Baby Steps Outdoors: how to adventure with your toddler

Want to introduce your bundle of joy to the things you love? In the first of our three-part series on encouraging tots, tweens and teens to flourish in the outdoors, David Lintern charts a parent and toddler’s progress

If you are a new parent, or a parent to be, I’ll risk sounding over earnest and say one thing straight out: It’s going to be fine. You are never going to get your life back to the way it was before, but it’s still going to be fine. If you’re reading this then you’re also into the outdoors, and that means you’re just a big kid in adult clothes. Who better to guide a new life through a maze of possibilities, and to impart a healthy dose of wonder and curiosity about the world?

Now I’ve got the sentimental stuff out of the way, I’m not suggesting that getting outdoors with a mini-me is challenge-free. Essentially, we have a conundrum: how to continue to do the things we love and that keep us sane, on less sleep, less money and less time than we had before. One option is to do the parent relay but it does mean only half the fun… and, as weird as it might sound if you’re in the midst of newborn cabin fever, you will end up missing them.

Babe on Beinn Eighe

Babe on Beinn Eighe

The world of new mums and dads is stuffed full of other people’s advice, so I’ll keep mine to a minimum. My first nugget of wisdom is that for most of us, free climbing El Capitan can probably wait until she’s old enough to tie her own shoelaces and you’ve caught up with some sleep. Take a deep breath, slow down and, for pity’s sake, forget about the FOMO. You’ll get to do more adventurous things with (and without) her when she’s older.

At the beginning especially, keep it short and sweet. Now, more than ever, it’s the simple things that matter. There is no great secret to parenting, it’s hard and it’s easy, it’s going to be hell on wheels and the best thing you’ve ever done. Enjoy the ride. Key into your outdoors experience, when you stripped it all away and only the climb, run or walk mattered. This time, focus on sharing. The only other piece of advice I have to offer is even simpler: cheat.

Carry on camping

Our first attempt at cheating was just to go back to where it all began — car camping at designated campsites. If you’re used to setting up a lightweight shelter after a long slog, this will feel like a huge step backward — it did for me — but… you remembered the extra duvets, blankets, cool bags, nappies, wipes, non-dehydrated food and real milk, right?

For us, the National Trust sites at Langdale and Wasdale in the Lakes, wonderfully relaxed affairs at Applecross and Torridon in the Northwest of Scotland, the equally chilled and rambling Llwyn Celyn Bach in Llanberis and both sites in the Ogwen Valley in Wales have all proved excellent. Rothiemurchus near Aviemore is still probably my favourite place to camp. It’s surrounded by Scots pine, but with the luxury of centrally-heated facilities and a nearby bar at the Hilton for a sneaky pint. On the other side of Scotland, the Red Squirrel campsite in Glencoe has a clear advantage for winter camping with kids – the excitement of a real campfire.

Star gazing and winter campfires at the Red Squirrel

Star gazing and winter campfires at the Red Squirrel campsite

None of these places feel stuffy or offcious to me — they feel like ‘almost’ wild camps, without the hassle of getting there and with mod-cons. They are not marketed as child-friendly per se, but why bother with playgrounds when you’re in the biggest playground of all? Keep it simple. Playing in the dirt and exploring the woods and streambeds is more than enough to fire an infant’s imagination. Don’t expect your young charge to go to sleep at the usual time — it’s far too exciting and different — but our daughter revels in the intimacy of sharing a shelter with mum and dad and finds joy in the little things we big people take for granted: the feel of leaves and grass under her feet, insects, birdlife, sheep, sheep poo…

She’s even helped us appreciate these things all over again, too. We’ve not travelled overseas since our little’un was born, but I maintain there is plenty of time for that as she gets older. And as I said, less time and less money! I’ll admit I’m hankering after a multi-week, warm weather adventure in Europe or the States, but adventure can still be had for a song, much closer to home.

As Glasgow city dwellers, it was only fitting that our tiny terror’s first Munro would be Ben Lomond. Things we learnt that day: double your estimated walking time, and buy a down suit for your little one, or risk losing her extremities to frostbite — if they are being carried, they are not keeping warm through exercise. Aside from a very guilty conscience, it was a beautiful day, and confirmed the golden rules of outdoors fun for little people: aim for the weather window, and make the journey to and from the walk itself as quick and simple as possible.

Baby's first Munro - Loch Lomond

Baby’s first Munro – Loch Lomond

A route with a driveable road that meets a col nearby allows you to drop in for some of the best bits. That’s what I mean by cheating. A child carrier was an essential early purchase for us, meaning that we could still feed our hill addiction when our daughter outgrew the sling. The window of opportunity doesn’t last all that long though, and before we knew it she was outgrowing that too, or at least getting too heavy for me to hike with.

