The month of May is National Walking Month, and recent surveys suggest that more of us than ever are taking to the hills to get our regular physical activity. In fact, with 2.8 million people claiming to be regular hill walkers, walking has more active participants across the country than sports such as football, rugby and cricket. While that all sounds mightily impressive (and in many ways it is!), we still have a long way to go. Especially when we consider that we have a population fast approaching 70 million. So, just how do we get more than 4% of us outside to reap the benefits that walking in the great outdoors can bring? Well, I teamed up with Ordnance Survey, Millets and parent blogger Four Seasons Dad to show you just how easy and accessible walking as a family is, and to discuss how you and your children will benefit from time spent walking in the great outdoors.
It will come as no surprise to our regular readers that we absolutely love walking as a family. Every month is National Walking Month for us because wind, rain or shine there is a route and trail to suit us. Of course, at this time of year we’re heading further afield at weekends, giving the kids access to some of the more remote and spectacular examples of nature’s playground. During the week, after school and work, we’ll make use of the lovely green spaces that surround us, which we have access to from our doorstep to ensure that our outdoor family time is regular. There really is no better time of year to start getting outside as a family.
We understand the benefits of walking as a family, sure, but our main reason is refreshingly simple: we want to spend quality time together. In a world where fewer families even sit down to eat together in the evening, where adults are glued to their phones instead of watching their child’s swimming lesson, and where kids find entertainment in watching other kids unbox toys on YouTube, genuine family time is now something that, it seems, needs to be planned for and cherished. And that’s the beauty of walking: wandering along your local woodland trails, parkland or canal towpath needs next to no preparation, no specialist or expensive equipment, and no previous experience. It just needs you, some basic and affordable outdoor clothing and footwear, and the time that you can dedicate to it. There are, however, other important reasons why you should encourage as many people that you know to get out walking as a family this National Walking Month…
First, let’s deal with the facts. In 2018 the NHS reported that over a quarter of adults (26%) were obese. They also reported that 1 in 5 children in Year 6, and 1 in 10 children in Reception were classified as obese. These, I’m sure you’ll agree, are tragically damning statistics; however, it’s important to remember that obesity has a potentially devastating knock-on effect and can lead to a number of serious and life-threatening conditions, such as heart disease, type-2 diabetes, stroke and some types of cancer. Share these statistics with people you know this National Walking Month to help spread the message that just a little bit of physical activity a day can have a massive impact.
It’s imperative to remember, though, that physical health is only one component of our overall health and wellbeing. With 1 in 4 of us expected to experience a mental health problem this year, there has never been a better time to find ways to help combat stress. While work, money and relationship issues are often seen as root causes of mental health problems among adults, it’s vital to remember that children are also increasingly prone to mental health conditions. Increases in online bullying and body image pressures (you’ve only got to trawl the news for the terrible consequences that both can have), combined with a more sedentary lifestyle (remember: Gaming Addiction was actually made a mental health condition in 2017 and people actually part with money to go and watch e-sports!); children have never needed regular physical activity as much as they do today. GetOutside for the positive mental health benefits this National Walking Month.
The horrible facts are that children now spend half as much time outside as their parents’ generation. Not only are they missing out on the clear physical and mental health benefits that being outside can provide, we are slowly raising a generation disconnected from nature. Furthermore, through our ever-growing and unrelenting connection with the digital world that started with the dropping of the family dinner and ends only knows where, we’re also raising a generation of children disconnected from us. Re-connect this National Walking Month.
Now, I’m not saying ban all gaming, ban social media, ban the internet. Of course not, In fact, believe it or not, I’m a huge fan of all three. But moderation and balance in our lives is key. This is specifically why walking is the perfect activity to get our nation back to better physical and mental health and to help us connect with the real world around us and with our family and friends. Some children think that play only exists through a screen. Show them how much fun they can have playing outdoors with you and you’ll set in motion something that could last them a lifetime and which will provide a lifetime of memories. After all, kids won’t remember their best day of TV.
So, with such an obvious and compelling set of circumstances and reasons, what makes walking the perfect activity for getting the nation back to health? Simply put: it’s the accessibility that walking offers. Wherever you are in this beautiful country of ours, get outside and explore it on foot. Check out the free OS Maps app and hit the green spaces button to find… yes, you guessed it…the green spaces and trails that surround you, grab your walking shoes and off you go. You’ll be amazed at just how easy, rewarding and beneficial it can be.
I’m very lucky that I get to use and test some great outdoor products. Some, of course, fall by the wayside and never make the cut because, in my heart of hearts, I don’t believe in them. If I don’t believe in them, I can’t recommend them. Simple. Fortunately, the vast majority of products I get to test I’m more than happy to use when I’m out adventuring with family and friends. They do their jobs well, they are sufficiently robust to thrash around realistically outdoors in inclement weathers, and they’re priced competitively for the role that they play in our adventures. However, on occasion, a product comes along that, despite my ridiculously high expectations, is so good that it doesn’t just surpass my lofty preconceptions, it smashes them out of the park. Cue the Lowepro Whistler Backpack 350 AW II smashing everything I could throw at it out of the rather beautiful, but gnarly, Sierra Nevada National Park.
Lowepro have been a brand that I’ve admired from a distance for some time now. Having known, for many years, that they were the go-to choice for many adventure photography professionals, it was almost as if I couldn’t justify the outlay, not because of the products themselves, but rather because my photography equipment and skills, in my mind, never warranted a pack built to such exacting standards.
Now, I’m not suddenly announcing to the world that a new demi-god-like photography superstar in the shape of me has suddenly descended from the aperture heavens – far from it. But as my blog has grown, and as my interest in capturing the very best moments from both our family adventures and my personal escapades has developed, I now categorise myself as a keen amateur photographer. I’ve even hooked up on occasion with a local professional photographer who, in return for my guidance up a mountain, has shared some of her top tips, which have helped to progress my passion for taking and sharing images further.
