Outdoor adventures were a big part of my childhood. My parents were taking me on hikes as a very young child. My dad keeps a photo of him and I in his office; I’m all of a few months old, asleep in a child pack on his back. I’ve attempted to give the same types of experiences to my children. Eli has turned into quite the little hiker/adventurer, and we have every hope that Ezra will as well.
I’ve had a few folks over the past several years ask how best to get their families engaged with the outdoors. So, I’ve decided to put together my suggestions into a blog post. Take them with a grain of salt, as they are by no means definitive, but I hope the reader can find them useful.
1. Start them young. Kids that grow up having outdoor adventures tend to keep enjoying and seeking out adventures outside. My siblings and I were going with my parents on hikes before we could walk, and Mel and I had Eli out in the mountains and wild spaces before he turned one. Being outside won’t hurt them, as long as you use some common sense. If your kids are older, it’s not too late! In that case…
2. Just get them outside, and go as a family! The actual place is not as important as just being outside. Richmond, where we live, is hours from the mountains. However, as a family we have excellent outdoor adventures without even driving beyond the city limits by utilizing the city park system. Most areas have fairly easy access to outdoor recreation areas with trails and woods/nature to explore, even if they do not have national or state parks and forests.
When you go, go as a family! Make this a family adventure. Its more meaningful that way, and more likely that the kids will have fun. Plus, its good for you and your significant other too. Take lots of pictures. Take in a ranger or a naturalist program as a family, or let your kids do the Jr. Ranger program, if you find yourself in a national park.
3. Control your goal-oriented mindset. This is perhaps the most important thing to think about when taking kids into the outdoors. As adults, we tend to be goal oriented. When we think about hiking, we think about it as a means to an end. In other words, we focus on hiking a certain number of miles, climbing a certain amount of elevation, or reaching a certain point or peak. In other words, we set a goal, and if we don’t attain the goal we generally view the hike as a failure.
Kids are very different. Kids are generally not goal oriented to the same extent as adults, and tend to be more interested in what is going around them “right now.” For kids, the joy is in the journey, and in exploring their surroundings as they discover them. For a kid, a successful hike is one in which they had the most fun possible.
Practically speaking, this means that you may go hiking with your toddler and only cover 400 yards in an hour, because the toddler is spending so much time looking under rocks, playing in the dirt, exploring hollow trees, and watching squirrels. And this is OK! The hike is for them!
As you plan family hikes with young children, don’t feel the need to shoot for significant objectives like peaks, mileage, or altitude. Save hiking to objectives for your own hikes, and remember you’ll have plenty of time when your kid(s) get older to take them on hikes like this. With young children, shoot for quality time outdoors, and leave the goal-oriented mindset at home.
4. Encourage exploration and getting dirty. This is a sort of “part B” to the last post. Encourage your little hikers to explore the world around them. Look under rocks, check out the hollow tree, look at the different shapes that leaves come in, watch animals. I spent hours trying to catch tadpoles, minnows, and salamanders in streams as a child, and it led to a life-long interest in nature and science. It’s incredible for me to watch Eli as he crouches down and investigates beetles along the trail. I don’t take him on hikes just to watch bugs, but right then he’s have a great time and that’s really what we’re out there for.
If it is safe to do so, allow your little hiker some independence. I often allow Eli to explore without being directly behind or with him. I choose the areas in which I allow him to explore very carefully, I keep him in sight, and am always ready to intervene, of course. However, I want him to feel comfortable enough in the outdoors that he does not feel the need for me to be guiding his every move. Additionally, don’t stress over dirty clothing and hands; this is not a time to worry about the kid messing up his new shoes. Exploration can be messy. When I was a child, I could not explore a creek without stepping in it eventually.
5. Make your hikes kid friendly. I wrote earlier about how you should check goal-oriented thinking at the door when hiking with kids. This does not mean, however, that you can’t choose where you are going based on what it offers your children. Eli loves the water, so we frequently include some time to play in water as part of our hiking trips. This offers several advantages; first, it’s a fun experience that can be looked forward to and adds a great deal to the hiking trip. Second, it allows us to stop walking, drop our packs, and create a place we can use as a “base camp” as we play in the water and explore the surrounding area. Finally, it also gives us a chance to wash any poison ivy oils off which we may have gotten involved in.
