Last spring my wife and I set off to climb a mountain with our toddler daughter and preschool-aged son. While we’d done plenty of level strolls, this would be our toughest hike as a family so far. It’s a steep, one-mile climb to Humpback Rocks along the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia, with an elevation gain of about 700 feet.
The path started out relatively gentle. Our son strolled along while our daughter was happy and snug in a child carrier strapped to my wife’s back.
By the halfway point, the trail had turned into a steep, rocky scramble. Our son started to struggle a bit, and our daughter began to complain loudly and wanted out of her carrier. It was clearly time for a break. We stopped, broke out the snacks, and looked at the giant millipedes curled up on the path.
After a few minutes we were moving again, eventually reaching an unforgettable view of mountain peaks and green valleys. Months later, my son still talks about the millipedes – the most impressive part for him.
My wife and I loved hiking pre-children, and keeping it up once the little ones came along was important for us and the well-being of our kids. A plethora of research shows that spending time outside relieves stress in children, promotes creativity, attention, and self-discipline, and improves fitness. But we quickly learned hiking with kids requires a major mindset shift.
Think about it as a chance to connect with nature and each other, build self esteem, and get exercise and fresh air together. Hiking with kids five and under can be a wonderful family bonding experience, or it can be an exercise in frustration. Expectations and preparation make a big difference.
With that in mind, here are a few steps that will soon have you enjoying a hike with young kids.
Forget those pre-children tough hikes to remote spots where you logged in the miles. Picture gentle walks in the woods, where it’s okay to dawdle. Pay attention to your child’s pace and take breaks as needed. Remember that you are fostering a positive experience in nature.
Your kids will notice things you’d otherwise overlook. These distractions are opportunities for discovery. This is a great chance to smell the wildflowers, examine insects, or even collect acorns.
If you’re having trouble getting moving after breaks, try incentives like a favorite snack. It’s amazing how much a granola bar can perk up a cranky kid. Distraction is another important tool (Look up ahead! What could be around that bend?). Some gentle encouragement (great job, you’re doing awesome) can also do wonders.
Preparation is the key to ensuring a good time. For your first few hikes with kids, scout out a short and level trail near home. Think of kid-friendly stops along the way: a field to run around in, a pond for skipping stones, or a creek for splashing in. Going with another adult will increase safety and confidence on your first outings. As you gain experience, you can gradually go on longer, more adventurous hikes.
Many kids love to be part of the planning process. Look at a map or photos together and discuss what you might discover. Have them help put stuff in your backpack. Kids will be more excited and invested if they helped plan the trip.
We always end up packing more than we need, but never regret it. Don’t leave without the essentials: water, plenty of snacks, a change of clothes, a bag for trash, and diapers and wet wipes if needed. Check the forecast. Avoid downpours and extreme heat or cold, and dress for the weather. On sunny days don’t forget a hat and sunscreen.
Despite all the planning, be open to those serendipitous experiences that happen while exploring nature. The most memorable experiences are often unexpected. If your child wants to see what’s down a side trail, check it out. That might be just where you spot a fawn hiding in the grass.
While it’s never too late to begin hiking, give it a try as soon as possible. Most babies and young children love being outside. Begin early enough and hiking will become just part of what you do together as a family.
The baby hiker stage can be wonderful, as long as you have a good baby carrier or backpack. Babies often love being carried on hikes where they can watch the scenery or even fall asleep. Before hitting the trail, try on your carrier with your child to make sure it’s comfortable for both of you.
Toddlers around ages two and three are more challenging on hikes. At this age they sometimes want to walk on their own, but their little legs tire quickly. When they want to be carried, they’re so heavy that parents can’t go too far or fast. But you still have got to get out there; this is the perfect age to kindle a love of the outdoors! This stage is ideal for nature explorations where the focus is on fun not walking: collecting pebbles, building miniature forts out of twigs, and spotting birds and butterflies. You’ll be setting them up for amazing outings down the road.
Nearing age four, many children can begin to hike farther on their own. Don’t push anything, but gradually try longer hikes as your child grows. You’ll be surprised by how, over the course of a year, they’ll go from dawdling, to keeping up, to passing you on the trail.
Many parents fear the unholy trinity of outdoor life: ticks and biting insects, poison ivy, and snakes. They can all be genuine concerns, and you’re bound to encounter all three in our region. But with a little knowledge, they shouldn’t keep you from heading outside.
The first key to avoiding unpleasant encounters with the trinity is to stay on well-worn trails, avoiding the tall grass and thick foliage where they may lurk. Wear long pants, socks, and closed-toed shoes in tick and poison ivy country. Consider using bug-and-tick repellent spray.
Doing tick checks after hikes is key. Taking a bath or shower and washing clothes can also remove ticks and prevent poison ivy rashes. Try and catch it early: deer ticks don’t transmit Lyme disease unless they’re attached for several days.
The trinity is another important opportunity for discovery with your children. Study together how to identify poison ivy, local snakes, and types of ticks. Learn where they live and what role they play in the ecosystem. They’re not good or bad, they’re just part of nature. After all, when we go on a hike we’re visitors in their home.
For young children nature is the perfect playground, always full of surprises. What’s more, studies show time and again that being outside leads to healthier and happier children and adults. Yet, even outdoorsy parents can get nervous about hiking with kids. Remember that every hike begins with a few small steps. Start slow, prepare and plan, be aware of your child’s cues and stages, and keep a discovery mindset. You’ll soon be on your way to amazing experiences. By beginning early, you’re laying the groundwork for years to come of outdoor family fun.