As well a burgeoning Instagram portfolio (come on, if it’s not on the gram did the adventure really even happen?), the other thing that has been proliferating over the last couple of years is my collection of camera and video making equipment. For the first time in my life, as a Nikon dslr owner who also uses the latest GoPro to capture us on the move, who has a wealth of funky accessory add ons including tripods, 3-way extending arms, spare SD cards and lithium batteries, a portable hard drive (because when I finally manage to capture a damn ‘lit tent at night photo’ the last thing I want to do is lose it haha) and enough leads and cables to act as guy lines on my mountain tent, I now NEED a bag to house it all safely when I’m exploring the great outdoors (or a mountain champagne bar!).
The problem, as I see it, is that a lot of camera bags on the market seem to be designed to shoot weddings. That’s not me being flippant…some of the best photographers I know shoot weddings…it’s just me pointing out that if you take Lowepro out of the equation, there’s not an awful lot left designed for both true adventure and to safely stow your average photographers or content creator’s photography and audio-visual gear.
So, the Lowepro Whistler Backpack 350 AW II is, primarily, a snow-specific pack aimed at skiers and snowboarders who like to push the limits but who also want to capture every last second of it. Now, bearing in mind that it’s not exactly a featherweight, it’s not particularly low profile and it isn’t cheap; this pack must do an awful lot of things tremendously well to justify you heading out to the shops to bag yourself one. It does and more.
The first thing to explain about this bag is its build quality. The Lowe family, as I’m sure many people with a vertical climbing inclination already know, know a thing or two about creating top quality backpacks. However, heritage alone (as good as this one’s is!), shouldn’t draw you to parting with your well-earned money. Thankfully, here on the Lowepro Whistler Backpack 350 AW II, that climbing royalty heritage of theirs is put to damn fine use. This bag has literally been designed to perform in some of the harshest conditions you could ever imagine. Now, as much as the blue skies and sunshine that I tested this bag in for much of the week in Sierra Nevada were a joy, check out this video where I took it out into a snowstorm, with winds gusting between 50 – 60mph, to see how useable and withstanding of the elements it was in the high mountains.
Lowepro Whistler bp 350 aw Review - YouTube
As you can see from the video, the Lowepro Whistler Backpack 350 AW II simply laughs in the face of bad weather. When people claim that outdoor gear is robust, I usually raise an eyebrow. I’ve broken, ripped and cracked more stuff than I care to remember or admit. However, the 420 Nylon Ripstop with a TPU\PU dual laminate that the backpack is constructed from isn’t just waterproof, it bombproof. This has some SERIOUS abrasion resistance and tear strength and offers genuine 4-season protection on any continent.
Add to this the combination of inbuilt and internal removable padding that envelopes the entire bag like some sort of foam ribcage protecting its vital organs, and you definitely have the MOST solid bag I’ve ever had the pleasure of using. As such, the fact that it’s no Skinny Minnie, as I alluded to earlier, doesn’t matter one bit. This bag isn’t designed for ultralight adventures. It’s designed to keep you and your expensive equipment safe from harm when you’re deep in the wilderness and facing the harshest of conditions.
Speaking of the foam protective padding, I took a pretty epic tumble after clipping some ice a couple of days into testing this pack. The remarkable thing, apart from the fact that every single piece of camera and video equipment that I was carrying remained as good as new as I skidded a few hundred feet down a slope at a daft speed, is that despite falling onto my left side and then being thrown onto my back in pretty violent fashion, not once did I feel anything inside the Lowepro Whistler Backpack 350 AW II coming into contact with my back. To put that into perspective: I crashed on skis at somewhere between 50 – 60 mph on hardpacked ice whilst having a full size digital SLR camera, GoPro, tripod, and various attachments and screws strapped to my back and I wasn’t aware of any of them during or after the crash! This bag is a beast!
This level of protection for both your equipment and your body certainly gives the Lowepro Whistler Backpack 350 AW II the WOW! Factor. However, all of that protection is of little use if the backpack itself is not very useable. Again, Lowepro have thought of everything. First up we have the truly epic zips to the main compartment which, even as a wearer of mitts (forgive me…my hands get cold), are easily operated. As you’ll have seen in the video, I undid the whole main compartment with one hand while wearing said mitts and videoing with the other hand! Not usually an easy feat in blizzard conditions! Not only are the zips mitt friendly but the buckles are too, meaning no more cold hands when you stop to grab your camera.
The next thing to point out is that, as a true outdoor backpack, the Lowepro Whistler Backpack 350 AW II doesn’t just designate a bunch of space for your digital memory recorders and forget about everything else you might need to carry. Oh no. As well as carrying the usual jackets, hats, spare gloves etc that you might expect it to gobble up, the Lowepro Whistler Backpack 350 AW II will also carry alpine essentials such as a shovel, probe, trekking poles, ice axes or, as you can see, skis or a snowboard for reaching those peaks and off-piste bowls only accessible one foot. This is quite simply the best backpack for those wanting to take their camera and video equipment out on adventures that I’ve ever had the pleasure of using!
Furthermore, if, in the course of your adventures, some of your outer gear gets wet (we’ve all been there on those days where you rotate jackets because of persistent heavy rain for hour on end), don’t despair because the Lowepro Whistler Backpack 350 AW II has a large compartment, separate from the main storage section that houses your pride and joy camera equipment, that has a drain hole in the bottom. Stowing your wet, muddy gear on the move made easy.
Speaking of being wet, although I couldn’t conceivably imagine the ridiculously tough exterior body of the Lowepro Whistler Backpack 350 AW II succumbing to snow intrusion, if you’re using this pack away from the slopes and encounter one of the thunderous hours-on-end rain storms mentioned above, the backpack also comes complete with an all-weather cover to sling over it with ease.
Some angry little naysayers out there may cough, splutter
and eventually choke at the thought of using one day of the calendar year to,
as their mind will process it: tokenistically celebrate mums everywhere. This
group of people see Mother’s Day (and pretty much everything else) as a
consumer-driven sham designed to part us from our hard-earned money in exchange
for a fleeting sense of goodwill and a droopy bunch of flowers destined to have
the same lifespan as your average Mayfly.
