Off The Couch And On To The Trail: Hiking With Kids

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By T.J. Fraser

hikeFor many of us, the digital age comes with a comparison. Remember the good ‘ol days of rotary phones and typewriters? But today’s children have no comparison. They were born in to a wired world. And they’re taking advantage of it.

A recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation showed that the average American child between the ages 8 to 18 spends more than seven and a half hours a day engaged with some type of electronic device such as a smartphone, computer or television. Often times, it will be all three at once.

While the digital world can be an incredible resource it does have a dark side. We see it with the increase in childhood obesity and even in the ways we communicate. But there’s another element at play – one that goes against our natural instincts as animals. And that’s our need to be outdoors.

Spending time outdoors is more than just “getting some fresh air.” It’s in our nature. So how do parents get their kids off the couch, put down the smartphone and explore a world that provides the kind of physical and emotional benefits that will serve them well throughout their lives? That’s easy.

Take a hike!

Hiking is inexpensive, accessible, physically challenging and, most of all, fun. It’s also an opportunity filled with teaching moments for a parent while instilling a sense of self-confidence and personal responsibility in a child.

So the question becomes how do we get our kids off the couch on to the trail, and make sure they stay safe and enjoy the experience?

Lead By Example

If we lead sedentary lifestyles can we expect anything different from our kids? “Monkey See-Monkey Do” carries some weight and if our kids see us gearing up for a hike they might just want to follow. Forcing a child to do most anything will typically result in a battle of wills and a bad experience. Use your parenting guile with the goal of having an excited, anxious child ready to explore instead of one kicking and screaming in the back seat on the way to the trailhead.

Know Before You Go

If you’re not an experienced hiker there are two key mantras to remember, each of which will help keep both you, and your child, safe and happy.

familywalkThe first is, “Nature is not a theme park.” The moment you step in to a natural environment you are left to your own devices. If you’re new to hiking, choose nature trails, which are generally well-graded and easy, or even a walk around a nearby lake or a large park with as few people around as possible. We want to remove our children from the day-to-day environment they’re used to. As part of this, institute a no smartphone rule. Bring one along for safety but keep it turned off. This cannot be stressed highly enough.

The second mantra is one that is followed by the most experienced of hikers and that is, “What If?” Asking yourself “What If” before you leave for a hike will help make sure you’ve brought enough water and food, a flashlight and extra clothes in case you get cold or wet. Go online and look up the “Ten Essentials” which can be found in any experienced hiker’s backpack.

Let Them Be Kids

While you may find that breathtaking view up ahead enough to make you stop and say “Wow,” your child may be much more interested in a spider crawling across a log. While you may carefully step around that puddle in the middle of the trail your child might make a beeline for it. Let them get dirty. Let them play. Let them be the little animals they are.

Kids tend to be much more interested in the journey than the destination. So letting them explore, SAFELY, instead of pushing them to charge up a hill to reach the summit will help them associate hiking with fun…not hard work. Remember, this experience is for them. They’ll let you know what they like.

The Importance of Self-Responsibility

Being in nature demands personal responsibility and that’s a lesson that shouldn’t be lost on your child. A great way to highlight this is to make sure your young hiking partner has a backpack and is carrying some of the supplies you will need. Even if your child is very young, you can find a small inexpensive backpack for them to wear. Make sure they are carrying something important, like food or a flashlight. While you don’t want to weigh them down to the point where they are uncomfortable, you do want them to have some “skin in the game.” It also creates a sense of teamwork between the parent and child.

Parent vs. Friend

familyNo matter how we slice it we are “Mom” and “Dad” in the eyes of our kids so considering inviting one of your child’s friends. As contemporaries, they’ll encourage each other to do the things kids like to do which can also infuse a bit of independence in to the hike. But remember who is running the show. If you see any behavior that could potentially result in an accident you need to step in immediately.

The Teaching Moments

“Dad? Can I take this pine cone home? I can’t? Why NOT?”

Because, you will calmly explain, that pine cone is home to insects and bugs and if they don’t have their home they won’t live. And because everything is connected in nature we need to make sure we leave it just as it is.

Teaching the “Leave No Trace” philosophy helps a child understand the interconnectedness of nature and his or her place in it. Explain to them that you’re in someone else’s house now and with that comes respect. That means no litter, keeping voices down out of consideration for other hikers and taking nothing but pictures. A camera, by the way, is an exception to the rule in regards to technology on the trail. Let your child snap away because it will help create a wonderful, personal memory of a great day spent in nature.

Hiking is considered the most popular form of outdoor recreation in the country with an estimated 80 million Americans hitting the trail each year. Not only is hiking the ultimate “green exercise,” which can deliver an exceptional workout, it teaches us invaluable lessons about ourselves and the world we live in. The kinds of lessons your child can’t find online and will resonate with them long after the hike is over.

– Los Angeles-based T.J. Fraser is an avid hiker and backpacker whose regular column, “T.J. On The Trail…” can be seen at Mountain Hiking Site. As a producer, he is currently in pre-production for a children’s television series about hiking and nature.