Empowering outdoor dads

Dan Clearwater

Federated Mountain Clubs of New Zealand (FMC)

I’m sure that fear of losing the freedom to get into the mountains is common among many keen outdoor parents. It’s certainly a meme which some ‘friends’ like to rub in your face when you announce that you’re expecting. But rather than just waiting to see if that perceived ‘fate’ became reality, I proactively decided to adapt to this new life chapter and embrace the opportunities that it held.

I didn’t realise it at the time but figuring out how to be an outdoor Dad would give me huge satisfaction, many interesting challenges and a realistic way to reclaim the part of my identity which I feared I’d lose.

It can be lonely as a mid-week dad on duty

My wife earns the main income in our family, so once she went back to work, I had plenty of dad-on-duty time on my hands.

It seemed to be the thing to do, so I signed up to a few ‘mums and bubs’ type events and activities. I went to swim classes, buggy-pushing groups, baby music classes and coffee chats. Although I was (generally) accepted by the mums, I have to admit I was a little bit frustrated. To me, free time is best spent away from civilisation on nature’s own terms, with a challenge (however big or small), a raised heart rate and real decisions to make.

Yes, our new baby went on plenty of semi-urban walks on the local tracks, but I was itching to reintroduce ‘proper’ trips to the mountains back into her parents’ lives.

Becoming a baby-tramping pro

In the early days, walks without Mum could only ever be the length between feeds. Bottle feeding certainly had its ups and downs for Dad (and bub). I’ve since talked to many other dads who’ve agreed; not having breasts is extremely frustrating! But rather than succumbing to the feelings of inadequacy of not having the equipment to help that little person, the best strategy was to focus on the things I was good at, to empower me as an Outdoor Dad.

Whilst Mum was the undisputed expert on most parenting topics, I appointed myself chief in charge of baby-tramping skills development, equipment modification and family motivation.

Mum was happy for me to be the child-carrier; she hadn’t yet regained her confidence keeping on her feet in rough or uneven terrain. Being the ‘first choice’ for a family task, especially one that I really enjoyed, was hugely empowering. Trying to figure out how I could adapt our existing skills and gear to this new set of circumstances ignited the excitement of the challenges that I had been missing.

Right from the start, I prioritised baby-wraps, then front packs and finally backpacks over buggies. I knew that the future I hoped for included a child who was comfortable being carried whilst walking, and a dad who was fit enough to carry her up hills.

As I did the many nappy changes of each day, I contemplated how I’d manage a change in the hills, noted how many nappies I’d need each day, and stared with dread at the size and weight of the used nappies we’d have to carry on an overnight tramp.

I adapted our front pack and my tramping pack so the two would fit nicely together and be comfortable for both Dad and daughter. When it was time to soothe her to sleep, we practised using that gear so we both became used to it.

Even very young children are pretty heavy tramping accessories. Every little trick of ‘ultra-light tramping’ was dredged up to keep my load under control, plus it gave me a good excuse to buy a lightweight three-person tent! I even designed a little folding box made from a real-estate sign to be a ‘safe sleep space’.

So, by the time we did our first overnight trip as a family, I felt we were about as prepared as we could possibly be. Recruiting another family from our ante-natal coffee group, we set off to a nearby hut with a six-week- and twelve-week-old. Although we took a tent as a precaution, because it was off-season, we had the hut to ourselves. The little ones just slept, fed, pooped, cried, wriggled and farted like normal, and the parents enjoyed the satisfaction of achieving a successful family tramping trip.

Finding other outdoor parents

There’s nothing like the camaraderie of being in the hills with others, and I knew I needed to find more like-minded parents to share these experiences. And I needed to find more outdoor dads, to talk about dad stuff (ok, and maybe some general outdoor/bloke stuff). So, I decided to take the bull by the horns, and start up the ‘Babes in Backpacks – Wanaka’ Facebook group.

It was pretty clear that there were lots of other like-minded parents out there; within a few weeks the group had grown rapidly, and we’d been on our first few walks.

During the weekend trips, an occasional father showed up, but on our group’s midweek walks I was the only one. The other mums didn’t bat an eyelid as they merrily described all manner of birth story and feeding dramas that would make any single male faint. Clearly me being a bloke was not an issue; I was a parent who loved being out in the hills and that made me an equal. Being accepted alongside other primary caregiving parents is incredibly empowering.

The motivated mums became my new friends, and together we spent many happy months regularly traipsing up and down mountains, big and small, with our little ones along for the ride.

Don’t dismay, outdoor dads; it gets easier!

I know that dads who work full-time jobs don’t have the hours in the week to gain as much hands-on parenting practice as I’ve been fortunate enough to have. Even if all the other parenting tasks are daunting, or don’t seem to be clicking for you as a dad, you can always find comfort in the stuff you can be good at (being an awesome tramping dad!).

The good news is, as your baby grows up, things get a little easier. Going in the backpack child-carrier at about six months is a big step forward. This, combined with the transition away from milk, means day tramps with just dad and daughter are achievable. Not necessarily huge distances, but spending time in the hills together, rather than at home or confined to a buggy on a path.

Maybe you full-time working dads can build up to taking the little one-off Mum’s hands for a day on the tracks one day soon? Develop your skills with Mum along as ‘backup’ before you go without her; start with small trips and build up slowly.

There’s nothing like ‘going solo’ to develop your confidence and to force you to learn. Without Mum to ‘rescue’ you from an upset kid, you’ve got to figure it out for yourself. It’s hard when you can’t solve it, but it makes you determined to try new things and learn how.

What’s the worst that can happen?

If you plan sensibly, you should be able to give things a go and the answer to “what’s the worst that can happen?” shouldn’t scare you. Maybe you have to cut your trip short, maybe the little one is a bit sad for a while, or perhaps you have to walk back partially covered in poop because you didn’t bring quite enough wipes… Giving yourself the space to ‘fail’ with minimal consequence is the perfect way to learn, and if you’re failing regularly, it probably means that you’re regularly embracing the opportunity to try something new!

What does planning sensibly look like? Having the clothing, equipment and supplies to cope with the unexpected, such as a change in the weather, extra poops, a twisted ankle for Dad. Budget extra time for attending to the needs of your little person during the trip. Be conservative with weather assessments. Choose destinations and environments for your trips where you have the personal skills and experience to be totally comfortable. (You need to have plenty of spare brain-space available for ensuring your little one is happy and safe.)

Finally, when you do spend a happy day on the track with your baby, and away from Mum, the satisfaction of being a competent outdoor dad to your little person is immense.

Our little girl has now enjoyed many trips to the hills; whether just with Dad, the whole family, or in the company of other families. She’s been given a foundation of resilience and adaptability and a chance to develop a love for exploring New Zealand’s wild places. These days, at the age of two, our little girl can be quite a capable self-propelled tramper, although the child-carrying pack usually earns its keep on longer trips.

There have been plenty of challenging moments along the way, but it has been a heck of a ride so far! I’m looking forward to embracing my future as a parent.


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