Hiking as a parenting tool
As the weather heats up in the Northern Hemisphere, your social media feeds may be inundated with photos of caregivers and their children happily traipsing up a mountain peak looking none the worse for wear. How do they do it? How do people manage to take their kids outside, keep everyone alive, and enjoy themselves?
One of the things I most love about parenting is the excuse—nay, the requirement—to look at everything with fresh eyes. A leaf is not just green and on a tree; it is different from the other leaves, and sometimes there is a bug or a tiny case of eggs glued to its underside. The thrill of being outside with children far outweighs the perceived exhaustion of getting them there—and I say “perceived” because, 9 times out of 10, the work isn’t nearly as hard as I’ve cracked it up to be in my head.
I’ve experienced about six years of going hiking/walking/exploring with my own children, both in the desert Southwest where my oldest three were born, and in New England where we all now reside (with another little one added to the mix!) Though the terrains, temperatures, and my own tolerance were all different, there are a few things I do before each hike or nature walk that help me create opportunity for the most success outside. Whether you’re completely new to being in nature, or completely new to being in nature with your kids, these tips can help you ensure everyone stays safe and (maybe, just maybe) enjoys themselves out of doors.
Before setting out on a 4000-footer with small children, it may be best to start small. Ask your friends or local parent groups about trails, natural open spaces, or outdoor attractions relatively close to you. Bring snacks, water, and weather protection (rain gear or sunscreen and hats, depending on the weather!), and just GO. If you have younger ones who may get tired after walking or climbing, bring your favorite carrier. Doing a couple of these “trial runs” serves two purposes: one, it boosts your confidence, and two, it gives you an idea of what you may need on a more challenging or longer excursion.
Like almost anything, the more the merrier applies when it comes to hiking with kids. There are organizations that facilitate family-led hikes of varying difficulty (Hike it Baby, Adventure Mamas, REI, etc), but all it takes is a quick invite to a friend to make a fun day outside even better. The extra adult hands will be welcome, and your kids will enjoy having someone else to play with, too.
Barring any dangerous decisions, it’s okay to make mistakes when planning and executing a hike that involves multiple people, especially children. Forgot the sunscreen? Find some available shade or give the umbrella double-duty. Weather not working out for you? Make the most of it by splashing in puddles, or playing in the mud. Kids whining? Being outside, in my experience, is the number one way to make the whines go away. Playing games (I Spy, color matching, hide and seek) outside is so much more energy-busting than just about anywhere else, and there are so many different things to look at.
Remember, the goal is to spend quality time with your kids while also enjoying everything nature has to offer. If your plans go off track a little bit, think of it as another lesson in patience and flexibility!
What we always bring on hikes
For my family, packing light is essential: four kids automatically means a boatload of gear no matter how long we’re planning to spend outside! A few of my essentials are:
1. A woven wrap
This type of carrier has often served as a picnic blanket, boogey remover, and even (on one outdoor excursion I’d rather like to forget) baby wipes in lieu of the real thing. My current favorite wrap is my size 4 Bijou Arcadia Sage—washable, portable, and comfortable enough for long hikes with heavy babies.
Each of my kids has their own portable water backpack, but I also make sure to leave a large reusable bottle in the car and bring a smaller one with me. It helps cut down on the frequency with which I have to remind everyone to stay hydrated and helps alleviate any post-hike thirst when we get back to the car.
Someone is bound to get hungry, and hungry kids in the middle of the woods is no walk in the park (ha!). Bring favorite snacks, preferably of the nonperishable variety, and make sure to keep the packaging trash with you until you reach a designated receptacle (in my children’s minds, this often means my car).
4. A change of clothes
We have a box in the back of our SUV that contains a change of clothes, down to underwear and socks, for each person in our family. Rotated seasonally, this has come in handy more times than I can count thanks to my boys’ affinity for mud, puddles, and all variations of dirt. It is especially helpful in the colder months, when wet pants or socks can ruin anyone’s day.
Get out there!
Though it may seem daunting, hiking with kids is an incredible way to have some low-cost quality time with your kids. It’s a great way to find out what catches your kid’s attention, stretch your legs, and (most importantly) run off some of that excess energy that adults envy and children can’t seem to stop producing. With a little planning and some realistic expectations, a hike may become your family’s new favorite activity this summer.
(Special thanks to members of the Bijou Buzz community on Facebook for these lovely photos!)