Ethan’s Guide to Adventuring with Kids

IMG_1583Outdoor 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.

One of Eli's first hikes.  Nicholson Hollow, Shenandoah National Park

One of Eli’s first hikes. Nicholson Hollow, Shenandoah National Park

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.

Family hikes are awesome!  Barefence Mountain, Shenandoah National Park with Mel, Eli, Aunt Bonnie, and Grandma Zook

Family hikes are awesome! Barefence Mountain, Shenandoah National Park with Mel, Eli, Aunt Bonnie, and Grandma Zook

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.

Dirt is important.

Dirt is important.

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.

Cold weather hikes take a little more preparation to ensure that little hikers have a good time.

Cold weather hikes take a little more preparation to ensure that little hikers have a good time.

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.

Hiking with Grandma.

Hiking with Grandma.

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.

Ready with his backpack!

Ready with his backpack!

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.

The Deuter Kid Comfort in action.

The Deuter Kid Comfort in action.

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.

Have resources, will travel!

Have resources, will travel!

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.

Hiking with mommy!

Hiking with mommy!

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!


Urban Hiking Through History

IMG_4990Richmond is one of those cities where you trip over history.  So much has happened here throughout the history of this country.  As an example; six blocks from our house is a city park called Chimborazo.  The park is on the site of the largest hospital for injured soldiers run by the Confederacy during the Civil War.  On the north-west corner of the park is a historical marker which states that an important battle of the French and Indian war occurred less than a quarter-mile away.  Eight blocks to the west is St. John’s Church, where Patrick Henry gave his famous “Give me Liberty, or Give me Death!” speech.  And directly across the street from the church is another historical marker, which explains that the entire city of Richmond was burned during the War of 1812 by the British.  It’s dizzying.

I have the day off today, and because we’re currently pretty close to broke (it’s the week between paydays, and we’ve just paid all our bills) we decided to find a low-cost (read: free) option for family recreation.  We decided to walk part of the Richmond Slave Trail.

Since I began this post by talking about history, I should probably give some more background.  Richmond was a major slave market during the days of slavery.  Slaves were brought from Africa in ships, and (until 1778, when Virginia banned importation of Africans) were unloaded just down the river from Richmond at Ancarrows Landing.  Even after Virginia no longer allowed importation of slaves, Richmond remained a major center for the exportation of slaves to other points around the US.  Slaves which arrived at Ancarrows Landing were then marched up the river to Richmond, where they were sold at auction.

The Richmond Slave Trail retraces the trail traveled by slaves, and through interpretive markers, educates hikers about the history and horrors of the slave trade.  It’s part memorial, part history education.  I wasn’t able to find an official trail website, but the Richmond regional tourism website has a lot of great information about it here.

Eli is a great hiker, but tends to get tired after a fairly short distance.  Ezra would be riding in a stroller.  We decided that doing the entire trail was probably not a good option, so we opted to do the section of the trail on the south bank of the river.  We parked at a parking lot next to Diversity Park (Hull St. and South 3rd St., if you’re interested), loaded Ezra, a diaper bag, and several Nalgene’s of water into the stroller, and began walking.  The view from the observation platform at Diversity Park is incredible.

It's hard to do the view justice...

It’s hard to do the view justice…

Two of my favorite hiking buddies!

Two of my favorite hiking buddies!

Overlooking Mayo’s Bridge, all of the James and the business district of Richmond is in front of you.  Mayo’s Bridge is another one of those hidden historical gems; its one of the oldest bridges in Richmond.  As Union forces closed in, the Confederate Army torched the city, then retreated to Appomattox (and surrender) across the bridge.  The trail then circles underneath the bridge, and sets off east down the river bank, hugging the floodwall.

Mayo's Bridge...probably not how it looked during the Civil War.

Mayo’s Bridge…probably not how it looked during the Civil War.

He's a big helper, and loves his little brother.

He’s a big helper, and loves his little brother.

