Getting Started Hiking as a Family
The Wise Dad and I both used to be active, but we’ve become more sedentary over the years. We both want to be more active and healthy (and lose weight), and we want our kids to be active and healthy so we’re trying to get more active, including hiking as a family. Going to the gym is always an option, and one we are using, but kids like to actually do stuff, and doing stuff leads to more wonderful lifetime memories than spending time on the treadmill. (Irony: I am about to stop writing for now to go…get on the treadmill.) To me, the easiest, cheapest family outing is hiking.
Hiking, both regular hiking and bike hiking, are great family outings. Possibly the most wonderful thing about hiking is that it encourages conversations. Some will be about life, some will be about things you see around you, and some will just be random thoughts, but the more parents and kids talk, the better. Personally, I also like that the Wise Dad and I can hold hands while we’re walking. It’s good for kids to see their parents showing (appropriate) affection as a natural part of life.
Most of the best paths seem to be government owned and maintained. National parks, state parks, county parks, city parks – all normally have hiking and biking trails, or at least walking trails. The fastest way to find trails anywhere you want to go is an online search using the city, county, or state name and “hiking trail”, or “NPS hiking trail”, with NPS standing for National Park Service.
Once you have a list of trails, think about what you want to do, what is realistic, and what would be fun for your family. Hiking the Appalachian Trail would be fun for some families. Ours is not one of them. It’s more than “a bit” too much for us to tackle at this point, although walking a short section could be fun. Besides, I simply can’t see us ever being that hard-core into hiking, which is perfectly fine. The goal is to have fun with your family and get a bit more physically fit, but mostly to have fun. If it stops being fun, dial is back to the point where it was fun, or change things up until they are fun.
Right now, our youngest is at least eighteen inches shorter than the rest of us. That has to be a factor in deciding how far we can hike. He and I both have bad outdoor allergies, so that is also a factor in when, where, and for how long our family can hike. If your family has a dog or other pet you want to take on your hike, don’t forget to factor them in. Their age, breed (size, in particular), and general physical condition matter. If the hike will really be too strenuous for them, it’s totally OK to leave them home.
When the kids are really little, especially toddlers, you will probably want either a hikeable stroller or a baby sling/carrier of some sort, if they are really bitty. Keep in mind how far you can hike carrying your little one(s) and whether the trail accommodates strollers when you choose a trail. You may need to email the park services or take a walk without the kids first to be sure it’s doable.
Weather is also a factor. Personally, I’m absolutely fine with letting my kids run and jump in mud puddles and along muddy paths, but they definitely need to have something clean to put on before getting in my car. That also means I need a bag for soggy/muddy items including shoes and a towel for them to wrap up in if it is downright rainy. However, there is no way I would’ve gone on a muddy hike with a stroller or anything else that needed pulled. That would’ve been miserable.
What to Bring
The basic supplies are pretty simple, but longer hikes will require carrying more stuff. The single most important item is, of course, a bottle of fresh water for each person, preferably one they can carry themselves. As a parent, I do not like doing double-duty as a pack-mule. The more the kids can carry for themselves, and the younger they can do it, the better. They make itty-bitty backpacks for toddlers. If everyone else has a backpack of bag with their own drink, snack, jacket, and possibly hat, why not have your little one carry theirs and be “like the grown-ups”? Sure, they’ll get tired faster than the grownups and you may end up carrying it, but you can just stuff it inside your own bag and as they get bigger, they can carry it longer. Getting them in the habit of self-reliance early can only make your life easier in the long run.
Scouts have been hiking since Day 1. Boy Scouts have a short list of six hiking essentials for Cub Scouts (first through fifth grade) and twelve hiking essentials for Boy Scouts (fifth grade and up). The are worth reading because I am not copying them here and their validity is time and child tested.
- Backpack or fanny pack – These are designed to be carried longer distances, such as on a hike. Regular bags and purses are not.
- Water bottle – One per person, unless it’s really hot or the hike will be long and you need more. But never less than one full bottle of at least a half liter.
- Snacks – Hangry is a thing. Don’t get hangry on your hike
- Jacket – Each person should have one in most weather, or at least a cheap rain poncho. If something happens and there is a sudden storm or you get lost and are out overnight, a jacket is a must.
- Flashlight – Sure, it may be broad daylight, but there are shady places outdoors and you may need to find a tiny dropped item there.
- Sunscreen – A travel size is fine, as long as it isn’t nearly empty before you even leave.
- First Aid Kit – It doesn’t need to be fancy, but you will definitely want some bandages for boo boos, tweezers in case of splinters, and moleskin in case of blisters, even on a short hike. Blisters are miserable.
- Cell Phone – DON’T spend your time texting, playing games, or doing anything else that distracts you from the moment, but there are apps for things like finding stars, identifying plants and animals, first aid, and so much more. At least as important, you can use your phone to take photos and videos of treasures your kids see as you are hiking, as well as family photos.
More Advanced Items
Honestly, you don’t need them. However, there are two things I am fond of. One is a lightweight waterproof sheet. I kept one in my car for years and used it for innumerable picnics and play times. On a hike, they make stopping to take a break in a meadow or, really, anywhere more comfortable, bug-free, and clean. (You will, after all, still be getting in a car to go home and most of us at least try to keep our cars clean.
The second is a picnic backpack.. I know they may seem silly and a lot of people buy them for romantic picnics, and use them at most once. The thing that makes me love them with kids is that everything is plastic. It doesn’t break easily. It’s kind of fun to be in the middle of nowhere and have a meal (or snack) complete with glasses, utensils, and cloth napkins, especially if you have a waterproof blanket to sit on. A picnic bench works too, and you can use the blanket as a tablecloth since I have never seen a clean picnic table. They are outside all the time, after all.
Hiking is easy, cheap, and fun. There is really only one thing you need that the average parent doesn’t carry every day, and that is a backpack. It can be cheap. Heck, you can use your kids school backpack, if you are willing to carry it and it’s not too uncomfortable.
So what are you waiting for? Get hiking!