Backyard Adventures

Backyard adventures… Are you stuck in a rut?

Do you ever feel like you’re in a rut, never doing anything cool? Stuck in a necessary routine, but craving adventure? Tight on money but wanting to add more fun to life?

There have been seasons in my life where I have grand scale adventures, the kind that take months of planning, saving, and make lifelong memories. I’ve also had seasons in my life blurred by boring, everyday routines that leave me wondering what happened to my exciting life, and lamenting that ‘I used to be fun!’.

Backyard adventures to the rescue!

If this sounds familiar, it’s time to start scheduling backyard adventures into your life! Of course, there is an art to appreciating the simple, everyday things in life, and enjoying what season you are in. But often, after we have kids, we sink into the ‘crisis of identity’ feeling, wondering what happened to us.

Two young boys watercolor near a creek surrounded by green foliage.
Add some novelty to the everyday- painting, but up a canyon!

The good news- we don’t have to plan grand adventures or travel to distant lands to be fulfilled. There’s plenty of evidence that small backyard adventures can boost our brains, feed our adventurous spirits and save us from existential dread.

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The microadventure movement

In his growing movement, adventurer and author Alastair Humphreys has been pioneering what he calls Microadventures. He explains that microadventures, by definition, are quick outings that offer you an experience that’s out of your ordinary routine and comfort zone. They should be:

  • short, easy to squeeze into to day to day life
  • simple, with minimal time planning
  • inexpensive, ideally free
  • local; sometimes right in your backyard
  • still fun, exciting, challenging, refreshing, and rewarding

I believe that adventure is about stretching yourself: mentally, physically or culturally. It is about doing what you do not normally do, pushing yourself hard and doing it to the best of your ability.

If that is true then adventure is all around us, at all times. Adventure is accessible to normal people, in normal places, in short segments of time and without having to spend much money.

Alastair Humphreys

You don’t have to be a pro!

Sometimes we get stuck in the thinking that since we don’t have much knowledge or experience in the outdoors that we need someone to guide us. That’s not always true. Adventure should be accessible to all people, and those unfamiliar with the outdoors just might need it’s benefits the most!

Choose your own backyard adventure

That’s why backyard/microadventures are great- you get to choose your own level of adventure! Maybe it’s camping in the backyard on a weekday. Maybe it’s running a marathon around your neighborhood, or doing an early morning hike before work, or biking to a local state park and spending the night. Or maybe it’s just having a slow dinner outside in nature instead of in a noisy, busy house.

Three boys roast hot dogs around a fire at sunset.
Have dinner by the river instead of at home!

If it challenges you, pushes you out of your comfort zone, or simply makes you do something you wouldn’t ordinarily do, then it’s effective. If it’s getting complicated to plan, or taking too much time and energy, then you’re going too big. Simple is key!

It’s important to note- don’t get caught up in trying to keep up with others. Something big for you may be ordinary to someone else. They key here is to pick fun and challenging things for you and your family personally. Don’t let comparison steal the joy of having meaningful experiences.

Do it for your brain!

Psychologists around the world are finding that taking yourself out of your routine and into nature resets your brain and raises dopamine levels. Dopamine is a type of neurotransmitter, which your nervous system uses to send messages to cells. It causes feelings of pleasure, satisfaction, and motivation.

Adventure stimulates the production of endorphins to make us feel happy. Exercise reduces cortisol levels in your body, which are the stress hormones. Nature can help your brain shift into a more restful state, allowing you to relax and reduce anxiety.

Our lives have become filled with screens and sedentary activities, much more than they’re meant to. Our brains and bodies benefit from facing the unknown, doing the out of the ordinary, and pushing ourselves past where we are comfortable.

Put away your phone, turn it on airplane mode, and connect with your surroundings. Being able to be totally present is important for your brain health, as well as your safety. Allow yourself to appreciate the novelty of the activity and shut down other distractions. Go on a micro adventure and you’ll feel the stress drain right our of your body. Even a 20 minute walk outside without electronics can accomplish this.