While I fully acknowledge the effects of consumerism in
driving gift sales, and promoting these ever-more corporate yearly events, I am
definitely in the other camp of people who fully believe that it’s bloody nice
to see the mums in your life on Mother’s Day, to make a bit of a fuss of them
and let them know that everything that they do and have done for you is
massively appreciated. I can hear the
grumblings of trolls now: ”well, you should appreciate them every day!” The
thing is I really do. I thank my mum and
my wife for all manner of stuff on a very regular basis. But,
for one day a year, if that happens to involve flowers and a card then
so-be-it. I’m fine with anything that
promotes love and appreciation. Above
all of the cards and flowers, however, Mother’s Day should be about time. Time spent together. Unfortunately for me, this year, a phone call
will have to suffice.
It’s usually that other plague of consumerism Valentine’s Day that I miss out on because each February half-term I’m away skiing with the school. However, this year, our trip has been moved to Spring Break (woohoo!) so it’s Mother’s Day that I’ll be away for. I’d love nothing more than to be there on Sunday to share good food and company but, unfortunately, I’ll be in transit somewhere between the UK and Sierra Nevada range. It’s ironic really. The reason I’ll be away is a direct result of being brought up by my mum to try new things, be adventurous and to love the outdoors. Those things instilled in me when she signed me up for Cubs and then Scouts and took me along with her Ramblers group from about the age of 7 have stayed with me. I sincerely hope that if my kids ever miss Father’s Day it’s because they’re away doing something awesome that enriches their life.
Likewise, with two small children, it would be impossible for me to pursue these interests and activities, and support adventurous school trips like the yearly ski trip, without the support of my very understanding wife. The ongoing support that she gives to me has always been unwavering and the fact that she solo parents from time-to-time while I’m away, without the hint of a moan or groan is testament to her character. She’s a pretty special woman, perfectly illustrated by the fact that with me away she’s invited my mum around to spend Mother’s Day with her and the kids.
So, basically, I’m a very lucky guy to have these two awesome women in my life. This Mother’s Day, I might not be present in person, but they’’ both be at the forefront of my thought. I’ll look forward to calling you both later x
Toddlers, by anyone’s admission, are a crazy bunch. They are gloriously unpredictable: palatable and compliant one minute, then charging headlong on a collision course the next minute, intent on inflicting maximum physical and emotional damage on anyone daft enough to be in their way. While some people might consider any parent willing to explore the great outdoors and its lack of parameters, soft landing zones and creature comforts, with a two-foot bundle of highly explosive TNT as crackers, we think we’re on to a winner. We firmly believe that toddlers, as crazy as they are, are remarkable little humans when they’re outside. As such, here are our top 5 things that we’ve learned about hiking with toddlers. Enjoy…
Some sections of society would have us believe that very young children need wrapping up in cotton wool. The problem is that many of those children who are overly protected from an early age go on to become teenagers and then adults who struggle to develop any sense of meaningfulresilience. The great outdoors and adventurous activities are simply great for developing resilience.
Now, I’m not suggesting that you take your toddlers out in a storm anytime soon, clearly there needs to be a sense of perspective, but one thing that I’ve learned from our two toddlers is that, because they have been out in all weathers and temperatures from being very young, now that they are old enough to dissent and pull the old drop and flop on the floor, they are now happy and prepared to go out in any weather and temperatures. Our two know that they’re not made of sugar and won’t dissolve at the first sight of rain. Instead, they look at rainy days as an opportunity to get their waterproof boots and clothing on and go out for a splash and to get mucky. I know teenagers who groan at the merest sight of a hill and yet I have two toddlers who see a hill and want to climb it because they know there will be a picnic at the top. Resilience is a wonderful thing that grows slowly and steadily like a plant. But left uncared for it’ll wither and die before your eyes.
They have amazing memories
We have been lucky enough to explore some beautiful regions and trails and, while not every aspect sticks with them, they do, often months later, chirp up about some random thing that they experienced while out adventuring. Just last night, our eldest, who’s 5, starting talking about some rabbits he’d seen while we were all out together. Now, by way of deduction (following a million and one questions), we were able to pinpoint that he was talking about a stretch of coastal path on Anglesey. We were also able to ascertain that all of this happened last summer (we’re now in March!).
It really does go to show that the experiences we give them while they are enjoying their formative years will stay with them and likely form their later choices in life. Now, again, I’m not saying that I’m desperate for our two to follow in our footsteps exactly, but even if it results in them caring about nature and the environment and finding some sort of way to get to some physical and mental health exercise, then I’ll see it as a job well done. I adore the fact that our two randomly spark up conversations with us about their memories of camping trips, wildlife encounters and hikes. As the saying goes: kids won’t remember their best day of television!
They spot more features and wildlife than we do
Now, I haven’t got the best eyesight in the world, but I do invariably don my contact lenses for our family hikes and adventures. This is as much to do with navigation and feature- spotting as anything else and, yet, I still do not pick up half of the details that our kids pick up.
There’s clearly something to be said for being about 2 foot tall. Our 3-year-old is awesome at spotting bugs and the like, which we often stop to gawp at and then check off in our RSPB Bird and Bug book. This may seem like a simple thing but doing this keeps them happy and entertained out on the trail, and there’s not a hope in hell I’d spot anywhere near as many as they do.
Our 5-year-old, who at a comparatively lofty 3 and a half feet tall,uses his young eyes and slight height advantage to spot features in the distance. Given that I’m 6-foot-tall, I always find it remarkable that he’s often able to check off features before I do, even when I have my contact lenses in. Oh, to able to see the world through young eyes again!
They Care about the Environment
As we have taken our kids on hikes where we litter-pick as we walk, they now talk about litter and pollution wherever we go. In as simplistic terms as we could muster, we explained that litter is bad for wildlife and bad for the environment. They now understand that birds and animals can be harmed by eating items carelessly discarded by people. They know that pieces of plastic in streams and rivers can find their way into the sea and entangle or be ingested by aquatic animals. As a result, they are growing up, even at this tender age, to care about the environment around them. Being outside, walking trails, playing near waterfalls, picnicking on mountains has shown them how naturally beautiful the world can be. They, in their innocent little heads, just want to keep it that way.