In colder weather, my dad used to include a stop for hot chocolate at some point in the hike. We would stop, make a “base,” my dad would boil water on a camp stove, and we’d drink instant hot chocolate. This served the same purposes as swimming. Additionally, on cold days it allowed us to hydrate and consume some calories, both of which are helped keep us warm.
Other ideas include taking some snacks along, stopping for a picnic at some point, or (if the area allows it) making a campfire and roasting marshmallows.
6. Give them ownership and responsibilities. Allowing little hikers some responsibility, and some ownership of the experience, is important. It makes kids really buy in to the experience. As a young child, my dad made me my own backpack so that I could carry my own equipment. We gave Eli his own backpack when he started walking. We also let Eli carry his own water bottle (a fairly small one) and his own flashlight. Not only does the water bottle encourage hydration (very important) and the flashlight make the dark woods a lot less scary (also important), but they give him some responsibility and make him feel like he is an important parts of the hike rather than just along for the ride. I also like giving Eli the responsibility of leading the way on the trail.
7. Logistics, logistics, logistics. The boy scout motto is “Be Prepared.” I never was a boy scout, but its a motto I resonate with. Make sure you have enough food/snacks and water for everyone, and make sure you have some extra in the car. Little hikers get hungry and thirsty, and its important to keep blood sugar up and little bodies hydrated. Since you’re beyond worrying about kids getting dirty, make sure you have extra clothing and shoes in the car. Also, make sure you have the right equipment. If your child is young and you plan to carry them, a good-quality child carrier backpack is a life and back saver. I recommend the Deuter Kid Comfort, but there are some other excellent ones out there. Bring a flashlight or a headlamp. You never know when havoc will intervene, and when/if it does, you don’t want to be benighted without light. Rain gear for everyone is also important, unless you can say unequivocally that there will be no rain (I’ve never managed that yet). Research, and become an expert in, layering clothing. Additionally…
8. Do your research. In the age of the Internet, there is no reason to go hiking blind. Research the area you intend to go hiking in. What’s the weather supposed to be like this time of year? How hot or cold will it be? Where is there gas, food, or other necessary items? Personally, I prefer books and paper to the internet. The Falcon Guides are a great series; you can find one about most national parks. I also like looking at the topo map of the area before I go, just to get an idea of what the lay of the land is.
9. Prepare for the inevitable scrapes, bruises, and cuts. It will happen. There is no way it can’t. We’re talking about kids, remember? They will fall, they will jump for rocks and miss, they will hit each other with sticks, and they will be stung/bit by insects. Make sure you’re ready for it. Buy a small first aid kit, or assemble it yourself. Make sure you have any necessary prescribed or over-the-counter meds you may need. Is little Johnny allergic to bee stings? Then you should take his epi-pen.
Additionally, make sure you have the knowledge and training to use the first aid kit. A wilderness first aid course is geared for outdoor enthusiasts rather than hard-core medical personnel, lasts two days, and is usually about $150. I believe everyone that spends time in the outdoors should take one; I took WFA for the first time as an 18-year-old, and the increase in confidence I felt on completing it was significant. I felt like I could handle almost anything that was thrown at me.
10. Finally, shoes. Young kids generally don’t need dedicated hiking boots. For hiking, a good pair of sneakers with a closed toe and heel are sufficient. Hinge boots really become useful when the amount of weight being carried increases, and additional foot and ankle support become important. For swimming in non-domesticated water (that is to say, anything that isn’t a swimming pool), I recommend wearing either water shoes or sandals with a heel strap. In our family, we wear sandals (not flip-flops, as they easily float off) overtime we swim in water other than swimming pools. This is to protect our feet against sharp rocks, sticks, glass, and fishing hooks which may be lurking at the bottom.
If you have any questions or additions, feel free to let me know. Good luck, and happy hiking!