Tucked inside my jacket, our ten-month-old could barely keep her eyes open against the sway of the snowmobile. I held her tight against my chest as an experienced guide deftly maneuvered us up Vatnajӧkull, the largest ice cap in Europe by volume. Beneath several hundred feet of ice, there is fire: lava fields, and a dozen active volcanoes.
Fog, thick and white, obscured everything beyond my fingertips. First to disappear into it: our four-year-old, whose eyes pooled when she discovered we would not be riding together; then our 11-year-old. My husband followed closely behind with our eight-year-old.
When we arrived at the top of Vatnajӧkull, as soon as our four-year-old spotted me, she announced, “I am so brave. I did awesome.” Several times a year, my husband and I hope our kids, especially our girls, earn this moment of resilience that Caroline Paul writes of in The Gutsy Girl. While some may shy away from, say, a snowmobiling family vacation across an Icelandic ice cap, we design adventures that inspire character growth. While rock climbing, our kids learned the difference between rational and irrational fear. In bad weather, we showed them how you can’t control out-of-control things. On a snowboard, if you ride in a way that respects the people around you, you will earn their respect.
When we arrived at the top of Vatnajӧkull, as soon as our four year old spotted me, she announced, ‘I am so brave. I did awesome.’
My husband and I are also public health graduates who spent decades studying risk management. We openly acknowledge that some adventures can, at their worst, lead to serious trauma, brain damage, even death. We know what you may ask: If an activity is even remotely dangerous, is it ever worth putting your child at risk? To which we say: yes. My husband specializes in safety, so I trust our decisions and know when risks are worth the reward. In Iceland, the older kids glacier kayaked, spelunked into lava caves, and rode on horseback for the first time. They overcame challenges, and thrived outside their comfort zone. They also weren’t injured on these outings—instead, they got hurt while goofing off on a hike, or by slipping on a wet floor in a hotel.
Despite the fact that we may feel more accident prone on vacation, most people get injured less than ten miles from home, according to research by Dr. Barbara Haas of Canada’s Sunnybrook Research Institute. Sometimes trouble finds you.
And sometimes you go looking for trouble. I was raised by a photographer who asked every national park ranger: “What’s the most dangerous thing we can do here?” So now, I build in safety measures on our vacations. Even if we are experienced, we hire guides who are familiar with navigating changes in local weather or the history of a place. Before taking the kids abroad, we follow the Centers for Disease Control’s guidelines for adventure travelers. We meet with doctors, pack smart, and plan ahead for any injuries by renting a well-equipped vehicle, car seats, and gear like a GPS unit and hotspot.
Once you’re prepared, the whole family can benefit from the opportunities afforded by these boundary-pushing adventures, says Dr. David C. Schwebel, director of the Youth Safety Lab at the University of Alabama Birmingham.
“I have taken my children all over the world. I see travel, including adventures, as a way to teach childrenabout the diversity of our natural and multicultural world,” says Schwebel. “You have an opportunity to teach your children about safety topics such as wearing life jackets or buckling safety belts—even the importance of having the right gear.”
In the past decade, adventure travel has become more inclusive. Indeed, motivations have also changed: A 2017 study from the Adventure Travel Trade Association shows that across the board, the reason for pursuing “adventure travel” has shifted from risk-taking to transformative experiences and an expanded worldview. Given that family vacations are scientifically proven to make children happier and smarter, bringing kids along for the ride—or the spelunk, hike, or dive—makes sense.