Adventure Travel with Children: Taking Risks

If there’s one question I get the most about travelling with babies or small children, it’s about how one manages risks while we’re abroad, where we might not have all the conveniences of home.

And while I have written about it before in Moving Past Fears of Travelling with a Little One, there is something that I didn’t cover in that post, and it’s about the risks we choose to take. In some cases, these are decisions that might get criticized if they were made more public. But for those parents who want to venture off the beaten track, many of the risks are the same as if there were no children involved, except that where there are children involved, everything gets a bit more sensitive to talk about.

Anyone nodding out there?

It was so hot at night in our cabin, she didn't sleep. But tell me this baby with sands in her hands and a filthy t-shirt from play and discovery isn't beaming with happiness!? Photo taken on Maupiti, French Polynesia by Paul Zizka Photography.
It was so hot at night in our cabin, she didn’t sleep. But tell me this baby with sand in her hands and a filthy t-shirt from play and discovery isn’t beaming with happiness!? Photo taken on Maupiti, French Polynesia by Paul Zizka Photography.

Perhaps you’ve been the subject of criticism, or you’ve thought how reckless some parents are with the things they do with their children. I know I’ve had some thoughts pop into my head – and sometimes out of my mouth (eek!) – when I’ve seen parents do certain types of things with their children. But, it’s easy to judge when we’re not in it. And one thing I  personally hold onto is the fact that most parents would never want to see serious harm come to their child. They are taking calculated risks, weighing out the possibilities, and mitigating hazards wherever they can. Also, experienced adventurers know that many of risks in travel are perceived as more dangerous than the ones we take at home. Just look at the hazards involved in climbing in your car during the harsh winters in Canada.

There’s something beautiful that comes out of the process of taking calculated risks with our children. But, I’ll get to that in a bit.

Flashback to 2014 and the island of Huahine, French Polynesia. We were travelling there with our then 11-month-old. We’re the more adventurous types when we travel and this was our first big trip with Maya. The country is very, very hot in the month of April and we couldn’t be out in the sun for much of the day. The best way to scoot around quickly and get our provisions was on bicycles, which thankfully our host provided.

So, we headed off to the shack where the bicycles were kept. There was even a bike seat for a toddler (yay!), but no safety harness or straps (no!). We didn’t have helmets (gotta shed the bulk somewhere, and mostly we were cycling where cars are either non-existent or go 10 km/hour). We were in the middle of freaking nowhere (see for yourself below).

So, what were we to do? MacGyver a harness with a cloth slipover ‘high chair’ (this one, to be exact), tie it to the seat with ten million knots and clip the straps around her shoulders. The setup was bomb-proof, actually, unless of course the entire slipcover began to unravel at the seams. That kid wasn’t going anywhere, and I wasn’t going to be biking fast. Now, I’m not recommending or endorsing anyone to use a travel high chair in this way, but it gives you an idea of what we had to do to create a system that would ‘do the trick’. It wasn’t ideal, it wasn’t the safest, but we needed to be able to get around.

Another big concern for parents is around vehicle travel and safety. I once asked my pal Bruce Kirkby (who has done some amazing travels with his young family) what his advice was on car seats, and what to do in countries like French Polynesia that didn’t use them. His answer was along the lines of, “it’s where you’d think you actually need a car seat the most that you’ll end up holding the kid in the back of a taxi.” Oddly, it made sense. More adventurous travel takes us into various scenarios that can be tough to navigate. We can either stay home or go to more docile destinations, or embrace the idea that we need to look at the likelihood of certain events happening. There are some places where it would be a tougher pill to swallow (say, where they drive like maniacs well over the speed limit). Again, it’s another choice.

Easy mitigation of risk from the sun and water (a real concern!): sunhat, sunglasses and an infant life preserver. There are certain things that are easy to bring along and make a world of difference. Photo taken on the bluest water I have ever seen, Maupiti, French Polynesia. Photo by Paul Zizka Photography.
Easy mitigation of risk from the sun (a real concern!) and water: sunhat, sunglasses and an infant life preserver. There are certain things that are easy to bring along and make a world of difference on a daily basis. Photo taken on the bluest water I have ever seen, Maupiti, French Polynesia. Photo by Paul Zizka Photography.

But researching travel in more adventurous destinations can be tricky. There are some things that are harder to find out ahead of time. Some countries feel more chaotic and don’t explain themselves to you. Others have quirks, like in French Polynesia, where everything closes between 10am and 3pm.

