October 30, 2017

Tips for Hiking with Kids: Part 1 - Before the Hike

Hiking can be a fantastic family activity. You make memories, get away from a screen and get exercise, it's inexpensive, and everyone can participate.

On the other hand, hiking can also be a quick path to turning kids away from the great outdoors with a few bad experiences. Since our goal is to get everyone respecting and cherishing the wilderness, we want to equip parents with the best possible tips for executing awesome hikes with the whole family.

We've already tackled Tips for Hiking with Dogs, and just as with that series, we quickly realized that we had too much information for a single post, so we decided to break the content down into five separate categories. They are:
  1. Before the Hike
  2. Picking the Perfect Trail
  3. What to Bring
  4. Keeping Them Engaged
  5. During and After the Hike
Across all five posts, we'll be sharing 55 tips in total. Of course, we're not suggesting that you need to heed all 55 points everytime you take a child on the trail. We just wanted to be as thorough as possible as we help you consider every angle of such an undertaking, so let's get to it!

Do Your Homework

Our first few tips are focused on addressing some things that you may want to do before you hit the trail in order to ensure that everyone has a good time. As with any hike, preparation is key, so here are the top 10 things you'll want to do before you lace up those little hiking boots.

1. Practice Walking
Depending on the age, interests, and family lifestyle of your child, they may not be used to using their legs as much as they will out on the trail. If they tend to be more sedentary, it can be a good idea (for their health as well as for the hike to come) to get them walking more.

Take morning and/or evening walks around the neighborhood and let them walk on their own two feet when you're out shopping to build up some stamina.

2. Read Up
Find resources that will teach you about the environment that you'll be exploring. Whether through YouTube videos, field guides from the local library, or an amazing hiking focused blog ;) there is a wealth of great information available that can help you see how marvelous mother nature really is.

The wilderness is vastly more awe inspiring when you know a bit about what's going on around you, and by studying the ecosystem beforehand, you'll be able to point out some of those fascinating things and perhaps ignite a spark of curiosity in their young mind.

Photo by Annie Spratt
3. Study a Map
Beyond getting to know the flora and fauna, it's a good idea to study a map of the area with your child as well.

Identify prominent features so that you'll have specific landmarks to look for together while out on the trail and ask them questions about the intended route, like "Which way should we go at that junction?" to get them thinking about what the hike will actually be like.

4. Prepare Some Questions
When you're out on the trail for a few hours, you've got plenty of time to talk. Unlike the busyness of our day-to-day lives, a hike provides an excellent opportunity to converse deeply with other people.

Use that time to get to know your kids better by preparing some questions designed to get them chatting. Ask what they like about their favorite video game or why they enjoy a particular class in school. Steer clear of "yes/no" questions and be ready to follow up with the occasional "Tell me more," or "Really? Why's that?" to get them really talking.

Showing an intentional interest in your child and inviting them to talk about themselves can help to strengthen your relationship as you're enjoying the wilderness together.

Photo by Will Oey
5. Plan to Teach Them a Skill
Chances are decent that no kid is going to be content to just walk out into the wilderness, do a 180, and come back. Having additional activities for the excursion can help keep them engaged. While our fourth post in this series is completely devoted to giving you some ideas in that area, teaching a skill may require some extra preparation, especially if you don't know how to do the thing yourself.

It could be something as simple as tying a knot or using a shadow as a compass. Whatever the skill, they'll likely come away with a positive experience that boosts their own confidence and sense of accomplishment, and you might just learn something in the process as well.

6. Teach Safety Guidelines
Although the wilderness is a fascinating place, it's important to remember that it can be dangerous as well. Before you hit the trail with you child, review some basic safety guidelines for how to interact with the environment.

For example, it's best not to eat wild mushrooms or berries (even if you think you know what kind they are); knowing what poison ivy, oak, and sumac look like; and knowing how to respond if they encounter any local wildlife.

It also wouldn't be a bad idea, depending on the child's age, to set some general rules of the trail like making sure to stay within eyesight, not going past a trail junction without you, and what to do if they become lost. In that last case, staying put and repeatedly blowing a whistle 3 puffs at a time is often the best advice.

Timing is Everything

As we round out the second half of our list, we'll finish out our preparation tips by focusing on the clock and the calendar.

7. Aim for Morning Hikes
Kids tend to have more energy in the morning, which means that a hike could be a great way to burn some of it off before an afternoon nap.

Since many kids will crash after lunch, or become more than a handful during the late afternoon "witching hour", those times are best not to be out in the wilderness trying to inspire a love of nature.

Mornings are also generally cooler and drier whereas afternoons in the mountains are typically when rain is most likely.

8. Watch for Bad Weather
Speaking of rain, pay attention to the forecast and only go for a hike when the weather is going to be great. You don't want bad weather to ruin what could be an otherwise awesome experience.

Playing in mud puddles can be fun for a few minutes when you're right outside your front door, but a multi-mile slog with soggy socks is hardly fun for anyone, let alone kids.

9. Avoid Unpleasant Seasons
Thinking more broadly than just the conditions for the day, it can be super helpful to be aware of the seasons.

Is it the hot, rainy, snowy, or muddy season where you live? If you go for a hike now, is it likely to be a much less pleasant experience than if you'd just waited a few weeks?

Beyond just weather conditions, you may also want to consider other factors like when mosquitoes and pollen are at their worst. Biting bugs and allergies can leave a bad taste in your kid's mouth on a hike that may have been an amazing memory during a different time of year.

10. Start Them Young
It's been said that "the future lies in the youth of today," so why not let nature capture your child's imagination as soon as possible?

These days there are a plethora of amazing backpacks and carriers to take even the tiniest tots out on the trail. And there are a ton of good resources available to help you figure out how to lead hikes with children of all ages. We hope that this series itself will be among the most useful to you in that endeavor.

What do you think?

That's our list of the most important things to consider when preparing for a hike with children, but we'd love to hear from you. What things do you do prior to a hike with your kids? Did we leave something off that deserves a spot? Tell us your thoughts in the comments.

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