Introducing the great outdoors to your children at an early age does more than simply encourage physical activity. It helps foster a sense of appreciation, awareness and stewardship in the world beyond them as they grow up. And there's certainly something to be said in providing them with an opportunity to play freely and explore with curiosity as kids are meant to do.
One of the best ways to do this is to get the whole family out for regular hiking excursions. Of course, while this sounds good when you're well rested and excited to go, everything could change when you get halfway up the trail, are covered in sweat and are listening to a choir whining about sore legs, dirt and hunger.
Here are 10 ways to set your family up for hiking success:
1. Focus on the journey, not the destination
Kids don't necessarily care about a final destination, so choose a hike that is interesting in and of itself and doesn't just lead to somewhere interesting. Walk along a lake, find a trail with interpretive signs or select something with interesting foliage along the way. If your kids find things during the hike that interest them, let them explore, and don't be set simply on reaching an endpoint.
2. Choose an appropriate skill level
Plan your hike with the weakest hiker in mind. On your first trip out, take care to choose a short, simple hike that everyone can easily enjoy, and work your way up from there. If you want your kids to walk on their own, don't choose something too steep or dangerous.
3. Gear up
You don't need to spend a fortune on hi-tech hiking gear, but you can't head out in flip-flops and expect things to work out. Make sure your family is dressed in suitable clothing with appropriate footwear for the environment. Slather on sunscreen and wear rimmed caps. If there's a chance of rain, take a jacket.
Whether or not you have kids in tow, you should always hike with the 10 essentials. With kids, however, add other items that will enhance their experience, such as a bird book and field guide, binoculars, a magnifying glass, wet wipes and diapers. Give everyone in the family a safety whistle and explain when and how to use them on the trail.
5. Slow down
This isn't a race to the finish line. Go at a comfortable pace, encourage questions, take lots of pictures and let a sense of curiosity lead the hike. Be reasonable with how far you can go in a certain period of time, and, if you need to turn back, then do so without concern about not reaching the end of a trail.
Don't be set on reaching a certain destination, hiking a particular distance or achieving a specific goal.
If you'll be hiking with a toddler, get your child used to riding in a carrier and make sure the person who will be wearing the carrier is prepared to wear it. A toddler's pants may ride up while resting in it, so make sure exposed legs are appropriately protected with a base layer or sunscreen. Stop occasionally to let the little one out to wander around and stretch his legs.
7. Let them lead
Even young children can have some ownership in a family hike. Let them choose between a few different trails that sound interesting. Before you leave home, they can help pack snacks and fill water bottles. Give each a small backpack to carry a few items. If you spot an interesting bird, let them help identify it in the bird book, and if they have questions about what you see and experience on the hike, make a note of it to research together once you get home. Hiking isn't simple, so use plenty of positive reinforcement throughout your trek to praise their effort and progress.
8. Stay close to home
Planning a hike close to home makes it easier to manage naps, feeding times and other routines that fit into a normal day. Plus, if there's a breakdown early in the trek, you haven't wasted too much time driving to the trailhead.
Don't be set on reaching a certain destination, hiking a particular distance or achieving a specific goal. Be attuned to what your kids want and need, and keep them engaged and interested. Be flexible enough to change plans at a moment's notice if need be.
10. Keep it fun
The goal for your family trek is, first and foremost, to have fun. Make a list of things to look for while you hike, find items that start with a certain letter of the alphabet or—if you're feeling really adventurous—take a night hike and make sure everyone has his or her own headlamp. Take pictures and keep a log of your hiking trips so you can look back on your excursions. At the end of every hike, you want your kids to be excited about hiking again.