Wednesday, August 29, 2012

A basic guide to planning a day hike with kids

Good planning will ensure smiles
on your day hiking child's face
- as well as yours!
You’ll get more out of the hike if you research it and plan ahead. It’s not enough to just pull over to the side of the road and hit a trail that you’ve never been on and have no idea where it goes. In fact, doing so invites disaster.

When selecting a destination, remember that not all kids are made alike. The five-year-old neighbor boy may have had no trouble with a specific trail, but your five-year-old may not like it or be able to handle it. There’s nothing wrong with that. We’re all different and develop at our own rates.

For your first few hikes, stick to short, well-known trails where you’re likely to encounter others. Once you get a feel for hiking and your kids’ abilities and interests, expand to longer and more remote trails.

Until they enter their late teens, children need to stick to trails rather than going off-trail hiking, which is known as bushwhacking. Children too easily can get lost when off trail. They also can easily get scratched and cut up or to stumble across poisonous plants and dangerous animals. Always check to see what the weather will be like on the trail you plan to hike. While an adult might be able to withstand wind and a sprinkle here or there, for children it can be pure misery. Dry, pleasantly warm days with limited wind always are best when hiking with children.

Don’t choose a trail that is any longer than the youngest child in your group can hike. Adults in good shape can go 8-12 miles a day; for kids, it’s much less. There’s no magical number. Ask other parents what their children can do, and you’ll get a whole range of answers. The reality is that every child is different: different leg lengths, different attitudes toward hiking, different levels of physical fitness, different levels of physical development, different expectations about being carried, and more.

When planning the hike, try to find a trail with a mid-point payoff – that is something kids will find exciting about half-way through the hike. This will help keep kids’ energy and enthusiasm up during the journey.

Generally, kids will prefer a circular route to one that requires hiking back the way you came. The return trip often feels anti-climatic, but you can overcome that by mentioning features that all of you might want to take a closer look at.

Once you select a trail, map out your route. Using a light, transparent highlighter that won’t obscure details, trace the trail on your map. This will make navigating the path easier once in the field.

Read more about day hiking with children in my Hikes with Tykes guidebooks.