How do I get started with backyard adventures?

Honestly, getting started is the hardest part. Once you decide what you want to do, you’ll hopefully be excited and it will flow naturally. But with kids, just getting out the door can be a feat in and of itself. Start first with some front loading- let the kids know what you’re planning (or better- let them help you plan it!) and try to get everyone excited to go. A little novelty goes a long way.

Don’t let the grumpys stop you

Don’t expect your kids to be 100% on board all the time. You’ll definitely get naysayers and whining on the regular. If they’re involved in the planning, it helps. Try to get them to compromise- some activities they choose, some you plan. Invite friends. Provide snacks. Always snacks.

Most of the time, once we’ve been out ten minutes, the kids usually relax and are able to enjoy the activity. I’ve found the more I incorporate micro adventures, the more kids get used to the idea and are willing to give things a try.

Think outside the box for your backyard activities

Second, start simple. For example, over Christmas break, we were all going a little stir crazy, so dad came up with a simple but very effective backyard adventure- he tied a sled behind his bike, and the kids took turns getting towed all over the place. Dad got some exercise, kids were excited to do something more adventurous outside. It was less than an hour of play but changed everyone’s moods. We felt fun again!

Try to think of things you wouldn’t normally do. Most families are busy during the work and school hours, but there are some glorious hours in between school and bedtime that we often under -utilize. Drive to a canyon or trail-head after school instead of just going home. Bike to dinner instead of driving. Ski or snowshoe around your neighborhood instead of walking. Look around and try to get creative.

On weekends, try for slightly bigger adventures; Take a long bike ride to somewhere new, or better yet, a bike overnight. Make a bucket list of local things you want to do but have never done, and check them off one by one. Or do a project that you can add to over time. One of our team members built a rainbow ice igloo over the course of a week, working a little each day. Talk about adding color to your days!

Set goals

Another idea is to make goals to accomplish- which helps build grit and helps kids learn to follow through on challenges. Set a summer mileage goal for hiking or biking, or participate in a challenge like the 1000 hours outside movement. Keep the goal on the fridge or somewhere you see it regularly and can mark off your accomplishments.

Our family likes to do long bike tours, so we spend months planning these out. It’s fun to get the kids involved, and our microadventures consist of training rides to get tacos, learning bike mechanics and care, and bike overnights to get our gear figured out. It is really helpful to have a fun destination or goal to train and plan for, and you can incorporate lots of local and microadventures in the process.

Stick to the backyard activities

Of course, in the name of simplicity, you can do a lot right in your yard. Gardening with kids, camping in the backyard, or building jibs and jumps to practice snowboarding skills and make sledding a bit more exciting.

Give your kids an old phone and let them make action movies outside. My boys love rounding up the neighbor kids and making bike videos to show family and friends. During cold snaps, my husband built a manual machine for the boys to practice wheelies on their bikes indoors. Add novelty wherever you can.

If you’re just looking for ideas, here are a few lists to help generate your creativity:

TIP: Write or type ideas on strips of paper and then have the kids pull them out of a jar when they need an idea!

Warm weather backyard activities for kids

  • backyard camp out
  • gardening projects
  • scavenger hunts
  • local sunrise or sunset hike
  • full moon hike
  • no car challenge- bike everywhere you can
  • find natural swimming holes
  • bike parks/pump tracks
  • make family video edits
  • short road trips to local destinations
  • summit something nearby (bonus if you can see it from your house)
  • take a bike overnight
  • float a river or play in a creek
  • go fishing
  • picnic dinner somewhere different
  • play night games with the neighborhood
  • attend a rodeo or ballgame
  • take art outside- go “plein aire” painting

