Prepare for a fun adventure the next time you hike with your family.
By Lisa Cordeiro
People often say hiking is the most enjoyable outdoor activity. You can get some fresh air and exercise, reconnect with nature, and spend quality time with family members. What’s not to like? If you’re tired of seeing your kids (or spouse!) sit around the RV and stare at electronic devices, or if you’ve heard enough of the tweens saying they’re bored, why not rouse the family for a hike?
Who Can Hike?
People of all ages can enjoy hiking. Parents can carry infants in a carrier for a brief jaunt. Toddlers can walk for short distances. The older the child, obviously, the greater his or her range. Different guidelines can help you to judge how long a hike should be, depending on the age group. Generally speaking, choose a trail that all parties in your group can tackle without too much difficulty. A 3-year-old will not be able to handle a more challenging hike that might interest a 13-year-old.
Besides distance, you also need to consider the terrain. A flat, straight trail is easier to navigate than one that ascends over rocks, or even one with large hills.
Some paths are more suitable for those with mobility difficulties, so if you’re hiking with someone who needs assistance, choose a trail with terrain they can navigate. Check resources for hiking tips based on your group dynamics, such as couples, groups, toddlers, preteens, or those bringing a dog along. The bottom line: Pick a trail everyone in your party can enjoy.
Trail accessibility at each place you visit will vary. A county or city park or nature preserve may have paved or packed-gravel trails made specifically for people who use mobility aids or those who need to push a young child around in a stroller. Or, the trail may actually be a wetland boardwalk, easily navigated by everyone. Keep this in mind and check with the park prior to your visit.
What You Need
Before you head out on a trail, make sure you are properly equipped. If your journey may require it, bring along snacks and water, and items to keep you comfortable, such as sunblock and insect repellent. Even if you’re going on a short day hike with curious kids, pack a small first-aid kit to deal with minor cuts and bug bites.
Since you’ll be on your feet, you need proper footwear to navigate the terrain, such as hiking shoes or boots. Also, note that the temperature can change during the day, or as you ascend higher elevations. It’s best to dress in layers, and perhaps bring a raincoat. You will likely heat up as you hike, so you want to be able to add and remove layers to stay comfortable.
The more you carry, the faster you’ll tire, so pack sensibly. Kids should be able to carry a small pack of their own, but don’t weigh them down with too many supplies. If you do, you’re more likely to hear, “My backpack is too heavy. I want to go home.”
Although it’s not a complete list, here are some of the basics.
- first-aid kit
- insect repellent
- additional supplies based on the length and difficulty of the terrain (i.e., knife, flashlight, compass, lighter, signaling devices, warm clothing, and rain gear)
Choosing A Trail
Begin with a very simple trail. I can’t emphasize this enough. If you start with one that is difficult to navigate, somebody is sure to have a miserable experience. If you don’t believe me, read on.
An experienced hiker took me out for my first hike in the White Mountains in the northeastern United States. He chose one of the most difficult trails, figuring I’m a former Marine, so I’d want a challenge. However, I was an inexperienced hiker, completely ill-prepared and ill-equipped. Night fell before we emerged from the woods, after having been lost for hours. I was hungry, limping, exhausted, shivering, and swore I would never hike again.
More than a decade later, my husband tricked me into hiking again, calling it a family outing to see waterfalls. We oohed and ahhed; I took pictures; and the kids took a swimming break. It was an enjoyable activity for all.
As the kids have grown older, we have tried longer and more difficult hikes. We recently returned from the White Mountains (the site of my bad hiking experience), where we hiked a few mountain trails. So, if you’re eager to bring your family hiking, start with easy trails. You want them to enjoy the experience, not loathe it. Give them just a taste so they want more.
Where do you find hikes in your area? If you have access to the Internet, you’ll have that information at your fingertips. Visit a site such as www.trails.com, where you can search for trails. You also can view a list of the Top 100 trails, as well as trails in national or state parks or even in cities. You will find similar features at www.alltrails.com.
If you prefer books, many are available. Several guides have been published by region, covering most, but not all, of the United States. Look for the 50 Hikes series from The Countryman Press or the 100 Classic Hikes series from Mountaineers Books.
