Hiking with small children does limit our ability to explore larger terrain and access certain areas – particularly those in the high alpine or with a significant elevation gain. It is not uncommon to see once avid hikers taking multi-year hiatuses from hiking after having children, as the effort and patience necessary to bring them along in tow can be trying. Understandable as this is, it is unfortunate, as hiking is so beneficial for our physical and mental health and a wonderful world to expose our kids to. With that in mind, here are 8 top tips for hiking with small children.
1. Choose the right hike
The planning is everything. A good plan or a bad plan will make or break the entire experience, and shape how hiking is perceived our children. It is important to make sure you that you know as much as possible about the trail prior to hiking it, including the access, parking, length, elevation gain, trail condition and potential hazards (such as cliffs, fast moving water or an abundance of unpleasant bugs). It is also important to be realistic about what can be achieved, and to start with much smaller hikes before easing into bigger ones as their interest and ability grows. As a rough guide, you should expect to pack those under 2 for the majority of any hike and/or walk, though do give them every opportunity to walk when they indicate that they would like to. You could then expect 2-3 year olds to walk 1km on their own, and those that are more used to hiking may be comfortable walking 2-3kms over mostly flat terrain, with minimal elevation gain. By the time they get to 4 years old it will become more of a mental motivation game than a physical challenge, but with enough interest it would be reasonable to see them cover 5kms plus, given ample time and encouragement. If it is your first family hike post kids, a modest 2-3km loop with lots of interesting things to look at on the trail would be a good place to start. Do check the weather frequently and any advisories/trail condition information that you may have access to before heading out.
2. Create excitement
Once the hike has been decided as well as timing of it (avoiding the hottest part of the day and nap times etc…) it is time to get the kids on board with the program. As with many other areas of life our kids tend to follow our enthusiasm for things, and if they see us upbeat and excited for a hike then the chances are that they will be too. You can start building this anticipation and excitement up a day or two before the hike itself, sharing with them that you are going on a big adventure, with lots of things to see, discover and do. Telling them that you will all be going to find the `enchanted forest` or `magical lake`, and musing about what types of animals could live there are fun ways to do this. If you’re really creative, you could find ways to make the hike relevant to some of their favourite TV shows or games, like making it a real life Dora The Explore mission. Creating lots of positive associations around the hike itself should indicate that hiking is a fun activity for them to do, and that you are looking forward to doing it with them.
3. Suitable clothing
Dressing suitably for hiking and the weather is key. As anyone can attest to, it is hard to enjoy anything when we are uncomfortable. The most likely cause of discomfort is footwear, and it is all too easy for sandals or casual sneakers to rub and cause blisters when kilometres of uneven terrain are covered. Wearing one pair of good hiking socks – pulled up so there are no creases – and some grippy, well made shoes with ankle support will set our kids up for the best chance of success. Any shoes that do not have good grip may make walking downhill difficult and could cause the `marble effect`, and anything with straps is more likely to rub. Unfortunately good shoes are not always cheap but it is hard to put a price on comfort, stability and healthy growth. Another cause for discomfort is clothing rubbing, which is often seen with shorts or jeans rubbing between the thighs and creating a sore area. Leggings and joggers are preferable as they are comfortable to move in and breathable. Do account for weather conditions too – particularly in the mountains where weather can change quickly. Make sure all rain jackets are fully waterproof (not just weatherproof), and that hot weather clothing is breathable and quick drying.
4. Pack accordingly
Time should be given to packing properly; forgetting one essential item can prematurely end your expedition and spoil your day. For kids in hot weather we need to include all of the essentials; water bottle, sunscreen & sun hat. If in bear territory, bear spray is essential and should be either on a hip holster or in an easy access unzipped pocket. A first aid kit – including bandaids, gauzing, antiseptic wipes/iodine, surgical tape and scissors – is also a must when heading into the wilderness, as well as any essential medications (such as epipens). If you have an infant then you’ll want a change kit is (don`t forget the diaper bags), and snacks are really important for energy and incentives. Things like granola bars and fresh fruit make for good trail nibbles, and for a longer hike you will want to bring a lunch. Small amounts of chocolate or something that is considered as a treat are also handy to have in your pocket if the kids are needing a little `pick me up` along the way. Extra water for the whole family is a must, and depending on the area you may also want to bring some bug spray. An extra outfit for each child on the hike is a good idea too, as toddlers are so good at falling in puddles and other things that require an outfit change. An extra warmer/long sleeved layer is a good idea too incase you are out longer than expected. Lastly, a good hiking carrier for kids is essential for the little ones; a back pack is preferable over any front carriers as they will allow for the weight to be taken on your hips and will not get in the way of your own hiking. It is always a balance between bringing what you need, and not carrying around a heavy load that you don`t. Use the above as your essentials, and then decide each additional item against its bulk Vs benefit.
5. Set a goal
It is really important to create a goal for kids; this could be reaching a summit and having a picnic lunch with a view, or reaching a magical lake and skipping stones across it. Whatever it is, kids need something in mind that they are walking towards as opposed to merely meandering, and if you can include something fun for them at the goal it will help to motivate to get them there. This could be something as small as their favourite treat at the top, or reaching a special place. One of the biggest grumbles of slightly older kids, say from 4 years and up, is that of `why` & `where` are they going. If you address this early, it will help to mentally prepare them for the hike and help them to feel apart of the adventure planning.
6. Follow their lead
One of the harder ones is to go at their pace. This can feel painfully slow so much of the time, especially when they are watching insects or drawing with sticks in the dirt. It is however important to embrace the aspects of hiking that the kids enjoy. It also helps them to take some ownership of the hike, and not feel as if they are just being dragged along on your adventure. Of course there are times when you will hurry them along, but try to do it in a way that explains why you need to continue walking and is not dismissive of their interests. It is so important for kids to enjoy their own `hike` and not be on a forced march alongside of the adults. Taking frequent breaks is something that small children will need to do, so do your best to be patient with these – offering water and snacks along the way. If an adult needs to stop once every hour for a sip of water – assume that your child will need to stop 3 times for theirs.
7. Make it fun
Perhaps the part that takes the most of our energy is the effort that goes in to making hiking fun for the kids. It may be that you need to talk all the way up and all the down to your chatty 4 year old about `Frozen`, or that you feed your 7 year old with riddles and jokes every other minute. Games such as `eye spy` or a `hide and seek` can introduce a playful element as you walk, a serve as a distraction to any tiring sections that you come across. Sharing interesting things and guiding their discovery of nature along the way is a great way to educate and share appreciation; your average 3 year old can be captivated by a puff ball mushroom or in guessing animals made those foot prints. The more interested in your surroundings that you show you are, the more likely that will translate to your little ones.
8. Reward their efforts
It does seem obvious, but if your 5 year old walked 3kms by themselves, be sure to tell them what a great job they have done and how proud you are of them. Encouragement can go a long way, and it is so good to positively reinforce their efforts, solidifying it as a positive experience and making them far more likely to be up for the next hiking adventure.
It does feel like an awful lot of energy and work has to go into taking a young family hiking, but exposing kids to the outdoors from an early age has huge advantages, many of which they can carry through life. So, breathe deep, plan well and enjoy being back on the trails – even if it is at a much slower pace.
Nadine Robb is Owner and Instructor at Hakuba Ski Concierge. Hakuba Ski Concierge is a boutique ski school in Hakuba, Japan.