach to an outdoors-loving parent’s conundrum: “Why I endanger my kids in the wilderness (even though it scares the sh!t out of me)” was the catchy headline.
Lanza and his wife, family physician Penny Beach, have spent more than a decade exploring the wilderness with their children — a tradition Lanza is convinced has made a lasting impact on son, Nate, a 17-year-old junior at Boise High, and daughter, Alex, a 14-year-old ninth-grader at North Junior High.
We conducted a Q&A with Lanza about his story, his memorable adventures with his kids and his advice to parents who aren’t sure how far to push their kids in the wilderness.
Q: You recently wrote about taking your kids into the wilderness even though it scares you. What motivates you to do that?
A: The outdoors — hiking, backpacking, climbing, skiing, cycling, trail running — has been the hub that my entire life spins around since shortly after I graduated from college. My wife and my first “dates” were spent on mountain bikes and Nordic skis. Idaho’s truly unique outdoor-recreation opportunities, wilderness, mountains and rivers were a primary reason why we moved here 20 years ago. (And I serve on the board of Conservation Voters For Idaho because I believe we have to continually protect Idaho’s wonderful outdoors from constant threats.) For 25 years, I’ve built a writing career around the outdoors, so that it now permeates my personal and professional lives and many of my personal relationships.
Having kids certainly didn’t make that motivation go away; if anything, it added a wonderful dimension to getting outdoors, because suddenly I could see every experience in nature new again through the eyes of my kids. Becoming a parent reintroduced me to that sense of wonder. Our son, Nate, and daughter, Alex, now 17 and 14, have been on trails, skis, cliffs and rivers for longer than they can remember. The outdoors has played a very formative role in their childhoods, and I see how much joy and self-confidence they draw from it.
Yes, I feel a little nervous seeing my kids high up a cliff on a rope, or paddling whitewater, or backcountry skiing in mountains where avalanches can occur.
But as they’ve grown, I’ve come to understand how much time most kids today spend indoors — how much socializing takes place electronically — and how much more important it is to help motivate them to get them outdoors, connected only to nature and people. I’ve also come to understand that my family’s time together outdoors are our best times together: Nowhere else do we spend hours a day, day after day, just talking and laughing and enjoying each other’s company.
That, to me, is irreplaceable, especially today. As I wrote in my blog: I’m convinced that, rather than endangering them, the outdoors is saving their lives.
Q: How do you deal with the competing ideas of trying to introduce your kids to your lifestyle and knowing that they could get hurt?
A: I certainly prioritize safety and teach them the skills to be safe and make good decisions out there. I understand how badly things can go.
But I try to look at situations individually and objectively. When my kids were little, I honestly felt more anxious biking around town with them — where inattentive or inconsiderate motorists posed a threat I couldn’t control — than I did tying them into a top-rope at the City of Rocks, where I could actually control most of the risk factors. I would advise any adult in those situations to understand everything that can go wrong, or have someone with you who does.
I’ve also found that talking with my kids about making good decisions when climbing, kayaking or wilderness backpacking provides a really visual platform for conversations about the usual threats to young people: drugs, alcohol, cars, sex, online predators, etc.
Q: What is the scariest moment you’ve had with your kids in the outdoors?
A: My family was on a weeklong, hut-to-hut trek through Norway’s Jotunheimen National Park, joined by our Boise friends Jeff Wilhelm and his grown daughter, Jasmine, and my mother, an avid hiker who was then 75 years old. My kids were 11 and 9. It was mid-July, but an unusual amount of snow still remained in those mountains. We were hiking on snow most of the time, and it was cold and rainy for the first half of the trip. But we had the right clothes for it, and my kids (and my mom) were pretty tough and experienced by then.
We crossed a pass and faced a descent of a slope covered in firm snow that dropped maybe 500 feet to a half-frozen lake. Boulders poked up through the snow. It was steep enough to take a bad slide, and I didn’t like the looks of it. But there was a deep trench in the snow from many other trekkers passing through, and I thought we’d be fine by pairing up the kids and my mom with my wife, Penny, Jeff and me.
We had almost reached a safe zone of dry ground when I heard Penny behind me scream, “Nate!” And I turned to see him sliding downhill, rapidly gaining speed. Fortunately, he was light enough that he got hung up on the edge of a snow moat above a boulder after sliding about 30 feet — and he didn’t slam into the boulder. I kicked steps in the snow down to him to lead him back up.
As I said above, you have to remain vigilant about safety and decision-making. But that also was a rare incident in well over a decade of many safe and fun outdoor adventures with my family.
Q: How did you start your kids outdoors ... and what was their reaction early on?
A: We never pushed them into any activity, but we took them camping and on day hikes, cross country and downhill skiing, and on flatwater river trips — accessible, low-skill, fun activities. We let them decide if and when they wanted to try rock climbing, carry their own backpack (as opposed to a small daypack) on family backpacking trips, etc. We really tried to focus on making it fun for them — rather than focusing on our own agenda — so that they’d want to do it again.
