School holiday special: Events active

Having the kids in tow needn't mean an end to your adventuring days. In fact, says Robin Barton, if you do your homework, life in the great outdoors can be a real family affair. And there needn't be tears before bedtime
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The Independent Travel

There is always the temptation, when introducing the family to what is perhaps your favourite activity but is not necessarily theirs, to go over the top. Ford, who is also a founder of Cycleactive, a company offering cycling holidays, has seen it happen. "I think that parents need to be taught coaching skills as much as the kids need to be taught how to cycle," he says. "Remember that it's not the ride that matters, it's the fun. If they're not having fun, you'll put them off cycling for life." The lesson holds true for any other activity.

The key to keeping young children happy on a cycling trip is to look for fun things to do or places to stop on the journey. "You need to turn every ride into an adventure," Ford advises. "It's very easy to go too far. Get advice from local bike shops. The chances are that a member of staff is also a parent and will have information that tourist information offices don't: which off-road descents are too difficult, which B roads are too busy.

"On his own bike, 10 to 12 miles is the tops for my five-year-old son in one day, and that's with breaks and something good to do. Fatigue can become a safety issue, because kids' balance goes when they are tired. Don't push them too hard."

Ford's golden rule is flexibility: "Be prepared to turn around and do something completely different for the day. With two adults, one can go back for the car if anything goes wrong."

Preparation is crucial. "I make sure I carry huge amounts of food," says Ford. "Kids have about 30 to 40 minutes of glycogen in their muscles. Then it's all gone and they'll suddenly not be able to go any further, which will upset them."

"My No 1 gadget is a kiddies' Camelbak [water carrier]. They cost about £15, and they're awesome. So many people forget about hydration in the summer, but kids love drinking through straws, so imagine how excited they get having a blue drinking straw strapped to their backs. My boy will drink more than a litre in an hour."

Inevitably, children will come a cropper on a bike sooner or later, and a pair of cycling gloves will prevent grazed fingers. And, needless to say, Ford agrees that a close-fitting helmet is essential: "The latest models, from the likes of Giro, are fantastic. They're much deeper at the rear to protect the back of the head, but are very well ventilated. A peak will keep the sun out of their eyes."

It is also well known that children are gravitationally attracted to puddles, so a change of clothes is a good idea, as is carrying a waterproof top.

Ford also emphasises the importance of putting children on the right bike: "They want a lightweight, alloy-framed bike, not a cheap, supermarket full-suspension bike, and don't let them tell you otherwise. Several brands have superb kids' bikes: Specialized's Hotrock kids' bikes have chain guides to keep the chain on, softly sprung forks and a light alloy frame. Avoid anything with a steel frame or wheels."

Route planning for family cycling expeditions is an art form. "Try using incentives, such as stopping at a café for a treat, to keep children cycling," Ford suggests. Cycleactive are based in Penrith, and the nearby Eden Valley makes an excellent base for a cycling holiday. It's not a tourist magnet, so there are no traffic jams, even in summer. "And it's full of open-air heated swimming pools, so you can cool off mid-ride," Ford says.

Older children may enjoy mountain biking at venues such as the 7Stanes centres in the Scottish borders. Mabie, Dalbeattie and Ae in Dumfries and Galloway have plenty of easy family trails and quiet backroads, plus events and guided rides scheduled throughout the summer holiday. If you're not sure that your children have the stamina for a full day out, you can always use a Burley bike trailer.

So, how extreme can you go on a family bike ride? Ford has long since ceased to be surprised by children's abilities: "My five-year-old learnt to cycle after his third birthday and just rode down his first flight of steps. Kids have great balance and no fear. As soon as they've got enough power in their legs, they're off."

