Hiking with kids

The Truth About Hiking with Little Kids (and a Few Survival Tips)

Our military family is lucky enough to spend three years living on Oahu, Hawaii and during that time, I have committed us to seeing and doing basically everything there is to see and do.

Included in that list is about a hundred different hikes.  I don't have an exact list written out, but when we first got here I read a list that had about a hundred hikes on it and so...there's a number that has stuck in my head.

When we arrived on island, my twin boys had just turned 3 (just days before we arrived) and my daughter had turned 4 the month before that.  

3, 3 and 4 year olds.

Here's a great idea...

Let's go climb a mountain.

*Now, this is not that crazy of an idea.  There is an entire (fabulous) Facebook Group here in Hawaii called Hiking with Keiki that is dedicated solely to this purpose.  Hiking with kids.  And the people in it hike while baby wearing (even tandem baby wearing).  They hike with little walkers, and toddlers and preschoolers and school age kids.  

This group posts beautiful pictures of smiling children and parents atop mountains and splashing in waterfalls. 

So, if they can do it, we can do it.  

And we have.  24 unique hikes  (and counting) in about 16 months. Then, I also post these great pictures of my smiling kids (if they will look at the camera) atop mountains and splashing in waterfalls.

People often comment, "I would love to do that, but my kids hate hiking."

To which I usually respond, "Mine do too. But we do it anyway." 

Because they do hate it. And they also LOVE it.  That's kind of the whole point. 

They hate it because it is HARD.  It is tiring and muddy and sweaty and hot.  But once we get to the top, or to the waterfall, or to the swing, or to nowhere special...they feel strong and powerful and accomplished.

Here's a few truths about hiking with little kids:

ISSUE #1: They are going to complain.

Without a doubt.  Every. Single. Hike.  They ARE going to complain. (And possibly cry). 

My feet hurt.  I'm hot.  I need to rest.  My legs are tired.

Now, you might just have a superhero kid on your hands that doesn't complain, but understand that is an exception to the rule.  

The truth is that on most hikes, I have my own internal complaints.  

My feet hurt. I'm hot. I want to rest. My legs are tired.  

TIP: Acknowledge the truth and then keep moving.

There is truth in what they are saying.  You are asking little feet and little legs to go up a mountain.  They probably do hurt.  Acknowledging the truth about your body is okay. 

Yes, I bet your legs are tired. That's how you know you are using your muscles.    Yes, my feet hurt too.  I'm shaking them a little bit and squeezing my toes inside my shoes to help them out. Yes, I'm tired too.  At this next big tree, let's take a rest and drink some water. And then, okay, that rest helped a lot. Now, time for a  little bit more. 

ISSUE #2:  They are going to get bored.

Here's another truth.  Hikes are boring, sometimes.  There are places that don't have great views.  

As my little one often says, "This hike is taking a long time."

For  little kids, the idea of being out in nature just to enjoy the peace and quiet is still quite foreign.  They will probably get bored looking at tree after tree after tree.  There will probably be times where they have no idea how much longer this will last and the walking, walking, walking, gets super-boring.

TIP:  Get creative! We Love Shared Storytelling

So, there are great benefits to being bored and often I will tell parents that allowing your children to be bored is a good thing.  But too much boredom on a hike just leads to more of #1 (complaining).  Which really isn't that fun. 

So get creative on how you use this time.  You might play music (we have a portable speaker and vary the tunes as needed).  You might play I Spy.  The game my kids will most frequently ask me to play is now basically known as "Let's tell a story."  

Thanks to my colleague, Dr. Janet Courtney for unleashing the storyteller in me...this idea is certainly not new, but it helps alleviate the hiking boredom on almost every hike. And, to take what I have learned from her and put it into my own words, the exercise is something like this: 

Let's Tell A Story:

Step 1: All good stories begin with the same phrase...

Once upon a time, there was a.....

So, the storytelling volunteer will begin the story with this phrase and  then complete the sentence.

Example: Once upon a time, there were three mermaids that were trapped under the sea in pirate ship....

AND THEN

Step 2:  After the first person says "And then" we usually go in order of whoever is closest to them on the hike (but you can call a persons name or a person with a great idea can volunteer). But, the next person adds a line to the story

And then, they remembered that they all had special powers.  

Step 3 through 100: And then, the next person adds a line and then another person adds a line and then another person adds a line:

And one of the special powers was to be able to move very fast and swim out of the pirate ship.

And another special power was to be able to make things move. And she moved the pirate ship up to the sky.

And then, they had ice cream.

Final Step:  Until you get to the final line of a good story....

And then, they all lived happily ever after. The end.

Now, this is not rocket science. And it is not magic. But it is a huge distraction. 

Did you forget that we were talking about hiking??  

Back to hiking...

ISSUE #3:  Everything Nature Related

Now that we remember that we are actually outside, all of the nature related issues come up. For example:

When nature calls:

You have to be prepared to pee in the woods.  Gross, but just a fact.   Luckily for us, #2 is rarely an issue on hikes.  But take a lesson from the Boys Scouts and just "Be Prepared."  Enough said. 

TIP: Most people consider a backpack with some essentials in it (toilet paper, wipes, and a few extra grocery bags) to be helpful.  


When nature is distracting:

I have a son that likes rocks.  He likes to pick up sticks.  He likes to pull leaves off bushes.  He likes to stop and look at tree stumps.  While part of me considers this to be one of the major reasons to go hiking, it can also be very annoying.  I usually let him pick a rock to carry for a while just to keep his hands busy with something.  

Another child wants a picture in front of every rock, tree stump and bush.  I have created this problem because I often want a picture in front of every rock, tree stump and bush.  Again, documenting nature is cool.  Snap a few and keep moving. 

