Hiking with children can be enjoyable, so long as you prepare.
It was a choice of adventure over labor.
A niece graduated from high school and we, her far flung family, assembled in Ohio from points all over the map to celebrate.
But you know how these things go. Before the burgers and fried chicken and cake and decorations and other assorted hoopla there’s lots of work to do. And sometimes things get stressful.
So I did what I do best. I escaped to the woods.
“I’ll tell you what,” I said to my wife and the in-laws, in my best ‘I’ll take one for the team’ voice. “I’ll round up the kids and we’ll get out of here and go on a hike. They’ll be out from underfoot and it will be easier on everyone.”
They actually bought it.
So before anyone could change their mind, I gathered up the nieces and nephews and off we went.
And what fun it was. The kids, a mix of boys and girls ages 8 to 13 or so, had a blast, as did I. We climbed boulders, skipped stones, ran across bridges, collected walking sticks, compared leaves and generally explored the nearest state park with as much enthusiasm as any pioneer wandering a new frontier.
Oh, there were some differences between us and more seasoned adventurers, all right.
Our snacks-eaten-per-mile-walked ratio was crazy high. The way those kids laid waste to the dried banana and strawberry chips, chocolate, sports drinks and water I packed was more reminiscent of raging, pillaging Vikings than elementary and middle schoolers.
Well, maybe. There are some similarities between those two groups, come to think of it.
Then, too, we made so many stops – to check out bugs, inspect mushrooms and other fungi, stare down a great blue heron and more – that we never did get to our planned destination, the park nature center, before we had to turn around and go back.
And we were less than stealthy. When the kids weren’t laughing and giggling they were just as loudly arguing about who was leading or walking too fast.
But that’s all part of hiking with kids.
They’re often a hoot on the trail, makers of memories on special days like Take a Hike Day – Nov. 17 this year – and on regular old visits to the woods. But wandering through nature with them requires planning.
Here are a half dozen suggestions on how to make hiking with children as fun as can be.
First, plan on feeding the masses. Children don’t always eat a lot in one sitting, but they do eat often. Pack energizing snacks – trail mix, chocolate, dried fruit, bananas, peanuts and the like – that you can dole out as needed.
Hard candy is often a good choice, too. The few minutes it takes to eat it is often just enough time to get kids getting a little cranky back on track.
Second, take lots of water. I’ve been on lots of hikes that involved lots of thirsty whining. And that’s just counting what comes from me. Parched kids are even worse. So make sure you have lots of water to go around.
Third, adjust your expectations. As an adult, you may set out on a trail with grand designs of covering a certain number of miles, or getting to a spectacular overlook, or just making a loop. But children often have a different agenda.
They might see the boulder you always admire, but from afar, as a rock desperately crying out to be climbed. Or they may want to linger, fascinated, over a puddle, a pile of leaves, a deer track or something else.
Let them set the pace and explore the things that capture their attention.
Fourth, make them a part of the team as much as possible.
A sure way to kill a hike is to sling a too-heavy pack on a child, then force them to carry it up and down steep hills. They’re likely to remember the trip as an endurance test more than as a fun outing.
So don’t overburden them.
But at the same time, let them participate. Allow children to help pick the snacks they want, for example, and let them carry a little bit of their own food, water or gear themselves. They’ll feel more like explorers then.
Fifth, let them take a friend.
I know what you’re thinking. I’ve got two or three children of my own, and you want me to take two or three more?
But provided you have another adult or two, letting children hike with friends — rather than just siblings – is often easier and leads to more fun. They can pair off with someone their own age, with shared interests, and focus on being more independent and less restricted.
Sixth, pick your spots.
Even kids who like to play in the yard in a spring rain can find hiking in the chill of a wet November afternoon less than enthralling. So, especially when your children are young, time your hikes for days when conditions are pleasant.
You may still get caught in the rain sometime. And if you do, slip everyone into their rain gear and keep a good attitude, even if you have to retreat to the trailhead.
But don’t make a point of roughing things too dramatically if you don’t have to.
The idea of hiking, remember, is to enjoy being outdoors. So keep an eye on your children as you’re exploring and adjust as needed. Play games, sing songs, do a scavenger hunt, pick up litter, take pictures or do whatever.
Just make hiking fun.
It beats working, after all.
Think safety when hiking with children
Children are natural explorers and often love to roam forests and fields.
Occasionally, though, they go too far and become lost. That’s scary for everyone.
So spend some time talking to children about what to do in the event of an emergency. Have them carry a whistle and teach them that, should they get separated, they are to stop in one place and blow on the whistle in a series of the sharp bursts.
A really good resource is the “Hug a Tree and Survive” program. It offers a resource guide for parents to teach their children how to handle such situations, and has an educational activity and coloring book for kids themselves.
A video teaching those principles, and is great for watching with children, is available here.
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