Recently, my teenaged sons and I enjoyed two and a half days together in the mountains of central Utah hiking. We camped at a nearby state park which we used as a "base camp" and then hiked about 15 miles over the two full days. We hiked through forests of quaking aspen and pines and across mountain meadows. While we were tired at the end of each day, we enjoyed the experience. Hiking with the kids gives you lots of time to talk, and to talk deeply as you enjoy being in a natural setting.
But hiking with the kids can be a less than exciting experience if you don't plan appropriately. Blisters, sunburn, mosquito bites and dehydration can be real negatives to a hiking experience, but fortunately, almost all the negatives to hiking with the kids can be avoided with a little preparation and forethought.
So, here are my suggestions for making hiking with the kids a better experience, one that you can all remember fondly as time goes by.
Find good information about hiking trails in your area. I would recommend subscribing to a good hiking trail guide online like trails.com or Gorp. It is critical to find hiking trails that will work for you and your children. Your local bookstore or public library will likely have some good trail guidebooks that will give you insight into trails in your area that are recommended for families and children.
Scale the hike appropriately. Not all hikes are created equal. It is important that a hike not be beyond the ability of your children. That doesn't mean it shouldn't be challenging for them; rather, it should be something that they can realistically be expected to do. So, take into account your children's ability and fitness. A few years ago, we tried a hike that was well known in our area. What we didn't know was that there was a very steep snow field that we needed to cross to stay on the trail, and our family was not up to the risk of getting across the ice and we had to turn around and return only about half way up the trail.
Find a hike with variety. Again, using your hiking trail guide site or book, choose a site for your hike with a little variety. While some hikers seem to prefer mountain trails and others prefer desert trails, children seem to like to see something different along the trails. Some of our favorite trails with children have mountain trail segments, parts along a river and paths through a meadow filled with wildflowers. The children tend to get bored with the same scenery over and over.
Remember that shoes are a basic element. There is simply no substitute on a hike with the kids for sturdy, well-fitting shoes. For the easier hikes, their tennis shoes will be enough, as long as they have good socks on. But for even the easiest hikes, flip-flops will not be a good choice. And for more demanding hikes, there is no good alternative but a good hiking shoe or boot. The same child on the same trail will have a better hike with good shoes than with ill-fitting or falling-apart shoes or boots.
Bring along protection. Sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or better and insect repellant with DEET are absolutely essential on a hike. While kids generally do not like to wear sunscreen and insect repellant, you need to insist. I also recommend that every hiker have a hat or a bandana for additional protection. Wise hiking dads also put some moleskin and band-aids in the day pack for blisters and little cuts and scrapes.
Water and snacks. Kids particularly need to stay hydrated and nourished on a hike. A big water bottle or a hydration pack is a good investment for hiking success. And kids love granola bars, trail snacks and dried fruit on a hike. Stay away from too much sugar and from chocolate, which tends to both increase thirst and make a mess.
Keep safety paramount. Despite our best efforts, we sometimes get separated when hiking with the kids. When we hike, each of our kids has an emergency whistle so they can blow it if they get lost. Putting one adult in front of the group and one in the rear keeping track of the kids is a good strategy for safety.
Teach them outdoor ethics. A hike is a good time to emphasize our respect for the outdoors. To keep our impact on nature minimal, remind the kids to stay on the trail (shortcuts cause damage), keep their voices down to respect wildlife, pack out anything that you pack in (wrappers, water bottles, etc.) and leave everything the way you found it. Not leaving a trace on your hike is the best way to help other hikers after you enjoy what you enjoyed.
Keep them engaged. Just trudging along is not a lot of fun for a child. When hiking with the kids, talk a lot. Sing songs. Tell stories. Tell them what you know about what they are seeing (like wildlife footprints, plant varieties, etc.) Play some games like 20 Questions. Look at cloud formations and make up stories about them. Keeping a hike fun and at the child's level makes it a better experience.
A hike with the children can be a great time for dads and kids. A little preparation, training and care will go a long way to making it a memorable and positive experience for all of you.