After a casual stroll along the floodwall, we walked under the I-95 bridge.  This is Eli’s favorite bridge; he calls it the “AHHHH Bridge,” because he likes the high-pitched whining sound the car’s tires make as they roll over the corrugated cement.  We transitioned from a paved/gravelled side-walk like path to a mulched trail which wound through the trees beside the river.  The trail was ideal for trail running, strolling, or mountain biking.  Pushing a stroller?  Not quite so easy.  Very doable, but not ideal.  The stroller was just a bit wide, so we ended rolling half in the undergrowth on either side of the trail.  Still, we enjoyed the fantastic views of the Tobacco Row area, Church Hill, Chimborazo, and Great Shiplock Park across the river.

Slave Docks trailhead, directly under the I-95 bridge.

Slave Docks trailhead, directly under the I-95 bridge.

Eli the Explorer leads the way!

Eli the Explorer leads the way!

Tobacco Row, the Lucky Strike Building, Church Hill, and the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument.

Tobacco Row, the Lucky Strike Building, Church Hill, and the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument.

After about 30 minutes of walking, we arrived at Ancarrows Landing.  It’s now a Richmond city park, with benches, fishing tables, and trash cans lining the riverbank.  Someone had also attached a rope swing to a large tree which overhangs the river.  There is a large parking area there, so it appears possible to drive your car in for the day.  The biggest thing that struck me about the park was how badly cared for it was.  There was trash everywhere.  Many of the trash cans were overflowing, and spilling out onto the ground.  Its pretty clear that not much thought is given to maintaining the park, which is unfortunate.  After a few minutes of poking around and exploring while Mel fed Ezra, we began the walk back to the car.

We had a great time, and if you enjoy being outside while learning some history I’d highly recommend you take a day (or a half-day) and do all or part of this trail.  The grade is easy and mostly flat.  It’s about 1.3 miles from the parking lot on Hull St. to Ancarrows, and the trail is well-maintained and good for those who are not hardcore hikers.  A word of advice; if you do this trail, there is a huge amount of poison ivy.  Either learn how to identify it (here’s a resource for you), or commit to not touching anything leafy and green.  Either way, go home and take a cool shower immediately.


As it turns out, Eli is a tiny explorer.

Exploring Chimborazo Park.  Hardly wilderness, but we take what we can get.

Exploring Chimborazo Park. Hardly wilderness, but we take what we can get.

This should not suprise anyone.  After all, Mel and I are both super ADD, and we’ve spent a lot of time (both before and after we got married and had a kid) exploring the great outdoors.  I guess you could say he got the outdoors bug honestly.

It is refreshing to see him discover it all for the first time.  On a recent hike, we found a beetle the other day, trucking along through the undergrowth.  Eli hunkered right down, and followed it through the leaves.

Eli:  “Spider?”

Daddy:  “No, beetle.”

Eli:  “Beeeettle?”

Daddy:  “Yes, beetle.”

Eli:  “Beetle.”

And just like that, we now know what beetles are, and what to call them, and that they are different from spiders.  Schemata in construction before my eyes.

And we have discovered puddles.  Puddles which jump and splash everywhere when you charge into them at a run, and then spread in concentric ever-expanding circles when you stop suddenly in the middle.  Puddles which leave your shoes sodden and muddy, but leave you feeling happy just from the sheer messiness of it all.  He takes such intense joy from running back and forth through a puddle; I remember I could do it for hours once too.

On a recent hike, I saw the beginnings of a life-long love for green spaces; it made me happy.  We took a family inner-city hike on the Buttermilk Trail, a multi-use trail which runs along the south bank of the James River.  Eli insisted on leading us, and set a rapid pace.  I had to almost jog to keep up as he trotted up the trail, his gleeful squeals of “A hike!  A hike!” floating behind him.  We had fun; we got sweaty, learned about moving off the trail for the mountain bikers, and brushed up against so much poison ivy that we made a special trip to the edge of the river to wash off (I’m happy to report that nobody got poison ivy).

He insisted on leading us on this Buttermilk Trail hike.

He insisted on leading us on this Buttermilk Trail hike.

