I have talked to several friends that have young kids and they have asked me when they should start to take their kid(s) hiking? Hiking is a fun and easy way to expose young children to the outdoors, and if your willing to do all of the work, they can begin hiking before they can walk.
Since the age of practically newborns, both my daughters have been strapped to either my wife or me in one form or another. We have carried them in different baby carriers and backpacks to the grocery store, to the park, along the beach and we have also taken them on hikes. This is actually the easiest age to take them because they aren’t mobile yet, they are very light and pretty much sleep most of the time your walking. If you plan on doing any amount of outdoor activity with your small children, I highly recommend investing in a quality “Kid Carrier”. They may at first seem pricey, but it makes a huge difference if you really want to enjoy your time hiking. There are many different brands and models out there, but we have been very pleased with our Kelty. Which ever brand you get, be sure to get one that has a lightweight aluminum frame, 5 point harness system and we have found the “kickstand” feature to be extremely helpful. It makes loading and unloading easy and also allows the backpack to act like a portable high chair. At this stage you can still pretty much go on any length of trail or difficulty level you feel comfortable with, just don’t forget to pack the diapers, cereal and puffs.
Once your child begins to walk things become a little more challenging. Begin by choosing a very short,easy trail. Buy them a decent pair of well fitting, comfortable walking shoes or boots. They will outgrow them very quickly so don’t spend a lot of money. I have seen quite a few small kids out and about in sandals or other inappropriate shoes. Consider that even if you are taking them on easy unpaved trails, the terrain will most likely be uneven and have some small rocks that they could stub their toes on. You really want a shoe or boot that will protect their small, sensitive feet.
Stay very close bye or hold their hand while you walk. This is often easier said then done. My youngest daughter, or “Little Miss Independent” as we call her, did not want to hold my hand and insisted she be in the lead. All I could do was stay close bye and be ready for the quick pick up. At this age, hiking is a lot more work for you. You will be stressing out because it seems like they are teetering on the edge of disaster at all times. You will be picking them up and brushing them off more than you can count. You may have an overly curious child. My daughter stops and picks up any rock, acorn, leaf, stick…you get the idea. It is great to see her so into intrigued by the things we take for granted, but I have to admit, it can also be a little frustrating because it seems as if we make very little headway. Set your expectations for the distance you think you will cover pretty low, and keep reminding yourself that this hard work will pay off in the future.
With enough experience and parental perseverance, your child will get to the point where they can maneuver over rough areas fairly easily. when they do, it’s time for a small backpack. Kids love backpacks, but make it functional rather than fashionable and actually put something in it. I have my 2-1/2 year old carry 2 diapers, a ziplock bag with a few baby wipes, a hat, a small water bottle, an squeezable apple sauce packet and a package of M&M’s. Of course the key is identifying and packing things that are very light and not too bulky because your child will have to be able to balance while wearing it. Have your child put the items into the backpack as you hand them to then. This gives them a feeling that they are helping out, and it kind of acts as a checklist for you.
Be sure to pack plenty of liquids and snacks. I have yet to find a better way to motivate my kids on a hike than M&M’s (even now with my older 7 year old daughter). I have used, and continue to use, this technique with success on both of my daughters. When they start to complain about being tired, I distract them with Chocolate. Any chocolate will work, but I usually use small things like M&M’s, or chocolate covered peanuts or raisins. After listening to them grumble about being tired, I incentivize them by offering let’s say… 3 or 4 M&M’s if we walk to that tree stump up ahead. Amazing! Before you know it we are 75 yards further along. We stop. And we all enjoy a few M&M’s.
Sing a song as you go. Our favorite hiking song is “The Ants go Marching…” It’s a great one because we like to stomp our feet to the rhythm while we walk and we keep moving forward. It can change the focus from “how much further” or “I’m tired” to a silly song. It’s also a counting song that lets you make up anything goofy that rhymes with the number. The ants go marching three by three… and my daughters always stop to “hug a tree” when the ants go marching all around the town.
The main thing to remember when hiking with very small children is patience. Of course it can be difficult or frustrating at times, but keep in mind that if you put in this little extra effort now, you will have some great memories of time spent together, and your child will grow up enjoying the outdoors. I honestly believe that if you get your child out and go hiking early in their life, they will grow up enjoying hiking and are more likely to continue to enjoy and want to spend more time in the outdoors as they get older.