Your kid is going to be your hiking partner for life.
Imagine—weekends roaming the mountainsides together, bonding over vast vistas, wildlife sightings and summits reached. Family vacations with an active slant—camping and trekking both at-home and abroad. An active and healthy lifestyle the whole family will enjoy and activities that forge self-confidence, promote problem-solving skills and instill a love of and respect for nature.
Sounds great, right?
Well—it all rests on how you choose to introduce your child to the sport of hiking.
Here are 10 tips to help kick-start a lifelong passion for outdoor adventure:
1. Set Your Expectations
Expectations are a killer—especially in the outdoors. It’s vital that all members of your team are on the same page from the moment you set foot out the door. Doubly so when hiking with kids.
When introducing a youngster to hiking, keep your expectations simple. The daily goal shouldn’t be to reach a summit or even complete the full length of a trail. The expectation is: time spent outdoors, together. That’s it. It’s easy to meet and impossible to disappoint—even if the trip is cut short, or weather (or moods) foul. As your family progresses in the sport of hiking, you can fine-tune and extend these expectations. But for starters—basic is best.
2. Keep Everybody Well Fed
Hungry kids don’t make happy hikers. Err on the side of too many snacks. Bring treats, too. (Think like a kid—you might be OK with a steady diet of protein gels, but will they be?) Stop for a long lunch. And water, water, water! This is going to mean your pack is quite heavy—as you don’t want to start kids off with overweight backpacks—but any inconvenience will pay dividends in the form of longer days in the woods and far fewer complaints. When starting out, bribes are OK too. Entice your youngster along with the promise of a cookie and let the magic of nature finish the job.
3. Invest in the Right Gear
You’re a hardy hiker—a blister or leaky jacket isn’t going to send you back to the car. But kids need to be warm, dry and extremely comfortable at all times. A novice hiker hasn’t yet been bewitched by Mother Nature enough to push through the pain. This means dropping some cash on proper gear. Yes—kids need waterproof-breathable jackets, wool-blend base-layers and socks and supportive boots. If you’re serious about cultivating a young hiker, put up the cash to prove it.
4. Engage & Entertain
For you, the simple act of Shinrinyoku (forest bathing) or the pleasures of an expansive vista are more than enough. The chirp of a songbird is your favourite soundtrack and you can spend hours identifying grasses and wildflowers.
Well, your kid can’t. And won’t. And doesn’t. Not yet, anyway. You’re going to have to sacrifice serenity in favour of telling funny stories to lure your children through the trail. Create games that distract them from the plodding distances. Make reasonable physical challenges (“I bet you can’t jump over that puddle!”) to engage them on their level—not yours.
5. Create Challenges
Further to the challenges—an effective way of keeping your child’s attention throughout a long hike is to challenge them with a task. Perhaps there is a remarkable tree along the trail, or a waterfall that’s hard to find. Tell your child it’s his or her job to find it. Or, perhaps after you run-through the requisite safety and Leave No Trace chat (you did this at home, right?), challenge them to keep an eye on you—to make sure you don’t break the rules. How else can you pose a challenge?
6. Make Them Vital
If you carry all the gear, hold the map and choose the trail—well, you’re headed for Boredom City (population: one child). Make your child a vital part of the experience. You can start at home, by allowing them to choose the trail (from your curated list, of course). Maybe even let your kid choose the departure time? While on the trail, give him or her a small backpack to carry some vital gear. Best of all—hand the kid a compass. Let your youngster feel as though he is the guide, leading you through the woods.
7. Observe & React
Kids often wear their hearts on their sleeves. You just have to watch for it—and react accordingly. If a mood suddenly changes from chipper to sullen—is it hunger? A pebble in the shoe? Too quick of a pace? If your child goes from talkative to silent—are they tired? Bored? Watch for body language, verbal cues and mood changes—then react. It may be time to turn around. Remember, this hike is all about the youngster—not you.
8. Start Early
One of the most common mistakes a parent can make is waiting until their child is “old enough.” This often means waiting until he or she hits the tweens before hiking as a family. Well, think back to when you were that age? Did you really want to hang out with your parents all that much? Take advantage of the special time when your kid is young, impressionable and actually wants to spend time with you. And use those formative years to instill a love of nature. Start before they can even walk and don’t stop until they refuse to be seen with you.
9. Stay Positive
Your kids will mirror your emotions. So how will you react if something goes amiss? For example, you may find yourself… well, not lost… but temporarily befuddled. Stay calm, put a smile on your face and tell the youngster you’re going to stop and “get your bearings.” A sudden downpour? Laugh it off and head back to the car. Dropped your iPhone in the lake? Hold in those foul words (and sullen moods) and use it as a teachable moment about taking care of one’s belongings. If at any time you feel like losing your temper, or showing fear, disappointment or discouragement—know your child will feel these same emotions on an almost empathic level. Then you’ll both be miserable—and your kid may associate a negative experience with being outside. ("Daddy always yells when he hikes.")
10. Engage with a Community
You’re going to want to get more advice—dealing with reluctant kids, trail suggestions, gear choices, meal planning and more. And every child is unique, with different needs and preferences. I’ve given you nine general tips—but my 10th might be the most valuable. You need to engage with a like-minded community of hikers.
One of the best communities is right under your nose: Explore’s Live the Adventure Club. In fact, membership to this group of active outdoorspeople will solve several concerns outlined in this article. Such as:
- You’ll receive quarterly boxes of curated, quality outdoors gear.
- You’ll find outdoorsy challenges designed to get you active and exploring.
- You have the chance to win loads of exciting prizes (more gear!).
- And—you’ll have access to a private Facebook forum where you can converse with fellow hikers about their best practises, trail suggestions, gear picks and more.
Sound like something you might be interested in?
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