Cold weather backyard activities for kids

  • Build a snow cave or ice igloo
  • build an epic sled run in your backyard, or a jump or jib option
  • ski somewhere instead of driving (like to dinner!)
  • go on a night ski or snowshoe hike
  • get fat tires for your bikes and ride around, pull kids in sleds, etc
  • go on an icicle hunt and see who can find the biggest or most unique ones
  • try a new snow sport
  • go to a hot spring
  • learn how to wax your skis
  • make ski or sledding video edits as a family
  • go ice skating
  • organize a hockey game with friends or neighbors
  • learn to cook or bake different things
  • Go to local museums or tourism spots
  • ice fishing

Backyard Adventures… Not just for the kids

It’s important to get out with your kids and as a family. But it is equally important to do challenging micro adventures for yourself as well. Plan things to do without your kids, where you can really push yourself. This could look like getting up early before work and climbing a mountain, or training for and doing a long hike. You need to prioritize yourself so you can be there for your kids.

Three women stand on top of a mountain in front of the Grand Teton, dressed in summer hiking clothes.
Better than brunch- moms need adventure just as much as kids!

When you do hard things, even short and local hard things, YOU learn grit and resilience as well. You get that needed feeling of accomplishment, and you are keeping your body and mind healthy. Even taking a walk by yourself or trying something new is effective. And in the end, that is what our kids need to see being modeled.

Safety first

As in all family adventure endeavors, make sure you are doing things safely. You don’t need to be an expert or have all the fancy gear, but you need to know enough to be safe.

Be aware of the weather, and look at forecast temperatures and precipitation. Plan accordingly with coats, rain gear, sun hats, etc, so you don’t get stuck in a dangerous situation. Bring water and food necessary depending on how long you’ll be out or how hot it will be.

Kids in puffy jackets and rain gear are huddled around a fire roasting marshmallows in the rain.
Be prepared for any weather, like this unexpected rain on a cool fall camp out!

Knowing how to dress in the right fabrics and layering is incredibly helpful. We’ve got an article all about Layering up kids for cold if you’re interested. Or, if you live in a warm climate, here are some tips for hot weather hiking as well.

Be prepared

Know what to do if someone gets hurt. It’s helpful to carry a basic first aid kit and know how to use it. Here are a few of our articles on first aid in the outdoors: First Aid Hacks on the Trail and First Aid Kits for the Outdoor Family.

Check ahead- will you have cell reception where you’re going? Do you have enough gas in your car? Do you have a map or knowledge of where you are headed? The goal is to not get stranded and return with everyone you started with.

Leave no trace

Along with being safe, be respectful of the places you go. Ideally, you’re recreating in your local area, so keep it clean and taken care of. Plan to carry out all trash and any other garbage you may find. Don’t take things that add to the natural beauty or uniqueness of a place (like taking petrified wood from the petrified forest!).

“Leave No Trace” is a movement to help protect and care for the areas we play in. They offer seven basic principles to follow:

  • Plan ahead and prepare
  • Travel and camp on durable surfaces
  • Dispose of waste properly
  • Leave what you find
  • Minimize campfire impact
  • Respect wildlife
  • Be considerate of other visitors

These principles are easy to follow but do require some forethought and planning. It is worth it to keep our favorite areas pleasant for everyone. You can learn more about Leave No Trace on their website.

Improve your quality of life one backyard adventure at a time

Backyard adventures are our hack for improving our quality of life and satiating the innate sense of adventure we all have. They bring us out of the doldrums of life, adding variety and fun and curiosity when we need it. They should be short, simple, and out of the ordinary yet easy to carry out.

A family of four stands in front of a canoe with a mountain lake backdrop.
Mini adventures have been sustaining me through all my 10 years of motherhood!

They’ve carried me through seasons of postpartum brain fog and maddening toddler-hood, they’ve helped me stay sane during school breaks when kids fight incessantly, and they’ve helped me gain back my identity after having kids and becoming lost in motherhood.

So I challenge you- try something simple but new this week. Go somewhere different, do something that’s hard for you. Your brain, body and kids will thank you. And you might just avoid that looming mid-life crisis.

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