I know people who love hiking with their kids. I also have friends who are still so scarred by disastrous hikes that they may never again take their children out on the trail.
There is definitely an art to hiking with kids, one that involves planning, patience, and a keen understanding both of yourself and your children. But it's worth it. Because hiking can prove to be a perfect introduction to the natural world. It can inspire your children's appreciation of the environment and help lead them to a lifetime of adventure.
And never underestimate a kid's craving for adventure. I had been planning a solo hike into the Tortolita Mountains near Tucson when I discovered that my 8-year-old niece Charlotte and 12-year-old nephew Nathan decided they were coming along too.
I was convinced it was going to be a short hike. But the two of them kept pushing us ahead and before long, we had reached a high ridge with a huge panorama of the desert. Not only did they keep up, I finally had to tell Nathan that he was going to have to give up the ten pounds of rocks that he had collected halfway into the hike.
Key Benefits of Hiking For Kids
• Weight Control and Fitness. We've all read the numerous accounts of the obesity epidemic among children in the U.S. Hiking is an easy and natural way to get kids moving and burning calories. Get 'em off the couch!
• Avoiding "Nature-Deficit Disorder." Author Richard Louv came up with this concept to describe the profound disconnect that many children have from the natural world. Hiking can establish and help maintain a child's bond with nature. It engages and trains their senses to appreciate the nuances of the world around them.
• Turn Off and Tune In. Yes, computers, video games, DVDs, and television are facts of life. But they're not life itself. Hiking pulls the plug on media addiction-assuming you lay down the law about using smart phones and iPods on the trail.
Before You Go
• Do your homework. Look for kid-friendly trails in your area. Interpretive trails are a good place to start because they tend to be easy and offer information that might spark interest. For other prospective trails, you might want to first hike them yourself to determine how challenging the route is. That also gives you an opportunity to pre-scout points of interest along the way.
• Find trails with a goal. Kids love a sense of accomplishment and by taking them on a trail that offers a reward-a view, a waterfall, a lake-you'll help keep them motivated.
• Look for children's programs at parks near you. Many parks offer ranger-led programs for families that emphasize fun and education. And the National Park Service has an ambitious Junior Ranger Program both at major parks like the Grand Canyon and smaller NPS units.
• Get the kids involved. Build up the anticipation and sense of adventure. Start talking about where you're going to go and what you might see. Look at maps and let them pick out what snacks they want to bring (albeit from a healthy selection that you've already chosen).
• Gear up. Comfort is key. Granted, they're going to quickly outgrow their hiking boots and clothing. But you don't want to wear the wrong boots and clothing for hiking and neither will children. Buy your kids daypacks and let them carry a few things (but don't weigh them down). Also be sure to carry adequate supplies: food, water, bug spray, extra clothing, and sun protection.
• Check the weather. For all of your careful planning, reconsider your hiking day if the forecast calls for hot weather or the chance of thunderstorms. It's not only a matter of safety but a miserable day on the trail may make kids more reluctant to try hiking again.
On the Trail
• Start slowly, then build up. Nothing will turn off your child more than a hike that turns into a forced march. Every kid is different and you'll want to determine your child's endurance and level of interest by first trying some shorter hikes.
• Keep them close. Especially in areas where bears and mountain lions are present, you don't want your kids to get too far away from you. It will also reduce the chances for falls and encounters with poison oak, poison ivy, and cacti. Give each of your children their own whistle in case you do get separated.
• Inspiration not intimidation. Kids can get a bit pokey on the trail, especially as the "Are we there yet?" questions kick in. It can get frustrating. But you'll want to maintain your own enthusiasm and inspire them to push on rather than admonishing or shaming them to keep going because the hike is somehow good for them. And if the going gets ugly, be ready to bail.
• Stop frequently. Let your kids set the pace on the trail and anticipate that there will be lots of breaks for snacks (you'll want to keep their energy up) and to rest.
• Engage their senses. Bring along a magnifying glass so that they can get a close-up look at bugs, leaves, and rocks. Binoculars can enhance wildlife spotting and to bring distant landmarks closer. An easy-to-use field guide will help you answer the inevitable questions. Have everyone stay silent and listen to the sounds of the outdoors and let them touch tree bark and rocks to develop a tactile connection with nature.
• Stay loose, stay spontaneous. Be flexible enough to allow your kids to indulge their curiosity. Sure it's great to reach a goal but if things catch their attention and they repeatedly stop to explore, they'll be stimulated and the hike will be more fun for everyone.
• Take pictures and keep a hiking journal. You may not be able to immediately identify everything you see on the trail. So in addition to adding to your family photo album, you'll be able to use the pictures to figure out the names of animals and plants. You can also take pictures of landmarks and then point them out on a map to develop map-reading skills. A journal will help track of where you have hiked and show your kids how they've improved on the trail. There are all sorts of easy-to-use hiking apps that will log outings and create maps of where you have hiked.