Love to hike? Can’t wait to hit the trails? Got new hiking boots and want to cover the miles (or kilometres?) Great – it’s the season.
And by the way, do you have kids? Hmmm. Let’s pause a minute and think this through.
If you love the outdoors and love the joy of being immersed in nature, then you no doubt want to share this love with your children. This can easily be done if you really really want them to love hiking and keep that as your priority. If your pre-parent goal was to cover great distances in good time, you’ll have to change your goal. Many eager parents have found that their enthusiasm to get from here to there quickly has backfired and they end up with children who groan whenever you say “let’s go for a hike”.
You can incubate your children’s love for hiking right from the earliest days. Babies are easy to take hiking. The tiniest ones you just strap into a wrap or Ergo and away you go. Once they are 6-8 months they can go into a frame backpack which has weather protection and storage capacity.
Your major concerns when hiking with babies are keeping them at the right temperature, protecting them from rain and wind, as well as sun and bugs, making sure they are fed when hungry, and that they have a clean diaper. Babies who are not yet mobile can usually spend hours happily bopping along with you in their carrier. The only real “say” they have is to let you know when they are hungry or uncomfortable.
Once children are mobile things change. The youngest toddlers are generally happy in a back carrier of some kind. They too must be protected from the elements and be kept fed, watered with dry diapers. But as children get closer to 2, they start wanting to walk on the trail with you.
This is the point where you really have to pay attention. You want hiking to be fun. Encourage your little ones if they want to walk, but recognize how tiny their legs are and that they can tire easily. If they are walking along happily and then start to fade, consider offering a healthy snack. See if that perks them up. If it does and they want to keep walking, great. If it doesn’t, pop them in a backpack, with no criticism, and keep going along happily. Ideally they will fall asleep in the backpack.
Once your kids are genuinely mobile and can go for considerably long stretches, it’s still important to monitor their mood and energy. Three your olds can do quite well. Four and five year olds start to take pride in their hiking prowess, and like to lead the way But preschoolers can also fade very quickly. Pushing them too far when they are tired, hungry, hot or uncomfortable turns hiking into an endurance test, rather than an opportunity to experience and explore the wonders of the natural world. Set realistic goals in terms of distance. The further you keep hiking, the longer the hike back. For three year olds, it’s a good idea to carry an Ergo or a framepack with you in case they have a ”meltdown”.
Here are a few general suggestions for hiking with young children
- A good rule for hiking distances is to hike as far as the youngest hiker can, unless you’ll be able to carry them if they get tired.
- Be sure to take rest stops, or “energy stops” as some people call them. A ten to fifteen minute break per hour is a good idea.
- Children like to “lead” the way. If you have more than one child be sure they take turns . When they are leading encourage their curiosity about what’s coming up on the trail Tell them that as the leader they have to be sure that they are always within view of you and their job is to make sure the group stays together.
- Most preschoolers like to carry sticks when they hike. Make sure each child has one that “fits” them.
- Encourage children to observe their surroundings. There is so very much to see in all directions. Let them explore on the ground, see how many wildflowers or fungi they can see. Encourage them to feel the texture of moss on trees, peeling bark etc.
- Provide you children with whistles so if they do go off the trail, they know how to call you.
- Always carry enough food and water so everyone is comfortable.
- Bring good quality gear for all weather conditions.
- You never know when it’s going to rain in the mountains, so pack good raingear for everyone
- Sun protection is essential – keep everyone well covered
- Insect bites are annoying and can ruin a hike. Carry safe bug protection and dress your children accordingly
- Have a good first aid kit with you
- If you can, finish the hike when everyone is in a good mood, so that everyone goes home happy and not cranky. That makes for a happier homecoming and happier memories.
Inspiring your children to love hiking is giving them a lifelong gift. They will love the outdoors, they will be fit and healthy and as a family you will be closer and more connected. So hit the trails together and enjoy!