Hiking with Kids
Hello! This month I 'm going to talk about one of my favorite activities - hiking! I love hiking, and I'd hike every day if I could (and if anyone wants to hire me to do just this, give me a call...). Hiking is great for families. You don't have to be in tip-top shape, you don't have to be a professional... and you don't have to outfit yourself at REI from head to toe first. There are so many choices for locations and trails that there is something for everybody. That being said, hiking with kids does require a little extra prep and a few extra supplies. Let's talk a little bit about how to plan a great hike with kids, and how you can have a great time out on the trail!
WHAT TO TAKE: Like I said before, you don't have to outfit yourself with quick-dry everything, wool, and microfiber from head to toe, but there are a few things that you MUST have. The ten essentials include water, snacks, sun protection, a knife, a flashlight, a jacket, map and compass, a small first aid kit, matches, and a whistle. Make sure you have these things on you for all but the shortest hikes. Bandaids are a must. Take extras.
Aside from the ten essentials, the main things that you will need are a good backpack and good shoes. It doesn't have to be a fancy backpack as long as it it comfortable. Your kids can carry a backpack too if they are old enough, for their water, snacks, and clothes. A hydration pack is a great option if you are going to be outside on a regular basis, but if not, a school backpack is just fine. I have the Camelbak Scout for my 2 year old daughter, and now that she has learned how to use the bite valve, it is great. Make sure each kid has a whistle around their neck or similar for safety reasons. More on this later.
Now, if you have a baby or a toddler, a carrier or baby backpack is a must. You don't want to carry your little one without help, and you're going to be a lot more comfortable with the security of a baby backpack. They leave your hands free for other things, such as helping older kids or getting a snack or a drink. Many of them even have an extra compartment for snacks and other things, and have waterbottle pockets on the sides. Normally, I don't make product recomendations, but in this case, the Osprey Poco Plus is the way to go. It is fully adjustable, which means that I can wear it comfortably, and so can my 6' tall husband. It has a built in sunshade, and plenty of room for diapers, snacks, sunscreen, and extra clothing, and lets little ones get a killer view right over the top of mom or dad's head. If you can shell out the money (and buy the raincover too), it is worth every cent. There are plenty of other options available if you are on a budget, so consider those, or look for a gently used pack on Ebay or at a kid's consignment store. Look for something with padded straps and a good waistbelt, and extra pockets and storage space.
Know that the motion of the carrier or backpack will put many kids to sleep, so don't be afraid to go around naptime. This is a great way to kill two birds with one stone.
Don't forget to pack all of the things that your baby needs, including diapers, extra wipes, disposal baggies, hand sanitizer, water or formula, snacks, sun protection, and extra clothing. You want to make sure that your little one is comfortable, protected from the sun or weather, and well hydrated. Same for older kids.
If you are planning on hitting a trail without bathrooms, bring some toilet paper, a freezer ziplock bag, and a small trowel. These are invaluable for when your six year old says he needs to poop and the nearest restroom is five miles away. Just dig a nice deep hole well away from the trail and any lakes or streams, let him do his business, and bury it well. Don't forget to pack out all of your trash, including the toilet paper (that's what the ziplock bag is for). Leave the trail free of trash, toilet paper bits, and used diapers. Mother Nature says thanks in advance. This is called LEAVE NO TRACE, and your kids should get familiar with this concept (although it is usually adults who violate this, not kids).
CLOTHING AND SHOES: Make sure that you and your kids (at least the ones who will be walking) are wearing sturdy shoes with good tread. This is not the time for flip-flops or sandals. Running or hiking shoes or boots are the best, and make sure that those laces are tight so that your feet don't slide around when you are going up or down hills.
Clothing should be comfortable and layered, so that you can add or remove clothing as needed. Workout clothes are great because they wick mousture away from the body, but play clothes and cotton are fine for short hikes as well. The only thing you really want to avoid are jeans, because they don't breath well and can chafe when they get damp. Don't forget a good sun hat for everyone in your family.
PICKING A TRAIL: If you are new to the whole hiking thing or have little walkers, pick a short, easy, well marked trail. The internet is a weath of trail information and reviews. If you are in a state or national park, stop by the ranger station and ask for some reccomendations. Make sure that you know where you're going and how to get back, and stay on the trail - no shortcuts. Nothing ruins a good more than getting lost. Don't forget a map!
Look for trails that have fun features, such as swimming holes, streams to wade or fish in, and meadows that can be explored. Younger kids aren't going to appreciate trails that end in spectacular views or summits.
Check the weather ahead of time so that you know what to expect. In many mountain ranges, like the Rockies and the Sierras, afternoon showers are a fairly regular occurrence. Don't let them surprise you. If the weather is being unpredicable, stay reasonably close or the car or your campsite.
ON THE TRAIL: A lot of this you will have to play by ear, depending on your kids. Be mindful of distance traveled, because if you are doing and out-and-back trail, don't forget to save at least 2/3 of your time and energy for the return trip. If you are doing a loop, also plan accordingly. Pace yourselves. You don't want to go so fast that your kids burn out a quarter of a mile into your hike. Don't be in a hurry to get anywhere. Hiking with kids is all about the journey, not the destination!
If you have a walking toddler on your back, give them time to get out. Often, they won't want to stay in the pack the whole time, so plan regular breaks where they can get out, have a snack and a drink, and explore. Look for nice flat wide areas, without unsafe features like waterfalls or cliffs. Let your toddler explore, touch, and play. With the exception of things like biting insects, poison plants, and dangerous animals, let your toddler play with and touch the things around her. This is important for child development and will keep her from being afraid of the world around her. Kids these days spend far too much time inside, so let them get the full sensory experience of being outside in nature. Make sure that little ones are well supervised, however, along with any older children that are hiking with you.
Older kids like time to explore too, and let them, just make sure that they understand to stay within site of an adult at all times. Let them know to keep a safe distance from wildlife and not to get close to water without an adult present. Teach them the crucial rule of wilderness safety: if they get lost, they should stay put and yell for help. Make sure that they know to use their whistle in this situation, so that an adult can find them.
Make up little games as you go if you need to, like counting trail signs, blazes, or birds. See who can find the biggest pinecone. Look for animal holes, dens, and nests. Teach your kids how to skip stones. See who can find the most colorful wildflower. Let each kid take turns being the "leader" and walking in front of the group. Plan a scavenger hunt.
Don't forget to take lots of breaks to snack and drink water. Don't let low blood sugar and dehydration make everybody cranky. Hiking requires energy, so fuel your body accordingly, and make sure you account for the faster metabolisms of kids.
Talk you your kids about what they hear, see, smell, and feel. Ask them what they think about things. This is a great time to learn and observe. If they have questions that you don't know the answer to, remember to look them up when you get home. Learning about nature is easiest when you are surrounded by nature, and kids are naturally curious. Indulge this curiosity. It is healthy and should be encouraged!
Last of all, don't forget to let your kids know when they do something positive. Were they good about not complaining? Did they drink plenty of water? Did they listen when you told them to stay within sight? Point these things out so that your kids can be proud of themselves. You'll foster a sense of accomplishment and set yourself up for success on your next hike.
So are you ready to hit the trail? Let me know how your next hike goes with these tips! Feel free to share any tips of your own, or just what your favorite family trail is in the comments below.