Hiking with the kids can be one of the most fun and rewarding things to experience as a family or it can be a complete disaster, depending upon how well you plan and implement the hike. A little preparation and a lot of flexibility can make it a memorable experience for children, even one that instills a life-long love for the great outdoors.
"Knowing where you're going is the first thing," advises Molly Allen, environmental education specialist with the Bureau of Land Management, "so it's good to do that legwork ahead of time. It's important to find ways to make it fun for the kids like helping with the planning or packing their snacks."
Allen says hikes provide valuable opportunities for teaching youngsters about nature. "There are some great field guides for kids so when they see birds or plants or trees, they can identify them. Getting them involved with all their senses is what gets them excited and makes them want to come back again."
Birds and flowers are not the only things kids should learn to identify, says Kevin Molteni, a pediatrician with Grants Pass Medical Clinic. "Poison oak is endemic in this area so for the kids who are school age, it's great to make recognizing it a part of the learning experience of being in nature."
When hiking with children, Molteni says both sunburn and hypothermia are the top two considerations, so be prepared for the weather. "Things can change very quickly here in Southern Oregon, especially in the spring and fall. Kids lose body heat a lot faster than an adult, especially if they get wet, so it's important to be mindful of that."
Molteni cautions that not every child is ready for a strenuous hike the first time out.
"Kids come in very different conditions based on their activity level," he says. "If a child is normally active and playful, you can start with a couple of hours of hiking with a fairly easy walk. But if you're starting with a child who may not be that active or is overweight, then you probably want to limit it to about an hour of walking and see how they do."
Forewarned is forearmed
For safety, keeping kids on the trail is a great rule of thumb, but that's not always the reality, especially with kids in grade school. "They love to crash through the woods and take short cuts." Molteni says. "They can trip and fall and it can be tough to keep them out of the ticks and poison oak." When planning for first aid, be prepared for cuts, bruises and insect bites with bandages and antibacterial ointment.
"Staying well hydrated is really important so kids should have their own little water bottle they can carry with them in a small pack," advises Molteni. "Bring plenty of snacks like nuts, granola bars, carrots and fresh fruit."
Day hiking does not require investing in a lot of special gear. "Basically, kids can wear what they normally run around in," says Scott Keith, owner of the Northwest Outdoor Store in Medford. "As fast as kids' feet grow, most people don't want to invest in expensive hiking boots, so they can wear comfortable, lightweight sneakers and do just fine."
According to Keith, basic necessities include water bottles for everyone, a first aid kit and maybe a daypack. He cautions that when buying packs, a good fit, especially for youngsters, is important. "When they fit correctly, it puts the weight onto their hips and not on the shoulders and that's important for anyone getting sized. For children, you want them to feel like they're carrying their own stuff, but you want it to be as light as possible."
Skeeters and blisters and ticks, oh my
Most precautions are common sense measures any parent would be aware of, but our experts share advice from their own experience.
Molteni, an experienced hiker, says, "Check the kids' feet to make sure their shoes fit well and their socks don't bunch up and cause blisters. Take a hat and wear layered clothing, especially when the mornings and evenings are still cool. Pack a lightweight poncho or a Mylar blanket for extra protection from the weather." For young ones, he says, take an extra set of clothes. For the school-age kids, it's a good idea to get them a whistle in case they become separated.
"Ticks are common around here," says Allen, "so as a precaution, wear long pants and tuck your pant legs into your socks. Stay out of the grass and brush where ticks generally hang out. It's good to do tick checks a few times during the hike, after the hike and during your shower when you get home."
Keith offers a valuable tip that teaches kids to be aware of their surroundings. "About every 10 minutes on the trail, they should turn around and look behind them. That gives them an idea of where they've come from and what the path should look like on the way back. It's just a really good habit to get into."
With a little experimentation and some common sense, hiking with even very young children can reawaken in adults a whole new appreciation for the wonders of nature. "Just be in the moment," says Molteni. "Kids don't always need a destination. You may only hike a half mile because of all the things they see, like a pebble here and a bug there that they want to stop and look at. Sometimes it's a way to rediscover nature through your kids' eyes."