Know Your Trail
Although you’re bound to run into obstacles and surprises when you hike, you want to be as prepared as possible before you head out. Bring a trail map with you to check the location of rest rooms and other facilities if you’ll be out for a longer period of time. Talk to others who have hiked the trail, if possible. And go online to see whether anyone has posted tips about the hike.
You might not be able to avoid certain obstacles, such as an insect sting or someone accidentally stepping in a wet or muddy spot, but you should certainly be able to note where a patch of poison ivy is, or whether wildlife in the area requires extra caution. Be as prepared as you can for the unexpected. Inquire with rangers about any new trail developments since the maps were printed, or changes that may have occurred to your path due to recent weather conditions or events.
Make It Fun
If you’ve spent any time with a young person — or an adult with a short attention span (guilty) — you are probably familiar with the complaint: “I’m bored.” But I’ve never heard my kids say this on the trails. In fact, I’ve heard, “This is fun.” It’s a pleasant surprise. How can they say this on a hiking trail, without flashy images from a smartphone or a TV?
In case you need to motivate your family to go hiking, here are some tips on making it enjoyable. They are geared for kids, but many work for adults as well.
Keep them engaged:
- Get their input when choosing a trail; point out the different features or terrain.
- Encourage them to set goals. What do they want to look for? What would they like to achieve? Reach the highest waterfall in the area, for example?
- Have them create a hiking journal in which to note their climbs and findings.
- Choose a topic to focus on, such as wildlife, birds, or trees, and then read books or resources about these before you venture out. While hiking, have them note what they find or recognize. You can even use smartphone apps for this activity, such as Project Noah (www.projectnoah.org).
- Give them the trail map, a compass, or a GPS device so they can help navigate.
- Give youngsters cameras. All ages love taking photographs. Share your digital camera, and you can easily delete the images you don’t want to keep. Later, as an optional rainy-day activity, the kids can create a journal of the photos they have taken.
- Keep them energized:
- Get kids involved in preparing snacks ahead of time, such as a trail mix for extra energy.
- Bring plenty of snacks and have frequent water breaks.
- Bring a picnic to set up at a designated location. If they know they can have lunch once they reach the halfway mark, for instance, they may be more eager to get to that point.
- Keep them entertained:
- Play games such as I Spy or alphabet hunts.
- Make up stories about adventures you’re on, and weave the terrain as obstacles in your stories. For instance, “We are knights going to the castle, and we must pass the cave guarded by the dragon.” Or, “We are explorers from another land searching for a place to set up camp.”
- Sing songs.
- Tell stories or invent them together by taking turns adding to the storyline.
- If you enjoy finding GPS caches, or you like letterboxing (www.letterboxing.org), let your hike center on uncovering these hidden treasures.
- Encourage children to be Junior Rangers for the day through the National Park Service program (www.nps.gov/webrangers).
- Combine the hike with a volunteer activity or church project; it gives everyone a mission they can feel good about. Visit sites like sierraclub.org for some options.
Finally, don’t call it a hike. Don’t even call it a walk. These terms can inspire immediate resistance in your group, as I recently discovered with my scout troop: “I don’t want to hike.” “I don’t like to walk.” I had to quickly re-spin the idea and say we were checking out the pool at the camp. So, label your hike as some other type of adventure geared to their interests. Remember how my husband tricked me into hiking to the waterfalls? Keep that in mind to lure your group out. Once they’re hooked, you can tell them they were hiking. By then, it will be too late for them to protest.
And you — even if your first hike was a disaster — will enjoy the journey as well.
Though not a complete list, the following Web sites should give you a good start when planning a family hike.
National hiking sites:
Regional hiking groups:
Adirondack Mountain Club: www.adk.org
Appalachian Mountain Club: www.outdoors.org
Green Mountain Club: www.greenmountainclub.org
Potomac Appalachian Trail Club: www.potomacappalachian.org
Rocky Mountain Hiking Trails: www.rockymountainhikingtrails.com
State and local travel bureaus:
These also are great sources for listing area parks, and they often include trail descriptions and maps on their Web sites. Use a search engine online to discover details about your next destination.