June 17, 2024 5 min read

Chasing Lizards: How to Plan a Spontaneous Family Outing

Every outing with kids is all smiles and super perfect, right?

If I’m being honest, I’d tell you that I like (at least a little) familiarity when it comes to planning nearby adventures with my kiddos. I like knowing what to expect and I appreciate the opportunity to prepare for an outing to a familiar space for the simple reason that it is justeasier. When you know what to expect - trail or road condition, water availability, picnic site options, creek exploration potential, typical weather patterns - you can set more realistic expectations.

Of course, on the flip side of that, I have also learned to appreciate some spontaneity in our lives! Sure, we likely know bits and pieces about the destination (weather, water sources, terrain) thanks to a map and weather apps, but the slight uncertainty of exactly what to expect, the opportunity to explore a new space and the fun in picking a spot on the map and just “going” can be a great experience - especially for kids! So when our kiddos pick up a Purple Lizard map and point to a random lizard as our destination for the day or weekend, we go for it!

Curiosity and Lizards are the prefect match.

 Here are 5 tips for “chasing lizards” with your little ones this fall and winter

1. Prepare for Spontaneous Opportunities 

It sounds counter-intuitive, but prepping your gear and yourself before a trip even gets planned will give future outings a better chance at succeeding. 

Being prepared includes a few things. First, you are physically and mentally prepared to take advantage of an unexpected opportunity - whether it’s a picnic spot or a weekend long camping/biking/hiking trip. And second, you have the tools to make it all happen including enough food, water and adequate gear.

While some adventures take as little as an extra layer, snacks and water bottle, others are a bit more gear-intensive. We like to use labeled storage bins to manage our hiking/biking/skiing apparel and activity-specific gear. By having our gear organized, ready (i.e., waterproofed, patched, etc.) and identified by labeled bins, we also have a better chance of grabbing what we need and getting out of the house faster. 

We have two types of bins: apparel and activity-specific. Our “apparel” bins include shoe-specific bins with various hand-me-down kids-sized shoes and boots and clothing bins with rain jackets, puffy down jackets, warm beanies, hats, and gloves. As for our activity-specific bins, they depend on the activity and include both adults’ and kids’ gear. Bike bins include bike bags with extra tools, patch kit and tubes, bike gloves, and bike helmets; ski bins include goggles, bike helmets, warmer gloves, ski boots and heavy-duty winter boots; hiking bins include gaiters and day packs; paddling bins include dry suits, PFDs and dry bags.

Whether you spontaneously pack a picnic with your great grandmother (where did you put that cooler and camp charcuterie board again?) or you are taking advantage of an unexpectedly mild and clear weekend-long adventure, being organized will benefit you and your family. And while it’s important to make sure you are personally ready, it’s even more important that kids are prepared (in my opinion). While adults are accustomed to having to manage inclement weather or unexpected events, kiddos can get frustrated, especially if we run out of food on a big hike or get to a trailhead and can’t ride because we forgot a rain jacket or realized their helmet was broken. By preparing our gear, ourselves and our kids beforehand, we increase the likelihood of a really positive experience! 

What did we forget? can be an unsettling feeling. Knowing you have what you need insures smooth sailing on the back roads to adventure.
2. Let them choose their own adventure

Now that your family and everyone’s “stuff” are ready for anything, empower your kids by lettingthemchoose the adventure! The purple lizards scattered throughout the Purple Lizard maps represent a unique destination or, as the maps share “This Could Mean Anything...cool place, sweet view, local legend”.

We let our kids search a specific map - most often Moshannon-Quehanna or Rothrock - and find the lizard that looks most exciting. Some of our favorite spontaneous destinations include Shaggers Inn Dam (spontaneous camping trip), Greenwood Furnace State Park (spontaneous day trip and picnic party), Tram Road Vista (spontaneous scenic back road drive).

Kids love to explore a big map! So do adults, but there is certain joy in watching children get excited about they find on the map.

3. Do your research

Once you pick your lizard (or any other destination), do a little research before you leave home. It is always a good idea to check operating hours and research whether or not special regulations are in place at your destination, and that can be done with a quick web search or phone call. For instance, if you plan to stay overnight, campgrounds and campsites may have special regulations (i.e., required permits) or closures, depending on the season. And, if your family includes dogs, check pet and leash regulations. You can find out the necessary logistical information by calling district offices or visiting the destination’s website before heading out.

Letting the kids pick a destination is great, but it's up to you to figure out the actual trip plan.
4. Nurture Curiosity 

If there is one thing that keeps my kids going back to wild places it’s their curiosity. What’s under this log? What’s around the next bend in the trail? What is that bird call? How fast can I pedal down this hill? I have learned to nurture that! Whether we explore together or they explore alone, the fact that they want to keep exploring is really important to us. The best result from an unexpected outing is when our kids don’t want to leave!

In a world dominated by screens and virtual voyeurism, being able to touch, feel and smell your environment brings us back to the real world we live in.
5. Expect the unexpected...and embrace it!

Spontaneity will undoubtedly reap unexpected results. I will admit, some of our spontaneous adventures don’t turn out the way I hoped. For instance, a spontaneous trip to Alan Seeger Natural Area to show my mother and our kids the amazing old growth trees turned into two kiddos melting down because they fell asleep on the ride and didn’t get a long enough nap. Once they calmed down and enjoyed a hefty snack, we were able to explore the creek and enjoy our afternoon in Rothrock State Forest.

How old is that tree? How old are you? There are so many teachable moments in a simple outdoor adventure.

Every trip has its ups and downs, no matter how much planning you put into it, so why not take advantage of an unexpected opportunity to get outside with your kiddos! No matter what lizard they choose, there will always be lessons learned and memories made.

Blog and Photos by Ryan Michelle Scavo, Outdoorswoman & Adventure Mama. Instagram: @Ryoutside

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