Risks can come in many forms: in travelling to a country that has a Dengue outbreak, hiking at high altitudes with young children, driving where people pass going uphill on a corner, the list goes on…

So, it’s an entirely personal choice how we handle these risks. There are still some things that I would never do with my daughter, but that’s up to me to decide. And I still think it’s worth taking the time, as parents, to assess how our decisions may impact the child and what the whole family will gain from them. It’s well worth putting the riskiest of decisions under the microscope to determine whether or not shortsightedness is playing a role.

It’s that fear of criticism that has prevented me from posting this picture for almost three years. But I think those who have travelled with their kids to places that don’t offer the conveniences of home will understand.

Sometimes adventurous travel calls us to consider slightly riskier choices in order to fulfill our other needs. Photo Meghan J. Ward collection.
Sometimes adventurous travel calls us to consider slightly riskier choices in order to fulfill our other needs. Here’s our setup on Huahine. Photo Meghan J. Ward collection.

Adventure isn’t adventure without a touch of risk.

And that brings me to my final point: the “beauty” in all this. Life isn’t without risk. Life isn’t without a need for adaptation and courage. My personal philosophy is that by pursuing adventures with our children – no matter what ‘level’ of adventure that is – we are teaching them important life skills. We are creating competent little human beings who can tackle uncomfortable situations; children who know that life can be hard sometimes and we need to creative in how we deal with it; people who can navigate the uncertainties of life and, in fact, practice them on their travels before life at home hits them with the real thing. 

You might be thinking that a baby can’t be picking up on this stuff, but I believe that mine has. I think she knows it at the cellular level, and as we travel with her each year, she begins to navigate some of those risks all by herself.

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Author: Meghan J. Ward

Meghan J. Ward is an outdoor, travel and adventure writer based in Banff, Canada, and a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. Meghan has written several books, as well as produced content for films, anthologies, blogs and some of North America’s top outdoor, fitness and adventure publications. She has a forthcoming travel memoir (Fall 2022), to published by Rocky Mountain Books.

9 thoughts

  1. Great piece here. We have gone through many of these questions with our family. When we did the Stikine last year – we faced many of these concerns from our family. All of these adventures are a fine balance between still being able to adventure as a family and figuring out which are valid concerns from family and adapting where needed.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Jenice. It is a fine balance, isn’t it? How did you decipher which concerns were valid, which were worth bending to, and which you’d ‘take note of’ but not adapt to?

      1. The biggest concern we received from family was fear – fear of the unknown. It was important to talk out the trip in detail and when they had questions about … bears… remoteness… weather… open ocean crossing… kids getting sick while being remote… we explained our specific plans/options we considered for those items. But – we still faced strong concern about heading on the trip.

        The best solution to calm family nerves was to connect the family into our trip and remove some of those unknowns. We purchased an InReach and texted locations and updates once a day and immediately, that connection to our family, even though we were remote, brought their concerns from a 10 down to a 3. Even though we had some tense moments during the trip (ie. sow and two yearling grizzlies swam across the river into our camp as we were getting the kids into bed) we still passed on positive daily updates and saved those tense updates for stories once we were safely home. Some stories are better shared once the trip is over!

  2. Yes! You put words to my thoughts. Its interesting to notice the risk that our societies normalize, then the out cry when our adventures take us outside of the norms, even when the risk it poses is minimal.
    Its so helpful to hear opinions of like minded parents!

  3. Nowadays people are afraid of any kind of risk, and their kids are learning the same. Everybody should live some adventures even once to see that it’s awesome!

  4. We’ve got an 18-month old. Last year I was seriously considering a family trip to West Africa and everything you talk about here rings true. From the self doubt to the judgement of others.

    I felt we could avoid malaria and be vigilant about heat. The one thing I couldn’t get over was the fear of diarrhea and dehydration. We didn’t go in the end (for a variety of reasons). But I can’t wait to take her on her first African adventure. If we can’t be bold with our decisions as parents, how can I expect to raise a curious and courageous child…?

    1. Thanks for your comment, Bertie. It sounds like you spend a good amount of time weighing your options. I think you made a good choice: diarrhea and dehydration can be very dangerous for small children! Thankfully there is a whole world to explore. We have purposely chosen locations that offered some semblance of the exotic, but were “safe” enough. Still, we couldn’t control all scenarios, such as finding car seats in some countries or quick access to emergency medical care. I look forward to hearing about your trip to West Africa (someday!)

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