Kids and the great outdoors go naturally together. Hiking can be an incredible experience for a child, but the adults involved need to be aware that hiking with kids can be a little different. The basic guidelines are the same for any hike, you will need to select a trail that is not too long and has terrain that everyone can handle. Make sure your entire party is wearing supportive shoes with good traction, and good sun protection. Brief your kids on hiking safety, including staying on trail, identifying and avoiding dangerous wildlife, and what to do if they get lost. Bring plenty of water, most kids like having their own bottle to drink from.
If you aren’t already an avid hiker, you and the kids will probably be at about the same level. If you are used to covering miles a day or tackling tough terrain though, you will need to slow down a lot. Especially when hiking with small children, it is important to go at their pace. Infants are often quite happy to ride along in a carrier, but if you strap a child to your back you will need to be more careful about sunburns and bug bites. If you are the only adult on an outing, you will want to keep the baby where you can see and speak to him or her.
Once your kids are walking, your hiking pace may slow down to a crawl. Toddlers are often fascinated by the smallest things, and may be content to sit in the mud or watch bugs instead of moving down the trail. Remember that little ones are still learning all about the world around them, and try to be content with joining them on the ground. Even if they don’t seem to understand everything you say, toddlers soak up information constantly. You can talk about the types of rocks, trees, flowers, or insects that he or she is examining. Tell them folk stories, or look for tracks or other signs of wildlife. Even if you only make it ten feet down the trail, hikes can be an incredibly enriching experience for little ones.
Toddlers aren’t the only kids who benefit from hearing about the world around them. Most kids will enjoy learning about plants, wildlife, and geology while hiking. Try to answer all of their questions if you can, and consider bringing along a field guide if your kids are really interested in something. Every kid is different, so you will have to let your child be your guide when it comes to their hiking experience. Some kids want to choose which trail to take, or try their hand at reading a map. Other kids are little daredevils and want to climb and jump and balance on everything. Quieter kids are often happiest just ambling down the trail, taking in nature.
Clothing is an especially important consideration when hiking with kids. Before you set out on your adventure, ask yourself what your child would need to spend a night outside. Pack weight is an important consideration; don’t strap a tent and a stove to your kid for a day hike. Just think about the weather and how much the temperature drops overnight. The daytime high may be 90 degrees, but if it drops below 60 after dark you’ll want to stick a sweater in Junior’s backpack. Add a water bottle, a snack, and a whistle, and you will all be prepared in case your adventure gets a little more exciting.