Hiking With Kids: Teach Them To Love It

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How do you teach your children to love hiking? The all-purpose rule applies: Start early and make it fun. So says outdoor enthusiast extraordinaire and author Jeff Alt, whose books include A Walk for Sunshine and A Hike for Mike. In addition to thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, Alt has backpacked California's 215-mile John Muir Trail with his wife and trekked across a 50-mile swath of Ireland with his wife, young daughter and extended family. He and his wife emerged from their wedding ceremony donning backpacks, and took their son on his first hike when he was a mere eight weeks old.

"Getting kids outside is more important than ever," says Alt. "Television, computer and video game addictions are replacing outdoor play time. Passive inside entertainment is contributing significantly to the national obesity epidemic. It's time to get off the couch and get the kids outside." Here are his tips.

Start Early, Develop a Routine
Give your kids a healthy dose of "early outdoor intervention." It will pay off later.

  • Start hiking with your newborn in a child carrier. Once she grows to 30 pounds or more, she may be ready to hike short distances and carry her own small daypack.
  • Let the child lead. This helps you focus on what he's interested in and keeps you from leaving him in your dust.
  • Get outside every day. Take a walk with the family once a day. Walk around the block, go to the park or to the beach. Get maps and books and seek out and find new places to go. See new places all the time.
  • Stop driving everywhere. Walk to the grocery store, or a local restaurant for dinner, or to the library. Make walking and hiking as routine as brushing your teeth.
  • Bring the outdoors inside. Educate constantly to generate interest and enthusiasm. Take lots of pictures of the kids and places you go. Make posters for the family. Get magazines, videos and artwork that show places you want to go. Use the Internet together to look at maps, and photographs of the wildlife, environments, and spectacular scenery you will be visiting someday.
  • Go high tech. Bring on the gadgetry! Turn your computer game nerds on to the adventure technology. (e.g. GPS, pedometers headlamp flashlights, geocaching) and teach them all about how these incredible devices are being used for fun, like scavenger hiking in the Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountain National Parks (see Kat and John Lafevre's Scavenger Hike Adventures).
  • Take the kids to local orienteering course and learn how to use GPS & compass together.
  • Involve the kids in planning out all trips and adventures. Older children can use the computer to research your destination or sport. (All national parks and most other destinations have websites full of facts and information, maps, wildlife).
  • Let the kids (especially teens) bring friends. Get permission from parents and make it a club adventure. 

Prepare Your Family for Your Adventure
Preparation is the key to a successful hike. Many of the same equipment decisions that you make for your own adventures can be applied to outfitting your children.

  • Research the destination and activity, and have your youngster help you with this—Google, park websites, library, bookstore travel section, outfitters, etc.
  • You've got mail! Send for maps and guidebooks of the area, and check with the local travel experts on hiking, rangers, guides, etc. Have the packages sent to your child or children.
  • Attend local slideshows or lectures —at outfitters, libraries, bookstores—every chance you get.
  • Plan ahead—especially when you have younger children. Choose a trail that offers easy access to domesticated amenities. Having a base camp or prearranged lodging allows you to be a parent, not a Sherpa.
  • Check into transportation options. You should have a plan for what to do if you need to get off the trail.
  • Identify the restaurant and grocery amenities. Not only is it good to know what's available before you arrive so that you'll know what to pack, but if the weather turns bad, you can have an instantly viable backup plan.
  • Prepare and plan what you need based on what you find. What kinds of wildlife can you expect? Will water be available? What are the weather and terrain like? You want to avoid hiking in freezing temperatures, lightning storms, and extreme heat. You want to identify and find swimming holes, wildlife, enjoyable views, and great places to boulder, look at flowers, spectacular trees, and wildlife.
  • Train at home in your neighborhood with your kids before you go into the wild. Practice carrying your child in the child carrier. This will help you adjust to carrying the pack, and your child will acclimate to the routine. Take older children (age 4 and older) on weekly walks so that they are physically conditioned for the journey. Wear your boots and all your gear on your training hikes to condition you and make sure everything fits and works before you leave town.
  • Acquire the right gear. Get everyone properly fitted into essential gear, particularly boots and packs:
  • Clothing. No cotton! When it gets wet, it loses its insulating ability. Dress in layers (synthetics, fleece, wool, and waterproof breathable items). Bring what you need for the weather and conditions you will encounter, including rain jacket and hat. Don't forget the sunscreen and DEET-free insect repellent. 
  • Bring plenty of water.  An adult should pack several quarts of water. Children will vary depending on age and exertion. Inquire about water availability before you hit the trail. Acquire a treatment system so you can use the water along the trail (water filter, Iodine tablets, etc.). Drink before you go. Stop and sip your water frequently. Don't wait until you are thirsty.
  • Think food—think fun. Pack your kids favorite snacks. Desirable food will help encourage your kids to eat and stay energized. Pack more food than you think you will need. Try out your food and your stove at home before your trip. Make sure you can cook food the kids will enjoy. When preparing your food, think compact, lightweight, and filling. Bring items that are easy to prepare or ready to eat.

Select foods that just need a little bit of water to prepare. Plan for two pounds of food per person per day. Eliminate bulky packaging; condense food into plastic bags. Pack an extra day's worth of food.

  • Freeze-dried meals
  • Pasta/rice/beans
  • Foil-wrapped meats such as tuna or chicken
  • Dehydrated fruit and veggies
  • Sliced apples, grapes, bananas, carrots
  • Energy bars or granola bars
  • Peanut butter
  • Cheese and sausage
  • Bagels, crackers, candy bars, nuts
  • Tortilla & cheese sandwiches
  • Energy bars for kids (e.g. Cliff's zbar for kids)
  • Oatmeal or dried cereals
  • Depending where you go, remember to bring a food bag and rope to hang 10 feet up in a tree so the bears can't get to it. 


Prepare for Trail Emergencies
Carry a first-aid kit, and brush up on child first aid and CPR. Learn about the dangers of hypothermia, and monitor children for signs. Pack all of your child's medication. Know the location of the nearest medical facility for you and the children.

Learn how to use a compass and map or GPS. Learn how to make a quick shelter to help keep you warm and dry. Keep matches and lighters dry and in a safe place. Know how to start a fire to keep warm. If you do get lost, make yourself as visible as possible. Place a bright item (e.g. item of clothing or gear) in the open. Make distress signals and make noise. If you brought a cell phone, check periodically to see if it works. Leave a copy of your itinerary with a friend or family member.

Keep the Journey Fun
The main priority with children is to make sure they have fun. Let them lead the way and tell you what they want to do. Whatever animal or rock your young child takes interest in, stop and explore with him or her. Talk to your child about what you're seeing. Label the animals, rocks, trees, and flowers. Tone down your mileage goals to the comfort level of your child.

Engage older children with trip planning, animals, local history, or anything that applies to what they are learning in school.

Teach your children good backcountry ethics. Kids can learn to pack out trash, take nothing from the woods but memories and pictures, and proper backcountry toileting at a young age.