Tips for Enjoyable Family Hiking
Jeff Alt has 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. He shares his advice about how to make sure you and the kids have a great time outdoors, especially when hiking on longer trips.
START EARLY, DEVELOP A ROUTINE
Give your kids a healthy dose of early outdoor intervention. It will pay off later. To get started early, carry infants weighing less than 15 pounds in a front body carrier or a sling. Children weighing 16 to 40 pounds can fit into a child carrier backpack. Once children weigh more than 30 pounds, they might be ready to hike short distances and carry a little daypack.
Follow these suggestions to keep kids interested:
- 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, 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 or other holiday 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 visit 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 older children how these incredible devices are used for fun, like scavenger hiking in the Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountain National Parks.
- Take the kids to local orienteering course and learn how to use a GPA and compass together.
- Involve the kids in planning 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 full of facts and information, maps, wildlife).
- Let the kids (especially teens) bring a friend. Get permission from parents and make it a club adventure.
PREPARE YOUR FAMILY FOR THE 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 through online searches and visiting park websites, the library, bookstore travel section, outfitters, etc.)
- Send for maps and guidebooks of the area, and check with the local travel experts on hiking, rangers, guides, etc. 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. 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. Identify and find swimming holes, wildlife, enjoyable views, and places to boulder, look at flowers, spectacular trees and wildlife.
GET IN THE RIGHT GEAR
Get everyone properly fitted into essential gear particularly boots and packs. Also avoid cotton clothing and dress in layers of synthetics, fleece, wool and waterproof, breathable items. Take what you need for the weather and conditions you will encounter. Consider the following partial list:
- Rain jacket
- Deet-free bug repellant (Nutrapell, Coleman, etc.)
- Children's sunscreen
TAKE A TEST RUN
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.
THINK FOOD, AND FUN
- Pack your kids favorite snacks. Desirable food will help encourage your kids to eat and stay energized. Pack more food than you think you will need.
- Try out your food and your stove at home before your trip. Make sure you can cook food the kids will enjoy. When preparing your food, think compact, lightweight and filling. Take items that are easy to prepare or ready to eat.
- Choose foods that just need a little bit of water to prepare. Plan for two pounds of food per person per day. Eliminate bulky packaging; condense food into plastic bags. Pack an extra day's worth of food. Good options include: freeze-dried meals; pasta/rice/beans; foil-wrapped meats such as tuna or chicken; dehydrated fruit and veggies; sliced apples, grapes, bananas, carrots; energy bars or granola bars; peanut butter; cheese and sausage; bagels, crackers, candy bars, nuts; tortilla and cheese sandwiches; oatmeal of dried cereals.
- Take a food bag and rope, depending where you go, to hang your food 10 feet up in a tree so the bears can't get to it.
LEARN FIRST AID AND BE PREPARED FOR TRAIL EMERGENCIES
- Carry a first-aid kit and brush up on child first aid and CPR. Learn about the dangers of hypothermia and monitor children for signs. Pack all of your child's medication.
- Know the location of the nearest medical facility for you and the children.
- Learn how to use a compass and map or GPS.
- Learn how to make a quick shelter to help keep you warm and dry.
- Know how to start a fire to keep warm. Keep matches and lighters dry and in a safe place.
- Leave a copy of your itinerary with a friend or family member.
If you do get lost, make yourself as visible as possible. Place a bright item (e.g. item of clothing or gear) in the open. Make distress signals and make noise. If you brought a cell phone, check periodically to see if it works.
KEEP THE JOURNEY FUN
The top priority when hiking with kids 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. Talk to your child about what you're seeing. Name the animals, rocks, trees and flowers. Tone down your mileage goals to your child's comfort level.
Engage older children with trip planning and learning about 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.
About Jeff Alt
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. He and his wife emerged from the church doors on their wedding day with backpacks.
Alt is a member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America (OWAA). He has written "A Walk for Sunshine" and "A Hike for Mike." "A Walk for Sunshine" (ISBN: 9780967948232; $15.95) takes you along the Appalachian Trail with life lessons from the trail. It includes gear lists and hiking tips for the beginning hiker and the whole family. For more information visit www.jeffalt.com.