A similar brand of advice also applies to watersports. David Ritchie is the Royal Yachting Association's (RYA) national sailing coach, responsible for the Learn to Sail programme. "There are two areas parents should concentrate on," he says, "safety and the quality of experience. Boating is very safe. Statistically, you're more likely to drown in your bath than in a boat. But, unlike many sports, there is a skill threshold and we recommend a two-day course, which will teach you how to launch a boat, sail it in light winds in all directions and get it back out of the water.

"The quality of experience is dependent on learning what to do, which makes the difference between a highly enjoyable time and a stressful one. I've taken my three-week-old daughter on my 22ft keelboat and my four-year-old loves dinghy sailing. But sailing schools prefer to take on pupils of eight years or older."

As with cycle rides, Ritchie believes the key to successful family sailing trips is variety. "Don't go far or fast but take lots of things to do: binoculars for spotting other boats and birds, a kite, a fishing line, even books or games. An outboard motor is useful in a dinghy in case the wind dies completely. Sailing can be incredibly educational - simply catching a fish and cooking it for supper teaches children about the food chain"

And, like young cyclists, children rapidly become skilled sailors. "My daughter is always surprising me with how quickly she learns," Ritchie says. The difficult part comes in keeping them sailing in their teens. "Children in their mid-teens, especially the girls, become much more interested in the social side of things."

Ritchie's solution? "If you're taking older children sailing this summer, allow them to bring friends or at least go somewhere where there are others in their age group. Choose a sailing club that offers a good social scene and an organised racing programme."

As for safety, Ritchie adds: "Yes, youngsters get thrown off the little boats, but it's easy to get back on." Just make sure they are wearing a buoyancy aid. The other essential is sunscreen.

The RYA are responsible for more than just dinghies and yachts. A whole raft of watersports falls under their umbrella, including windsurfing and powerboating, which opens the way for wakeboarding and waterskiing. Powerboats are currently outselling sailing boats at the rate of three to one. "They're more accessible," says Ritchie, "but training is just as important because the dangers are more subtle."

During the summer the RYA are holding a series of open days at sailing clubs around the country. Ritchie's advice for family boating trips is to put ambition aside. "The golden rule is that if you haven't done it without the kids, don't do it with them. Don't experiment or take chances; do get a weather forecast. I've got 30 years in the sport and I still take local advice."

But once they have got their sea legs, older children can throw caution to the wind. The most popular race-boat for children aged over 13 years is the 29er, a two-person skiff with a trapeze and electrifying performance. "It's thrilling to sail, easily capable of 15 knots," enthuses Ritchie, "but the consequences of stuffing it up are relatively trivial."

If you prefer terra firma to boats or bicycles, the summer is the best time to explore Britain's mountains. Nick Colton, the deputy chief officer of the British Mountaineering Council, says:" Start on very easy, less-than-steep slopes. If your children can handle that, then take them up a level. And take advice from guidebooks and local guides."

For mountain expeditions the determining factor is experience: Alun Davies, the editor of Adventure Travel magazine, had the confidence to introduce his three children to ice climbing and desert treks at a young age. This summer he is taking them, now aged 14, 16 and 18, on a five-day ridge walk in Transylvania.

But John Dunne, a professional climber and manager of the new indoor Manchester Climbing Centre, believes the aver-age family can benefit from taking a course that equips them for the hills: "A lot of families come to us to find out how to climb before they try the real thing outdoors. We're unique in employing BMGs [British Mountain Guides] and MIAs [Mountain Instructors Association members], and we have an AALA (Adventure Activities Licensing Authority) licence so we can take under-18s."

"You need more than a day whizzing up and down rock faces," he says. "The family must understand the dangers of the environment. We teach beginners about safety, such as how to spot loose rock, how to tie into a harness and how to belay. They need to know how to use the equipment and understand the terminology."

Dunne's golden rule is: "Know your limitations. A pleasant day can turn into a catastrophe if you don't do a careful risk assessment. Even relatively simple things, like starting at crags close to the car park, not halfway up Helvellyn, make a big difference. Taking the family out means doing much more homework."

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