Trailblazing with kids: 20 tips to raise hikers

Spring break marked our first hike of the season. My three girls (6, 3 and 1) and I joined two of their aunties and some cousins. I have to admit, I was expecting it to go really poorly, but it didn’t! MY THREE YEAR OLD made it from the WRAC parking lot all the way up Jacobson Preserve, to the big bluff just below Saddle Rock. And back. She wasn’t carried. Not once. I was so impressed!

That’s when it dawned on me that I might be figuring out how to develop young hikers. I mean, I’m no expert. In reality, there were a few challenges, which I’ve learned to expect. You can scroll down to #20 of this post for a run-down of the mishaps on this particular hike.

But first, here are some tips that I’ve put together, along with a few other Wenatchee Mom Bloggers – Marisol Woodward, Elizabeth Jones and Alison Talbot – for hiking with the littles.

Please feel free to add to my list of tips in the comments below, and share this with other moms. We need as much trail-wisdom as possible, so we can really enjoy the journey; being out there in these beautiful foothills and mountains with our kids!

1. Show your excitement! Kids pick up on their parent’s attitudes and dispositions, so if you want them to be hikers, show them that you are motivated to be one, too. You don’t have to be a pro. And I’m just going to be transparent and add that it’s ok if you whine about your toes going numb like I do on occasion…but it is important to stay upbeat and have fun.

2. Get out there when they’re babes. Find a pack or wrap that feels great and puts most of the weight on your hips. Different seasons call for different kinds of carriers, as well. Keep baby close in the fall/winter/early spring, and use try a framed pack to keep babe cool in the summer. I love using my moby and then I switch to the ergo when they are old enough to ride on my back. Alison says the deuter kids comfort 2 is awesome! It’s fun to attach a little toy like a waffle ball to the pack with a laniard so that baby can fiddle around and play while she enjoys the view from way up there. But remember: since baby isn’t hiking, baby isn’t going to be as warm as you are. Ever. So make sure they’re wearing an extra layer, and take care of the extremities, too: socks, mittens, or hat.

3. Speaking of layers…clothes are an important part of the hiking experience. Dress your child in something comfortable and light. Make sure it fits well. Nobody likes to hike in skinny jeans or pants that sag too much. Layers are important, but don’t put so much on them that you’re carrying sweaters and jackets and hats by the end of the hike and they’re just running down the trail in their skivvies. You get what I mean!

4. Hats can be very helpful. IF your child will tolerate one! Something with a visor is great, so their face is shielded from the sun without having to wear sunglasses, and especially so you don’t have to rub copious amounts of greasy sun screen on their face and risk it running into their eyes or mouth. My daughter LOVES her Elsa baseball hat for this reason, but Kara Meloy’s Little Sun Hat line is a great, local option.

5. Shoes. OK, I know I’m talking about clothing a lot, but it matters. Good shoes are a must, or you’ll be carrying your whimpering child a lot more than you bargained for. This can get expensive, since kids growing out of shoes so quickly. But thankfully, they don’t always wear shoes out before they move on to the next size. We’ve enjoyed quite a few hand-medown Keens and Tevas through the years. Sometimes you can get a great find at a thrift store, or at the winter temperature sale at American Shoe Shop. I highly recommend investing in some Smartwool toddler socks and littleRUTZ moccs as well. Moccasins are an extremely comfortable, and weather-proof option for little hikers.

6. Bring LOTS of snacks. I mean, a bajillion. Have I mentioned something about snacks yet, because snacks should be number one! I once hiked with another mom who lured her child with cheerios. It was great. He had high morale, and we could always catch up with them if we lagged behind! All we had to do was follow the O’s…I recommend stuff like fruit leather, jerky, nut/seed bars, carrot sticks, dried mango or apricot…Ok whatever they like. But bring stuff that will give them lots of good energy. Although I’ve been known to stow a few lifesavers in my pocket just in case I need to bring out the “big guns”, I’d recommend you keep simple sugars out of the backpack.

7. MUST Bring water (and keep some in the car for the ride home). Hydration is important. I have three children, and one water bottle doesn’t cut it anymore. I’m going to need to dig out the camelback. “Hippie Gatorade” is this new amazing thing that Alison told me about: water + 1/2 lemon (or lime) + pinch of sugar (I like maple syrup, myself) and salt. This totally helps nursing mamas keep up their milk supply despite sweating buckets!

8. Give them something to carry, too. It’s good for them; develops empathy and a work ethic. In fact, once my kids are about 2, and walking on the trail themselves, they pack in their own diaper gear or an extra change of clothes/layer. Another kid carries the lunch/snack pack. I’m usually wearing a baby, myself.

9. OK, now that you’re dressed and ready to hit the trails, Learn to embrace the child’s pace. They’re going to want to sit down and play in the dirt at some point. Serious. Cancel all other plans. You won’t have fun if you have a deadline. Throw a meal in the crock pot before you go, so dinner will be a cinch and you can focus on just enjoying the hike. When you get home, you’ll have a great meal waiting, and most likely everyone will have a huge appetite to go with it, if they haven’t already fallen asleep in the car!

