Hiking with children

Part of giving a very natural learning experience to our children while living in the suburbs is hiking.  We are blessed to lived in Colorado, which has an abundance of mountain and prairie trails.  I think you will find, in any state you live in, that there is an abundance of nature to be found, if you’re able to be creative in looking for it.

This post is intended to be kind of a running list and helpful commentary based on our experiences with hiking with our kids.  It will be modified and updated as we learn and experience more.  If you have any additional pointers, please add them in the comments!

  • Wear sturdy, comfortable shoes.

Expensive hiking boots for young kids are probably not going to be necessary.  However, if you really plan to get anywhere, flip-flops aren’t going to cut it.  Keep their feet stable and safe, and you’ll have a much better experience.  

  • Let kids get dirty.

This is important.  Kids aren’t going to be free to really learn and experience anything if they aren’t allowed to dive in and get their hands (and feet and bums) dirty.  Don’t freak out.  Don’t panic.  In fact, don’t say much of anything.  This is for them.  Let them get good and dirty if they want to.  If you’re worried about your car on the ride home, make preparations for it.  Place some old towels on the floor and on the seats.  When you get home, you can immediately take the towels out and toss them in the washing machine.  Have a place set to hose off their shoes before they go in the house.  If you’re prepared for the dirt, it won’t take over your life.  

  • Let your kids wear clothing that you don’t mind them getting dirty filthy in.

See the above bullet point.  If your kids aren’t getting your favorite little outfit dirty, you’re less likely to have elevated blood pressure.  Be prepared for the dirt, and it’s not such a big deal.  Hose or rinse the clothes off when you get home and toss them in the washer.  Embrace the dirt.  It’s part of the journey.  Your kids will thank you someday. :)

  • Bring water.

This one’s obvious, but important.  Encourage frequent sips from their water bottles.  We’ve tried various water bottles, but have yet to find our favorite.  What are your favorites??  So far, besides the obvious (pre-packaged water, bike bottles, etc.), we’ve tried the Vapur bottle.  Things I love about it: it’s collapsable, made in the USA, and can clip to their bags or pants.  Things I hate: the plastic where the clip hangs broke quickly, making the clip useless.  The lid was hard for the kids to open, and leaks also developed after a short time.  I’ve heard the newer bottles are improved, but haven’t tried them yet.  The lid looks much more kid friendly, however, so I’m eager to try.  

**Update**: Platypus, all the way.  If you don’t mind sharing, this is such an easy way to go with kids in tow.

  • Extra stuff.

This one’s tricky, and I think just comes with time and experience.  How much extra stuff should you bring?  Clothes get wet and muddy, kids get thirsty even after all of their water is gone, any number of things happen.  Carry what you think you’ll need, but remember: if your bag is heavy when you start out, it will become quite the burden after chasing your kids up and down the trail.  

  • Trail mix is a must.

Trail mix has worked better for us than picnic lunches.  When kids are actively hiking, they’re hungry, but their bellies may not be ready for a big lunch all at once.  Trail mix allows them to munch constantly, giving them a steady stream of protein and calories.  We like to mix our own.  That way, we only include things in the mix that the kids actually like, avoiding the need to pick through it, causing waste and frustration.  It’s cheaper and more fun that way.  Making the mix is a fun way to get the kids involved in the planning and preparation for the hike.  

  • Baby carriers vs. strollers.

Be familiar with the trail, enough to know if a stroller will work.  If not, you will probably want a good carrier if you’ve got a baby in tow.  What carriers have worked for you?  I have a wrap I made that I use, but my baby is getting big enough that I’m ready for something more substantial.  I’d love suggestions.  

**Update**: Ergobaby.  Hands down.  It holds up to 45 pounds and my back doesn’t usually hurt much, even after having a 35 pound baby on my back all over the mountains for 2-3 hours.

  • Know your hike.

Internet searches are helpful in preparing for a trail before you attempt it.  Print out a map of the trail before you go, and be mindful of which time of year the trail is actually hike-able (sometimes we like to be adventurous and push it a little early, hence the snow and mud in the picture).  However, keep in mind the fact that most web sites will rate a trail based on its difficulty for adults.  Try to find a good source that will tell the difficulty level for children.  My absolute favorite source, which I could not live without, is the book Best Hikes with Children in Colorado.  I bought the kindle edition, so I can have it on my phone readily available without having to pack one more thing to take with us.  The book includes maps, ratings for each trail based on children’s abilities, fun facts about each hike, what to look for, etc.  Check to see if a similar book has been written about your state.  If you’ve found one you love, please share!

  • Let kids explore, but keep aware.  Help them learn the balance between free exploration and safety.

Before you start, frankly discuss interests and dangers of the trail.  Lay out guidelines and rules.  How far ahead of you are they allowed to be?  Are they allowed to wander off the trail?  Encourage alertness without terrifying them.  Do allow them some room to explore and to make judgments.  This is how they can begin to develop a keenness and awareness about nature.  

  • Don’t be too proud to turn around.

Weather is always a variable.  So are toddlers’ temperaments.  Don’t force yourself to complete the trail just on principle.  Make sure that pleasantness wins out over completion, so that your children will want to come again.  

  • Walking sticks.

Whether you have special walking sticks, or you allow your children to find one to use just for the day, a walking stick is a helpful and trusty companion.  It can help a child to keep moving, it can poke at something interesting, it can lend a sense of purpose.  Leave time to find and test walking sticks.  

  • Backpacks.

Backpacks for each child are a must.  It allows a place for them to store their own water, carry their own snacks, and a place to keep the treasures they find.  There should be a balance between “leaving it for someone else” and allowing the children to gather a rock or a flower or two.  (GASP, I know.  But I think that children should be allowed a few momentos of a special day.  It will keep them dreaming.)

  • Prepare a crock pot meal before you leave.

You are going to be worn out when you get home, especially if you have several children.  Do yourself a favor and plan dinner ahead of time.  It’s a good way to make sure that the day continues on a positive note!

  • Remember it’s about the journey, not the destination.

The purpose of the hike should not be to get to the end.  Let them take their time to explore and dream.  If you go on the hike solely to finish it, you are missing a lovely, quiet world.  You will miss a tremendous amount of learning, dreaming, and living.  If you only made it a quarter mile into the trail, but everyone was happy and exploring, then you had a wonderful day.