When I was three years old, my parents took me on a camping trip in the mountains. We have lots of great memories from that trip: the yellow jackets swarming us while we tried to have pancakes for breakfast, hanging food from trees to keep them out of the reach of bears, and of course, me throwing up in the rental car from traveling around all those mountain curves on the way to the campsite. But the most legendary story of all is how I hiked seven miles on my own two feet and earned the nickname “Strong Legs.”
We were a hiking family. That’s what we did on our weekends and vacations. I learned to be comfortable in and love the great outdoors. That’s still where I would rather be than anywhere else. But as for the hiking seven miles when I was three: I must have been some kind of hiking prodigy. Because none of my children, at age three, showed the slightest inclination to attempt anything like that. In fact, I have found that most three, four, and even ten or twelve-year-olds can spend an entire day running around the backyard but then acquire a melting leg disease when asked to walk a mile to a nice picnic spot.
So, what to do if you want to your kids to love hiking and taking walks? You have to train them.
My oldest son, Mason, was about two years old when we moved to Arizona. My first attempt to explore those alluring Superstition Mountains on the eastern edge of Phoenix didn’t go so well. We just started driving east and stopped at the first trailhead, got out, and started walking. At about 2 pm in the afternoon. In the sun. In the desert. That “hike” lasted ten minutes and ended with me carrying a crying toddler back to the car and turning on the AC as fast as possible. Crazy east coast girl! But I learned my lesson and a few others along the way while training a toddler to become a hiker:
- Start small. Pick a nearby park with flat terrain and a comfortable time of day. If you live in the desert, this would be either the crack of dawn or late afternoon or not at all if it’s July (we took a lot of walks at the park after dinner). Make sure there is an interesting destination- maybe a stream or pond to throw rocks in, or a playground, maybe about a quarter to half a mile away.
- Pack snacks and water and don’t forget to apply sunscreen and bug repellent as necessary before you start. Wear sturdy footwear, not sandals.
- DO NOT CARRY your child. If (when) they start to complain, walk a few steps ahead of them and engross yourself in looking at something interesting. If this doesn’t lure them over, just stand your ground until they come. Try to resist going back to them unless there is some obvious necessary reason. Just be patient, wait for the complaining to pass, hum to yourself, mill around, even if you are doing this for ten minutes. It might take half an hour to walk that quarter mile. It’s okay. This is training!
- Always be sweeping the area with your eyes to find interesting things just ahead to draw their attention. My kids love looking under trailside rocks and logs for slugs and salamanders. Always roll a log towards you to look over the top and under it, just in case there is a snake hiding underneath.
- Once you get to your destination, administer lots of praise and whip out those snacks!
- Extend the distance you go each time. As they get older, if there is a lot of complaining, I find storytelling as you walk along to help significantly. You don’t have to be original, just retell the Three Little Pigs or Cinderella if you have to, or any story that starts with “One time, when I was a kid…” They will eat it up and walk right up steep hills without noticing.
- If you are familiar with the edible berries of your area and know when they are in season, hiking where you know there are going to be sun-warmed ripe berries to pick along the way will encourage any child to keep moving.
- Bribery: I don’t usually recommend this tactic in child-raising, but this is one area I am not afraid to use it. Let’s say you’re taking a four mile hike and you’ve stopped halfway for a break and everyone is grumpy and complaining bitterly and you dread that two miles back. Maybe it’s started to rain and the mosquitos have come out in swarms. This is the time to say: “If no one complains on the way back, we’ll stop for ice cream after the hike.” And then you stick to it. Okay, honestly, I usually incorporate a tasty treat into the end of the hike anyway, but I don’t tell my children about it so I can use this method if necessary. My kids know that the ice cream is off if they do start to whine, so it works. It has gotten us back to the car with my sanity intact several times.
- Start them young with carrying their own packs and water. Outdoor shops like REI carry hiking packs for small children with their own water bottle holders. Carrying their own water and snacks in their very own sized pack can be very exciting for kids, so play it up. You want them to get used to this now, because I can tell you that the more kids you have, the more water you are going to have to bring on hikes, and that gets heavy fast if you are the one carrying it all.
- Lastly, if your children have some active young friends, bring them along. My daughter had one little friend who loved to run, and when we got to the trail, she took off like a shot. Of course Annabelle, who at that age usually dragged her feet on hikes, didn’t want to be left behind, so she galloped off after her. Even the moms had a hard time keeping up on that hike and we went a lot further than planned.
I hope this encourages you to get out with your little kids into the woods and fresh air and enjoy hiking with kids! If you have any other great tips for hiking with kids and building enthusiastic young hikers, please comment!
Photos courtesy of Kirstie MacLeod!