Mar 22, 2021
Adventure By Osmosis: Introducing The Outdoor Parents Series with Ray Zahab
We ask one of the world's leading extreme explorers how we can pass down our passion for the outdoors to our children.
Before you read, remember this: Independent editorial isn't free. If you enjoy this article, please consider creating an account to support our journalism so we can keep going.
What is wrong with this picture? I’m holding my 10-month old daughter and looking out our second-story window at the neighborhood playground below. A handful of knee-high children scurry about the gravel-laid basin.
While the kids are in constant motion, scrambling from the sandbox to the tire swing to slide, their adult counterparts are all standing still – like static fixtures, mentally detached from the mini-adventures their kids are creating around their feet. I can’t help but think something is wrong here. But I’m a first-time dad, so maybe I just don’t know any better.
I reach out to Ray Zahab to ask how an extreme explorer approaches passing on his passion for the outdoors to his daughters in a natural way. How does someone who ventures solo across the arctic and runs across searing deserts think about sparking the same reverence for nature in his kids?
Zahab is a decorated ultra-runner who has run 17,000 kilometers across the world’s deserts. He’s the first person to run the length of the “driest desert on Earth”, the Atacama Desert in northern Chile, solo. He also runs unsupported expeditions in some of the coldest places on the planet. In 2009, Ray and two fellow Canadians broke the world speed record for an unsupported expedition by a team to the South Pole. [Read more about Zahab’s adventures in A Trail of Ice and Fire.]
“For the past 15 years, I’m very fortunate I get to do what I love – being a professional explorer – as my living. But the greatest gift in my life has been being a dad.”
Surprisingly, for all that he’s accomplished, Zahab got a late start at ultra-running after spending years indulging in not-so-healthy habits; but at 52, he’s as fit as he’s ever been.
“These were the days that I dreamed of, being fit enough at 52. This is exactly what I thought about when I thought I can’t wait to have babies – my youngest running technicals out on the trails.”
Zahab’s first daughter arrived in 2008, the year after he set out on a 111-day expedition to cross the Sahara Desert by foot.
By the time Zahab returned from his record-breaking South Pole expedition in 2009, he found his daughter Mia crawling through his gear, absorbing adventure by osmosis.
“Being immersed in the outdoors, in that mountain air, the earlier you get them out there the better. We started right away. Immediately. Mia was in the backpack as soon as her head was stable, strapped up to that chinstrap that she drooled all over.”
Zahab’s second daughter, Anika, was born shortly after he returned from crossing the Atacama Desert in 2011, and by the end of that year, both girls joined Zahab and his wife on the trails as the family – both in backpacks.
Although Zahab continues to seek out more and more remote areas of the globe to explore, the adventures back home with his daughters have become the highlights of his life.
“On all of my expeditions, I dream about days when I return home, to create our own family adventures big and small.”
Zahab’s advice inspired me to hike 100 miles on the Camino de Santiago with my wife and our 7-month old baby. Prior to that, I had only ever hiked 10 miles in a day once or twice, so committing to hike 12 to 15 miles per day for 9 days straight, with the extra weight of the baby carrier on my back, was a huge step up. The following are the 6 biggest takeaways, straight from Ray Zahab himself, about introducing kids into a life of adventure in the outdoors.
1. Catch Up, Fall Down
As is often the case with siblings, the youngest one sprints to catch up to the older brother or sister’s abilities and reaches milestones much quicker.
When Anika was born, Mia was just turning three and she had already been on skis. She had already been in the backpack and in the outdoors quite a bit.
“For Anika, Anything her sister could do, she wanted to do it and keep up – in record time.”
Zahab and his wife foster Anika playing catchup to Mia’s abilities to overcome the three-year age gap, but they also design their family outings around the youngest’s abilities at the time.
Every Sunday throughout the summer, the Zahab’s go out on a family run and their girls set exceedingly difficult goals, including a 20k non-stop trail run near their home in Chelsea, Quebec.
“The oldest, even though she’s twelve, runs like an adult! She could run 50k. The younger one is a really good technical runner but she doesn’t have the same engine as the older one. So when we’re running as a family, we focus our family goals around our nine-year-old. And the oldest will wrap herself around Anika’s goals as well.”
The girls battled bravely against the humidity and swarming deer flies, but at the 10k mark, Zahab’s youngest daughter tripped on a root and landed hard. Zahab brushed the dirt from her knees and the tears from her eyes. Then he jogged ahead, grabbed a pile of dirt, and rubbed it up and down his legs, yelling “Ow!”
When his daughter Anika looked at his knees and noticed the dirt on his legs, she got a smile on her face.
“She doesn’t want to call me on it, but she knows one of two things, either I’ve really fallen and now my knees are exactly like hers, or I did this because I want her to feel good. It didn’t matter which one, it was motivating for her and made her smile, reinvigorated.”
Either way, Anika was happy knowing that her dad, who is supposed to be a professional adventurer, falls down sometimes too.
2. Shift Your Priorities
You might think that Zahab designs his seemingly impossible expeditions to inspire his daughters to do great things in their lives and that he feels driven to get to the finish for fear of letting them down. But as a dad, Zahab has learned to see the insignificance of the finish line through the eyes of his daughters.
