Quick Tips for Hiking with Children

By Rolf Asphaug, Colorado Wilderness Families Group

He couldn’t have been more than 10 or 11 years old. The boy was lying on his side, curled into the fetal position, at the bottom of LongsTT_Fall2013 hiking with children2 Peak’s Homestretch: a steep gully at 13,500 feet that’s one of the last obstacles before you reach the summit. He must have already negotiated Longs Peak’s vertigo-inducing Narrows section, as well as the 8 miles and 4,000 feet of elevation gain between this point and the trailhead. He wasn’t injured, but he looked physically and mentally spent. His eyes were open but listless. And above him was his eager dad, trying to rouse him for that final summit push. Meanwhile, it was already close to noon, and on this late August day thunderclouds were beginning to take shape all around us. Something was wrong with this picture. Now, I may not have had all the facts. It may well be that this boy was just as excited as his dad about this trip, and I just happened to see him at a low point. There are some children his age—and more than a few among CMC families— who relish the challenge of climbing Fourteeners and other high summits. But on the whole, kids don’t care nearly as much as adults do about peak-bagging. Given the choice between a hard slog to a summit and an easy stroll to a mountain lake, a kid will take the lake every time. Especially if it contains salamanders. Members of the CMC’s Colorado Wilderness Families Group embrace the salamanders. Most of us are parents of younger kids, and we want to get our children as hooked on the outdoors as we are. Through trial and error, we’ve realized that the best way to do that is to dial down our ambitious hiking goals and focus on making the journey, as well as the destination, as fun and stimulating as possible. We do offer trips to Fourteeners, but most of our trips involve camping near bodies of water, with shorter hikes on the program. Do you want to enjoy hiking Colorado’s wildernesses with your kids? Here are a few tips:

Have a Fun Destination
“Fun” for kids often involves water. It’s amazing how much enjoyment kids can get out of skipping rocks on a lake, wading in an icy alpine pond, floating sticks down a stream, or feeling the spray of a waterfall. But fun can also involve a high-quality, interactive visitor center; or a hike with lots of lizards and bugs in the offing; or maybe a geocache or two with hidden treasure.

Have Lots of Tasty Snacks
Kids need to replenish their fuel stores often. Be sure to bring trail food, such as nuts, string cheese, and gorp. And when their energy or spirits are flagging, kids often perk up incredibly if you offer them a little, slightly decadent treat, such as a Life Saver or a couple M&MsR. Some parents also like to let their kids know that there’s a special treat in store—maybe a candy bar or some hot chocolate—when they reach the destination.

Go at a Kid’s Pace
Stop often for rest breaks, and when your kid discovers that fascinating ant, lizard, or plant, give him or her plenty of time to look at it. Stroll, don’t march. Make sure that the terrain doesn’t intimidate or frighten your child.

Be Flexible
Don’t hesitate to call it an early day and turn around if you find a logical stopping point that seems to fit with your child’s energy and interest. You may have had your heart set on reaching that special summit, but recognize that your son or daughter may instead forever cherish the day you hiked less than a mile and picnicked next to an anonymous little stream.

Don’t Forget the Essentials
It goes without saying that you should have all the Ten Essentials, including adequate clothing for everyone. Of all the essentials, probably the most important for your kids are water and sun protection, because kids will forget all about them if not regularly prompted by you. Make sure your children stay well hydrated and sun-screened.

Keep Kids’ Packs Light
It’s probably a good idea for you to have your kids carry some of their gear, if only a small water bottle, jacket, and whistle. At 9 and 11, our boys are old enough that they take pride in carrying their own Ten Essentials, especially the pocketknife, first aid kit, and fire starter. But if your kids carry packs at all, make sure they’re very light compared to yours.

Go Electronics-free
Keep all electronics—iPods, etc.—in the car if not at home. (Having an iPod in your car can be great if you hit a traffic jam on the way home.) This means you, too: keep your cell phone holstered, partner. Otherwise your kids will get jealous.

Teach Your Kids What to Do if Lost
Tell your kids to stay close to you, and always let you know if they need to take a potty break or otherwise leave your side for a moment. Teach your children to “hug a tree”, if they become lost. Tell them to stay put and wait for the adults to find them. Have them carry a whistle: three blows means you’re lost. But put the whistle in a pack pocket or somewhere out of the way; otherwise it’s too tempting for them to use their whistles as toys.

Invite a Friend
We have two young boys. If we’re hiking with just mom, dad, and them, we know there’ll be some drama, squabbles, or sullenness en route. But if we let them invite along a friend or two (with their parents), suddenly their outlook changes and they’re having a grand time. And as a result, so are we.

Have a Greatly Increased Margin of Safety
I once came across a dad carrying an infant, no more than a year old, in a baby carrier. Alone. On top of Quandary Peak. His dad was one sprained ankle away from a potentially dangerous struggle to get safely back home. If the baby started to cry, the dad might not be able to tell whether the cause was mere diaper rash—or altitude sickness. And in case of a thunderstorm, that metal-framed baby backpack . . . I don’t need to spell that out for you. When we’re hiking with kids, we have precious cargo that is totally, 100 percent dependent on us for safety and survival. We need to stay mindful of that, and purposely avoid the exciting, enervating risks we might take when we’re on our own. But the flip side is that hiking with kids helps us experience the nature surrounding us through a precious new prism: a kaleidoscope of childlike wonder.


This article originally appeared in the Fall 2013 Issue (1020) of Trail & Timberline

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