They are wonderfully creative
As I walk along river trails and mountain passes, I do so simply to relax. Being outdoors is my escape. Very often I can finish a route and not remember anything specific that has entered my brain apart from the things that I’ve seen and experienced over the duration of my walk or run. My head just empties and nourishes itself with the views that my eyes take in.
While all of that sounds pretty idyllic – and it is – our toddlers approach the outdoors in an altogether different manner. If I take our most recent family-friendly group hike that we organised across a section of the Clwydian Range for some like-minded local families, rather than relaxing, breathing in the views and contemplating how peaceful it was, our two, along with the other children who joined us with their parents that day, spent most of the day playing dinosaurs. From bits of films, like Jurassic Park, and educational kids programmes that they’ve watched on CBeebies, like Andy’s Dinosaur Adventures, they were able to relate the ancient landscape that we were walking through to the imagined and/or likely habitat of a dinosaur. They stalked each other through gorse and heather, they attacked through treelines and they laid eggs (using large rounded stones that they found) in places well hidden from predators. And this wasn’t a mere one-off either. They always engage in imaginative play when we’re outdoors and, as a parent, it’s pretty special to watch.
So, there you have it…our top 5 things that we’ve learned about toddlers from hiking with them. What have you learned about your kids from watching them in the great outdoors? As always, I’d be interested to hear.
Welcome back to #adventurecalling week 41, the linky hosted by myself, David from Potty Adventures, and Lauren from The Helpful Hiker. This is the place to share any outdoor-related posts with like-minded individuals. So, whether it’s camping trips or days out, family-friendly adventures or adult only escapes, hikes up mountains or walks around the local park; we want to read about your adventures, tips and reviews.
In part one of my 40 before 40 challenge, I introduced the first ten things that I aim to achieve or experience this year, my 40thon Planet Earth. Having explained how, rather than feeling imprisoned by age, I have been set free by it, here’s the next instalment of 10 things that will lead to more happiness for myself and my family from this point forward…
Learn a Foreign Language
Despite now being a teacher myself, I wasn’t always the model pupil in school, and messing around in foreign language lessons was a particular speciality of mine. As such, apart from being able to tell people that I’m eleven years old in German (ich bin elf Jahre alt) – a clear indication of exactly when I stopped paying attention – my grasp of foreign languages is pitiful. It’s also one of my biggest regrets. We love travelling and it causes me genuine embarrassment when I’m unable to converse in even the simplest of manners. Consequently, look out French/Spanish/Italian et al…here I come.
Become a Proficient Canoeist
Although I’ve paddled a canoe here and there, it was a trip that I took with a mate at the back end of 2018 that made me want to really progress my skills and be able to take on bigger and better adventures. We paddled about 18 miles down the River Dee in North Wales, including a few rapids, but we were at the very edge of our competence. If I’m going to take my water-based adventures to the next level, I’m going to need some help. So, I’m going to get some coaching.
Develop my Handyman skills
For those of you who know me personally, you’ll know what an absolute klutz I am when it comes to anything remotely practical around the home. To compound matters, I have never taken any interest whatsoever in getting better. “Can’t do, won’t do” has always been my motto. Well, this year we need a patio laying in the back garden and I’m challenging myself to get involved. I’ll enlist help, of course, but I’ll be on the playing field rather than the side-lines.
Regular Live Video Chats
I’ve mulled over this idea previously, but told myself I was too busy to schedule it. In fact, I’ve realised that I just felt a bit weird about sitting down and chatting to a camera. I’m not even sure why. As a teacher, I talk to teenagers every day of my working life and have, more recently, through the blog, been speaking at outdoor events and festivals. However, to have no audience, no facial expressions or feedback to feed off has, until now, put me off. That’s going to change. I’ve got what I think is a great idea in the pipeline for regular video chats, so watch this space (or our social media accounts, to be more precise)…
Run 100km Non-stop
Last year I trained ridiculously hard to take part in my first ultra-marathon only to get injured a couple of weeks before the big day. That back injury laid me up for quite some time and it’s only really now, in the new year, that I’ve been able to start running on a more regular basis. So, as you can imagine, I’m desperate to complete some unfinished business. I’m yet to enrol in an organised event and haven’t actually ruled out just running my own route and asking other people to join me at various stages for a bit of support. Either way, 2019 will be the year that I finally run 100km.
Eat in a Michelin Starred Restaurant
I love food and, if you read part one of this 40 before 40 Challenge, you’ll know that I love cooking. Over the years we’ve eaten in some nice restaurants, both in the UK and abroad. However, I am yet to sample the delights of a Michelin starred kitchen and chef. I realise that this is,potentially, a very short-lived experience that requires pretty deep pockets. As such, I’m hoping the treat will be on my wife.
Organise More Environmental Clean-up Days
Although sporadically we’ll take our own kids litter picking in our local area, we haven’t really done it in an organised fashion or on a very large scale. We did do a very small scale beach clean-up with another family last year but, again, it was all very low key. So, for one of my 40 before 40 challenges this year, I want to help raise the profile of plastic pollution and the like by organising more regular clean-ups that we will document and post on social media in order to encourage others to do the same. Let’s face it, the more of us that are shouting about the issue, the smaller the minority will feel when they consider what to do with that bottle top, cigarette end or fishing line.
Reduce our Food Waste
Talking of waste and pollution, one thing that I’ve noticed about us as a family is the amount of food waste that we chuck in the green food waste recycling caddy on a weekly basis. It’s odd, because we seem to be pretty good at minimising our other waste and have always recycled very efficiently. However, our green caddy is always full on bin collection day. Conscious of how intensive some farming methods are on our planet, and of the fact that other people in other parts of the UK and the world are far less fortunate than us, and do not have the financial, social or environmental conditions to provide themselves with a steady stream of fresh food; we are going to do our bit to reduce our impact.