Another variant on cheating is the tried-and-true holiday cottage option, which in the midge-infested and sometimes-rainy summer months in Knoydart was by far the most sensible choice. Having kids is also an excuse to be a bit of a kid yourself — we took the school ferry across to the peninsula on a pirate adventure of our own, and spent the days idling at the beach, exploring the woods and failing to get up anything tall at all. Parenting is absolutely knackering, so real food, cooked in a real kitchen and eaten from a table rather than sat on a tent floor was a real treat. We can be dirtbags again when we’re older.

Wheely good times

Perhaps the very best way to cheat is by campervan. We spent a week circumnavigating the island of Mull, and covered much more ground in our mobile home than we would have had we rented bricks and mortar. When we found a place off road to park up safely for the night, that became home — no driving back in time for the evening routine. Price-wise, a new converted VW camper compared fairly equally with some of the cottage rentals.

Our first night was spent just like the last, right on remote, wild sands in mixed, west coast weather, but inside we were cosy and warm. In between those beachy bookends we roamed across the island, around otter-filled sea lochs and under skies dotted with ‘flying barn doors’ — huge sea eagles. Our daughter soaked it all in like it was normal… because it was becoming normal to her. And given the sometimes challenging weather conditions in Scotland, using a camper was a practical solution to some of those new parenting niggles; she was free of the cold, wet and bugs, but still in a beautiful place. We were sold… or at least we will be, when we can afford to buy our own.

(Hint: check out our beginners guide to converting a van)

Generations of VW's - vanlife on Mull

Generations of VW’s – vanlife on Mull

There are cheaper ways to cheat of course, and once the pocket anarchist becomes too heavy to carry up mountains, a bike seat and a roof rack are transforming kit to have. In Applecross, the bikes took us down winding minor roads and gravel tracks, before we left them and headed into Atlantic oak jungles to discover isolated coves. “Aha, me shipmates!” In Torridon, we coasted on the easier sections of double and single track, while the full suspension boys and girls zipped past us in body armour. “Can I do that when I’m older, daddy?” Torridon was by far the most fun I’ve had on a bike ever, no matter that we were gentle, parental cruisers.

Your friends without kids may think that parenthood is a compromise, but they’re wrong.

Where the wild things are

Wild camping with little ones makes you learn fast. You soon discover which books slip down the back of the rucksack the best, and that there can never be too many tangerines. As strange as it may sound, we’ve adapted a winter mountaineering approach: keep the walk in as short as possible, set up a base camp, and use it to explore as far or near as time, conditions and the group allows.

On our first attempt at a wild camp with our daughter, we got it painfully wrong, carrying a combined weight of 35kg on gravel tracks for hours. It was worth it when we got there though, with plenty of evening sunshine to keep our wean babbling to herself long past bedtime. The cheeky monkey seemed to really blossom at camp. She was initially nervous but fascinated by the sun-dappled burn running through the glen, entranced by the butterflies circling our heads, and mystified by the Buzzard calling in the woods above. She even seemed to appreciate the mountain views.

After gentle introductions to her home for the night, she was soon splashing about in rock pools and crawling around in the grass. We were concerned about the bugs, but they didn’t bother her, despite our fussing. After her third Munro, which again took us almost twice as long as it might usually, she walked her longest-ever stretch on the track out. And it may be wish-fulfilment but I could swear we saw a little developmental spurt in the days after: she seemed chattier, and more stable on her feet. This wasn’t cheating — we were making life unnecessarily hard for ourselves — but it was still an adventure, for all of us.

Another season, another year and this time in Glen Etive, we tucked ourselves away at the foot of Ben Starav for the first of three days good weather after less than an hour walk in. Icy conditions underfoot meant we didn’t quite make it to the top, but even that taught us valuable lessons about moderating our hill ambitions, about the journey not the destination, and about the fact that she was fast outgrowing my carrying capacity. Not reaching the top would have mattered in the past, but not now. It was a stunning day — there were crystal clear autumn views over the west coast mountains, and I was with my loved ones in the hills. What could be better than that?

Family wild camp in Glen Etive

Family wild camp in Glen Etive

Our three-year-old daughter is quite the wild camping expert now. She even ‘helps’ when I set up the tent. She looks forward to packing the bags, and asks to come on my solo mountain missions. I miss her when I go alone now, when once I selfishly protected my time out against all. But even that won’t last — soon enough she’ll be along for the ride, showing me how to move in the mountains with more grace than I have ever managed alone.

Words by David Lintern. David is a keen hiker, biker, scrambler paddler and story teller. He runs photography workshops in the scottish Highlands, and is still trying to write his first book. He’s also father to an amazing three-year-old girl. Follow him on Twitter and/or Instagram.

Sometimes, just no

Sometimes, just no