Hiking with the Kids

What you need to know to get the most out of family hikes.


“Let’s go hiking!” my kids shout in unison whenever I ask them what they’d like to do on any given Sunday afternoon. There’s just something about the call of the wild that appeals to the child in all of us.

Shuffling through the fallen leaves of autumn and gathering sticks and rocks has universal appeal, and the experience of being in the woods has a calming effect, at least on my kids, that cannot be duplicated anywhere else. It’s as if the smell of pine needles and wet leaves actually produces a chemical reaction somewhere inside their brains and mine that automatically slows the pace and eases tension.

A trip to the woods has become one of my favorite parenting tools. When tantrums have become all too common and attitudes have soured, it is the simple act of lacing up our walking shoes and heading out onto a sun-dappled trail that saves us.

Thoreau may have gone to the woods “to live deliberately and suck the marrow out of life,” but your reasons don’t have to be as profound or literary.

In fact, I can think of five good reasons every parent should take his or her child hiking through the woods:

  1. It’s educational. Hiking with your kids is a “hands on” learning experience, particularly if you are willing to slow the pace and enjoy the trail from his or her perspective. Different types of rocks, leaves, bugs, butterflies, birds, plants and mushrooms are scattered along any given trail and are the things of childhood fantasy and wonder. Depending on where you choose to hike, many parks and trails also include historical sites complete with educational plaques and audio. And for the curious tracker, different kinds of tracks and animal scat can be found and identified along the way. Let your child’s interests be your guide.
  2. It’s great exercise. Not only does hiking allow children and adults to get a breath of fresh air, it is a terrific cardiovascular workout and builds strong muscles and bones.
  3. It builds self-esteem. Hiking, particularly for older children, is a measurable accomplishment. To climb to the highest peak or walk further than ever before are goals that all children can set and reach with your help.
  4. It is uninterrupted family time. Being on the side of a mountain forces us to “unplug,” if only for a couple of hours, and to connect with one another. The stillness of a mountain trail and the meditative placement of one foot in front of the other opens us up to one another.
  5. It’s just fun. Playing in the woods is a rite of childhood, and it’s one that adults should revisit as often as possible. Crawling over rocks, climbing trees, and racing one another along twisting paths is pure and simple fun.

Once you’ve made the decision to take your kids for a hike, however, there are a few things to consider:

Lower Your Expectations

If you hiked and backpacked before you had children, you may have visions of someday completing a thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail with your adventurous brood trekking behind you. While this is certainly an admirable goal, remember that the best way to instill a love of the great outdoors in young children is to be patient, to begin slowly, and to see it through a child’s eyes. Allow your child to set the pace. Shorter legs make an average adult’s reasonable distance seem like a marathon to a three year old, and a mile hike may take up to two hours. The key is to accept this before you ever begin. Take the extra time to examine what is at your child’s eye level. In doing so, you will discover things you would have otherwise missed.

Wear Appropriate Shoes

Crocs and sandals are cute, but they are not good hiking shoes. Tennis shoes and hiking boots will provide your child with the traction he or she needs on the trail. Slippery roots and rocks can be dangerous in the wrong shoes, and blisters are a possibility when dirt and debris become trapped beneath loose straps. You should also pack an extra pair of dry socks in case of creek crossings or unexpected romps through the mud.

Bring a Jacket

Weather has a tendency to change quickly in higher elevations, and a day that was sunny and warm at the trail head can quickly turn cool and wet, which can prove to be pretty miserable with a toddler in tow.

Hydrate, Hydrate, Hydrate

Pack water bottles and remind your children to drink often. Another fun option is a CamelBak water pack. While it may seem like just one more piece of unnecessary equipment, most kids love the hydration tube, they can carry their own pack, and they rarely need to be reminded to drink.

Pack a Snack

Babies are easy backpacking companions if they are breastfed. Toddlers and younger kids, however, usually require a small snack. GORP (Good Old Raisins and Peanuts), dry cereal, dried fruit and granola bars are easy and nutritious snacks to take along. Just be sure to pack out any packaging or trash that is left over.

Know Your Trail

Some trails are not kid friendly. Look over park maps and heed warning signs that label trails as “extremely difficult”. Even the toughest three or four year old may have trouble climbing over several feet of rock. Rock ledges and steps that might be moderately difficult for an adult can become treacherous when they are at eye or even chest level. For your first few trips, stick to the “easy” and “moderate” level trails depending on your child’s fitness level, age, and interest.

Expect Potty Breaks

Traveling with children, whether in a car or on foot, means the occasional inconvenient potty break. Don’t be afraid to let your child relieve himself along the trail. While it may be “uncouth,” there is something intensely appealing to small kids about peeing in the weeds, and in truth, it’s a handy skill to have. You just never know when, even later in life, the need might arise. If, however, your child needs to do more than pee, don’t panic. There are “rules of the trail” in this instance as well. Find an inconspicuous spot somewhere away from the main trail, dig a small hole in the dirt, and after your child has finished, bury the evidence. It’s sometimes referred to as a “cat hole” for obvious reasons. If you cannot bear the idea of enduring this type of things sans toilet paper, be sure to pack a small roll in your bag, but you should also bring along a Ziploc bag or something similar in order to pack it back out. As always, “take only pictures, leave only footprints.”

Great area hiking trails include:

Hanging Rock State Park

Bur-Mil Park

Stone Mountain State Park

Pilot Mountain State Park

Greensboro Watershed Trails

Uwharrie National Forest

Also check out 8 Family-Friendly Hikes in North Carolina.
For more information on North Carolina hiking trails visit Slacpacker.com.

Stacey Libbert is a writer, editor, teacher and mother of two in Elkin. Somehow she still finds time to walk, hike and bike, both with her family and for herself.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published in 2009.

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