Mom Chronicles: Hints from the road

Small Steps: The Delights & Difficulties of Hiking with Children and Making it Fun

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hiking girls wildflowers mountain hike wilderness

I'm a fan of hiking. Mark is, too (check out his list of 20 Fascinating Hiking Facts), so as we grew from a couple of trail enthusiasts into new parents, we aimed early on to continue making this one of our outdoor pleasures. It's such a versatile activity: it can be vigorous or easygoing, planned or spontaneous, social or solo. You don't need any gear or technical expertise to do it. While it takes more time to get in a worthwhile trail hike than going to a cardio gym class or a run around the neighborhood, it doesn't require whole weekend commitments from you. It's fitting for me, the casual-adventurer-endorphin-craving mom who wants to pass on healthy lifestyle habits and an appreciation for nature to her kids.

If you have toted a child along on some hikes with you, then you ought to recognize (or cringe at) these stages we've gone through as parents along the trail:

  1. Baby carrier stage (2 months to 2.5 years), we've said: "This rocks! I love getting back to pre-pregnancy shape by hiking, and carrying the pack isn't so bad. It even reminds me of good old backpacking, awwwww, when it used to be just the two of us. So romantic, remember the time we even packed in little bottles of wine, cuddled by the river and watched the meteor shower until after midnight?"
  2. Older toddler stage (2.5 to 3.5 years), we've said: "This sucks! I could crawl faster than this pace, plus the little turd wants to say NO to everything. And why-oh-why is everyone in our family either crying or yelling at each other? You peed your pants again? How did I ever think this was a fun way to spend a Saturday?"
  3. Pre-schooler stage (3.5 to 5.5 years), we've said: "Okay! The kid is getting tougher physically. A little fun-evaporating whining here and there. I can't believe I once swore I wouldn't bribe my daughter with treats — I also said I could get through labor without an epidural, but . . . turns out bribes and epidurals do wonderful things. Now, to the impossilbe task of finding trails that are both fun for us and do-able for her."

And parents who hike with more than one child get the joys of piling one or more of those stages upon another.

Harnessing Their Energy: Happy Thoughts, Games, and . . . Bribes

hiking little girl bribe 001Pre-school children are naturally curious, playful, and energetic. Watch them at the mall play area, they can go full-speed for an hour, no problem. So what does it take to transfer that same energy and enthusiasm to hiking on a trail? Some planning ahead, of course, and classic parenting strategies regular people might call "distractions." Some tactics we've found useful to keep Chloe moving on a continuous hike are number/animal games, imagination and pretend scenarios, and, yes, small treats at various increments (we like skittles or jolly ranchers — I sneak them, too!). It can be motivating to have special items that only come out for hiking trips, or to bring kid-sized gear for her to carry and talk (and talk and talk and talk) about. A water bottle held by a strap that slings over one shoulder gives Chloe the most control over drinking times, or she loves sucking on our Camelbak bladders now that she can reach the mouthpiece.

This summer, Chloe fell in love with a wooden hiking stick that was kid-height at Capitol Reef National Park's visitor's center, and we bought it for her after striking a bargain with her in which she promised she would be a good hiker with it during our visit. She really loves that stick, especially the little bell on the end, and it kept her moving along fairly well on the 2.5 mile hike. Fair warning, though, that any extra gear is just one more thing the parents will probably end up hauling after the first half.

If you don't know about geocaching, you should. It's easily one of the best bridges between technology and getting kids into hiking because it brings drama and surprise to an otherwise "boring" walk in the woods. In our family we call it "treasure hunting" because our little 5-year-old grasps that pretty easily, and has yet to turn down the prospect when we ask if she wants to go find a treasure. A sure-fire winner. Using a smartphone or GPS to point you in the direction of a latitude-longitude location, you seek out small containers (frequently the size of Tupperware to ammo cans) hidden by other geocachers who have filled it with a log book, perhaps some trinkets like keychains, small toys, coins, etc, hidden the container and recorded the location. When you find a geocache, you can bring along your own trinket and make a swap with something inside. So, you can do one of two things:

  1. Hunt for a geocache
  2. Hide a geocache

Use to both record a geocache you've hidden that you want other folks to go out and find, and to get the waypoints for geocaches you'd like to seek out. They're all over the place. You can find geocaches in places as close as your neighborhood park. But next time you're going camping or hiking or kayaking or whatever, check for caches that are in the area where you're headed, load the waypoints onto your phone or GPS, and seek them out. The waypoint only gets you so close because GPS technology isn't pinpoint-accurate and it's up to you to look under rocks, in tree stumps, or any other creative place.

