When I learned on Sept. 22 that my injured knee was going to need many weeks’ treatment with a wonder drug called rest, and that, consequently, I was facing another Taking a Hike column without actually taking a hike, I quickly thought “I’ll write about hiking with children.” People around here will be interested in that; and after 22 years of hiking with kids, from babes in backpacks to teenagers lugging their own, I know a thing or two about it, don’t I?
Then I got to thinking about what, really, is different about hiking with children than hiking with anyone else. Sure, kids are smaller than adults on average, and they have not yet acquired the encyclopedic knowledge and unwavering wisdom that we grown-ups know to be our hallmark. But how does this works-in-progress status translate into special needs on the trail? I cast my mind back to hiking with my daughters when they were children and teenagers, hoping to remember the special accommodations I surely made. I was stumped. Looking for something to jog my memory, I consulted a book on my shelf whose very subject is hikes with kids. It gave some good tips, but many of them could apply just as easily to the group hikes for adults I have led – choose the right hike and pace, make stops, stay positive …
In truth, the really big difference about hiking with kids is simply that kids are in your charge. The poor dears have little or no say about the conduct of the hike, or even about going on it in the first place. They are stuck with whatever you, oh mighty adult, decide to do. The younger they are, the less clue they will have about how long, tough, and fun (or not) the outing will be. I am not sure I always tended to this powerlessness when my daughters were small. My pre-hike talk may too often have been “We’re going to the Den. Get ready. I’ll bring chocolate.” The chocolate helped, but I shouldn’t have been surprised at a lack of enthusiasm sometimes, a hang-back pace, and lots of questions about how much farther there was to go.
But I have wonderful memories of hiking with my kids, and to judge by what they say today, they had good experiences too. I have decided to look at some hikes we took together to see what worked, and what did not.
(1) SMALL CHILDREN: I took my older girls to Maine when they were 7 and nearly 5. In photographs, the nearly-five in particular looks too small and delicate for trails, yet we climbed a mountain by way of a rough path. It wasn’t easy for the girls. A few tears were shed where the climb was steepest, the roots and rocks most plentiful, our goal most distant-seeming. But when we broke out onto the mountaintop, it is the girls’ joy that I remember. They were relieved, certainly, but also amazed at the sight of the big landscape they had conquered laid out beneath them.
LESSONS: Kids are small, not weak. You don’t have to turn back because they are saying it is tough. Kids like the feeling of achievement as much as the rest of us.
(2) THREESOME: This hike was a wash-out. An hour or so into our loop through some mountains up in Quebec, a storm swept in, wiping out the scenery we had come to see. It was a longish hike, about 7 miles; up and down too. For my older girls – now nearly 14 and 12 – it presented few problems; but on the homestretch the seven-year-old began to tire of being wet and footsore. We spun her tales to take her mind off her discomfort. One of them, I recall, starred Smudge, a perky turtle who lived in a sparkling ocean as far from these gray mountains as it was possible to be. We made it back to camp, and there the girls’ pleasure in the simple comforts of getting showered, fed, and warm was obvious, seeming to outstrip easily all the discomforts of the trail.
LESSONS: Bigger kids can help little kids see it through, and help themselves in the process. Stories and games help kids survive the trail. Earned pleasures are the best pleasures, for kids too.
(3) ONE TWEEN/TEEN: By the time my youngest was 11, her sisters were too grown up and busy to hike much with us, condemning her to hiking single-handedly with me. She did a lot of this, becoming my company on summer outdoor vacations while mom and sisters stayed at home doing busy, grown-up things. Hiking with an 11-14 year-old does not impose any physical limits on your hike; she can go as far, fast, and high as you. It is a question of enjoyment. Hiking for hours in a forest is one of my greatest pleasures, but I knew it wasn’t like that for my tween-teen. She had a million other things that interested her more, things far from our hike. The more varied the hike, the more engaged she became; waterfalls, bear scat, and otters at play – big surprise – beat silent forest. We tried to fill boring stretches with talk and, sometimes, games (guess what animal I am thinking of!). I know my daughter developed her very own survival strategies too.
LESSONS: Make sure your kid knows what to expect of the hike. Choose a route with varied scenery, the chance of wildlife, other humans. Dangle post-hike carrots.
The evidence is mounting that, for physical and emotional well-being, few things beat a regular hike. Let’s take the kids.