The first hike I ever did with my children didn’t go very smoothly. I carried my 8-week-old infant in a sling, and carried a gigantic fanny pack slung around the other shoulder. The trail I picked had too much elevation gain for my post-partum state. The baby had a huge blowout all over me, even dripping down onto the trail. And he cried the whole way there and back in his car seat. But in the picture I have of us on the trail, I am smiling, and he is looking up at the trees in wonderment.
Our hikes got better after that, but it took me a long time to figure out what worked for our family, and that seems to change every year. If you are just starting out hiking with your children, here are some pointers to help you get started.
- Pick an appropriate trail. Do your research – guide books, friends, and internet sites can all help you find an easy trail to try out. Find out how long it takes to drive there, if you need any special permits, and if there are any features of the trail that might be dangerous to children (cliffs, snakes, snow or ice, heavy brush or treacherous creek crossings, for example.)
- Make sure you have enough food and water. Pack energy rich snacks, and have extra food along in case the hike takes longer than expected. Plan to stop to feed young children every 45 minutes or so. My children eat much more often when hiking than they do at home.
- For toddlers and babies have a change of clothes along, plus diapers and wipes if needed. If it’s wet or muddy on the trail, or if you have a child who is drawn to the water, a change of clothing can make a big difference to your child’s comfort and safety, especially in cool weather. When my kids were crawling, they would get filthy when I let them out of the pack, and I would change them before we started hiking again so they wouldn’t get chilled.
- Have a map of the area along with you. It’s no fun to get lost or take the wrong trail when young ones are depending on you.
- Keep it simple in the beginning. Consider doing shorter walks in urban parks if you have the opportunity. This will help you test out gear and shoes, and get your children used to walking or being carried in a pack. Ease into it, especially if you are all out of shape.
- Remember that it’s about the journey more than the destination. Keep the atmosphere light and fun, and be sure to allow plenty of time for exploring and spontaneous discoveries. Hiking with children is about being out in nature and getting the benefits of the natural world. As they get older they will learn to appreciate attaining that summit or alpine lake, but in the early years you just want them to have fun and get used to hiking as a normal activity.
If you have any more tips to share about easing into hiking with children, post them in the comments! I’d love to hear what helps other folks along in the process.