Hiking with kids

   09.12.13

Hiking with kids

I am not the most experienced outdoorsman in the world, but the outdoors has always been part of who I am.  I grew up next to a State Wildlife Preserve and while other teenagers were wearing Drakar Noir and hanging out at the mall, I was trying to create a map of the preserve (this was before Google Maps or the Internet, which makes me sound really old…).  I spent a lot of time hiking, camping, swimming, and figuring out how to do things with very little equipment.  My regular kit was a walking stick, a Victorniox Super Tinker, some flip flops for wading, and an Audubon Book to ID animals and fish.  It was an amazing place, and even to this day I can remember how to get from the wading pool, which sported a diving board that I made with friends, to a massive fallen log that I called “Chicken Wood.”

When my son was born three years ago, I was a bit depressed that living in a more urbanized environment, he would be denied some of that freedom and exploration I had as a kid.  I vowed that I would take him on hikes as often as possible and that I would help him appreciate and enjoy the outdoors.  Three years in, I feel like I am doing a pretty good job.  He has a very close attachment to his walking stick, and he perks up the same way when I mention “hike” as he does when I mention “ice cream.” 

This how-to article is about taking your kids on short hikes, and it covers what I’ve learned from taking my son hiking.  It’s nothing technical; there’s no survival stuff.  Just tips on making the outdoors enjoyable for all.  After all, who wouldn’t like to see like the picture above.

Yellow Light

My son is roughly 40 inches tall (though at three that measurement, from last week, is probably out of date).  So a mountain that is 3,000 feet for me seems roughly 1/3 taller for him.  Don’t worry about your pace or your miles.  Throw away or don’t bring your pedometer.  Everything is a little tougher and taller for them.  Weeds that cut across your waist whack them in their face.  Plus, kids have something of an abbreviated attention span.

Last summer our goal was to hike to all of the local water reserves, most of which around 2-3 miles from the nearest road.  A few have no trails.  After some plugging away we found all of them, and eventually reached each of the five.  On the last hike, we hit two, but as we were coming back we found an abandoned spillway. I like abandoned stuff as much as the next person who’s transfixed by urbex photos on the Internet, but my son was enthralled.  We climbed up and down the massive concrete structure.  It had become overgrown with weeds, and the whole thing had a post-apocalyptic feel.  He would stop and crouch down to look at rocks and trace small trickles of water down the entire length of the structure.  What was a cool layover for my wife and I became all-afternoon event for my son.  Discovery is so important for little folks, and there is nothing as cool as discovering something so huge and immense and hidden when you are three.

Also, don’t be afraid to show them views.  Even small children understand the idea of majesty.  My gibber jaws son fell silent when on a recent hike we cleared the tree line, stopped, turned around and saw this:

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Get them gear

You might think, based on my site and reviews here, that I am talking about knives or flashlights.  I don’t think those things are appropriate or appreciated by kids this small. (Though my son is fascinated by my knife collection, but that probably has more to do with their shiny appearance than anything else).  I do think giving them something that is theirs is tremendously helpful.  It teaches them about responsibility and possessions.  It also teaches them how to use to tools.  I’d recommend starting with a walking stick.

My son has had three walking sticks, and each has been something he really likes, or at least likes to carry around for a little bit.  He views going on hikes as something we do as a family, and I have a walking stick and so does my wife, so his walking stick is an outward sign to him that he is part of our family and has the tools necessary for hiking.  He rarely carries it after a few minutes, but it’s the idea that counts.

As he has gotten older, he has started to use the stick in real ways, helping him balance and navigate tough terrain.  He also used it to do other things, such as moving branches out of his way and pushing things into the water.  It is a slow process, but he is clearly getting the idea of how to use it and what it is for, beyond being a sign of group unity.  I am sure this little kit of his is going to expand, and he is going to add a backpack to it at some point.  He already has a tiny little LL Bean number that he really likes, so I’d imagine that’s coming next.

Something to do

On almost every hike we go on, I fold up a plastic grocery bag and put it in my pocket.  Invariably my son will find three things: 1) rocks; 2) water; and 3) a place near the water to chuck rocks. That bag allows me to carry a bunch of rocks back to him and let him go wild.  Its not an exaggeration to say that rock chucking can entertain him for an hour.  This is the kid that strains and squirms during a 30 second commercial between his favorite YouTube videos.  But outside, with rocks to chuck, he is a something of a Zen Master by comparison.

He also likes to touch trailmarkers.  Each one we pass he will go and tap it with his walking stick.  He keeps count and he “helps” us find the next marker.  He also likes to examine cairns on trails that lack markers, going so far as to add rocks to the cairns that already exist.  All of these activities help him focus on the next small step instead of looking up and seeing 3,000 feet to ascend or 5 miles to go (he has both ascended a 3,000 foot mountain and done a 5 mile hike with some help from us; he slept well both nights, as did we).

Explain, research, and understand

One of our favorite spots to hike to is the end of a long river that has cut a ravine through some good ole New England granite.  As the river comes out of the hills, the ravine gets smaller and smaller until it is easy to drop down into it.  But at its highest point the walls are sheer cliffs about 40 to 50 feet tall.

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Explaining how the water cuts through rock was both fun for me and very engaging for my son.  My wife is a science professor, so she can handle a lot of the more complex details, but just telling him that over time the water wears away the rocks was enough to get the idea in his head, especially when you can point to the ravine.  “See, see how the water cuts through the rock.  Its like how water melts ice, but it takes a much, much longer time.”  There are inevitable follow up questions like: “How long?”  And that prompts me to do research so I can answer him correctly.

When he was a brand new baby we went for a hike everyday, as I was lucky enough to have paternity leave.  That got us in the habit of being outdoors and it also prompted us to buy an Audubon Guide.  The next summer we used the guide to ID all of our local turtles, including this beast:

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Mr. Snapper, a Common Snapping Turtle, has become a part of bedtime stories and is the “leader” of the reptiles and amphibians at our local pond in their make believe struggle against the water fowl.  This not only helped teach him about turtles, but it also allowed him to differentiate between reptiles and birds.  It also gives us chance to show him how to use the book, even if he is still a year or so away from reading.

Conclusion

I cannot imagine growing up without being able to get outside.  I hope my son will look back on his childhood and feel the same way.  Being outdoors with my son and wife is one of the most crucial ways I can recharge my batteries, and making the outdoors fun for them makes it more enjoyable for me. 

I hope this article gave you a few ideas for how to get your kids interested in the outdoors.  If done right your children will thank you later.

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