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Hiking with Kids: What You Need to Know

Take a hike!

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I get asked all the time how we can make such long trips with kids.  Well, my in-laws, and most of Kyle’s family for that matter, live 11 hours away from us.  The rest of them live at least 2 flights away from us.  Our kids have, since their infancies, been taking long road trips to see family.  Not only are they used to it at this point, but they understand that their endurance in the car will be rewarded with something fun on the other end, be it grandparents and popsicles, or national parks and ice cream cones. 

Just like conditioning them to long car rides, the earlier you start hiking (or any activity) with them, the better.  And you need to start when they are as young as possible.  So young, in fact, that they haven’t figured out they can complain about it.  Sure, tummies get hungry, booties get tired, and attitudes turn grumpy, but overall, my kids are used to long hauls in the car.  The same goes for hiking, or anything else you want to attempt with your children:  the earlier you start them, the better.

Get Ready!

Little Bit booking it down the trail towards the hot springs in Big Bend National Park.

We did quite a bit of hiking on this trip, which was the plan.  Now that the kids are getting older we anticipate longer and more frequent hikes in our future, so this trip was a good primer for all of us to learn what works and what does not.

Trails are interesting places for human observation.  You’ve got the guy with the two trekking poles, full backpack, and hydration system on the same trail as the toddler with sandals on the wrong feet carrying a bag of Doritos holding hands with the elderly grandma who looks like she’s never walked farther than the distance between her kitchen and living room.  And then there’s everyone else in between. The teenagers in flannel pajama pants and Birkenstocks more interested in finding a cell signal than nature, the photographer carrying his weight in lenses and equipment, you get the picture.  And then there’s our family.  I’m typically the only one who ever carries a pack, and it only holds the absolute necessities. We are dressed as appropriately as possible, and in layers.  We never use trekking poles. This is just what works best for us.

Taking a break to enjoy the nature.

While we did a 6-mile hike to a waterfall, in a snow storm, no less, I would recommend keeping the hikes short unless your kids are seasoned hikers or just have a ton of energy to burn. Three miles, round trip, is a good, solid hike for kids, and if you stick to this length or less, you can do at least a couple of hikes each day. If you know you are taking a trip that will involve hiking (or even if you aren’t), start taking family walks at home. We love taking family walks when we aren’t on the road. Ours usually happen after dinner, and it’s a great way to get out any last energy before bath and bedtime. Making family walks a habit not only get your kids trail ready, but it also helps them to learn how to incorporate exercise into their daily routine.

Dress for Success

Hiking in the Tetons in the snow!

Obviously, you need to dress for the season and the local climate, but layers are key!  A light rain jacket, good hiking boots go a long way in keeping you comfortable and safe on the trail.  During our snow storm hike, our kids only had their tennis shoes, which should have been sufficient, but they (the girls especially) kept traipsing through mud puddles. Once their feet got wet, in that weather, they got cold fast. After that experience, we decided that the next thing we needed to do was buy hiking boots for all the kids.  Thankfully, we found Vasque boots on sale for the boys.  The girls Merrells were not on sale, but they are fantastic little boots and hopefully they’ll get good use to of them before they outgrow them. 

Don’t Get Hangry!

Taking a snack break to talk about the trail.

*Some* of us are guilty of getting hangry. You know, that’s when you get angry because you’re hungry. I’m the hangry one, and I’ve definitely passed it on to at least two of the kids. Therefore, I plan ahead like crazy to make sure no one gets hangry on the trail.

Carry plenty of water and snacks that have “good” calories— beef jerky, apples, granola bars, things that are going to give your kids more energy to keep going.  Staying hydrated is just as, if not more than, important as snacks.  One of my favorite things about ranger stations and visitors centers in national parks is the filtered water dispenser you’ll find near water fountains and the restrooms. They are motion activated and have a counter on them to show you how many plastic bottles have been “saved” by filling your reusable water bottle instead.  Find water bottles that you and your family like and will want to use. These are our favorites and fit perfectly in the pockets of my daypack.

Let the kids take the lead, and see things through their eyes.

Stay Together as a Group!

Let’s be honest. No group activity is fun unless everyone involved is having fun. If there is a member of the group who is miserable, that totally defeats the purpose of a group activity. This is never more obvious than on the trail.

While you don’t want to stop too often, you also don’t want to wear anybody out.  Take breaks when necessary, and use those times to grab a bite, sip some water, take a few photos, then hit the trail again.  Only go as fast as your slowest hiker.   It isn’t fun for anyone to have half the crew hike ahead, then have to wait for the slower half to catch up.  And it really isn’t fun when the slowest person catches up and hopes for a break just to see the fastest in the crew (refreshed for their waiting) hit the trail once again.

Stay Safe

Last, but certainly not least, is safety. We live in the South, so my kids have learned from a very early age to ask questions like, “are there alligators? are there snakes?” before entering a body of water. Sure, they were laughed at a few years ago in Wyoming, but it’s good that they know to ask these things. They understand (living in the land of tornadoes) that weather can get violent and ugly quickly. They know that nature can and will kill them if they give it the chance. These things do not make them nervous or anxious about being in nature. My kids love being in nature, and have a very healthy appetite for adventure!

There is a balance you can and should strike with your kids between having fun and staying safe. In fact, staying safe is fun! I mean, seriously, it’s no fun if someone drowns or get bitten by a water moccasin. You know that old saying, “it’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye”? Yeah, it’s true. And I actually have a friend who lived that tale.

That being said, explain to your kids why trail safety is important. Staying on the trail isn’t just for their safety (this is where the land is maintained and safe for you to walk), but is also safe for the plants and animals who live there after you leave. Trampling through bushes damages food and bedding area of the local wildlife. A big rule my kids learned this trip: no throwing rocks off cliffs. You never know what’s below you.

Stay ON the trail!

Instead, use these hikes to teach your kids about the world around them. “Look! Here’s poison ivy! Remember: leaves of three, let them be.” Don’t eat berries you can’t identify. And never, ever litter. Especially around my kids because they will call. you. out. (Speaking of litter, a word on defacing nature: it is never cool or romantic or whatever to carve anything–your initials, your name, anything–on any part of nature, be it tree trunks or rocks or anything in between. If you do this in a National Park or on protected public land, you will be prosecuted and heavily fined. You will also be justifiably publicly shamed.)

Add More Fun with Games

Adventure is out there, so go find it!

We have a trail game that helps the kids learn more about the environment they’re in. You can read about it here. Every area has a different “thing.” In some areas, it’s alligators. In others, it’s bears. Some places have flash floods, other places heat stroke is a concern… some places have both! Know your surroundings, then discuss it with your kids. As their appreciation grows, so will their interest.

So get out there and have fun! Do you have any tips you’d like to add? Feel free to share in the comments section!

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