They immediately loved the things you’d expect — like downhill skiing, scrambling around on rocks and playing in backcountry lakes and creeks. They were blown away seeing moose, elk, deer and other wildlife. When they were just 6 and 4, we started an annual tradition of a multi-day ski trip to a backcountry yurt out past Idaho City with our Boise friends, the Serio family, and the kids have always looked forward to that trip and playing in snow all day long.
As they got older, their interests broadened, I think because they saw their parents and other adults doing things like rock climbing on our camping trips to the City of Rocks, and they became curious to try it.
Q: What benefits do you see in taking your kids into the wilderness? How extreme are the activities you do with them?
A: I have no doubt that these experiences instill in them tremendous self-confidence that translates to all aspects of their lives. I’ve seen them demonstrate leadership skills and the desire to introduce their friends to the things we’ve always done as a family; they’ve reached an age where they understand that most kids have not had their experiences. Today’s biggest issues, like climate change, are not just esoteric debates to our children — they’ve seen firsthand the impacts in many U.S. national parks and Idaho’s backcountry. I believe their deep grounding in the outdoors is helping to mold them into better, empathetic people and informed citizens — a resource we can never have too much of.
Many people may view rock climbing, mountaineering, whitewater kayaking or even backpacking for days in the wilderness as “extreme” and dangerous. For most people, that perception is shaped (and distorted) almost entirely by what they see on television and in other media, and not by direct experience. Outdoor sports like climbing and kayaking entail a wide range of risk levels. We preach moderation and having fun — not inviting excessive risk. It’s a good life lesson.
Q: What do they tell you about their experiences?
A: My family has sat together in wilderness campsites, yurts and mountain huts innumerable times, laughing over that day’s adventure. I’ve stood atop cliffs with each of my kids many times, sharing the pride in what we’d just accomplished. Our kids are now in the habit of telling my wife and me what adventures we have to take. Some of the best moments of my adult life have involved one of my children telling me, “I love it when we do these things together.”
What more evidence do I need than that?
Q: You take individual trips with your son and daughter. Do each of them have their own favorite outdoors activity?
A: I started a tradition when my kids were very young of taking an annual father-son and father-daughter trip. My son was 5 on our first trip and he started calling it our annual “boy trip,” and the name has stuck. My daughter then adopted the name “girl trip” for my annual adventure with her — giving me a pass for my inferior gender.
Most of those trips have been in Idaho — backpacking in the Sawtooths and White Clouds, rock climbing at the City of Rocks. But my daughter and I backpacked a pretty rugged, three-day hike in the Grand Canyon together when she was 10. And when my son was 15, we made a successful, four-day spring snow climb of California’s 14,505-foot Mount Whitney, highest peak in the contiguous U.S., via the Mountaineers Route. He and I and five readers of my blog used that climb to raise more than $25,000 for Big City Mountaineers, an organization that introduces urban kids to the outdoors. My son helped raise money by writing to family and friends about how he wanted to help other kids have the kind of experiences he’s been fortunate to have from a very young age.
They both like to backpack, rock climb and ski. They want to climb more mountains. They have promised me that they’ll keep up this tradition into adulthood, for as long as I can keep up. I’m looking forward to that — especially when they start carrying the heavier pack.
Q: What kind of reaction do you get from other adults you encounter? Is it different in Idaho, where the outdoors is still a big part of people's lives, than other places?
A: I don’t recall ever hearing a negative reaction from another parent in Idaho. Maybe that’s partly just a consequence of the friends we have — many of them do similar things with their kids.
On rare occasion, strangers have tried to “warn” us away from our plans. I recall taking a shuttle bus in Yosemite Valley to hike to the top of Upper Yosemite Falls — a significant hike, more than 7 miles and almost 3,000 vertical feet up and down — when our kids were 9 and 7. The bus driver walked over to tell us it’s a hard hike for little kids; she was just trying to be helpful. We thanked her. It was tiring for our kids, but they had enough energy to run back down the trail.
Several months before that Yosemite trip, when our son had just turned 9 and our daughter was still 6, we backpacked the West Rim Trail in Zion National Park. A man dayhiking the trail looked at us, with our backpacks, and said, incredulously, “You know it gets cold up there at night, right?” We assured him we’d be fine and continued on. It was early October. I don’t think the temperature dropped below 50 that night.
People mean well. I’ve just never accepted our culture’s assumption that children are fragile and weak. Every time my wife and I have attempted some adventure feeling a little uncertain about how our kids would do, they’ve proven themselves more than equal to the challenge. You simply have to adjust your plans to suit their pace, endurance, interests and need for frequent nourishment.
Carry enough chocolate with you, and your kids will beat you to the summit of Mount Everest.
Boise writer and photographer Michael Lanza’s blog, The Big Outside, has made USA Today’s Readers Choice list of Top 10 Hiking and Outdoors Bloggers and many other top outdoor blogs lists. His book “Before They’re Gone — A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks,” winner of a National Outdoor Book Award honorable mention, chronicles his family’s wilderness adventures in national parks imperiled by climate change. He’s a former Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine.