I was never much of a hiker as a kid. My parents didn’t take us hiking (we were more of a “drive to each lookout point” sort of family), and I never really saw the point of the activity. Hiking was basically glorified walking – boring!
It wasn’t until I had kids of my own that I learned to love hiking. We wanted to get out and enjoy the parks and trails around Westchester, so we started hiking as a family. My two children were preschool-aged back then – my son, who’s younger, was probably 3. But he could walk, which meant he could hike. There were some falls and scrapes along the way, to be sure, and definitely a lot of whining and begging to be picked up. With each hike, however, both kids became more confident, and now they look forward to a good hike whenever we go on vacation.
We spent spring break in Palm Springs with my cousin and his family; his kids are about the same age as mine. I’d planned a one-mile hike in nearby Joshua Tree National Park, but my cousin, his wife, and their kids were all very reluctant to join us. They’d never hiked before, and it was hot out. I managed to talk them into at least giving it a try. It turned out that everyone did really well and felt very accomplished at the end. My cousin’s daughter even said to my daughter, “You know what? That was actually really fun.” Overhearing that was my favorite moment from the trip.
I’d like to think that we managed to convert my cousin’s family into hikers for life, but that probably hasn’t happened … yet. Still, it got me started thinking about how a love for hiking has to be cultivated. It’s not the easiest activity to enjoy, especially with kids, unless you keep things interesting. I think that’s why my cousin’s daughter had a good time, much to her own surprise – we pulled out all the stops and made it fun. Here are the tricks we’ve developed over the years.
Bring food and water. We always bring a variety of treats on our hikes, and take a snack break about halfway through. The kids look forward to that break, and whenever they start complaining about how tired they are, all I have to do is mention the treats and they get a second wind. For longer hikes (2.5 miles is the most we’ve done), I bring along Tic-Tacs and dole them out slowly as “power pellets,” a trick I picked up from this parenting blog.
Be prepared! Binoculars, cameras, compasses, scavenger hunts. These are the things that keep kids engaged while they’re hiking, so it doesn’t just seem like one long, boring walk. Here’s a scavenger hunt that I print out for local hikes. After a rainy day, I like to go hiking with our rain boots so the kids can stomp in the mud and splash in puddles the whole way. If it’s a hot day, I’ll bring cooling towels (here is our favorite brand) or a spray bottle for misting water on ourselves.
Know what you’re getting into. There’s a myriad of websites out there that detail every foot of every trail for you, so you’ll know in advance exactly how long or difficult a hike will be and what to expect. Or check out our write-ups of local hikes. I like to pick out hikes that are more about the trail itself than the payoff. While adults enjoy a nice waterfall or scenic overlook, the kids are all about how fun the trail is. They want to hop across streams, climb on boulders, find walking sticks and stomp in mud puddles. My son likes to rate each section of the hike with a difficulty level from 1 to 10. If we’re walking on a flat, paved path, that’s a 1. If we’re scrambling over rocks, that’s a 10.
This summer, we’re planning a trip to Zion National Park, where one of the most popular hikes is the Narrows, a slot canyon that the Virgin River runs through. We’ll basically be hiking in ankle-deep (and sometimes deeper) water the whole time, and it looks a bit hardcore – but also lots of fun!