Hit the Hiking Trails With Kids
How do you teach your children to enjoy hiking? Start early and make it fun! So says outdoor enthusiast extraordinaire and author Jeff Alt.
“Getting kids outside is more important than ever,” he says. “TV, computer and video game addictions are replacing outdoor play time. Passive inside entertainment is contributing significantly to the national obesity epidemic! It’s time to get off the couch America! Get the kids outside!”
Alt, author of the book “A Walk for Sunshine” has lots of great advice about how to make sure you and the kids have a great time outdoors.
Start Early to Develop a Routine
Give your kids a healthy dose of “Early Outdoor Intervention.” It will pay off later.
Start hiking with your newborn:
• Infants and children weighing less than 15 pounds should be carried in a front body carrier or a sling. Children weighing 16 to 40 pounds can fit into a child carrier backpack. Children weighing more than 30 pounds might be ready to hike short distances and carry a little daypack.
• Let the child lead. This helps you focus on what they’re interested in and keeps you from leaving them in your dust.
• Get outside every day. Take a walk with the family once a day. Walk around the block, go to the park, go to the beach, and river. Get maps and books and search out and find new places to go. See new places all the time.
• Save money and stop driving everywhere. Walk to the grocery store. Walk to your local restaurant for dinner and back. Walk to the library. Make walking and hiking as routine as brushing your teeth.
• Bring the outdoors inside. Educate constantly to generate interest and enthusiasm. Take lots of pictures of the kids and places you go. Make posters for the family and living room and for Christmas cards. Get magazines, videos, and artwork that show places you want to go. Rent movies about faraway places. Use the Internet together to look at maps, and photographs of the wildlife, environments, and spectacular scenery you will be visiting someday.
• Go high tech. Bring on the gadgetry! Turn your computer game nerds on to the adventure technology. (e.g. GPS, pedometers headlamp flashlights, geocaching) and teach them all about how these incredible devices are being used for fun, like scavenger hiking in the Shenandoah & Great Smoky Mtn Ntl. Parks.
• Take the kids to local orienteering course and learn how to use GPS & compass together.
• Involve the kids in planning out all trips and adventures. Older children can use the computer to research your destination or sport. (all national parks and most other destinations have websites chock full of facts & info., maps, wildlife).
• Let the kids (especially teens) bring along a friend. Get permission from parents and make it a club adventure.
Preparation is the key to a successful hike. Many of the same equipment decisions that you make for your own adventures can be applied to outfitting your children.
• Research the destination and activity. Have your youngster help you with this, using Google, park websites, library, bookstore travel section, outfitters, etc.
• You’ve got mail! Send for maps and guidebooks of the area, and check with the local travel experts on hiking, rangers and guides. Have the packages sent to your child or children. Attend local slide shows or lectures (outfitters/libraries/bookstores) every chance you get.
• Plan ahead – especially when you have younger children. Choose a trail that offers easy access to domesticated amenities. Having a base camp or prearranged lodging allows you to be a parent, not a Sherpa.
• Check into transportation options. You should have a plan for what to do if you need to get off the trail.
• Identify the restaurant and grocery amenities. Not only is it good to know what’s available before you arrive so that you’ll know what to pack, but if the weather turns bad, you can have an instantly viable backup plan.
• Prepare and plan what you need based on what you find. What kinds of wildlife can you expect? Will water be available? What are the weather and terrain like? You want to avoid hiking in freezing temperatures, lightning storms, and extreme heat. You want to identify and find swimming holes, wildlife, enjoyable views, and great places to boulder, look at flowers, spectacular trees, and wildlife.
Acquire the Right Gear
Get everyone properly fitted into essential gear particularly boots and packs.
• Clothing- NO COTTON! Dress in layers (synthetics, fleece, wool, and waterproof breathable items). Bring what you need for the weather and conditions you could encounter, including a jacket, hat, extra shirt, socks, pants and underwear.
• Deet-free bug repellant and children’s sunscreen.
• Train at home in your neighborhood with your kids before you go into the wild. Practice carrying your child in the child carrier. This will help you adjust to carrying the pack, and your child will acclimate to the routine. Take older children (age 4 and older) on weekly walks so that they are physically conditioned for the journey. Wear your boots and all your gear on your training hikes to condition you and make sure everything fits and works before you leave town.
• The driving priority with children is to make sure they have fun. Let them lead the way and tell you what they want to do. Whatever animal or rock your young child takes interest in, stop and explore with him or her. Talk to your child about what you’re seeing. Label the animals, rocks, trees, and flowers. Tone down your mileage goals to the comfort level of your child.
• Engage older children with trip planning, animals, local history, or anything that applies to what they are learning in school.
• Teach your children good backcountry ethics. Kids can learn to pack out trash, take nothing from the woods but memories and pictures, and proper backcountry toileting at a young age.
In addition to walking the 2,160-mile Appalachian Trail, Jeff Alt has walked the 218-mile John Muir Trail with his wife, and trekked across a 50-mile path of Ireland with his wife, young daughter, and extended family. His son was taken on his first hike at 8 weeks. For more information visit www.jeffalt.com