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Sunday, May 22, 2011

Hiking with Kids - Tips by Jeff Alt

Our recent post about camping in the Bay Area is a perfect companion to today's post - hiking with kids, with tips by author Jeff Alt, who wrote A Walk for Sunshine: a 2,160 Mile Expedition for Charity on the Appalachian Trail.

In addition to walking the Appalachian Trail, he also trekked across a 50-mile path of Ireland with his wife, young daughter, and extended family. Some of these tips might be a bit advanced for beginning hikers, so use the ones that work for you, and start small!
Start Early - Develop A Routine
Start hiking with your newborn. Carry infants and children weighing less than 15 pounds in a front body carrier or a sling. Children weighing 16 to 40 pounds can fit into a child carrier backpack. Children weighing more than 30 pounds might be ready to hike short distances and carry a little day-pack.
Let the child lead.  This helps you focus on what they’re interested in and keeps you from leaving them in your dust.
Get outside every day. Take a walk with the family once a day. Walk around the block, go to the park, go to the beach, and river.  Get maps and books and search out and find new places to go. See new places all the time.
Save money and stop driving everywhere. Walk to the grocery store. Walk to your local restaurant for dinner and back. Walk to the library.  Make walking and hiking as routine as brushing your teeth.
Bring the outdoors inside. Educate constantly to generate interest and enthusiasm. Take lots of pictures of the kids and places you go. Make posters for the family and living room and for Christmas cards.  Get magazines, videos, and artwork that show places you want to go. Rent movies about faraway places. Use the Internet together to look at maps, and photographs of the wildlife, environments, and spectacular scenery you will be visiting someday.
Go high tech.  Bring on the gadgetry! Turn your computer game nerds on to the adventure technology. (e.g. GPS, pedometers headlamp flashlights, geocaching) and teach them all about how these incredible devices are being used for fun, like scavenger hiking in the Shenandoah & Great Smoky Mountain National Parks (see Kat & John Lafevre’s Scavenger Hike Adventures).
Involve the kids in planning out all trips and adventures. Older children can use the computer to research your destination or sport. (All national parks and most other destinations have websites chock full of facts & info., maps, wildlife).
Prepare your family for your adventure 
Preparation is the key to a successful hike.  Many of the same equipment decisions that you make for your own adventures can be applied to outfitting your children.
Research the destination & activity (Have your youngster help you with this. Google park websites, the library, bookstore travel section, outfitters, etc.)
Send for maps and guidebooks of the area, and check with the local travel experts on hiking, rangers, guides, etc. Have the packages sent to your child or children.
Attend local slide shows or lectures (outfitters/libraries/bookstores).
Plan ahead – especially when you have younger children.  Choose a trail that offers easy access to domesticated amenities.  Having a base camp or prearranged lodging allows you to be a parent, not a Sherpa. 
Identify the restaurant and grocery amenities. Not only is it good to know what’s available before you arrive so that you’ll know what to pack, but if the weather turns bad, you can have an instantly viable backup plan.
Prepare and plan what you need based on what you find. What kinds of wildlife can you expect?  Will water be available? What are the weather and terrain like? You want to avoid hiking in freezing temperatures, lightning storms, and extreme heat. You want to identify and find swimming holes, wildlife, enjoyable views, and great places to boulder, look at flowers, spectacular trees, and wildlife.
Acquire the Right Gear. Get everyone properly fitted into essential gear particularly boots and packs Clothing - NO COTTON! Dress in layers (synthetics, fleece, wool, and waterproof breathable items). Bring what you need for the weather and conditions you will encounter, and things like Deet-free bug repellant (Nutrapell, Coleman, etc.) and children’s sunscreen.
Train at home in your neighborhood with your kids before you go into the wild.  Practice carrying your child in the child carrier. This will help you adjust to carrying the pack, and your child will acclimate to the routine.  Take older children (age 4 and older) on weekly walks so that they are physically conditioned for the journey. Wear your boots and all your gear on your training hikes to condition you and make sure everything fits and works before you leave town.
Bring Plenty of Water
An adult should pack quarts of water. Children will vary depending on age and exertion. Inquire about water availability before you hit the trail. Acquire a treatment system so you can use the water along the trail (water filter, Iodine tablets, etc.). Drink before you go.  Stop and sip your water frequently. Don’t wait until you are thirsty. 
Think Food – Think Fun
Pack your kids favorite snacks.  Desirable food will help encourage your kids to eat and stay energized.  Pack more food than you think you will need.
Try out your food and your stove at home before your trip. Make sure you can cook food the kids will enjoy. When preparing your food, think compact, lightweight, and filling. Bring items that are easy to prepare or ready to eat.

Select foods that just need a little bit of water to prepare. Plan for two pounds of food per person per day. Eliminate bulky packaging; condense food into plastic bags. Pack an extra day’s worth of food. 

Depending where you go, remember to bring a food bag and rope to hang 10 feet up in a tree so the bears can’t get to it.
Keep the journey fun

The driving priority with children is to make sure they have fun.  Let them lead the way and tell you what they want to do.  Whatever animal or rock your young child takes interest in, stop and explore with him or her. Talk to your child about what you’re seeing.  Label the animals, rocks, trees, and flowers. Tone down your mileage goals to the comfort level of your child. 
Engage older children with trip planning, animals, local history, or anything that applies to what they are learning in school.

Teach your children good back-country ethics.  Kids can learn to pack out trash, take nothing from the woods but memories and pictures, and proper back-country toileting at a young age. 
Alt is a member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. His adventures have been featured in media nationwide including: ESPN, Hallmark Channel, the AP, CNN-Radio, NPR, and more. Alt's award-winning books, A Walk for Sunshine and A Hike for Mike, have been reviewed in Library Journal, Chicago Sun Times and more.

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