Adventures — 14 April 2020 at 1:00 pm

When the insane keeps you sane: A risk analysis of adventure parenting

Dr Emily Strong / Post-CCT Anaesthetist / Edinburgh

A longstanding outdoors enthusiast, Emily usually lives in Edinburgh with her family, squeezing in as many trips that her anaesthetic training and general life can allow. Having CCT’d earlier this year, she has taken the opportunity that a natural career break gives her to go travelling, and can currently be found in New Zealand, exploring what boulders, glaciers, mountains and seas can be clambered over on the other side of the world. A mum to three gorgeous kids, Emily and her husband have found ways in which they can safely include the entire crew, keeping their love of exploring, and their sanity, alive. Here, she gives us her tips on how to encourage a younger generation to have fun and stay safe, in her approach to adventure parenting. 



Firstly I should say that I am not an adventure medic, just a medic who loves adventures: rock climbing around the world; ski mountaineering; high altitude mountaineering; adventure racing; mountain biking; surfing. Then in 2011, I started on my next great adventure, parenting. Suddenly, there seemed to be a wide range of opinions on what an acceptable level of activity for this new chapter of our lives was, as photos that were previously welcomed of my husband and I partaking in perilous exploits were now met with concerns about the health of our unborn child. The crucial question here was: what is an acceptable level of adventure to partake in when you are a parent? What can and should we do when faced with a degree of real, or perceived, hazard?

I have many friends who had similar interests to my pre-child self and it has been interesting to see how different couples have approached this decision, with a full range of outcomes from no change to no adventure. It may depend on their requirement to get that occasional adrenaline rush, to have a little time being who they used to be, or on how supportive their partner is. Since falling pregnant with my first child back in 2011, my husband and I have continued to ski off-piste, mountain bike, climb, run races and surf. Albeit in a slightly more toned down, cautious manner than previously, and normally closer to home. Of course we took the necessary safety precautions to minimise risk to our children (such as no lead climbing, a full body harness for me, and no high altitude activities or busy pistes whilst pregnant), but we have always continued to have adventures. Through trial and error we have found some activities that work better than others with a family. For example, bouldering on the beach is infinitely more family-friendly than high altitude mountaineering. Having children has also inspired us to try some new sports that we can all enjoy together as a family. We bought an inflatable kayak and have taken the children sea and river kayaking, and we have cycle-toured the Outer Hebrides en masse. Four years ago we acquired a camper van and used six weeks of my next two maternity leaves to explore the west coasts of Ireland and France respectively, loading it up with all of our baby gear, bikes, surf boards, a bouldering mat, kayak and, of course, children.

Clearly adventures and children can be combined… but should they be? Are those of us who actively seek adventure bad parents? They’re understandable questions, and ones that have put us to the test. Personally I believe that it is the opposite. In a world of growing obesity and stress, it seems to me that physical activity is the best treatment that there is for improving both physical and mental health. Whilst pregnant I was ‘training for labour’ and then, once the children were born, I found that for me to be the best parent I could be, I had to have balance. I can enjoy baby music classes and toddler groups like any parent, but I enjoy them so much more if once in a while I get a little taste of being me – and this involves the great outdoors and a little adrenaline on the side. Happy parents are surely more likely to have happy children, and along the way, we are showing our children what a playground of a world it is that we live in. It is rare not to see them having as much or more fun than us on each trip. There is, of course, more risk assessment involved than there used to be when planning our trips. Looking after children is hard enough without doing it injured or worse, and we would never want to put our children in danger. It is also more important than ever to have the right activity and life insurance, and there have been times that I have opted not to partake in an activity for fear of injury. I definitely do not push my limits as much as I used to. Probably, and sadly, the most dangerous thing I have done in the last year was driving home from night shifts. You can see these extra consideration as restrictions to your fun, but a better way to look at them is that they are just new challenges which therefore make your adventures even more rewarding when you pull them off!

I believe that it is not just possible to be an ‘adventure parent’, but something to be encouraged. Get out there and have some fun, getting fit in the fresh air with your family. You will be all the better for it, and after a weekend of fun you may be even more ready for that next week of medicine…

My top tips for successful adventure parenting

(mostly gained from personal experience)

  • Do your background research before you go. This includes checking any access issues, potential hazards, weather (including wind conditions), sea/river conditions that are relevant to your chosen activity… and adapt your plans accordingly.
  • If you are trying a new activity with your children build up gradually. You don’t want to accidentally put them at risk or put them off because their first experience was too extreme.
  • Make sure you have the right kit. You may need special child-sized equipment to enable your children safely partake in an activity. Pack plenty of snacks, dry clothes and entertainment. Avoiding your children becoming hungry, cold or bored will make you all have a better day.
  • Be realistic – things take longer with small people in tow. Less is often more. You will all have more fun if you are not rushing. (This includes car journeys…)
  • Plan your activities to fit into your childrens’ daily routine. Driving is easier when they are napping; activities are safer when they are not tired. Tired children can be unpredictable and dangerous especially in boats, on cliffs etc – avoid!
  • Be flexible – be prepared to shorten the activity if it is not going well or taking too long.

Many activities are not suitable for young children. Most of these activities can still be enjoyed by ‘taking it in turns’, especially if there is somewhere child friendly for the rest of the family to hang out in the meantime. When taking turns remember:

  • Be fair and supportive to each other – divide the time available equally and stick to your allocated time slot.
  • Ideally pair up with another adult or parent team so that you have more adults around if someone gets into difficulties. If you are going solo, give your partner a plan and stick to it. They may have previously been able to help, but they are now looking after your children so when they call the emergency services they will need to have some idea where you might be.

Some age specific considerations…

  • Babies are portable and easily entertained. Enjoy it while it lasts!
  • One- and two-year-olds may not fancy the waves or snow. Stick to rock pools and do not despair! By three they will be bigger, more coordinated and ready for skiing and body boarding.
  • Older children may have more ability and common sense but they also have more ability to get themselves into trouble and more confidence to give something a go! You can never fully relax.

And most importantly…

  • Have fun! If it is not, reconsider points 1-11 and try again another day.