Surprise! Hiking With Kids Has Unpredictable Results

One thing I've noticed with a child on a hike is that no trail experience ever goes the same way as the last one. No, that would make parenting our children easy and predictable, and we can't have that. There are so many variables: weather, timing in the day, your child's mood, who's on the hike, and what seems to trump them all in our case — does it look interesting from a kid's eyes? If there are rocky switchbacks that look dangerous and fun, oh by golly, she could go for miles without a peep. Lots of caves with shade for her to point out or crawl into also makes it more likely for success. So much of hiking is delaying gratification for a longer amount than the typical routines of our daily life requires. Probably this is why it's so rewarding in the end. Think about it, the sights are always on the future: we'll have a break up there. The viewpoint is coming up. Look, we'll be heading downhill soon. There's an ice-cold gatorade chilling in the truck. No wonder the fun in all of this is more difficult to comprehend for pre-schoolers, when they're not usually forced into the just-wait-it'll-be-worth-it cycle that we hike-loving parents have learned to accept and even enjoy.

How Far Should Children Hike?

Parents who bring young children on hikes probably hear the same question more than any other: "How far can your kids go?" It's a mysterious, magical mixture of temperament, strength, desire, motivation, developed routines, and parents' expectations that no one's quite figured out yet. However, there's likely a range for what you can expect, similar to other physical developmental milestones. I agree with the distance recommendations of Joan Burton, author of "Best Hikes with Kids: Western Washington and the Cascades":

Here are some pacing rules for children of different ages. Of course, any child can exceed these distances, if he or she has sufficient motivation.

  • Children 2 to 4 years old can hike 1/2 to 3 miles on their own.
  • Children 5 to 7 years old can hike for 1 to 3 hours a day, covering 3 to 4 miles over easy trails.
  • Eight and 9 year-olds can hike a full day at an easy pace, covering 6 to 7 miles on variable trails.

I'm glad that with time and trial-and-error practice, Chloe seems to be warming up to hiking with us. The last thing we want is to force her into something that she'll grow to despise once she is old enough to choose for herself. I have to remind myself that guiding her in pushing herself physically and mentally will benefit her all through her life, even if she protests in the moment. And these moments as a family hiking on the trail are precious time spent together while she's a little girl.

Happy trails to you and your family.
— B.K.S.


+3 / 0
# Amelia 2012-08-14 10:55
Another great post and great tips! Keep it up!! :)
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+2 / 0
# liz 2012-08-14 12:12
I've sooo been there!! I don't think any parent is above candy bribes!
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Gilwell Fox
+2 / 0
# Gilwell Fox 2012-08-14 19:18
I remember nearly 20 years ago hiking through Potenstein, Germany with a 5 yr old, 3 yr old and a 1 yr old in a carrier. Fun times!
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+3 / 0
# Erika 2012-08-17 08:27
I use "magic hiking beans" aka yogurt covered raisins on the weekly hikes/skis I do with my 4-8 yr old students. On colder days we bring a thermos of apple tea. Both seem to help motivate them to keep going.
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Traci Lehman
+3 / 0
# Traci Lehman 2012-08-17 11:55
Informative post! One thing I have learned is that as the kids get older, hiking with friends on occasion, is a good motivator. They love it!
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Meghan J. Ward
+2 / 0
# Meghan J. Ward 2012-08-19 12:21
What a great post, Brooke! I had to laugh at your descriptions of the various stages. You've provided some superb ideas here and also really laid it out there in terms of what parents can expect (ie. the unexpected). As one person commented above, I have heard time and time again what a great motivator it is to have friends come along - both for the parents and the kids. For some reason some people have found their kids can go a whole lot farther with other kids around.

I also really appreciated how you don't want to turn Chloe off of hiking, particularly when eventually she'll be able to choose to do it on her own. I suppose we have to question our own motivations for wanted to take the kids on the trails. It is good for them, but if it's something we're primarily doing just cause WE want them to, it's worth taking a moment to check in and ask ourselves "why?".
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Learning difficultie
0 / 0
# Learning difficultie 2013-03-13 06:43
you will have to teach your child
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