When we first began hiking, keeping mileage low was a huge priority. The experience needs to be fun for them to want to repeat it, particularly when it’s something all new. It helps if there’s water nearby for splashing in and throwing rocks. The entertainment value of even the muddiest bit of creek cannot be understated.
Setting reasonable expectations is critical. The destination isn’t the goal in the early days of hiking with children. The focus should be on the experience along the way. I cannot count the number of hikes we didn’t actually “finish” because we were sidetracked by a meadow or a stream, or picking wildflowers, or catching frogs. Whole days can disappear stalking frogs around a pond’s edge. I struggled initially with the idea of letting go, and letting them explore, rather than complete the hike. Now, as they’ve put on a few years, they’re much more inclined to do the full hike. We still stop countless times to investigate slugs and rescue caterpillars. And there’s still days where we barely make it out of the parking lot, and that’s okay. It’s the experiences that count.
That, and the ice cream. Our family tradition is that after any day hike, no matter the weather, we find ice cream. On rainy wintery days, that may mean we eat our soft-serve in a steamy car with the heat cranked! We have our favorite spots near the major trailheads we frequent, but we’re always on the lookout for the next best cone. Ice cream greases the wheels (or legs) of unhappy hikers on the verge of meltdown. Ice cream cools on a hot summer day. Ice cream is the miracle bribe that has made many of our trips even possible.
Bribes may be considered bad parenting under pretty much all other scenarios, but on the trail...I’ve found them essential. It’s difficult for a child to complain when they are sucking on their favorite piece of hard candy. And when that next water/rest break comes, pulling out new little notebooks for drawing in can turn a whiny kid into Picasso. Every child is different, so what works for us may not work for every family...finding the motivating force that will keep the legs moving takes some trial and error.
No matter how far you travel, or how slow you step, family hiking creates time for conversation at a walking pace. There’s no distractions, no ringing phones, no video games, and no schedule. Just the next bend in the trail.