My not-so-basic rules for hiking with young children

Good news: it’s hiking season. I’m enthusiastic about just about every outdoor activity, but hiking is my favorite. I’m a minimalist at heart, so any activity that takes no equipment other than sturdy shoes, a map, and some water is going to be dear to my heart. I keep a hiking bag packed all summer long so that we can be out the door in the time it takes to put on shoes and fill water bottles. I love hiking season.

Hiking with kids, though? Well. That’s got its challenges.

Last year I put together a list of rules for hiking with children and posted it on my personal blog. It was forwarded from friend to friend to friends of friends and ultimately that post became the basic idea of writing about kids and the outdoors. I’m updating that post here because with yet another year of hiking with kids under my belt, I still follow every single one of these rules.

1) Harder and more interesting, not longer. The worst, whiniest hikes we’ve taken were the ones that were gentle meanders because they were that most dangerous of things: boring. Steps so steep they required stabilizing iron rungs? Great. Borderline rock climbing? Fun. Vertical descents made of nightmares and maternal heart attacks? Wheee! Long slow switchbacks that allow you to breathe while they give you a chance to take in the view and enjoy the day? THIS IS SOOO HARD. I’M BOOORRRRED. ARE WE DONE YET? I’M HUUUUNGRY. So my advice is to pick your mountain, find the shortest, most brutal way to the top, and go for it. Your quads may not thank you, but your sanity will.

If you aren’t up for scaling a mountain via iron rungs, at least find a trail with something to mix up the plain old walking. Trails with bridges or boardwalk sections are always a hit, as are ones that involve water. A stop to throw rocks in the ocean or drop sticks into a stream can give just enough distraction to buy you another whine-free half-mile.

2) Don’t make them carry anything. This runs contrary to my usually rock solid parenting rule of Ye Shalt Carry Thine Own Crap. You know those parents carrying their kids’ backpacks into school? Yeah. That’s not me. You want it, you carry it. Momma ain’t no pack mule. But leaving them pack free makes it easier for kids to scamper through the woods without getting their backpack caught on trees and also (critical when you are climbing rock walls, see #1) helps keep their center of balance where they expect it to be.  It also prevents them from stopping every 13 seconds to drink from their fun new water bottle. Which reminds me…

3) Each kid gets their own water bottle. Obvious, I know, but something you may ponder skipping once you realize you are going to be carrying all that water. Don’t. To save on weight, sometimes if it’s a short hike I don’t bring a separate bottle for me and just drink alternately from theirs. (If you are a germaphobe, this probably will not work for you.) They don’t at all mind sharing with me but with each other? Oh ho ho. No.

4) Make a game of finding trail markers. Obviously, if you are taking small children into the woods, staying on the trail is a concern. While not getting lost is the primary reason why this is important, we also talk about the lesser reasons: to avoid stepping on plants, so we don’t scare or hurt animals, so we don’t accidentally make a new trail to confuse people, etc. Anyway, we find keeping them on task easier to do if they think “finding the blue marks” is some great scavenger hunt created just for them. Feel free to use some feigned idiocy around this concept during low points, too. “Oh, you bumped your knee? I’m sorry. Hey, which way are we supposed to go? Do you see a blue mark? I can’t find it. Oh silly me! It was right there. Let’s go.”

5) Keep band-aids in your bag. One year we undertook a hike that was pretty much at the kids’ maximum ability. Covering 500 or so vertical feet in two miles round trip, it is a trail that most adults consider pretty moderate, but our kids were 3 and 5 at the time and it was challenging for those short legs. By the time we were coming down the mountain both kids were pooped and, as a result, careless. They both had minor spills that resulted in slightly bloody scrapes. Notice my wording there? “Minor,” “slightly,” and “scrapes”? Apparently it didn’t feel that way to the overtired sufferers of these wounds, who howled like they had lost one of their smaller appendages. In the midst of the uproar we discovered that we had forgotten to bring band-aids. Cue a whole new round of woebegone wailing. Everyone got over their boo-boos within five minutes but the scarring left by our lack of preparedness lives on. From then on, both kids check before every hike to make sure we have band-aids. “Did you check to see if there are band-aids in there? Make sure you pack band-aids!” So. Band-aids. Bring them. Also, learn to say “It’s just a little blood. You’re fine” in a totally nonchalant way.

6) Bring a friend. Most commonly uttered refrain when hiking with my children: “Keep going, guys! Good job! Not much further now!” Most commonly uttered refrain when hiking with my children and a friend of my children: “Wait up, guys! I said hold up! Fine, if you can’t wait for me than at least make sure you don’t fall off the mountain, okay? Hello? FIND THE BLUE MARKS!”

7) Be prepared for the second half whine. Somewhere about two-thirds of the way through every hike, the fussing starts. They are tired and sweaty, the excitement has worn off, that knee they bumped back at the beginning is bothering them…there are probably lots of good reasons why the meltdowns start. But the reality is: you still need to get them back to the trailhead with everyone’s mood relatively intact, so be prepared with some ideas. Promise them an ice cream cone as a post-hike treat. Offer to take them swimming if it’s warm enough. Give short-term piggybacks–we’ve found that just carrying a kid for a minute or two can give their legs enough of a rest to get them down the trail. Pull out a stick of gum. Be creative. In one notable instance when my daughter was quite young, I sang “The Ants Go Marching” over and over for a mile-and-a-half. Thankfully, I didn’t meet anyone else on the trail but if I had? I would have just shrugged at them and kept going. It certainly wouldn’t have been the worst indignity I’ve suffered as a parent. We do what we gotta do.

8) Put chocolate in the trail mix. Trust me.

Happy hiking.

Cherie Galyean

About Cherie Galyean

In a perfect world, Cherie Galyean would spend hours every day chasing her kids up hiking trails, pretending to garden, and baking things. Instead, she works full-time in the non-profit sector and fits those other things in-between loads of laundry in her free time. A Maine native with multiple hometowns, she currently lives on Mount Desert Island with her husband, seven-year-old daughter, five-year-old son, and the best shelter mutt in the world.