By Kelley Coyner
"I am the smallest and the strongest. I am the smallest and the strongest." My four and half year old's mantra as she hiked 1,500 feet in Argentina's Patagonia was as true as it was inspirational. This, her first significant hike out of the backpack and on her own two feet, proved instructive in what makes hiking with young children successful. Like so many things with kids, getting kids to engage in hiking requires persistence, flexibility, and literally walking the walk.
"Parents are their children's first and best teachers when it comes to physical activity," according to leading fitness expert Kelli Callabrese. "Children watch their parents and follow their lead," she adds. Share a great pastime and experience nature by getting out and moving together as a family.
You need not be a botanist or zoologist or an Outward Bound instructor to introduce your child to nature. As Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods notes "Many of us must overcome the belief that something is not worth doing with our kids unless we do it right. If getting our kids into nature is a search for perfection, or is one more chore, then the belief in perfection and the chore defeats the joy." Use your parenting common sense, and enjoy the walk.
There is nothing gained by making children hike before they are ready. A hot, tired, cranky mother-and-child hike is sure to turn your little one against walking anywhere. Rather than pushing children to join you, bill hiking with the grown-ups and the rest of the family as a privilege to be granted when the small trekker is ready in mind, body and spirit. Your young hiker should:
- Be able take long walks right out your front door without crumbling after the first few minutes.
- Understand basic safety concepts like staying on the trail, avoiding wild animals, and sticking with the group.
- Have a positive willingness for the prospect of going on a hike.
When thinking about where to go, remember that kids usually lose interest before they lose energy. Pick a landscape that will interest kids. Our younger daughter's first big outing was through a paleontological park packed with marine fossils. She loved skipping from skeleton to skeleton and was motivated to hit the top when we told her about the "sea wall" of mollusks we'd find up there. We also previewed the hike with our daughter and her seven year old sister before we went by talking about and looking at books on fossils and marine life.
As residents in the Andes Mountains, we are fortunate to have incredible terrain right in our backyard. But children do not need stunning vistas to find the scene fascinating: great hikes are possible everywhere. In fact, long car rides are typically not worth the effort. Instead, look closer to home for places with water, bugs, and rocks. Water, preferably splashing, gurgling water, that you can wade in, is a kid magnet. Don't expect to travel far along the banks of a stream, and bring cozy, dry garb to change into when the splashing is over. Avoid raging rivers, and always be watchful —even round the mellowest waters. Back on dry land, termite hills and chains of ants can be riveting. Be prepared to study parades of insects for a LONG TIME. Rocks are an important collector's item. My kids like to examine, toss, and collect numerous rocks.
Whether you are out for a half day hike or a weekend backpacking trip, proceed at your pint-sized plodder's pace. Take frequent breaks and walk slowly. Adults can just stop and lean on a walking stick and allow young trekkers to amble along. Plan a mile or half mile walk instead of a 5 mile ramble. Let kids run in circles. Or stop to study a bug or pick a flower. Let kids build enthusiasm for hiking one outing at a time. Don't be afraid to stop short of your intended destination.
When it comes to finding the right gear remember that equipment needs to be right-sized, not be expensive. Children do not need expensive hiking boots; they do need sturdy footwear. A sneaker that has a running shoe sole is a good choice; flat, smooth soled tennis shoes are not. A sound walking shoe can be found on sale online for about 15-20 dollars and can be worn every day to school. A walking stick is great for balancing, poking, and swinging. Make finding just the right stick a mission as you start the hike. Just like adults, children should be dressed for the weather. Lightweight cotton and shorts are fine in summer, provided there are no brambles. Kids should dress in layers that can be adjusted for temperature changes. Always bring rain gear. Even a sky without clouds can turn dark. Staying dry is not just a comfort issue; it can prevent hypothermia. Children like adults should stay well hydrated. They should carry their own water and an adult should carry extra water. Always have snacks even when you don't plan to stay out long. A favorite snack can be a mental pick-me-up and raise energy levels just when spirits are sagging. Your journey may turn out longer than planned; snacks become key morale booster if you are stuck out. If you get to the trail head and have no food, stop. Go back and get food. She who neglects the food will regret it.
Enjoy the comfort of companionship. Hiking is more fun with a friend. Kids are less likely to complain and more likely to skip down the path if they are with other kids. Bring along your child's friend. Hike with another family. A mix of older and younger children can work well if the older ones are willing to slow down a bit. Having a friend along is not just about fun. It is also about safety. Everyone should learn to keep the rest of the group in sight and to always have a buddy even if you are just stopping to go to the bathroom.
When whining seems eminent, turn the corner through diversion. Singing, even off key, and challenging each child to develop a silly walk are quick fixes. Sometimes nothing will do but to collapse into an immediate on-the-trail picnic. Pull out a delicious treat, spread out a napkin, offer the oft requested juice box, take out the chocolate you have been secretly stashing all morning. Don't get drawn into a fight about whining. Let it float past you. We all need to complain about the trail from time to time.
The best prescription for averting a weather disaster is to avoid hiking in bad weather. Check the forecast before you leave. But if the clear blue sky grows threatening in the middle of the hike, it is time to choose the safest course back. Remember that the shortest route may not be the safest. If you are on a loop hike, the best thing may be to finish the loop. Opt for flatter routes. Stay out of stream beds to avoid dangers from flash floods. Also avoid high risk locations for lightening strikes: the American Red Cross advises "tall, isolated trees are natures lightening rods. Stay clear of them. Avoid metal objects such as wire fences". Stay dry: pull out rain jackets or umbrellas before the rain is pelting down. Similarly, bundle up if the temperature starts to dip or snow begins to fall.
First hikes are a major milestone (and every hike can be a first in its own right). Honor them as accomplishments, celebrate the teamwork, or, just this once, give a ride down the mountain. Though we are loathe to give piggy back rides uphill, my husband did swing our "smallest and strongest hiker" up to his shoulders for the downhill journey. Too bad he could not see her beaming face on the descent.
For more information and inspiration:
Richar Louv, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder, Algonquin Books, 2005
Ross, Cindy and Gladfelter, Todd. Kids in the Wild: A Family Guide to Outdoor Recreation. Mountaineers Books, 1995.
McKinney, John. Joy of Hiking: Hiking the Trailmaster Way. Wilderness Press, 2005.
Kelley Coyner, a former federal agency CEO, now lives and works as a freelance writer in La Paz, Bolivia. Kelley hikes with her three young trekkers whenever she can. She can be reached directly at LaPaz905.Hiking@yahoo.com