We are avid hikers and took our son on his first trail when he was just a few months old. Now that we live in Switzerland — the land of epic hiking — spending time exploring new terrain is a regular all-family activity.
I get a constant stream of family travel tips from various writers in my inbox every day. I have to admit that many of them are simply too basic to publish or seem written by people who don’t actually have children.
When I received an email this week with tips for teaching kids to enjoy hiking this summer by Jeff Alt, an avid outdoors enthusiast, I took some time to see if his advice was worthwhile. Indeed!
Here are Jeff’s tips for hikes with kids that resonated most with me. See his full list tips on www.jeffalt.com.
Tips for Hiking with Kids
Let children lead
We are bad about this. Our son can be a giant loiterer and following him may mean we never really get anywhere, but we do make him the “leader” periodically and this helps with engagement.
Go high tech
Use gadgets — GPS, pedometers, headlamp flashlights, geocaching — to make hiking more fun. Jeff suggests taking kids to a local orienteering course to learn how to use a GPS and compass together. I’ve never heard of these courses, but it sounds like something that would be offered at REI. I love this idea!
Involve kids in choosing the hike and planning
We don’t do enough of this and pay the price accordingly. Buy in is key or you’ll be bribing your kids all the way up the trail. If they choose where to go, kids will be much more likely to be excited about enduring the hike with a smile.
Jeff also suggests ordering maps and guidebooks, and having the sent to your kids.
Choose a trail that allows easy access to amenities
One of the things I love about hiking in Europe is the plethora of mountain huts where you can hike to a hot meal. Part of the enjoyment of hiking and camping with kids is the adventure of living without our day-to-day luxuries, but this does mean more work for parents. A happy medium is a destination that has infrastructure and the opportunity to feel like you are truly out in the wilderness.
Acquire the right gear
For kids that are walking up the trail (not riding in a backpack), nothing sours a day faster than inappropriate shoes and clothing. Investing in either hiking boots or kids athletic shoes with a rugged sole is a must, as is layers. Jeff also suggests deet-free bug repellent.
Pack favorite food
When kids get tired and cranky, nothing provides a faster cheer up than a favorite snack. Jeff offers a terrific list of packable treats including dehydrated fruit, cheese, energy bars, cheese and sausage, candy bars, and nuts. We always pack a “surprise” treat to be opened only at the hiking “destination”.
Carry a first aid kit
We don’t consistently do this but it is a very good idea, even for short hikes. Scrapes and cuts are likely on trails. Cell phones are totally unreliable, so it is always smart to let someone know where you are, as well as to pack extra water and supplies.
Teach good backcountry ethics
Kids can learn to pack out trash, take nothing form the woods but memories and pictures, and property backcountry toilet habits.
All of Jeff’s tips are spot on. I’d add that it’s important to take the time to specifically communicate the age of your kids to whomever you are getting hiking suggestions from — whether a tourist office or another hiker. When we were in Zermatt last summer, our server at a restaurant recommended a hike that ended up being on the side of a very steep ravine. One slip from any of us and that was that.
We ended up turning around mid-way up the trail. The bottom line is that the wilderness is not Disneyland and has real hazards. People without kids or even those with older kids, may be too far removed from your stage to dish out reliable advice about age-appropriate trails.
More 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. His son was taken on his first hike at 8 weeks.
Alt is a member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America (OWAA). His adventures have been featured in media nationwide including: ESPN, Hallmark Channel, the AP, CNN-Radio, NPR, and more. Alt’s award-winning books, A Walk for Sunshine and A Hike for Mike, have been reviewed in Library Journal, Chicago Sun Times and more.
For more information visit www.jeffalt.com