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Hiking with Kids
Courtenay Schurman, MS, CSCS
Enjoy the summer with your young kids by including them in your hiking plans! What better way to get some exercise (for kids AND adults), explore your surroundings, and turn them on to the joys of the mountains, forests, trails, and local waterfalls! Below we have suggested six useful tips to consider when embarking on a new hiking program with a toddler or preschool child aged 2-4.
- Set realistic expectations -- Consider the age of your child, first and foremost, and toss out any expectations you had that hiking would continue to be the same as it was before you had children. The younger the child or children, the slower the pace will be whenever your child is on foot. Younger children may be more willing to be carried, which could enable parents to cover more distance. We took our 7-week-old daughter with us on a 10-mile hike of Granite three years ago and were able to carry her the entire way. Once she turned a mobile, squirming toddler, we had to lower our expectations to whatever SHE could handle. Our first outing with her on foot was a one-mile round trip hike down to the base of Snoqualmie Falls when she was two. A year later we tried the same trip again; not only did she walk the whole thing herself, but she only needed one break on the way up. Her next challenge will be a 1.5 mile round trip outing, and we’ll keep progressing from there as she gets more comfortable with longer distances as long as she keeps enjoying the outings.
- Choose interesting venues -- Select hikes near scenic waterways, trips to pretty lakes or waterfalls, along interesting beaches, or to fields of beautiful wildflowers in full bloom, and children will be more apt to enjoy themselves from all the interesting things to look at. Consider choosing outings where the trail is in and of itself the enjoyable part, since views or vistas at this age simply don’t seem to offer as much reward. By including nurse logs, interesting caves (Big Four Ice Caves was our daughter’s second hike), or other neat natural spectacles, you can have fun introducing your children to some or nature’s most beautiful creations.
- Bring special, tasty snacks -- One of the things our daughter really looks forward to is unusual snacks and frequent juice breaks, so be sure to have lots of tempting, tasty treats that the kids will enjoy. Get them involved ahead of time in helping prepare homemade GORP – Good Old-fashioned Raisins & Peanuts – and have them select the treats to include -- teddy bear graham crackers, goldfish crackers, yogurt pretzels or chocolate chips, cashews, cranberry raisins -- to entice them even more. Small cans of pineapple juice or pint-sized bottles of flavored water that they get to drink from the bottle itself may also be quite tempting. Establishing a tradition of a picnic at the end destination, or a special snack after the hike can make the trip memorable and help them look forward to the next adventure.
- Be flexible -- Be willing to change objectives at any time. If it starts to rain, and you have rain gear on you, you can turn your hiking trip into a puddle jumping trip or a worm-hunting trip. If your child is more fascinated by the flowers or snails, slow your pace and release the goal of reaching the final destination. If you are headed to a new, more challenging (than before) place and your child is a bit tired or cranky, you may want to change venues altogether (i.e. to something easier, or only part of the route) or go someplace you know you have already had success trying before. You may have heard the phrase “Process over Product” which refers to enjoying the event rather than the end result – the phrase certainly applies to hiking, as well. By teaching your children at a young age that being outside is fun, rewarding, interesting, exciting, and desirable, as they get older, if they already have an appreciation for all nature has to offer they will want to continue to explore.
- Bring a friend -- The second time we did Snoqualmie Falls we went with a friend and her four-year-old daughter. They excitedly dashed ahead of us, laughing and skipping, happy to be with a playmate on a great adventure. Both girls did great, enjoying each other’s snacks, throwing rocks in the water, and playing hide-and-seek during rest stops. They had far more fun with a friend along than they otherwise would have, with just a parent or two along.
- Finally, suggest ways to entertain the child. Some of you may be thinking “the hike IS the entertainment.” For adults, perhaps. However, we found that once we got to the harder parts of the hike -- usually any moderate uphill -- and the children start to lag from fatigue, having some tricks up your sleeve to distract them can help turn an otherwise hard hike into an enjoyable outing. Try playing “I spy,” and have them find the object you name; suggest that they “find a flower that’s yellow” (or any object of any other color); play a rhyming game and ask your child to make a rhyme with interesting things you see while walking along (log, rock, stick, flower, bridge, water, etc.); or simply talk with your child about what she or he is thinking, what you are doing or seeing as you walk, and what you plan to do the week ahead of you. This suggestion definitely works for older children, but our daughter liked laughing at the funny nonsense words we came up with that rhymed with her name, and we noticed far more of the plants and foliage than we otherwise would have so we could point them out to her.
Happy hiking, and see you out there!