Eat Less Red and Processed Meat
Having had a little bit of a health scare pretty recently has actually done me the world of good in many ways. For starters, it has forced me to reflect upon my diet. This is something that I’ve never really done before, coming from the mind-set of ‘well, if I stay active and exercise enough I can eat what I want, surely?’. Wrong. The more and more research that I’ve done, the more I now see that my diet is an essential pathway to overall health and wellbeing. As such, as much as I love burgers, steak, sausages and the like, I’m going to strive for at least one day a week where none of them pass my lips. Something that we’ve already done is to reintroduce more fish into our diets and I, for one, am loving it.
Drink Less Coffee
A little bit like the one above, I’m also in the process of reducing my caffeine intake. This, almost exclusively, means drinking less coffee. I drink so much of the stuff in work that I’ve been known to get the caffeine jitters on more than one occasion. Consequently, in its place comes more water and some peppermint and green tea. I’ve only done it now for a couple of weeks but, already, I feel better.
To celebrate, yes celebrate, my 40th year on this beautiful planet of ours I’ve decided to push myself. My 40 before 40, however, isn’t intended to be a bucket list of uber-cool adventures, crammed into a crazily jam-packed 365 days. No, my 40 before 40 needs to take account of my job and everything else that real life actually throws at you. As such, my 40 before 40 will concentrate on having lots of little experiences that all, when stacked together, further promote my own and my family’s happiness and contentedness.
Why now though? Well, I remember watching Peter Pan as a child, blissfully unaware of what it would mean never to grow up. Those childhood days were long, fun-filled and worriless. I remember hitting my twenties with verve and vigour, excited at the prospect of now being a real grown up – whatever that actually means. Only now can I look back on my naïve younger self and realise that being preoccupied by numbers rather than experiences wasn’t the route to genuine happiness. Reaching my thirties resulted in a (fairly) mild meltdown – an age-related crisis – a fleeting but taxing head shattering, which left me shaking and with cold sweatsswearing never again to face the world with my aging complexion and, as I saw it, failing body. Please God…why me? WHYYYYY? Basically, as far as reaching 30 was concerned, life, as I knew it, was over.
Or so I thought. You see, the further that I’ve progressed through my thirties, the more and more I’ve become comfortable and confident with my age. Where I once worried about getting old and becoming less of the person that I once was, I now realise that, through age and experience, I’m unquestionably a more rounded person with more interests, hobbies and love in my life than ever before. So, with that in mind, and in order to further pursue my positive embracement of the aging process, I’ve decided to challenge myself to achieve and experience 40 things in my 40th year: 40 before 40, so to speak.
When I first pondered the idea of doing 40 before 40, I realised, almost immediately, that I wanted this to encompass a whole host of ideas and experiences from all areas of my life. Some will be entirely new challenges – things that I’ve often flirted with theoretically but never actually pulled my finger out enough to action and do anything about.
This group will include a combination of brand new (to me) skills to acquire, places to visit and experiences to have. Other inclusions on my 40 before 40 list are things that I (or we as a family) toy with occasionally, but want to build on because doing them more often, or with greater resolve, will bring us greater happiness in the long run. Some of these have often had time issues relating to them so will require me to seriously rejig and prioritise everything that I am consumed by. Only by doing this will I ever be able to sustain things and get the most out of them.
The last group of inclusions are things that, at some point in my life, have fallen away and I now want to be reconciled with. I seem to remember a time (mostly before kids) when I had time to idly loiter, for instance. Now, I’m not saying that I have any interest in sitting on other people’s garden walls waiting and wonderingjust because I can, like I did when I was a kid, but you get the idea. So, without further ado, here’s the first instalment: 10 things off my 40 before 40 bucket list…
Paddle a river from source to sea
Having watched the amazing Yukon Assignment film at the South West Outdoor Festival in October, I’m now transfixed by river journeys. Now, limited resources, time and experience mean that, for now at least, the Yukon is well out of reach. But I am blessed to be surrounded by a selection of rivers in North Wales and the surrounding areas that could, realistically, give me the opportunity to achieve this feat. The idea would be to canoe, carrying all of my/our belongings along the entire length that a particular river runs. The Dee, for instance, which is my nearest river, has a length of 68 miles travelling from Snowdonia to the estuary between north East Wales and the Wirral Peninsula.
Ski as a Family
2019 is the year that I want to take the kids skiing abroad. Although I ski and Nat can, our eldest toddler has only had a handful of lessons in this country and our youngest, at 3 years old, hasn’t had any. However, I want this to be the year that we introduce them to this amazing winter snow sport properly and hopefully make it a bit of a family tradition.
It may sound strange as an English teacher, but I want to read more this year. Although I get through oodles and oodles of texts at work, reading for myself and my own enjoyment, particularly since we’ve had the kids, has taken a bit of a backseat. I want to rekindle my love for autobiographies and literary travel writing and maybe even reread some of the novels and plays that captivated me during my uni days, but which have sadly long been forgotten about.
Perfect some Tagine Cooking Recipes
Having wanted a tagine for ages and finally getting one for Christmas, I’m ashamed to say that I’ve only used it once. I genuinely like cooking: it relaxes me when I get in from work and means that we’re not forever eating warmed-up, supermarket ready meals that lack taste and nutritional value. So, armed with a tagine cookbook (c’mon, us males love some sort of instruction manual that we can then begin to slowly disagree with), I’m hoping to learn, adapt and perfect a range of meals fit for me, Nat and the kids to drool over.
Go Wild Swimming
I keep saying it and keep saying, but apart from a few little opportunistic dips when I’m wild camping or walking in coastal areas, this is something that I keep putting off. I don’t even know why – apart from time, possibly. This year is going to be the year that I build on the opportunistic dips and actually plan, specifically, to go wild swimming. People who I know do it regularly absolutely love it. I’m out of excuses so who’s joining me?
Actually finish a boxset
Nat and I both seem to have commitment issues when it comes to TV. We have started pretty much every popular boxset TV series under the sun but never, ever, even come close to finishing one. It’s genuinely weird: we really like the ones that we watch. However, at some point a switch has flicked in our heads and we’ve decided that we simply can’t take any more. From 24 to Lost, Breaking Bad to Sons of Anarchy (which we only watched 3 episodes of!), we seem incapable of finishing any of them. I think Breaking Bad currently holds the record having got us all the way to season 3 before we gave up. Come on…we can do this!
