It’s easy to fall into thinking that trips with kids should be “family friendly” in the sense of “planned around activities for the kids” — beach bum resorts with kids’ clubs spring to mind, or vacations to amusement parks (I’m looking at you, Disneyworld). But if you’d rather be climbing mountains instead of lounging on the beach waiting for your child to show you the paper crown they made in group crafts today, you still have lots of options available to you. Here are some ways to get your kids involved in more adventurous travel.
Look for “family friendly” adventure travel packages.
There are a number of companies that offer organized tours for families. Ranging from Egyptian sandcastle-building to a jungle tree house in Belize to meeting orangutans in Borneo, these trips are fun for you AND your under-18s. Despite the family aspects, these tours are often geared more towards older children who can walk long distances on their own and don’t need naps, or very young children, who can be worn. Some attractions and activities have height limits, but tour operators are willing to warn you in advance so you can give your kid a heads-up about what they may or may not be able to do — nothing ruins a holiday like a kid who thought they were going to be able to go ziplining, throwing a tantrum in the middle of the forest.
Tours also include a lot of travel time, to see as much as possible in a limited number of days, so you will have to make sure that your child is okay with travel. How do they act on long car trips? Will they be able to sit still on bumpy roads? Will they get car sick? You may also have some unusual travel options — camel-back, motorcycle taxi — and it is up to you to assess limits for your own child and ensure they have a safe experience. I directly contacted Wildland Adventures to ask about age restrictions on transport; they said that it varies by trip, as some trips have minimum age limits (for example, boat tours, which cannot accommodate very young children), but car seats are provided for younger children as long as you tell them beforehand.
If you are not comfortable traveling with the rest of the group because of the needs of your child, some tour operators will work with you to ensure that you can meet up in a different way or at a different place. Start out asking your questions, and you will find many tour guides to be pleasant, flexible, and adore children.
Rent (or buy) a camper.
If you have a driver’s license, a campervan trip is the way to go. In many countries, you can rent a campervan, trailer camper, or RV for not too much more than renting a car, especially if you plan in advance. Check the child restraint requirements for the rental — they usually don’t keep child safety seats on hand to rent to you, and some lines may not support the installation of rear-facing child seats. If your kid is over 8, they usually don’t need a special seat and can just travel with a seatbelt like an adult.
The major advantage to campers is your ability to stop and go whenever you feel like it. As anyone who has traveled with children knows, you are more at the whim of their schedule than they are willing to bow to yours (at least when they’re young). It is illegal in most countries to allow children to sleep or move around a camper while it is in motion, as they need to be belted in, so if your children are young enough to nap, you can pull over at a scenic park and let them sleep while you enjoy the view. If they don’t need naps, you can take back roads and scenic routes, stop at any campground that looks interesting, or plot a course for a particular remote location that you’ve always wanted to see. Try to limit the consecutive hours you end up driving so nobody gets too antsy; I’d say the point of traveling by camper is more about the places you stop in than hitting some kind of personal goal for miles traveled.
It’s probably a good idea to stay away from American-style RV parks, though — I’ve always had luck with finding out-of-the-way (but legal) places to pull over and enjoy a night of sleep far away from other people. RV parks usually have long-term residents, not a lot of privacy, and encourage some late-night partying that might not be to your tastes with children.
If your child will ride along happily in a baby carrier, wrap, or hiking backpack, you are set. The smaller the kid, the easier they are to haul along on hiking trips, actually — you just stick them on your back with a bunch of sunscreen and go! They’ll sleep as they feel like it, and you can have breaks for them to get down and toddle around before they have to climb back up and ride for a bit. My husband used to joke about the “tiny demon arms” that would reach around and try to stuff Goldfish crackers in his mouth as we walked through the woods with our daughter in a backpack carrier (she liked to share her snacks).
Kids who are older can do their own walking, provided the trails are not too difficult or you don’t mind carrying them for the steep parts. Like anything else, practice makes perfect: the more time you spend hiking with your kids, the more used to it they’ll be. Younger kids can’t walk too far or too long, but they can still enjoy short trails, especially if you stop to point things out. I like to draw my daughter’s attention to animals or flowers we see, and she will show me mushrooms or leaves or sticks.
If you want to do some hiking to a campsite or anything that requires carrying substantial gear, this may take some finagling, but it can be done. Again, the smaller your child, the more portable they are — one parent can wear the child in a carrier and carry some gear, while the other carries the bulk of the weight (tent, food, etc). If you have more gear, a slightly older child, or more than one kid, you might consider going on smoother trails using an all-terrain or jogging stroller. These strollers have heavier tires with good suspension and swivel front wheels to allow for rough ground.
Prepare yourself for some negative experiences.
Sometimes “adventure” doesn’t always mean good stuff. As this story of taking children trekking on Everest states, kids can get really sick on the road, just like grownups. They can get traveler’s diarrhea, food poisoning, or asthma attacks… as well as being prone to even more gross amoebas and hepatitis-ridden gutters than adults, because they’re more likely to be sticking things in their mouths. Humans don’t actually develop the logical reasoning part of their brains until our mid-twenties, so even teenagers are poor at risk assessment, and may see no problem with ordering undercooked hamburgers from street food vendors in Nepal.
Kids dehydrate fast, so if your offspring come down with Delhi belly, keep them full of water and electrolytes, even if it all runs out the other end. Having good travel insurance is a must-have, although my experience with hospitals in other countries (I’m looking at you, emergency room in Pattaya, Thailand) is that even if you don’t have it, the out-of-pocket costs are often much cheaper than they would be in, say, the United States. Be cautious about taking antibiotics unless you are positive they are required; especially in remote areas of developing countries, rural doctors may overprescribe antibiotics, some of which may be expired… which has led to a surge in antibiotic-resistant superbugs. Recent research shows that a lot of bacterial diarrhea is best treated by using a single strong dose of antibiotic and regular antidiarrheals like Immodium; the folk wisdom of “better out than in” doesn’t apply to diarrhea, which heals fastest when your gut can relax and stop being inflamed.
Carry some hand sanitizer and prepare yourself for the worst. Then, when it doesn’t happen, you’ll be pleasantly surprised!
Use the tools available to you.
If your kids are old enough to ride a bike but too young to walk everywhere, consider renting bicycles to tour the streets of a village. If you need an all-terrain stroller, use one. If you need to rent a car to drive your bags to a whale-watching departure point, do that and don’t feel bad. That 14-hour overnight train trip from Bangkok to Chiang Mai can be fun when it’s just you (trust me, I took it), but it doesn’t improve your street cred or your travel experience, or somehow make you a “better” adventurer. Be willing to take taxis if you need them, or stay in a cheap hotel at the last minute. Adventure does not equal difficulty; you want this trip to be enjoyable, not just hard.