Parents who love the outdoors naturally want to share this love with their children, and children love being outside. Hiking with your child is not quite the same as the hiking you may have done pre-parenthood, but it can be a wonderful family activity for decades to come. Someday they will go farther and faster than you will!
You can introduce your child to hiking as early as eight months or so—as soon as he or she is sturdy enough to enjoy riding in a baby backpack. (Check with your pediatrician for specific advice.) These frame packs are designed to hold your child instead of your camping gear. As with a backpack, the weight rests on your hips so that it’s comfortable to carry for several miles. Many come with a sun/rain canopy; this helps protect your child’s tender skin (although it’s not a substitute for sunscreen) and provides extra reassurance in case you get caught out in the rain. Most also feature a zip-off small daypack, handy for diapers and snacks. Babies love the perspective of being up high, and there is always a lot for them to look at.
A few common-sense tips: choose good footwear and avoid scrambles and snowfields; and don’t push your baby past her limits. Two to three hours with a stop or two for snacks is probably about right. If you’ve had a long drive to get to the trailhead and your baby has already spent a lot of time in his car seat, make sure you work in some good “wiggle time” at the beginning and end of the hike so that he won’t feel like he’s spent his whole day strapped into something.
(A bonus: baby backpacks can also be great for hands-free shopping trips. Some babies are more patient when they have an adult-size view of the store.)
Your toddler might be happy in the baby backpack for a short while, but chances are good that he’ll want to get down and do what he does best: toddle. When he starts to get fussy, let him out. You won’t get very far because he’ll be stopping to pick up rocks, examine leaves, and look for insects, but that’s what being outside is all about. Plan shorter hikes so that your toddler will have plenty of time to explore, and be sure the terrain is toddler-friendly—no cliff-side paths.
Preschoolers can enjoy a walk in the woods, but it has to be a short one. Choose a hike of no more than a mile or so (a bit longer if your child is very rugged and you don’t mind her riding piggyback for a while). It’s best if it ends at something interesting—a waterfall or a picnic spot with a view, for instance.
Older children can go for longer distances than preschoolers, but may still get tired; only you and your child can determine what the right distance is. Have your children help you choose a hike and plan your route. Incorporating activities like orienteering, letterboxing, or geocaching can be fun for elementary school kids.
Teens might think they are too cool to go hiking with parents; have your teen bring a peer or two along and let them have their space (within sight, of course). Summer camps or school outing club programs can be great ways for them to stay involved in hiking without the indignity of parental supervision.
In every hike, whether with children or alone, follow standard safety precautions: choose good footwear; carry enough food and clothing for everyone in case the hike takes longer than you think it will or in case a storm comes up; let someone else know where you are going and when you plan to be back; and carry a good trail guide and map. Teach these same safety tips to your children.
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