He may not every know what its like to be rich; in fact, I’d say his chances of that are about nil considering the callings that Mel and I have accepted (both in the bottom 4 on the list of lowest paid adult careers, if recent information is to be believed).  He probably won’t have his own car when he’s 16, and I’m not even sure he can count on ever seeing Disney Land (heck, I never have).  But at least he can be assured of lots of adventure outdoors.  And really, in my book, I think that’s better than all that other crap anyway.

Daddy and Eli Test a Baby Pack! The Deuter Kid Comfort II

360x500_3163_KidComfortII_StormAnthraciteWay back when Melissa and I first found out that Eli was on the way, we started “Bean Updates” on the blog.  In the first one, we talked about the baby carrier we wanted for taking the baby hiking.  We raved about how much we liked the look of the Deuter Kid Comfort II pack.  If you need a reminder, you can read that post here.  And here is an image of said pack, just to remind you.

We finally got Eli’s pack (joined REI’s co-op while we were at it.  More on that later).  As soon as we finished paying, Melissa and I looked at each other, and pretty much simultaneously exclaimed “We need to test it!”  So that afternoon, we pulled on our hiking clothing, loaded our gear, strapped the Tiny Boy into his car seat, and headed for the closest hiking terrain–which happened to be Pocahontas State Park.

Let’s face it, Richmond does not have the hiking resources that Harrisonburg did.  In Harrisonburg, we could have driven 30 minutes in either direction, and had our pick of Shenandoah National Park or the George Washington National Forest.  Richmond pretty much has Pocahontas State Park, located about 20 minutes away.  Despite being comparatively small, there are plenty of hiking trails, it only costs $5 to get in, and turns out to have a very nice campground.  It was the perfect place to put the new pack through it’s paces.  We decided to hike the Beaver Lake Trail, a 2.5 mile loop around a scenic lake.

Just getting started.  So far, so good.  You can see the super-convinenent side opening seat, that allows loading wiggly passengers from the side, rather than trying to "thread the needle" from the top.

Just getting started. So far, so good. You can see the convenient side opening seat, that allows loading wiggley passengers from the side, rather than trying to “thread the needle” from the top.

Eli wasn’t too sure about the pack at first.  This is a kid who hates being strapped down, and would rather be out scooting around under his own power.  Sitting still is not his idea of a good time.  Once we got him in the pack and moving, he loved it.  He was able to be up and get a good view of the area around him (he loves being able to see).  He was also able to be close to mommy and daddy.  Mommy was right there, and could come up beside the pack to talk to him.  He loved it when I would bounce him around, and the steady rocking as we walked eventually (almost) put him to sleep.

On my end, I loved the suspension system.  The hip belt made it easy to care pack and baby.  Honestly, it felt just like carrying my standard climbing pack.  The pack has a clip on the side, which allows easier loading of the occupant.  Instead of having to “thread the needle” and place a wiggling child into the carrier straight down from the top, the side can unclip, and the pack can be loaded from the side.  Much easier.  The shoulder straps inside keep the tiny passenger securely seated in a very comfortable seat.  The trunk length is also adjustable, so 5’4″ Melissa can carry the pack, and 5’11” me can take over easily at any time.  The pack stands on it’s own as well with a retractable stand.  And the small looking pack underneath the child’s seat is actually quite roomy, and can swallow a daypack amount of gear pretty easily.  It’s also hydration system compatible, so I can clip my camelback water bladder into a hidden pocket.

The suspension system is very comfortable, and very easy to adjust.

The suspension system is very comfortable, and very easy to adjust.

I wish it had better carrying pockets for a Nalgene sized water bottle.  While there are mesh pockets, they are better for carrying bottles, baby toys, and sippy cups.  A standard sized water bottle would not fit.

Despite the shortcoming I mentioned above, we already love this pack!  We are anticipating a lot of good use out of it, both with Eli and with future little brothers and sisters.  This pack fulfills everything I’ve come to expect from Deuter!

The pack stands on it's own, but always be nearby when you have stand it up.  A determined, wiggle passenger could turn it over pretty easily.

The pack stands on its own, but always be nearby when you have stood it up. A determined, wiggley passenger could turn it over pretty easily.  That pack under the seat is bigger than it looks.

Eli gives this one his seal of approval!

Eli gives this one his seal of approval!