November 03, 2017

Tips for Hiking with Kids: Part 5 - During and After the Hike

We've reached the end of the trail and it's been quite a journey. In this final post on how to hike with kids, we'll cover several important things to keep in mind about how to facilitate the hike, and a few key pointers to consider for afterwards.

During the Hike

It's taken us 5 separate posts in our series on how to hike with kids, but we're finally at the bit about actually hiking with kids. Here are our 13 best tips for the hike itself when you hit the trail with children.

1. Lower Expectations
We mentioned this exact tip on a previous post about how to pick the right hike, but it's worth repeating here as well.

Those short legs and attention spans are going to put a serious cramp in your hiking style. Don't even think about covering 9+ miles in just a few hours at a 3 m/p/h pace.

And more importantly, don't rely on them to tell you when you should turn around because they probably won't be great at knowing their own limitations at a young age.

Your best bet is to start small, really small, and gradually work up to more strenuous hikes with them.

2. Watch the Clock
Time flies when you're having fun. It also whizzes by when you're trying to keep track of children in the wilderness.

Remember to watch, or sundial, or whatever, and factor in the return trip when you consider whether your kid can go any further.

It could be a real bummer to have them start to break down when you've still got an hour or more of hiking ahead of you.

3. Be Ready to Ditch the Plan
Let's face it, you can do all of your homework, select the ideal trail, pack all of the right things, and have a whole list of fun activities lined up, but even your best laid plans can still go awry.

Try to remember that the ultimate goal should be to get them enjoying nature and wanting to come back sometime for more. Rather than stubbornly trying to achieve a preset goal of what the day should look like, as circumstances cause that goal to slip away, try to embrace that reality and enjoy the new found freedom to explore the area without a set game plan.

4. Take Breaks
Breaking up a hike with intermittent rests can go a long way in keeping it fun. Look for those spontaneous opportunities to "stop and smell the roses" by enjoying things that you might otherwise just hike right past.
It won't hurt to linger at a pool for awhile and toss a few rocks in, or pause at a perfect sitting rock to read a few pages from a book you've brought along.

If you're child is experiencing the outdoors from a carrier, it might not be a bad idea to give yourself a break from hauling them around by letting them down to explore for a few minutes here and there.

5. Have Treats Ready
What some might call bribery, others will call a well earned reward. Whatever you call it, having a ready supply of treats can prove to be a valuable tool for inspiring that little bit of extra motivation needed from time to time.

Salkantay Mountain Hike, Peru by Scott Biales on
6. Plan on Carrying Everything
Sure, the idea of carrying a backpack might seem fun to them at first, but there's a good chance that novelty will wear off before the hike is over. As a result, you'll probably want to hold off on that tempting prank of loading them up with a cast iron skillet until they're pursuing eagle scout.

Instead, it would be wise to pack everything with the assumption that you're going to eventually have to carry it all, including the child when they're too tired to walk any further.

7. Keep Things Handy
Kids can be needy creatures. At various points throughout the hike, they might need a tissue, a snack, a band-aid, tweezers, or any number of other things. Make sure to keep those things easily accessible so that you don't have to go digging to the bottom of your pack when they're needed.

Many backpacks have small pouches built into the hip belts so that you don't even have to take the pack off to get to a few smaller items. Those kinds of pockets can be lifesavers when hiking with kids if you pack them appropriately.

8. Instill the Value of Delayed Gratification
It seems that attention spans are always shrinking. Adults are increasingly becoming conditioned to expect instant gratification and children are often in worse shape because they haven't had as many life experiences in school, work, and elsewhere where many people learn the value of delayed gratification.
In many ways, hiking is largely about delayed gratification. Rather than just relaxing on your couch, you choose to do physical work so that you can enjoy something special. Instead of being content and comfortable now, you delay that rest until the end of the hike, and you're rewarded for it with that glorious feeling of taking off your boots at the end.

Consider ways that you can point to the tangible value of delayed gratification on the trail in order to help instill that important life skill.