10. Relish the little wonders of this Earth. They lie around every corner and will keep them motivated to move forward, especially if it’s low to the trail and in their line of vision. High interest conversations about the colors of flowers and interesting rocks lead to high morale. It’s great to take along a ziplock and bring home some relics to remember the hike by. Stopping for a rest frequently allows everyone a chance to look around to observe. Be sure to remark on the sights, how far you’ve gotten, where you’re headed, and how pleased you are with their hard work.

11. Imagination gets you places. I’m convinced that my three year old got so far up Jacobsen Preserve because for at least 50% of the hike she was “Princess Sofia hiking up the North Mountain to meet with Elsa.” Yep. I just had to remember to keep my head in the game, and not to call her Alyssa my mistake, or I got a lecture!

12. Hike in a mixed-age group. My daughters usually do better when they’re hiking with other kiddos. Their cousins are almost all older than them, and despite the difference in leglength, they seem to convert into a little pack of trail runners! If someone lags behind, either someone with the energy of Hercules doubles back, or one of us old folks is still there to keep them company. They learn the realities of hiking this way. Some of us are sprinters, some are mules. Others lose their morale if they’re not snug in the middle, so they never feel left behind. Usually, you rotate positions. Let them experience these same principles from an early age.

13. Take pictures. It doesn’t have to be planned or posed, just something that will help you remember the hike. Better yet, have your child take the picture, so you can remember it from their point of view! I LOVE the picture below of my oldest (several years ago) sitting on top of Saddle Rock, looking down. She was sooo tired (wouldn’t look at the camera) and I was soooo proud she had made it!

14. Choose well-defined trails. Sage Hills is simple, sandy, narrow, and even a bit depressed into the ground. Going off the trail is nearly impossible! Castlerock and Jacobson Preserve have a lot of bends to keep it interesting. Devil’s Gulch is WIDE – we can hold hands and hike without tripping over each other’s feet. Clara Lake adds some challenging elevation and different flora and fauna, but it is still just three miles when all’s said and done. Squilchuck State Park has some shady little trails in the woods that we frequent on the hottest summer days. Again, we picked these hikes because the trails are all well defined, and our kids feel secure walking on them.

15. Teach trail etiquette by example. Say hello to people. Coach them to step to the side when a mountain bike, dirt bike, horse, or another hiker is passing by. Show them which trails are closed for reclamation. Talk about erosion, litter management, and other principles of good hikers as you do it yourself.

16. Consistency is key. My husband and I stick with familiar trails so that our kids can build their skills and stamina in an enjoyable, predictable setting. It’s no fun trying to figure out new places and new trails, where they don’t even know what lies ahead, let alone when the trail ends. So pick a few favorites, and stick to them.

17. Be ready for emergencies. Make sure someone knows where you’re going, and when. Take your phone if you can. Most hikes in the foothills have cell range, or at least enough to send a text. In addition, it’s great to have a little first aid kit or at least a bandaid and some wipes in your pack! A bit of candy for low blood-sugar and boo-boo moments could come in handy as well. A mustard packet or turmeric bombs may help with cramping muscles.

18. Celebrate their accomplishments when you tuck them in at night. Talk to them about the hike and how far you went. Recall the times when they showed the most courage. Impress upon them the value of perseverance while also cultivating an awareness of their own strength and current abilities, so they don’t push too hard.

19. Be prepared to recoup. Lots of water, rest, short walks, and park visits around town keep them strong between hikes. Potassium and magnesium and good salt is a must for recovery. Think bananas and almond butter for an after-hike snack. If your children’s ankles or legs get sore, rub their legs downward (as my massage therapist coached me to do: rub grown-ups toward the heart, and children away from it). Growing pains are no fun, and healthy, leisurely movement can help with that. Pay attention to their gait when they hike. If they seem to trip a lot, have a foot turned inward a bit awkward, or are generally complaining about something you just can’t put your finger on, you may want to consider taking them to the chiropractor. My family really enjoys Hurst Chiropractic, up Grant Rd, in East Wenatchee. We’ve been taking our girls there since they were born!

20. Roll with it: each mistake and mishap, I mean. If you made it this far, you deserve to know about the downsides to the hike that I mentioned earlier. So here goes: Some of my toes were already flaring up before the hike; actually, they were numb and threatening to cramp before we even arrived at our destination. I really should have dug out my hiking boots, because I would have enjoyed the added support. When we did arrive at our vista and sat down to eat and play, we realized there were two babies and only one diaper. One survived the hike with a slightly squishy ride in the ergo. Lastly, my oldest had to endure the last few yards of the hike with pee-pants, because well, squatting is awkward! When we got home, we took baths, and I rubbed some essential oils on my foot. Thankfully, it felt great in the morning. So in the end, I think I’ll be golden if I remember to purchase some new Superfeet for my hiking boots. Oh! And TWO diapers!

(Hiking pics from Elizabeth Jones (first and third), Stephanie Ross (second and fifth), Kelli Scott (fourth) and Marisol Woodward (sixth and seventh).)

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