Hiking with kids is pretty much like everything else with kids: accomplished primarily through threats and bribes.
And yet, there’s a reason we take our kids hiking besides the assumed agenda of making their lives miserable: it’s good times. Many of our most memorable family experiences have been on hiking trails — some of them even positively so. But even as they groan telling the story of the torrential downpour at Dog Lake, the infamous “tick hike” on the Lochsa River, the walk to Coolwater Lookout with a sprained ankle or the springtime blizzard at the top of the Lewiston hill, we all laugh and remember the times together fondly.
At least I do.
And so we go on hikes. Over the years, I’ve developed some best practices for minimizing emotional scarring and maximizing the preservation of parental sanity. Here are some of the things that work for us:
- Bring treats. I’m not just talking about sustenance here, no one should starve on a hike — I’m talking about food bribes. This can work a number of different ways. Beginners might need to breadcrumb their way through a successful hike, in which case small-sized treats can be given “in 10 minutes” or “when we get to that tree over there.” A more challenging hike might be more likely to happen if, say, a package of Oreos is available at the top of a viewpoint — and at no point before. Of course, you can throw in a “no whining” clause, if needed. The art of successful bribery is a balance of product, delivery and timing.
- Encourage trail entertainment. Hiking in silence is boring for most kids. Use the time to ask questions, joke around and tell stories — whether real or made up. Talk about what you see along the trail or have mini scavenger hunts to help kids engage in the environment. If your kids have cameras, encourage them to take photos of things they discover along the way.
- Pick a hike with a destination. You might be content to wander up a creek for several miles, but if you’re with kids, find a hike to some place cool — a viewpoint, a waterfall, an old mine. Having a desirable destination gives them something to look forward to, provides a measurable goal and has a built-in reward. Having taken plenty of pretty trails to nowhere, I can tell you that you’ll encounter a lot more “can we turn around now”s and “that was dumb”s on those routes.
- Go the right distance for your kids. It doesn’t matter how far you can go, you’re only going to get as far as your kids can go. I have a general idea of how many miles and vertical feet my kids can do in a day, which is handy information if we’ve got a cool, but difficult destination in mind. If we end up on a “let’s see how far we can go” hike, it’s usually best for me to do a run or separate hike earlier in the day so that I’m more willing to turn around when they are. Pushing them beyond their limits makes them less likely to want to hike in the future.
- Be prepared. Bring plenty of water; 95 percent of all water consumed in childhood is done on a hiking trail, it seems. And things get real bad, real quick when they’re thirsty. Wear weather-appropriate clothing and good footwear. And don’t forget a first aid kit and emergency hiking items, like a compass, emergency shelter and pocketknife.