When nature is breathtaking:

When your kids stop you on a hike to say,

"Mom, look at that view!"

Well, that is priceless.  And you stop and enjoy the view.  

I also try to point out the view if they don't notice it.  Or point out the birds that I hear. Or the bugs that I see. Or, how you can hear the waterfall before you can see it.  

Sometimes, I AM the one that is distracting them.  

But, I like to teach them to be mindful during hikes and use their senses to appreciate what they smell, hear, and see.

TIP:  Take whatever amount of time people say a hike usually takes and add an HOUR to that.  

Plan for extra water, extra snacks, just extra everything.  Don't expect to be home before lunch. Just know that it might take (a lot) longer than it would take if you were hiking without kids.  And that is okay. Accept it.  Take an interest in the rock, or the tree stump or the flower or whatever and then KEEP MOVING. 

ISSUE #4: Safety Concerns

My very well meaning neighbor just last weekend said,

"You're going to take your kids on a RIDGE HIKE???"

Well, yes.  But only if we can do it safely.

The truth is that people get hurt on hikes. We have seen the news coverage of people falling (and dying) or being air lifted out of hikes. Just this week, a parent posted about a teenager that fell and was seriously injured.

We are always concerned about safety.  But it doesn't stop us from going. Okay, it does stop us from going on some hikes.  Some of the hundred hikes on my list are truly not appropriate for little kids.  They are too dangerous for them.  

But a lot of them are just dangerous enough.

TIP: All hiking groups will tell you to do your own research before you go, know your physical limitations and have a safety plan.

I research each of our hikes EXTENSIVELY.  I watch youtube videos of the terrain. I read reviews from other moms. I look at their pictures.  I read All Trails ratings and reviews.  I read blogs from The Wandering Five and others about their experiences. Not only does this help me decide if we can handle the hike, but it also gives me tips on where to find cool things (like tree swings, or places to take great photos). 

But safety planning isn't just for grown up's.   You also need to include your children by teaching them safety skills. 

TIP:  Talk to your children about how to be safe while you are hiking.

This includes saying things like, 

Dig your feet in. Stay low.  Scoot on your bottom here.  Test that rock before your step on it.  Find a flatter area for your foot. Walk on the inside closest to the mountain.  Hold my hand here.  

What I try not to say is "Be careful." 

We focus on the skills we want to develop and not the fears we are trying to avoid.   

And what happens is a telephone style game of

BOLO: Be On the Lookout

One child will tell the next one, "this part is slippery."  Or, "use the holes to put your feet."  Or "walk in the grass, not the mud over here."  

And those safety messages get relayed from the front of the line all the way to the back.

And they learn HOW to be careful.  

ISSUE #5:  You Can't Predict the Weather

You might start out on a perfectly sunny day and then it starts raining.

What happens if it rains while you are hiking?  

Ask my children and they will shout out in unison, "YOU GET WET."

Yep.  And you keep going. (Or you stop and wait or you turn around, depending on the current safety assessment).  

Also, you might think a hike is dry and then it turns out to be filled with slippery, muddy patches.  So you end up with shoes soaked with mud. And typically people fall down. Which means that you have muddy pants, muddy hands, muddy faces.  

TIP:  Have a good attitude (and an extra pair of shoes in the car).

Now, we will undoubtedly forget to take this great advice. But when I'm really on my game, we have some towels and slippers (aka flip flops) in the car to provide some relief when we are done. But, just have a good attitude and accept the messiness of hiking.

ISSUE #5:  The Way Back Isn't Fun

The final issue that we deal with on the majority of the hikes is the reality that the way back isn't as much fun.  

This is when we fantasize about a zip line that will take us to the bottom. Or a slide. Or having wings so that we can just fly down.  

This is usually where we tell more stories.  But this is most often when complaining and whining reaches its peak. 

This is a place where some parents use a back-up carrier and will help by carrying the kids back down the mountain.  We have chosen not to do that, but offer no judgement to those that need it.  You have to get back home one way or another.

TIP:  Have an activity for the way down that leads into a project for when you get home.

What??

 I know you are already tired from the hike and I am already talking about the NEXT activity.

And you probably thinking that I am totally crazy. But, I've recently started doing this and it really helps reduce the downhill complaining.

And trust me when I tell you that no matter how tired your kids are ON the hike, the moment that they return home, they are instantly re-energized and not the least bit ready for a nap. (Okay, sometimes they will nap...but don't count on it).

But I can tease them with the allure of an arts and crafts project IF we make it down the hike without too much complaining.

This does not have to be complicated. 

One time we collected sticks and make a rainbow weather mobile. That was fun!

The second time we collected leaves from the ground and made "leaf pictures."  Much less planning involved in that one. 

You could pick a rock and paint it to hide on another hike next time. 

Kids art is deceptively simple.  Take a browse around Pinterest for nature projects/leaf projects/stick projects, etc and you can find something that is do-able. 

Final Thoughts: Document Your Adventures

It's easy to forget just HOW little they were when they first climbed that mountain.  Or how many hikes you've really done. 

We always snap a selfie on each hike. And I created a map of the island where we hang each picture so we can remember it and talk about it later.  

We celebrate the fact that we completed it by documenting it, but it really is the journey that we took to get there that I remember and appreciate the most. 

If you want to follow along with ways that I incorporate play-based techniques and theories into my parenting, please subscribe to the mailing list.

About the Author Jen Taylor

Jennifer Taylor, LCSW, RPT is an experienced child and family therapist and public speaker who specializes in trauma, ADHD, and conduct problems. Discover more about her diverse clinical background and family. Reach out to Jennifer with questions or comments by emailing at info@jentaylorplaytherapy.com

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