9. Look for Micro-Destinations
One helpful way to break up a hike that covers several miles of trail is to identify "micro-destinations" along the way. By looking up ahead and spotting a unique rock formation or an unusual tree, you can set achievable goals that can help build a sense of momentum, as well as the child's confidence.
"Let's keep going until we get to that bench!"
The same idea is used in both the "debt snowball" financial strategy, as well as video game design because easy wins early on help to create some positive feedback that can be crucial to keeping someone engaged.

You don't want your child to lose interest only a half mile in on a 2 mile hike to a waterfall, so look for micro-destinations along the way to help them out.

10. Look for Teachable Moments
Nature is an excellent classroom, so be sure to take advantage of the educational materials at hand by looking for opportunities to reveal new information about the world around them.

One way to do that could be by having them pause to intentionally focus on using their 5 senses and recording what they observe. What sounds do the hear? What aromas do the smell? What do they think causes them?

If you've done your homework beforehand or have brought a field guide with you, those observations could foster some great discussions about the possible answers. Any notes about unanswered questions could also be used as a homework assignment that they'll actually want to complete and go back out to verify.

10. Encourage Them
Hiking can be hard work, and it's important to remember that children that are new to hiking are not likely to see that effort as it's own reward.

Even a little encouragement here and there can be a big boost to their morale and give them the mental fortitude they need to press on, so remember to sprinkle some words of affirmation throughout the hike.

12. Practice Safety Rules
Among the most important things for a child to know about the wilderness is how to handle themselves around the various dangers that exist in the wild.

Make it a point to review basic safety tips along the way, which could include:
  • Why you shouldn't eat wild berries or mushrooms unless you're absolutely certain that you know the variety (and even then it's probably best to just still to the snacks that you packed).
  • What poison ivy, oak, and sumac look like and what should be done if you come across some.
  • Stay in sight and never pass a trail sign or junction without you.
  • What to do if they get lost
13. Change Diapers Often
If your child is still in diapers, make sure to be mindful of the saturation level of their undergarments because it can be really difficult to enjoy the outdoors with a full diaper. And of course, make sure to have a plastic bag ready to pack out those soiled little packages.

After the Hike

Oh, that glorious feeling when you kick off the boots back at the trailhead. Often times, that can be one of the best parts of the hike, but the experience doesn't have to end there.

Here are 3 final tips for after the hike that can help put a cherry on top of the whole experience.

Photo by John O'Nolan
14. Stock Your Vehicle for Afterwards
It's super easy to focus your pre-hike packing efforts exclusively on what you're going to take with you on the trail, but putting a bit of thought into what you'll want to have waiting for you in the vehicle can have a huge impact on the overall experience.

For example, make sure that everyone has a pair of flip flops in the trunk to wear on the ride back so that their feet can rest and air out after all of that walking.

Having a cooler in the trunk with iced beverages will also be greatly appreciated, and if you've got a few washcloths that can be dipped in the icy water before wiping the dust off of your face and neck, you'll find it quite refreshing.

15. Stretch
This may not be as important for them as it will be for you, but it's good to get them in the habit of stretching after a hike nevertheless.

After using the same muscles and carrying weight on your back for several hours, a good post-hike stretch will go a long way to reducing the stiffness that you might otherwise experience when you hop out of the vehicle upon arriving home.

It's no fun to feel immobile after a day of hiking up a mountain, so we think spending a few minutes stretching out prior to the drive home is well worth it.

16. Go Out to Eat
There's just something about romping around the wilderness that stirs up the appetite, and there are few better excuses for indulging in a high calorie treat than a day spent out on the trail.
After the hike, stopping off at a favorite burger joint or a favorite ice cream shop can be an extra special treat, as well as a great way to spend a few more moments together reviewing the hike and what they thought of it. Seize that opportunity to draw out their thoughts while they're still fresh.

What do you think?

That's our list of the most helpful tip to keep in mind when hiking with kids, but we'd love to hear from you. What tips and tricks do you try to remember when you hit the trail with children? Should we add anything to this post, or this series? Tell us your thoughts in the comments.


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