Be more consistent with my running
I’m an all or nothing kind of guy. When I’m training, I train properly. I leave nothing out there, so to speak. However, once I’ve finished training for a specific run or event, my interest and fitness drops off. This can last 2, 3 even 4 months in some cases, and the result is that I find it incredibly difficult to both motivate myself to get going again and get my fitness levels up to previous standards. This year I’m planning to be different – more consistent. I’ve started a Sunday morning trail running social group to this end. This way I get to run with other people (something I rarely do), which will, fingers crossed, keep me more motivated to run week in, week out.
Play more Board Games
We have a few board games at home but very rarely play them. Sometimes it’s rather too easy to turn on that TV box in the evening after a long day, sink into the sofa and slob. Every time we play a board game, however, we have a laugh. I remember what a furiously bad loser my wife is and she remembers what a cheat I am. Either way, it beats sitting in silence every night.
Sort the garage out
Whether we’re talking about our previous house or our new house, the garage has always been an absolute tip. This year I have a dream. A dream where my two children can live in a house with a garage that they can walk through. A garage that will be judged by the organisation of it storage shelves and containers rather than by the amount of junk it hoards. Let’s do this!
Spend New Year in a foreign Country
I’m not sure about you, but for me, after the razzmatazz of Christmas; New Year has always been a bit of a damp squib. We build it up, look forward to it only for it to pass by without anything remarkable having occurred. I can remember literally only a couple of New Year’s ever, and even they weren’t the stuff of legend. As such, I want 2019 to be the year where we go on holiday for New Year toexperience it from another perspective.
So, that’s the first 10 of my 40 before 40 list sorted. If you’ve got any ideas of your own that I could steal, please let me know.
In our busy lives, where we constantly juggle family life and work commitments, some days the closest that I get to what some people would describe as ‘real adventure’ is gazing in awe at the lives of others on social media. We don’t do badly, of course, but the vast majority of our adventures – and we’re genuinely really happy about this – are short, local activities that we can access almost instantly, year round, with no long-winded preparation. These give us the opportunity to get some fresh air, get some exercise and disconnect, just fleetingly, from life’s pressures as a family.
As well as throwing up the issue of ‘well, what is adventure anyway?’ it has also led me to consider whether social media and adventure are complimentary and harmonistic bed partners; there to inspire us to get outside. Or, is social media and adventure, as a combination, a pair of whispering devils promoting the often out of reach adventures of a privileged minority, to ordinary people left dragging their self-esteem around on the floor and putting themselves at risk in their desperate attempts to keep up with the Joneses?
So, how did my brain recently become consumed by the links between social media and adventure? Well, since I’ve returned to work following the Christmas break, I’ve started teaching a unit of non-fiction writing to a couple of my classes. By sheer coincidence, when I was scouring around for style models to share with the kids, I came across an article written by Grace Dent and published in the Independent newspaper back in 2013. In the article, Dent, with oodles of biting wit and sarcasm, muses modern society’s obsession with selfies – you know…the practice of shamelessly and egotistically pouting into your phone regardless of situation or environment. It doesn’t seem to matter whether we’re in public toilets or on mountain tops, because…well, you know…#YOLO, right?
The article, while very funny and deliberately offering little in the way of answers, got me thinking more widely about images on social media. More specifically, it got me to thinking about what WE post on our social media and what sort of messages we send out to people. Frankly, for me, posting images of our family adventures, or of our husband and wife date night hikes, or of my escapades with friends is something that was always intended to be a positive thing. Yes, I fully understand the importance of ‘being in the moment’ while we’re outdoors. And yes, I realise that we snap photos while we walk, scramble, camp and paddle, but they carry very little importance to us compared to our primary goal of being out there to enjoy each other’s company and our surroundings. We may stop for the odd family selfie or occasionally, if we’re exploring a new area or route, get the tripod out of the backpack to setup a ‘posed for’ family shot. However, we do this because how the hell else would we get a photo of all four of us when we’re in the middle of nowhere with no bystanders to ask? In fact, I’m so lackadaisical, I’ve been known on more than one occasion to forget the memory card for our GoPro, meaning we can’t shoot any video when we’re out and about. That, surely, isn’t the sign of somebody preoccupied by image rather than experience.
Our social media and adventure photos are, more often than not, an afterthought. We like to snap the kids when they’re not looking to capture their genuine sense of playfulness and fun outdoors. I’m certainly not about to plan a trip to a remote road somewhere simply because I’ve seen ‘cool’ people posting pics of themselves staring down #lifesroad on Instagram, while all the time putting themselves in direct danger of an articulated lorry ploughing straight through them. That’s not our style and I honestly tend to scroll past photos like that because…well, who in their right mind does that naturally? I want our social media and photos to be a fair and honest reflection of us, not some #fakenews version of ourselves intended to make us look like some sort of Stan Lee designed outdoor superheroes.
In this sense, of course, the likes of Instagram (which currently takes the gong for my personal favourite form of social media) can be incredibly disingenuous and incredibly off-putting to lot a people. As part of the work I’m doing in school with my classes we’ve found out that Instagram is the social media format with the highest levels of unhappiness amongst its users. The claim is that its overwhelmingly positive slant towards perfect lives, lifestyles and adventures are so ‘perfect’ that they are demoralising and depressing vast swathes of society. To test this, in 2017, the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) conducted some research among 17 – 24 year olds which asked them to rank how each of the big five social media platforms made them feel about everything from the effects on their sleep and body image to FOMO, or fear of missing out. Instagram ranked the worst of the lot.
It is pretty clear, therefore, that people continually gazing at staged photos, which overwhelmingly create the perception of a ‘perfect’ scenario, relationship or family can be incredibly damaging. This again made me reflect on our social media and adventure photos. As I’ve already pointed out, we post a mixture of candid, action shots, and, admittedly, a few posed photos on our Instagram feed. But, are we doing enough to curate them in a responsible manner without our followers feeling that everything we do is out of reach or some sickly-sweet representation of family life? In all fairness, although I genuinely hope that we are being responsible, we are perhaps not the people to judge are own impact. As such, honestly, tell us, because if there is a disconnect between what we’re posting and what your impressions of that are, we need to know about it. Seriously.
