We all have a responsibility to care for our planet and environment. Those of us who spend large parts of our free time in the great outdoors often witness, first hand, the destruction and pollution that is being inflicted on our shared landscapes. From carelessly dropped litter, to the erosion of paths and trails, much of this damage is completely avoidable.
So what is everyone’s problem? Do people really not understand the impact that their actions have or are they just so blasé that they don’t care? Either way, something needs to change and quick. My hope is that the next generation of outdoor enthusiasts, explorers and adventurers are better educated than those who trod trails before them.
That’s why I’m so intent on teaching my two toddlers, as young as they are, about how to minimise their impact on the great outdoors without ruining their fun and sense of adventure. Here are my top tips…
Firstly, let’s talk about litter, which is an absolute bug-bear of mine. It drives me crazy. From our beautiful North Wales beaches and the mountains of Snowdonia, to our local parks and streams; I see it constantly blighting the landscape. So, what do I do? For starters, I pick up other people’s rubbish.
My eldest, who has just turned four, immediately questioned this, as all inquisitive toddlers do. I explained to him (and continue to do so) that rubbish hurts animals and plants. I’ve even shown him photos of birds trapped in netting and unable to fly, for example. My little boy may only be four, but he knows that birds should be free to roam our skies.
Then something remarkable happened. Without me saying anything, one day he picked up his first piece of rubbish: a plastic drinks bottle carelessly discarded on one of our local walks. Since then, and after a few conversations about germs, we’ve bought our two kids a pair of children’s gardening gloves that we often carry in the carrier or rucksack.
This in turn led to regular family litter picks and even ones where we invited some of our environmentally blog followers to join us. The result is that our kids now talk about litter. They recognise that it’s harmful and they, in turn, talk to others about the problem.
Wee and Poo
As regular and responsible hikers, we understand that we, and certainly the kids, will need the toilet out on the trail from time-to-time. That, of course, is unavoidable. However, there are measures that you can take to minimise the impact. Our eldest, who has been toilet trained for quite some time now, knows that it’s not acceptable to go to the toilet in or near a water source. We explained it to him using our toilet as an example. Bearing in mind most toddlers find the topic of wee and poo both fascinating and hilarious in equal measure, this one required a stomach for, if you’ll excuse the pun, lots of toilet humour.
Tackling the subject I asked him would he like to live in our toilet. Barely able to stand for laughing, he giggled back, “No Daddy! You’re silly!” which, to be fair, I am. Would we ever drink out of the toilet was my follow-up question. Cue more belly laughs. Pursuing it like the teacher I am, I followed up with “why?”. This, of course, led to a full-on conversation (interspersed with more toilet jokes) about poo, germs, sickness and more poo. I then asked him where fish live. When we got past the various places that Nemo had inhabited in his blockbuster film, we finally arrived upon lakes, rivers, seas and the like. I then asked him where he thought animals get their water from, if they haven’t got kitchens with taps.
Drawing parallels between why it’s important to keep the areas where we live and drink from clean, using the toilet as the example, worked a treat. Jesse now understands, broadly, why we can’t go to the toilet in or near water sources…because they are home to many types of aquatic life, and other animals drink from those water sources.
Each time that we visit our local pond or river now, I make sure to point out the fish that occasionally that can be seen flitting about just beneath the surface. It keeps it fresh in his mind that these natural bodies of water are somebody’s home.
Minimising Erosion and Puddle Jumping
On hiking trails, particularly, in the wetter months of the year, it’s pretty easy to see sections of once narrow paths that have now become broad highways. Many examples of erosion are, of course, naturally occurring. But us humans, with our big feet, clad in heavy hiking boots, weighed down by rucksacks laden with supplies (or carriers laden with children), pose a big problem.
Around the world, many National Park authorities do a tremendous job in maintaining trails. However, it’s wrong to think that we can just rely on volunteer wardens and the like to repair the places that we like to escape to. Again, it boils down to taking some personal responsibility.
A very simple and very fun idea to introduce to kids is the notion that puddles are there to be jumped in. Hard-packed trails of the great outdoors, consisting of rocks and stones, accumulate water. All hard surfaces do. Sometimes this will mean that puddles populate your path. In these sections prone to standing water, you’ll more often than not see erosion on either side of the trail where people have chosen to walk around the puddle. Now, I haven’t met a kid yet that didn’t enjoy jumping in or over puddles. Consequently, teach youngsters to go through or over them, rather than around them.
Finding Campsites Using Footprints
Sticking with the idea of durable surfaces, older kids can also be taught about how to select campsites. If you’re lucky enough to escape the confines of an established campsite and head into the wilds, you need to do so with a ‘leave no trace’ philosophy. By asking your child to walk on a hard surface and then asking them the impossible task of spotting their footprints, you’ll equip them with the knowledge that drier, more solid pieces of ground are the areas least likely to be affected by us pitching our tent there.
If the area, or indeed the conditions, warrant extra care, then consider a hammock camp. With no footprint to worry about, you’ll avoid squashing delicate flora. Furthermore, during the wet season, when land can become notoriously boggy, you’ll avoid creating your own personal sinkholes. And never think kids are too young to hammock-camp. With the right briefing they can do it at any age. Trust me.
Don’t Feed The Animals
Kids are gloriously inquisitive. While none of us would want to change that, there are times when we need to curb it. When hiking or wild camping we all must strive to leave animals well alone. By disturbing their environment we may endanger their young (and even ourselves!) and damage the delicate ecosystem that they rely upon to feed and shelter them.
If animals are known to be in the area, give them a wide berth. As a rule of thumb, if they scarper from your presence you’re too close. We’ve simply taught our children to stop and observe when they see an animal out in the trail. This has helped to curb their natural inclination to run and get a closer look.
We often carry trail cards for the kids when visiting new areas for the first time. These cards feature images and basic details about the flora and fauna likely to be found on our travels. We use them as a spotting and ticking off activity to keep the kids engaged and moving along, but we also use them to talk about habitats and eating preferences. Teaching kids that our food makes animals sick, for instance, means our little ones now never try to share their trail snacks. As they grow older, we’ll develop this to teach them about how feeding animas human food interferes with the natural order of the wild and can result in damaged ecosystems.