Getting your kids out on a trail can be both rewarding and fun, but as any experienced parent-hiker knows, it's no walk in the park. Whether you're taking the tykes on a short trek or climbing a mountain with them in tow, you need to prepare differently than you would if you were going alone. Here, then, are a few tips.
First of all, don't call it hiking. Hiking sounds like work (even to me), and if you want to engage a child's mind, a little color helps. If you're bringing your kids, call it an adventure, an exploration, a race, or a search for lost treasures, princesses, superheroes, etc.
On a recent weeknight, my friend Dawn and I "raced" at the Hard'Ack recreation area in St. Albans. The rec department sponsors a trail-running series on Tuesday nights with a 1k run for kids. This was the carrot for my 3-year-old, Oliver. I have no idea where he gets his competitive streak (heh heh), but he's always up for a contest.
Dawn left her two daughters at home that evening, but normally when we go walking, we juggle two strollers, three kids and a frisky Doberman pinscher. This has led to a number of entanglements, trips, falls and walks cut short.
Thus my next bit of advice: Start with a short hike, close to home, and set your expectations low. The bigger the plan, the harder the fall. Hard'ack and the adjoining Aldis Hill Park are perfect for my family. They're near enough to home to avoid potty disasters, and the many trail loops allow for a 15-minute walk or an afternoon-long expedition.
So, off Dawn and I went, occasionally pushing Oliver in a stroller up steep inclines and down tree-rooted shady pathways, sweating profusely through clouds of mosquitoes. Bit of advice number three: You cannot overprepare. My personal must-packs? Bug spray, snacks, drinks, tissues, sunscreen, wet wipes, and a multipurpose garbage bag for dirty clothes or trash. Swap your diaper bag for a backpack and fill 'er up.
Unfortunately, we didn't connect with the trail runners in time for the race, but we forged onward anyway, Oliver scouting for the runners' trail. He never found it, but he did notice many of the faint paths laced through Aldis Hill Park, including the one to the lookout, which we took. Aldis Hill offers a spectacular view of St. Albans, the bay, Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks. That kind of concrete goal at the end of a hike is great for kids.
Of course, when you're hiking, good equipment helps. Sturdy shoes, a three-wheeled stroller, hiking backpack and kid carriers are all nice to have. But some of the smartest planning is kid-centric. If you've got an explorer, get him or her to help make a map before you go, or as you go. If you've got a scientist, collect some creepy-crawlies along the way. Or try geocaching, in which you use a GPS or a smartphone to search for "caches" others have left for you to find. Learn how and where to look at geocaching.com.
And remember that, with a little preparation, time spent on the trail can be both exercise and an adventure.