“You have a shift in your priorities. There are things in life that are more important than the things I need.” Zahab’s wife Kathy was pregnant while he was running across the Atacama desert. Just two days away from finishing the expedition, Zahab nearly had to rush home from a remote stretch of the desert because the was a chance the baby could come early. That moment made him realize that the expedition was insignificant compared to the health of his family.
“When I’m out on an expedition, I don’t feel like I need to finish just to tell them that I finished. It’s the stories they want to hear. They don’t care about the end result. This is what we’re trying to teach them – to be in the moment when we’re out on the trails on an adventure.”
3. C’est Normal
Although Zahab has been recognized by Guinness World Records and even bestowed honors by the Canadian government, you won’t find his shiny trophies littered around the house, in fact, it would be difficult to find them at all.
“I have a filing cabinet that’s full of magazine covers and awards, including Guinness World Record for fastest to reach south pole unsupported, and other memorabilia. None of it is up on the walls. It’s all stored in a filing cabinet for my daughters to look at many years from now.”
To his daughters, Zahab and his wife treat his far-flung career as an explorer just like any other career – it’s normal. The atmosphere in his home is that everybody’s successes are equal.
“It’s completely normalized what I do. It’s my job. They are intrigued and they want to hear stories from my expeditions, but we don’t make it a focal point of our lives at home. We try instead to celebrate other unique successes.”
As a fitting example, Zahab recently repurposed two medals from ultra-marathon races that he won to give them to his daughters for completing the 20k trail challenge that they dreamed up this summer.
“Those awards don’t define who I am as a person and I don’t want Daddy’s successes to be on the walls every time they walk in the house.”
4. Avoid Falling Out of Love
In those early days on the trails, when his daughters were just ready enough to hop out of the backpacks and try walking on their own, there was a fair share of meltdowns and skinned knees, but Zahab and his wife Kathy try never to push the girls beyond the point of falling out of their new love with the outdoors.
“We celebrated the good days, whether skiing, trail running, or fastpacking in the mountains, and on the bad days, we shorten the outing or don’t go at all.”
As a family motto, Zahab and his wife Kathy try to remind their daughters that “a bad start to a day in the woods is a good day waiting to be discovered.”
Zahab is also careful not to push his specific passions. He’s toured the arctic on his mountain bike, yet he’s okay with his daughter Mia showing more interest in paddle sports than.
“They develop their own passions. If they want to take up mountain biking then great. If they don’t, I could care less. It doesn’t change anything for me. As long as they want to go out and do stuff.”
5. Go for Full Immersion
Whether it’s jogging in the trails in their neighborhood, or fast-tracking to a tree-house in the wilderness, Zahab always asks his girls to lead the way. With the girls out front, they’re not running just to run. Instead, they are learning how to know their surroundings.
Zahab has taught them some of the navigation basics that he relies out on his solo missions, such as how to read contour lines on a map and how to know what position they are heading in based on the position of the sun in the sky. He shows his daughters how to look through the trees to the horizon and how to understand how to use that varying light coming through the trees to pace themselves as they gain elevation. The girls love the ever-changing elevation and the challenge of making it to each of their planned waypoints.
“They notice things on the trails and they’ll identify things that I hadn’t noticed. They’re immersed in their surroundings and in the moment. We don’t just get through a run so we can go get ice cream. We point out moss or stop to take a photo of a plant.”
With that being said, it’s also fun to motivate the girls by reminding them of pizza and lemonade in a cooler in the car waiting for them.
6. Sharpen Your Sense of Danger
Zahab has spent twenty years learning how to survive expeditions in hot deserts, the home of lions, baboons, and hyenas, however, since his girls were born, he’s developed a different eye towards assessing danger and risk.
“If anything, your senses are sharpened. The expeditions that intrigue me are more and more on the periphery.”
Of course, there are elements like wildlife and weather that are out of his control, but Zahab has become even more razor-sharp in his planning and risk assessment to make sure that each expedition is as safe as it can possibly be.
In addition to passing on the basics of orienteering, Zahab also researches all sorts of crazy animal facts so when they’re running he can tell them different stories. For example, “Did you know that some individual ants can live to be 40 years old?” If that’s not a classic dad fact, I don’t know what is.
In addition to being a parent, Zahab is also an educator. With Impossible2Possible, Zahab’s charitable organization, he brings classrooms all over the planet with him on his expeditions, following along in real-time. Both outside his family and within it, he is truly making an impact on inspiring the next generation of explorers.
“I see in my daughters a growing fascination of what adventures are out there waiting for them, and it stokes me so much that they are getting increasingly excited to explore in a bigger way.”
In case you missed Zahab’s episode on The Outdoor Journal Podcast, check out his most memorable details over his 15 ultra-running expeditions as well as his most poignant moments of reflection on the human experience, spirituality, and our undeniable interconnectedness. (Listen to the full podcast episode on iTunes).
Follow along with Ray’s expeditions on his website rayzahab.com and social media: