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Vanessa Ball | 06.16.2019

When I first became a single parent, nearly seven and a half years ago, I felt overwhelmed. With a 1.5 year old and 3 year old to care for alone, it was easy to feel like I’d never sleep in a tent again, let alone experience the backcountry. Instead of giving in to hopelessness, I did the best I could at the time. I bundled up the munchkins and we slowly toddled the interpretive trails at nearby nature centers. When I wanted to kayak, on went the life jackets for all three of us. It turns out the storage hatches to the front and rear can double as “seats” for little people. We never went far, and the water had to always be perfectly flat for me to feel comfortable going alone like that, but we went. First overnight, and then multi-night car camping trips gradually filled our weekends. Then bike-camping. They started sleeping in their own tent when they were 2 and 4.

Not everyone agreed with our adventures. The kayaking certainly raised eyebrows at the time. Fifty-mile bike-camping routes with toddlers? Surely I was kidding, right?! “Wouldn’t a hotel just be easier?” But with each trip, our little family’s outdoor confidence has grown. Our first aid kit is incredibly robust, and both kids know exactly where to find what they need within it. Now, at ages 9 and (nearly) 11, they’re far more involved in the entire trip planning process as well.

I give a lot of thought about what risks I’m willing to accept when traveling with the kids. Backpacking through bear country last summer was fine after we talked about animal encounters at length and multiple times. Canoeing and kayaking is an easy “yes,” especially after swimming lessons. Both kids appreciate the security of life jackets. I diligently research our trails, read trip reports, and check weather forecasts.. Our budget is pretty small, so I’ve learned to make the most of buying used gear one size larger to stretch the wear time and accept hand-me-downs in order to properly outfit the kids for all types of weather.

Our trips have also increased in scope as they’ve aged. We’re about to set out on our biggest adventure yet: seven weeks in Southeast Asia. In less than a week, we will be winging our way through Vietnam, Singapore, and the island of Borneo in Indonesia. With hikes planned in the mountains of North Vietnam, snorkeling along the coast, midnight train rides, and an entire month spent exploring the rainforests in Gunung Palung National Park and Tanjung Puting National Park, it’s an enormous leap of travel faith. All of our shots are in order, the malaria pills are neatly tucked into our single carry-on packs, and med-evac insurance is purchased.

When I first floated the idea of this trip back in January, I heard “you don’t want to do that.” Dengue fever, Japanese encephalitis, leeches, traveller’s diarrhea, language barriers, risks of travelling as a single mom, among other reasons, were mentioned over and over. When we remained determined, silence became the default response, followed by reluctant acceptance.

True, staying home at least seems safer on the surface of it. But is it really? Car accidents happen with frightening regularity here in the states. Sports injuries are frequent at all ages on team sports. Backyard trampolines break bones. And every parent knows that a second grade class of kids passes around a disgusting amount of germs.

But as a single parent, a single mom, shouldn’t I be more cautious? I choose not to accept that. I want my kids to know and understand risk, and to analyze their abilities in relation to it. Without another parent there to rely on, the kids help carry weight, both literally and figuratively, at a level that’s age-appropriate and child-dependent. My daughter absolutely loves helping set up camp. She seems to find particular joy making sense out of our tent’s puzzle of poles and hooks and sleeves. My son can build a mean campfire, and always manages to find the dry little tinder we need even on rainy days. Both kids are comfortable with maps. It’s my job to assess weather, moods, food, etc.

On this upcoming big trip, we’ll face new challenges. The food will be strange and different. The streets will be noisy and crowded. Our itinerary is purposefully vague. With only our first three nights lodging reserved, we are open to serendipity and new experiences. If you had told me back when I was still changing diapers that we’d be crossing the equator, not once, but twice. I would have laughed my head off. Now, it feels like the most natural thing possible.

I choose to live a big life with my kids because I want them to know the world, rather than to live in fear of it.

If you're interested in learning more about getting outside and exploring the outdoors with your children in tow, check out my pieces on the basics of backpacking and camping with kids.



What a wonderful article. It's great to know I'm not the only single mom who loves an adventure. People think I'm crazy when I tell them I'm taking my 3 yr old on a 3 day backpacking trip in the back country...thank you for reminding me that I'm not the only "crazy" one.
Thank you for writing this! It's like you're reading my single mom mind!

On a practical note, any suggestions on how to get a tandem kayak on the car alone? Mine's pretty heavy. Perhaps I need to invest in a light one.
You are an inspiration. A true model of what just getting out there and doing it looks like with kids.
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