Despite the many and obvious negatives, I am still a great advocate of the relationship between social media and adventure. Managed responsibly, it can serve as a gateway to ideas, activities and the sharing of experiences. I have looked into new walking routes and camping spots because they have been brought to my attention on the likes of Instagram. I am now more aware than ever of our negative environmental impact on the outdoors thanks to people who share important issues and information about plastic pollution and the like on social media. The connections that I’ve made with people are real and tangible, despite having not met the vast majority of people I follow.
I’m not the greatest runner but I’m enthusiastic all the same. So, I follow trail runners who inspire me to tackle more hills, go out when the weather is grim and give me tips on how to manage injuries. All that means that last year, and in spite of a lengthy injury layoff, I ran further in a single run and ran more miles over the course of the year than ever before. I follow walkers and mountaineers from all over the UK so that I am able to experience the beauty of what our small but beautiful island has to offer. This leads us to take weekends and holidays away on our own shores to explore these regions that aren’t immediately on our doorstep. In fact, after being inspired by several accounts that I follow that are largely based in Scotland, we had one of the best weeks we’ve ever had as a family last October during our stay in the Highlands.
I also follow some amazing accounts from around the world that are, at least in part, responsible for me now having destinations like Utah and Alaska on my travel bucket list. Following other outdoor family accounts to see how other parents manage young kids in the great outdoors is also a great way for us reflect on how we do things and the types of activities that we expose our kids to. Rather than being made to feel inferior by any of these accounts, we’ve felt incredibly supported when people simply comment with things like “chin up, our kids did the same last week”. It’s clear that, rather than feeling isolated, we feel part of a community. A positive community built on reality, understanding and an overriding sense of adventure.
Of course, that paradox between getting outside to escape the trappings of modern life, but then using gadgets to capture, contextualise and share it isn’t lost on me. Furthermore, I fully realise that there are influential Instagram accounts out there who stage their entire lives in their quest for digital adulation. We have to remember, however, that nobody forces us to follow such accounts. That “unfollow” button is pretty easy to find should you find your life being negatively impacted by the deception of others. Choose who you follow carefully and, hopefully, you’ll begin to reap the rewards of your very own social media and adventure community. ‘But where are these genuine people lurking?’ you scream. Well, start by searching for outdoor-related hashtags, or check out who people that you respect and who inspire you follow. Also check out the hashtags that they use so you can find more like-minded accounts. Instagram is a bit like life. There are lots of idiots and perfect (fake) portrayals of life out there, but search hard enough, be discerning and you’ll establish connections that you cherish.
One of the best things about living in North East Wales is the fact that we have access to miles and miles of awesome coastline. With countless adventurous activities to keep our mouths grinning and our adrenaline pumping, we really are one truly lucky bunch of people. Despite having previously turned my hand to a plethora of adventurous activities from across the interest spectrum, one thing that I had never triedwas kitesurfing. Until now. Here’s how I got on kitesurfing in North East Wales…
Kitesurfing in Rhyl, North East Wales - YouTube
Kitesurfing, in the scheme of things, is a relatively new sport. Although we clever humans have been harnessing the power of the wind to propel us across stretches of water for thousands of years, it is only more recently that we’ve turned our attention away from practical travel and begun to focus on the sheer joy to be had from being whisked around by nature’s greatest unseen power.
What’s more, from speaking to a few kitesurfing experts and enthusiasts, it seems that our little corner of Wales has a pretty unique and special set of natural features that make it the perfect place to get into the sport. Kitesurfing in North East Wales is special because Rhyl proudly boasts two huge tidal lagoons. Two huge natural sandbanks, located just off shore,protect you from the chop by creating lake-like circumstances with each outgoing and incoming tide. Crucially, this means that for beginners like me, you don’t have the added distraction and difficulty of fighting the tide and the waves. Furthermore, unusually, Rhyl has an entire stretch of beach and water that is rock-free. Again, as a beginner trying my hand at the sport for the first time, this is a really important safety consideration and should provide a hell of a lot of reassurance to anyone who fancies giving it a go anytime soon. Very few places anywhere can offer this combination of natural features!
So, on a fairly mild December morning just before Christmas,and with a few little butterflies in my stomach – fluttering around thinking what the hell they’d let themselves in for – I took the coastal road drive to Rhyl and hooked up with Simon from Pro Kitesurfing to take my first steps into the world of kitesurfing. They won’t be my last.
Nestled right next to Rhyl’s famous Pavilion Theatre, the first thing that I noticed was that Pro Kitesurfing have one enviable position. Located right on the waterfront overlooking the lagoons that I would spend the next three hours playing around in, they’ve taken a building that, until just a few short years ago was, at least partially, a public toilet, and transformed it into a warm and welcoming café, bar and classroom. One thing that really struck me was that every single person who came through the door was greeted on first name terms with a hug or embrace.
The other thing that struck me was the age range of the people both frequenting the café and those actually kitesurfing on the day. While there was a 10-year-old lad having his very first lesson on the same day that I, too, was kitesurfing in North East Wales for the very first time, there was also a older guy who made me look like a spring chicken, enthusiastically throwing himself into his wetsuit and making his way out onto the water. I genuinely hope that I have still have his energy and thirst for adventure when I’m his age. Fair play to Simon and his team: they’ve created more than just a kitesurfing school; they’ve created a community hub where people of all ages come to meet, chat, make plans and, of course, kitesurf. It seems kitesurfing in North East Wales is so much more than just an awesome sport. It’s a passionate and engaging community with a demographic that pushes back the stereotypes of a lot of extreme sports.
After an extensive classroom session where we covered all of the basic principles and safety instructions, I donned my winter wetsuit and hit the beach. For a guy like me who had no kite flying experience, never mind kitesurfing experience, there was a lot to take in but, through regular questioning and support, I never felt out of my depth. After pumping up the kite and learning how to walk with it and prepare it for flight on the beach, it was time to get wet.
