Getting to grips with climbing as a family

Dr John McCabe is a Consultant Paediatrician, married with four-year-old and two-year-old sons. He is a member of the British Mountaineering Council and has been climbing for over 20 years. Here, he shares his love of climbing, and advises how best to ensure your children are safe and healthy if you're climbing as a family.
Dr John McCabe and his sons

Climbing is a wide-ranging term, from hill walking to free solo rock climbing to trips to your local climbing gym. For me, climbing has encompassed all of the above and is a massive part of my life; it has given me some amazing adventures, introduced me to my wife and allows me to ‘clear my head’ in between increasingly busy hospital shifts.  

Climbing had given us so much that we were determined to continue with it after the birth of our sons. After the birth of our first son we went, as a family, to our local climbing gym. We took it in turns to watch him sleep, for that is mostly what babies do on their first few days, whilst the other climbed.* We were especially proud of ourselves; not least for simply getting out of the house! We began to dream of potential climbing adventures as a family... however, the more I thought about it, the more overwhelming it felt.

Can we keep our baby safe?

I am a consultant paediatrician with extensive experience in acute paediatrics and I am an instructor on Newborn Life Support and Advanced Paediatric Life Support courses. I also have significant outdoor training experience. I felt our sons would be safe in the hills with us. However, I want to use this opportunity to state that despite my knowledge, nothing prepares you for your own baby. I do not want to excessively encourage families into the mountains if they are not prepared.

Dr John McCabe
Dr John McCabe with his son

Infants and toddlers are a widely diverse group, varying in weight, size, intellectual and emotional responses: much like the rock climbers I know. The most important factor to consider when taking your baby into the mountains is keeping your baby warm. Babies have a markedly elevated body surface area to weight ratio and are consequently relatively more prone to hypothermia. Most outdoor enthusiasts are aware of the importance of layering clothing, but this is vastly more important for your baby.  A baby, in a backpack carrier, will not be as active as you are, so remember to monitor their temperature; you may have warmed up but they may not. The converse is true too, leaving them in a stroller with a cloth over it to shade from the sun may result in their temperature increasing dangerously.

Be aware of your environment, your location and plan for this. A baby may be entertained in a travel cot at a sport climbing crag with relative ease but a toddler may be a danger to himself or others at the very same location only a few months later. With infants, often information must be gleaned from non-verbal cues including facial expression and posture. You must use these cues to feed them, change them or simply entertain them. Awareness of their routine may enable a feed before starting a climb. Infants are constantly evolving, so what works one month may be obsolete the next.  

Next, changing your baby, I fear I have not discovered a secret here; just be as quick as possible, shade them from the wind or the sun and bring extra disposable bags to store the nappy in until you're back at a bin.  

Children and the outdoors

Healthy babies are extremely resilient. They yearn for entertainment, for their view of the world to be expanded. They love being outside, to look at trees, listen to the birds, and watch the clouds. Nevertheless, we had worried over distracting other climbers, or the impact of the social media opinions as to the appropriateness of continuing a climbing lifestyle with young children.  

However, this feeds into a further benefit of climbing as a family, namely less screen time. Now, we are not a radical family in this regard but I do agree with the College's guidance advising that screen time should be built around family activities and not the other way around [this guidance is no longer available]. Thankfully, our experiences have been completely positive. At our local bouldering gym, the staff were extremely supportive. Carrying on climbing adventures with my family has been fantastic and has revitalised the outdoors for me, allowing me to see it again for the first time through their excitement.

I know there are many other climbing parents reading this, many with far more experience than us, so if you have any useful tips, please share them! For those of you who don’t have children, perhaps we may reduce some of the mystery and apprehensions to climbing parenthood. The final point of climbing with children is, like climbers, their demands vary widely!

  • ** The return to climbing will differ significantly for every woman, depending on the mechanism of delivery and any complications - if in doubt please discuss with your obstetrician and heed your own body.