Kids are awesome. But it’s no secret hiking can be a little more “challenging” with them in the picture. Stressing over it only kills the vibe. When you take your kids out in the woods, magical things happen if you have a game plan (or lack thereof). So let’s review, shall we?
1.) KEEP YOUR HIKING DESTINATION A SECRET
This first rule is both for your own sanity and to create an element of surprise for your wee people. The moment you mention the name of the town/trailhead/national park/lake/open space/canyon, is the moment your children become broken records. It’s ok to say, “we’re going hiking,” but if they ask you where you’re going, your only response should be, “I’m not sure yet, I like to see where the road takes me.” In most cases, this is actually true. But by avoiding the name-drop you avoid commitment, which means you can change your mind at any time and go somewhere closer (without the inevitable meltdown to follow) while simultaneously leading your kids to believe you are king of the road, and one cool cat.
2.) ALWAYS BRING A TREASURE BAG (A.K.A. DOG POOP BAG)
Don’t have a dog? That’s ok! Buy a poo-bag dispenser and clip it to your pack. Forests are magical, mystical places where children get lost in the wonder and beauty of nature and sometimes their collection of forest floor treasures can add up quick. I’m not suggesting you take more than pictures, as this goes against the number one rule of the outdoor code of ethics, but you don’t want to be the one who breaks their heart when they ask you to carry their really cool stone/ leaf/ stick/ moss/ shell/ berry/ dead snake after you make it only a half mile down the trail. They can always dump out their bags when you stop for a snack and review their inventory. They’re inexpensive, lightweight, and come in handy not just for treasures, but for emergencies as well. Use a plastic poo bag to carry water, tie a tourniquet, protect valuables from rain, or even…. to pack out poop. (No, seriously!)
3.) ENGAGE YOUR CHILDREN
Take this hiking opportunity to talk to your children about their environment. Know all the names of all the different trees? Tell them! See a crazy-looking salamander saunter by but the kids missed it? Describe it to them anyway! Hear a chipmunk rustling under the leaves nearby? Go on a sound safari and listen to the sounds of nature! The more engaged your kids feel, the more things they are learning, and the less they are focused on their immediate needs (which are always food, temperature, and potty).
All of the layers! Even if you’ve triple checked the weather, always leave the house with some extra, seasonally appropriate layers. If you have really little ones, this includes a FULL change of clothes, AND EXTRA DIAPERS. There will no doubt be a stream, a mud puddle, a pile of animal poo, a diaper leak, or a crash and burn that requires a full wardrobe change. If you know you’re going to be out for several hours far from home, bring rain gear, too, even if it means getting to the trailhead and leaving it in the car. Better to be prepared, than regretting your life decisions.
5.) BUY YOUR KIDS THEIR OWN PACKS
I cannot stress this one enough. There is nothing more rewarding for children to carry their own packs. Put their lunch, a hoodie, small water bottle, binoculars and a tiny adventure journal in their bags. This not only gives them a sense of pride in being responsible for their own gear and food, AND an activity to keep them engaged by journaling, but it also lightens your load and prevents you from having to unclip your pack and retrieve their items every five minutes. Plus, if you have more than one child and they’re close in age, you’ll get to respond to the inquiries of every passer-by on the trail asking if they’re twins. Which brings me to six…
6.) DONT WORRY WHAT OTHER PEOPLE THINK
Since I started hiking with my kids, I’ve received unsolicited comments from both ends of the spectrum and everywhere in between about hiking in the woods with small children. Sometimes you will get the random old lady in a hot pink pleather running top and matching fanny pack with blinged-out shades giving you the Michelle Obama side-eye and telling you the woods are no place for kids, that the dangers are too great or that they’re too loud or that animals will eat them or that they’re going to get in to poison ivy or fall off a cliff. And sometimes you’ll get the folks who adhere to the Richard Louv way of thinking – that forests are natural playgrounds, givers of good vibes offering endless opportunities to learn and explore and to be free and boundless and unrestrained by society. Those are my people. And they should be your people, too. Live like you mean it and ignore the noise.
7.) GROW YOUR TRIBE
Kids love to explore and go hiking with kids their own age. While it is important to engage your children and fill their minds with questions and wonder and dreams, it’s equally important to shut your big trap and give them some dang space for Pete’s sake. Know the difference. Print out some free scavenger hunt sheets and bring along some kids their own age. This allows them to learn from each other, make their own discoveries, laugh and skip and throw rocks together, also buying you a moment of semi-peace.
8.) START SLOW
New to hiking with kids? Start excruciatingly slow. You don’t want to bust out of the gates at full speed, pushing your kids down the trail because you’re anxious to see the sights. Yes, kids are capable of appreciating the view, but more than that, they appreciate the freedom to do WHATEVER THEY WANT because the sun is shining and the leaves are blowing and it’s good to be alive. Get on their level. Let them be. Don’t make them hate hiking because you pushed them too hard. They will naturally want to go further down the trail to explore because that’s the work of childhood.
9.) BRING A CAMERA
My fondest memories with my children are made on the trail. Every moment is a beautiful and bold step in to the unknown, a magical journey where discoveries both grand and small are made. DO attempt to capture their joy and stoke and innocence. DON’T stop them every few minutes to pose and smile for the camera. That is obnoxious. You’re ruining it. Don’t make your expensive technology the star of the show; your kids immersed in the beautiful planet we live on are the stars of the show. Let your camera be the witness, not the perpetrator.
10.) ENJOY THIS PHASE
Never again will your kids be as young as they are today. Today is the youngest they will be ever again. Sometimes they need help. Sometimes they get scared. Sometimes they get hurt. Sometimes they surprise and amaze you. Sometimes they walk for miles by your side. Sometimes they will run as far and as fast away from you as their little feet will carry them. And sometimes, you’ll wish more than anything they were still small enough to carry in your pack.