Adventure Travel with Children Ages 4-6:
Expanding Horizons

by Jennifer Widom

December 2001

It's been over two years since I wrote my original essay, Adventure Travel with Children Under Four. Tim and Emily are now six-and-a-half and almost five. In the past two years our family has traveled to Belize, Norway, Baja, Mexico's Copper Canyon, and the Kingdom of Tonga; we're soon off to Thailand and Malaysia. We've continued our weekly day-hikes and taken our first two family backpacking trips in the Sierras. As the original essay suggested, we learned how to sail, and indeed we've found sailing to be an excellent mode of outdoor travel with young children: bareboat vacations have become our new staple. A companion to this addendum, Bareboat Cruising with Young Children: A Novice Sailor's Perspective covers that topic.

Let me immediately address the burning question: Is it easier traveling with children once they graduate to the late preschool and young school-age years? The answer: A resounding YES!

Waiting and Luggage

Waiting in airports, train stations, or other public places in the toddler years was largely a matter of making sure no child mouthed some object picked up from the ground. That was a big task! Now we spend our waiting time playing board games, reading novels to the children, or relaxing while they entertain themselves with coloring or activity workbooks. Sure, there can be impatience and even still the occasional meltdown, but the level of activity and attentiveness required of the parents to keep the situation under control is far less than it used to be. Instead of the constant one-on-ones of the old days, now Alex and I can even take turns managing the children, which certainly eases logistics and overall stress.

Another significant change is the size and composition of our mountain of duffle bags on major trips. The child-carriers, car seats, strollers, and port-a-cribs are gone from the scene. Granted we've replaced them with sailing, snorkeling, and scuba gear, but the tradeoff is worthwhile, and the mountain is decidedly smaller.

Expanding Horizons

Most importantly, our travel horizons have widened in terms of the places we go, the accommodations we can live with, and the activities we undertake. On a recent trip we rode horses one day, and another day shoe-horned ourselves into the cab of an aging pickup (together with our driver) for 3 hours of bumping down a ridiculously steep dirt road to explore the bottom of a canyon on foot, with another 3 hours drive back up later on. Unthinkable in the old days, eminently possible now. The children understand good behavior if we stay in a thin-walled lodge, and they don't mind unexpected sleeping arrangements. When we began our adventure travels with babies and toddlers in tow, we became highly compulsive about planning all details of a trip in advance, but now it's in the realm of possibility to make some decisions and arrangements as we go.

Hiking

Of course there are some disadvantages as the children get older. Now that both children are hiking on their own -- which began around age four-and-a-half for our children -- the rate and lengths of our hikes have lessened considerably. No longer is it possible to embark on the 9-10 mile hikes we managed with the children on our backs. Both children can log 6 miles and around 800' of elevation gain with only a modicum of complaining, as long as we take it at their pace and ply them with snacks and stories along the way (not so different from the child-carrier days). We've been surprised at just how many excellent local hikes fall into this category, and how easy it's been to assemble a terrific backpack trip out of 4-5 mile days in the more rugged Sierras.

Health

We're no longer concerned about taking the children to many developing countries. We get the necessary shots and medications (although still not Lariam), and pack along some immodium and antibiotics just in case -- which so far we haven't needed. Although we've had no real illnesses or injuries to contend with, one interesting episode occurred after we came home from Belize. It may have resulted from our reluctance to use DEET-based insect repellent on the children, although we did apply it to their long-sleeved shirts and pants, and used natural repellent on their remaining skin. Nevertheless they both picked up a few mosquito bites in the rainforest, some of which worsened in the weeks after we got home. Eventually we learned that certain Belizean mosquitos have a triangular symbiotic relationship with mammals (including humans) and "botfly" larvae. Our travelers had brought home some little travelers of their own -- not dangerous, but not pleasant to extract. (Now that the trauma is long past, Tim and Emily do feel this is one of their more exotic travel tales.) Incidentally, we just discovered a new slow-release mild DEET-based repellent designed for children, which we will try in the rainforests of Thailand and Malaysia.

Independent Minds

The biggest problem we've heard others suggest about travel as children get older is that they begin to have their own agendas -- they no longer simply agree to be dragged along on whatever activities the parents decide upon. We haven't experienced this problem in our family. Perhaps our children aren't old enough yet to fully assert their independent ideas, but we like to think that many of the outdoor activities with which we fill our travels -- hiking, sailing, snorkeling, exploring beaches and villages -- will always appeal to them. One day our children may ask for Disneyland over the outer islands of Tonga, but certainly not yet.

One problem that has afflicted our little globe-trotters is a desire to shop, which on our trips often means buying handicrafts from local villagers. Nothing in Tonga filled us with dread and our children with excitement more than seeing a handicraft-laden outrigger heading towards our sailboat. Our strategy is to give the children a small daily allowance in local currency, which they save for purchases when the opportunity arises. Admittedly we don't send the outriggers away without a small sale even if the children happen to be broke, but overall the allowance strategy has worked well so far.

Proper Preparation and the Right Attitude

Although travel logistics have gotten far easier, and our horizons have expanded considerably, I was interested to discover that many of the final conclusions in my original essay remain little changed: When I wrote my original essay I did not want to claim with certainty that our toddlers would remember our travels, although as four-year-olds they did recall many details from trips taken at age three or even younger. I was sure, however, that our trips made an intangible but important impression on them. Now, in their slightly older years, traveling also provides concrete memories that will last a lifetime. Adventure travel with children ages 4-6 is, without a doubt, a completely worthwhile and rewarding endeavor for children and parents alike.


Short addendum (July '02): I recently came across a travel quote that captures very accurately what I like most about travel. While I don't think preschoolers necessarily notice or understand this aspect of travel in any depth, it's clear to me that the 5+ age group does.


Other Aiken/Widom Travel Pages

My original essay, Adventure Travel with Children Under Four, evolved into an article about our family travels by Alice Cary that appeared in the Great Outdoor Recreation Pages online magazine (www.gorp.com). In addition to this one, I wrote another addendum to the original essay: Bareboat Cruising with Young Children. 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 and a list of off-the-beaten-path travel favorites.


widom@cs.stanford.edu