An Interview with Pro Outdoorsman Michael A. Lanza
How does a professional wilderness adventurer make time to spend with his family? For dedicated dad and outdoor explorer Michael A. Lanza it’s simple; he just brings them along on his adventures!
With his blog, TheBigOutside.com, Lanza has made a career of writing about the intense outdoor excursions he’s been taking with his family for years, and on the importance of getting kids outside. We recently got to speak with him on these topics.
Just in time for Father’s Day, here’s PAGE ONE of our conversation with this professional outdoor dad. Click here for PAGE TWO.
ABOVE: Michael A. Lanza, outdoor adventurer and creator of TheBigOutside.com, backpacking with his daughter at Grand Canyon National Park.
As a father who’s shepherded your young children on an absurdly impressive number of outdoor trips, how do you see kids benefitting from early outdoor experiences?
There’s an abundant and growing body of studies demonstrating the many benefits of time outdoors for children and teenagers, in terms of fostering their physical health and emotional and intellectual development. In short, the outdoors makes kids (as well as adults) happier, healthier, and smarter. If the outdoors was a pill, we’d give our kids one every day. Instead, it requires some planning, effort, and commitment, but the payoff for children and parents is incomparable time together. When we’re in the backcountry, my family spends hours a day talking and interacting with each other; there’s really nothing that compares to that in regular, daily life, when we’re all to busy and overscheduled.
But I also have directly observed how hiking, backpacking, rock climbing, skiing to backcountry yurts and at resorts, and paddling on rivers has given my kids confidence and self-awareness that translates to much of what they do in civilization, from their schoolwork to how they socialize with their peers. My kids are now 15 and 13, ages at which there are many ways to get into trouble, which are not always obvious to people that young. When I talk to them about making smart choices, I can use metaphors about climbing and the severe consequences of mistakes and bad choices, framing conversations about cars and drugs and alcohol in ways they can really understand. Put a kid on a rope, or walk a trail through the mountains, and that kid can see and feel the dangers. Relate that to their everyday lives, and you’ve helped them see more clearly.
What, in your estimation, is the relationship between positive outdoor experiences, and a sense of stewardship for places like national parks and wildlife refuges?
I’ve met many people over the years whose lifetime work in national parks or other nature preserves, or working as a guide or in some other profession or business related to the outdoors, was inspired by a youthful outdoor experience. History has shown us time and again that love for the outdoors and outdoor recreation comes before the maturation of a sense of stewardship for it—of the need to protect it. We cannot have a commitment to protection without a passion for the place.
Lanza and his son backpacking in Idaho’s White Clouds Wilderness.
What advice do you have for parents who, though they may lack resources and expertise, still want to expose their kids to the benefits of grand outdoor adventure?
I get asked similar questions by readers of my blog. (See a menu of them here, including this blog post that’s more specific to your question.) There are numerous avenues open to parents, expensive, relatively inexpensive, and free. Start by finding out what outdoor clubs exist in your area, or what free or paid clinics and lessons are available for trying a new outdoor activity.
Take a family trip to a national park; many of them are very family-friendly. Our kids were too young to remember the first time we took them to Yellowstone, but they loved it: I have a photo of them bursting into unrestrained laughter at the sight of Old Faithful erupting. Many of Yellowstone’s most impressive natural features can be seen on very short, easy walks. And many parks have similarly easy access to great scenery and outdoor activities.
But you don’t have to travel far. There’s probably a state or local park or forest where you can take kids for a walk along a stream or up to a good view, or scramble around on some rocks, or fish a creek. Kids take immediately to the stimulation of nature, especially any kind of water feature. It’s remarkably simple to excite them.
In short, don’t be afraid to try something new and different. You’ll open doors of shared, wonderful experiences for your family that will be really rewarding for everyone.
As a lover and frequent visitor of America’s public lands, what value do you see in SCA’s efforts to connect young people of all backgrounds and initial skill levels to meaningful service opportunities in the great outdoors, in terms of both benefit to the participants and benefit to the land?
I wish someone had introduced me to the SCA when I was young; I’m sure I would have developed my love for the outdoors much sooner than I did. SCA’s work, I believe (as I wrote above), is central to the future of America as we know it. SCA’s young volunteers not only perform critical maintenance work on public lands, your programs have inspired thousands of people to make the outdoors central to their lives and their careers. I’m a longtime supporter of SCA and I always will be.
We’ll celebrate the National Park Service’s centennial this year. What, in your estimation, is the biggest challenge Americans will face as we work to keep our parks healthy and accessible for another 100 years? And what will be some key factors in addressing that challenge?
First, climate change, and second, the dramatic decline in the amount of time kids spend outdoors, which spawns a disconnection from nature of historic proportions. These challenges are not unrelated. Who will be the conservationists and park rangers and superintendents of the future in a generation that doesn’t even get outdoors? How can we expect that generation to prioritize preserving our natural heritage when nations will be struggling to feed their people and provide adequate and safe water for their growing populations, or fighting among themselves or with other nations over declining resources?
I think we have to undertake a concerted national effort, supported by government, business, and civic and religious leaders, as well as parents, to get kids more active and out in nature more—for their individual health and our public health. We have to create and maintain enough local parks to make nature accessible to everyone, because that’s how we create the future stewards for national parks. We need programs in our schools to introduce kids to the outdoors, to traditional activities like hiking and fishing. Such programs actually existed for generations of Americans in some states, like Oregon, but have been reduced or eliminated by shortsighted budget managers and politicians.
We, as Americans, have to demand that our parks and our natural heritage receive a top priority. Otherwise, we will give up a major piece of what makes us Americans.
CLICK HERE for PAGE TWO of our interview with outdoor adventurer Michael A. Lanza.
Professional outdoor adventurer Michael A. Lanza and his family at Zion National Park.
Writer and photographer Michael Lanza is the creator of The Big Outside, where he blogs about his outdoor adventures, including many with his wife and children. The Big Outside made USA Today’s Readers Choice list of Top 10 Hiking and Outdoors Bloggers in 2014, and FlipKey, a Trip Advisor site, named it a Top 10 Outdoor Travel Blogger in 2015. Michael was the Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine for 11 years and continues to write for the magazine. His book Before They’re Gone—A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks, winner of a National Outdoor Book Award honorable mention, chronicles his wilderness adventures with his wife and their young son and daughter in national parks threatened by climate change. An avid backpacker, climber, backcountry skier, and cyclist, he has hiked and climbed extensively in the U.S. West and Northeast and published stories in several magazines about adventure travels on four continents.