As I mentioned earlier, Kitesurfing in North East Wales is perfect for beginners due to the tidal lagoons that Rhyl benefits from. Starting in the smaller one, closest to the beach, I first of all had to prove that I could get the kite off the water and into the sky – and no it’s not as easy as it sounds! My biggest problem was that I was trying to wrestle the kite using too much of my body power to get it off the ground. According to Simon this is a pretty natural thing for adult beginners to do (along with my sticky out butt that he kept telling me to push back in). Unfortunately, in a wrestle between human and nature, nature will always win. The more impatient I got and the more I resorted to power, the more I got battered by the kite. When I finally felt comfortable enough to take my eyes off the kite, I started to gently feel my way and began to steer it rather than pull it. It’s crazy, but essentially you can use one finger to steer it. I just had to get over the feeling that I needed to hang on for dear life.
Later in the session I was taught how to do a body drag, which is essential to recover your board. Just as it sounds, it is essentially using your belly like the hull of a boat to propel you through the water as you steer the kite alternately between the power zones of 10 and 2 (as in the hands of a clock as imagined in the sky). This was great fun and, despite failing to steer right on one go, propelling myself head first into a sandbank, and eating a lot of sea water, I really felt that I’d made a lot of progress in a short space of time.
After a few more water-based activities, my lesson time had drawn to a close. I’d been battered, chucked up in the air, swallowed my yearly intake of salt in one afternoon, and was pretty damn tired. It was, however, utterly amazing and I’d recommend it to anyone. We are so lucky that kitesurfing in North East Wales seems to have such a natural home, not only in terms of its unique set of natural characteristics, but also in terms of the awesome community hub, complete with café, bar, wood burner and familiar faces, that Pro Kitesurfing have crafted over the years. Get yourself down there soon. You won’t regret it.
As I creep my way back to full fitness, I’ve really been enjoying the best trail running routes that North East Wales has to offer. We consider ourselves incredibly lucky that we live in a little corner of Wales that offers so much diversity in terms of landscapes and terrain, that pretty much whatever we fancy on any particular day can be achieved. I could, for example, easily head over to one of my favourite playgrounds – the Clwydian Range – to tackle miles and miles of rolling hills and grassy undulations; however, given that my fitness is not quite where it was when I was bounding across them during the spring and summer, I opted for something altogether flatter but still with equally good views: the Talacre to Rhyl coastal path.
The Talacre to Rhyl Coastal Path is part of the much bigger Wales Coast Path which spans an epic 870 miles / 1400km across Wales. In all, it takes in 16 different local authorities and two National Parks. For this section between Talacre and Rhyl I’d only be covering 8 miles, which would be perfect to keep me ticking over before I aim to increase my mileage after the festive period (when I’ll without doubt need to due to my inevitable overindulgence of cheese and mince pies!)
Talacre has a variety of parking options, including the free car park adjacent to the beach. However, take care and ensure that you read the signs regarding tide times and the like – it has been known to occasionally catch people out. If you’re unsure, there are a couple of handy pay-and-display car parks just a very short wander away.
Talacre to Rhyl Coastal Run - YouTube
Now, you could begin your journey down the Talacre to Rhyl Coastal path by heading straight for the Coast Path sign and finger post that points you in the direction of Gronant, but you’d be missing a trick. The traditional path does hold some very significant advantages: it’s accessible for one, meaning everyone of all abilities plus cyclists and families with pushchairs, can travel through the dunes unimpeded. It’s a lovely, lovely, walk but, for those who can, head through the dunes onto the sand for a section of beach that is always wide and welcoming and rarely very busy as my photos demonstrate. The iconic Point of Ayr lighthouse and crashing waves looked particularly impressive and moody as I ran along the beach, and certainly helped to take my mind off the extra energy I was expending every time my foot sank into the damp, soft sand.
As you will no doubt notice from the many signs that have been erected to guide people away from certain areas, there is a lot of conservation work being done along the Talacre to Rhyl coastal path. One aim is to recognise the importance of the sand dunes both in terms of their ability to form a natural sea defence and also as a habitat to some unique vegetation and animal life. According to the RSPB, the dunes host Sand Lizards, while Natterjack toads have been reintroduced. It is also the only Little Tern breeding colony in North Wales. In terms of plant life, the conservation work has been so successful that the nationally rare dune fescue is in attendance. What’s more, during the winter, up to 100,000 waders and 20,000 water fowl make this Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) their home. So, why wait? The here and now is a great time to take a run through one of the most important sand dune systems anywhere in the UK!
Making my way through the dunes and picking up the Wales Coast Path again, my next stop on the Talacre to Rhyl coastal path was Prestatyn. Not only does Prestatyn have another glorious beach for you to explore (just make sure you pause your Garmin/Strava!), it has a lovely collection of local cafes where you can feel good about rewarding yourself for the miles put in so far. Given that as well as the Wales Coast path running through this seaside town, you also have the start (or end, depending on your direction of travel) point of the Offa’s Dyke National Path; it shouldn’t surprise you that the entire place is walker and runner friendly and there are a couple of good independent outdoor shops should you need to restock or repair anything on-route.
My finish point (although yours doesn’t have to be if you’re feeling particularly energetic – Pensarn is another great beach to check out if you have a couple more miles left in your legs) for the Talacre to Rhyl coastal path is, obviously, the seaside town of Rhyl. Having had some serious investment over recent years, Rhyl boasts a long broad promenade with cafes and stalls, an excellent theatre for those wanting to catch a play or seasonal panto, as well as a range of more adrenaline-fuelled activities, such as kitesurfing (that I’m booked in to try for the first time very soon).
I can’t recommend this run along the Talacre to Rhyl coastal path enough. There’s something beautifully refreshing and escapist about a seaside walk or run. There’s enough challenge, if you choose the many beach options, to test even the hardiest of legs and lungs, or a delightful path for those who require something more accessible. The rich local vegetation holds national importance, and the many conservation and walking groups in the area really add to a great feeling of a community who, like me, are proud of their little corner of Wales. Come and visit us sometime soon.
As ever, if you’d like to find out more about North East Wales and see the latest news about events and celebrations, check out the official tourism website.