If you had told me ten years ago that mine would be a hiking family, I probably would have hurt myself laughing. I was definitely more of an “indoor sport” unless we were talking about a moonlit beach or something.
Over the years, however, I’ve become a total convert and one of our favorite things to do on a weekend morning or afternoon is head out and hit a trail, pounding the dirt rather than the pavement, for several miles.
The benefits of hiking are many and include:
- abundant fresh air
- some, but not too much, sun exposure (thanks to nature’s natural protectors– the trees!)
- fantastic exercise, burning far more calories than walking and typically more than running, too
- great navigational and motor planning practice
- increased familiarity with the animals in your area
- increased knowledge about local flora and what wild edibles might bloom around you
- fabulous “unplugged” time with the people who matter most to you
- …and more!
Take it from a girl who has never been a huge fan of bugs OR dirt– hiking can be a total blast and doesn’t require that you be a total crunchy nature fanatic– I still love my polished nails and sparkly ruby toe ring. I look girly even when I hike. I mean, yes, I get sweaty and dusty and occasionally have to pull a pine needle from my hair but, all-in-all, it doesn’t have to be a terribly grungy affair.
Maybe it sounds kind of fun to you, but you find the idea of heading out with small children totally daunting. Perhaps you wouldn’t hesitate to venture out with your significant other, but you have no idea where to even start when it comes to kiddos. Well, that’s why I’m here with some of my best tips to get you set for your “starter hike.”
Flip through an LL Bean catalog and it can be overwhelming– the boots! the canteens! the hats! the backpacks! the…!!!!
Here’s what you’ll really need for heading out on your first family hike–
- a backpack– any sturdy backpack will do, really
- decent sneakers– hiking boots are great, but not necessary
- tall, absorbent socks– these are best, since they’ll offer a bit of protection from twigs and thorns by your ankles
- water– in any kind of resealable bottle
- sunscreen– maybe (depending on where you’ll be hiking, length of hike, skintone, etc.)
- first aid materials
- backpack/carrier for children 2 and under
Where and how far?
I always suggest choosing an easy to moderate hike for your first jaunt with children. Why not just “easy”? Well, I honestly think many children stay more engaged when there’s some interesting terrain to navigate. Now, you don’t want it to be terribly challenging or unmanageable, but having a small creek to cross or rocky outcropping to scale is, indeed, part of the fun.
As far as distance goes, here’s your rule of thumb:
For ages 3 to 12, you can typically expect a healthy child to walk half as many miles as his or her age. For example, a healthy, able-bodied six-year-old can most likely handle a three mile hike. And eleven-year-old can hike up to five and a half miles.
These are general guidelines, and you’ll need to take your own family’s health and fitness levels into account. There are definitely four-year-olds who can hike more than two miles. There are ten-year-olds who won’t make it five. You know your children best.
*The two and under set are safest in backpacks or carriers for actual hikes. You can take a toddler on a neighborhood stroll, but I wouldn’t have him hiking.
**Children who are three or four are sometimes proficient hikers. Others are best carried on backs, still. It truly depends on the child. At three, our youngest rode in a backpack for hikes that were three or more miles long, but could hike shorter distances alongside us. She balks at the backpack now (at four, almost five), so we plan our hikes accordingly and do not yet attempt the five and six mile treks we used to enjoy.
The First Aid Kit
You really don’t need to go crazy on the first aid materials for day-trip sorts of hikes. Admittedly, I’m not a worrier or panic-er by nature, but we’ve always made out just fine with the following:
- band-aids (large and small)
- antibacterial ointment/alcohol swabs/something to clean a cut
- acetaminophen/ibuprofen (for pain and swelling, in the event of a fall)– we just carry a couple sample packs.
- hand sanitizer
- optional: ACE bandage (in the event of a sprain or strain)
Food and Water
Let me be very clear here– water is significantly more important than food on a hike. If you’re planning a multi-day hiking journey, sure, you need to plan very well for your food, but for most shorter hikes, it’s not a complicated affair. For hikes three miles and under, we typically pack a bag of homemade trail mix and/or a couple pieces of fruit to share. That’ll do it. For longer hikes, we often go over the lunch hour and stop 2/3 of the way through to enjoy sandwiches and fruit.
As far as water goes, I’ll direct you here for official guidelines as to how much water you should pack. I’ll be honest and tell you that I just throw a bunch of water bottles in the pack and it’s always worked out for us, but I realize you might want more concrete rules to follow.
Why a map?
Lots of people are all about the cell phone GPS these days. And that’s cool and all. Me? I like to have a well-marked trail (with blazes on the trees) and a paper map or directions.
The problem with electronic devices is that signals can be lost, batteries can die, and, in other words, these high-tech helpers can fail you.
Paper is light as can be and, honestly, doubles as a good fan and bug swatter. I like knowing I have the map and/or directions printed out and in-hand. It adds no weight to the pack, but gives me lots of peace of mind. By all means, enjoy your technology, but be safe and have a concrete back-up plan.
I can’t begin to tell you the many ways my family has benefited from becoming a family who hikes together. We enjoy one another’s company, problem solve together, help one another through tricky places, and discover more about the world around us. Our children’s teachers and therapists confirm that hiking is extraordinary for building life and coping skills. By the end of a summer hiking together, we are all stronger, healthier, and more in tune with our environment and each other– that’s a serious pay-off for a very inexpensive activity!
If you’ve ever considered trying out a family hike, I encourage you to get out there and give it a go. I hope you discover just as much joy as we have.