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From the June 2014 Conservationist

Taking a family hike

Photo: Jeff Alt

Start 'em Young

Getting Kids Hiking

By Jeff Alt

Excerpted from Get Your Kids Hiking: How to Start Them Young and Keep it Fun! by Jeff Alt; photos provided by author

When my wife and I embarked on our first lengthy expedition with our daughter and extended family out of the United States, we went all the way to Ireland! We trekked more than 50 miles with our twenty-one-month-old daughter and four-year-old nephew. Our journey was a far cry from a death-defying feat up Everest, but in order to include our child in our adventures, we knew we had to tone down our usual pursuits until our child was older. It was worth every step.

A waterfall in the Catskills
The Catskills are an excellent place
for families to hike. (Photo: Wally Haley)

We trekked the Burren Way, which had a haunting Lord of the Rings feel, with ancient grass-covered hills speckled with medieval granite, Disneyesque castle ruins, and remains of roofless stone peasant huts overgrown with chest-high grass. For six days we followed trail markers snaking along farm lanes lined with rock fences, most certainly the same paths the medieval Celts once traveled.

With the Atlantic Ocean and distant islands in view, we trekked along the massive, breathtaking Cliffs of Moher, and over rock fences through cow and sheep pastures. We bedded down in cozy family-run B&Bs; dined in pubs, eating beef stew, fresh battered cod, and smoked salmon. The Irish lived up to their hospitable reputation, shuttling us into town for dinner, carting our dirty laundry to the cleaners, and cooking up a very hearty breakfast each morning. Having lodging at the end of the day allowed us to rid our pack of dirty diapers, get out of the unpredictable lashing wind and rain, maintain our child's bath routine, and put her to bed in somewhat-familiar sleeping quarters.

Our daughter Madison enjoyed the entire journey. She was perched high on my back, with a half-circle weather cover propped over her. She was amused by the horses, mules and cows that would stick their heads over the rock fence like Mr. Ed. She learned to play the harmonica as we trekked along, and read a book tied to the side of the child carrier. Our routine hikes prepared us for this adventure, and our entire family had a great time.

Family hike
William learning to hike with Dad.

Our second child, William, was just six weeks old when we packed him up in a child carrier and took him out for his first hike, a day hike in the Shenandoah National Park (SNP). We took the Mill Prong Trail from Skyline Drive to the Rapidan Camp (also known as Camp Hoover). Rapidan Camp was the presidential retreat used by President Herbert Hoover before Camp David was built. Most of the buildings have been restored, and in the summer months, the park coordinates guided historical tours. I love hiking and history, making this one of my favorite trails in the SNP. Our round-trip hike was four miles in length, and it was a sunny day with moderate summer temperatures. I carried three-year-old Madison on my back, and Beth carried William.

A Healthy Habit to Last a Lifetime

Much research has emerged in the last decade about the physical and mental health benefits of walking. Walking is increasingly recommended by doctors for cardiovascular health, weight loss, stress relief, and as a supplement for treatment of depression. Take all these good benefits of walking, add in the rejuvenating outdoor views and the escape from the hustle and bustle, and it really becomes clear to me why hiking is one of the healthiest sports in which you can participate. By introducing your kids to hiking, you are helping them take steps, literally and figuratively, in the right direction.

The Alts on a family hike
The Alts at Rock Spring Hut while on
a family hike in Shenandoah National

Research shows that most children will be exposed to some level of computer activity and TV by the age of two. This early exposure to electronic entertainment, as well as the trend of housing and shopping centers replacing undeveloped forest and farmland, has led many children to prefer video and computer games and TV to playing outside. I've come to realize that it's our role as parents and caregivers to help our children appreciate the simple things that only nature can provide.

Make Hiking Fun!

Start 'em Young: Ergonomically designed baby carriers make it easy and fun to carry your infant or toddler with you wherever you hike. Walk to your favorite park or beach. Bring a friend. Stop often and let your little one explore. Make your hike a routine your kids will look forward to.

Let the Kids Lead!: Hike at your child's pace and distance. Whatever your child takes interest in, stop and explore that bug, leaf or rock with them. Tell them about the animals, rocks, trees and flowers. Getting to the destination is less important than making sure your kids have so much fun, that they will want to go again and again.

Count Down to the Adventure: Psych the kids up with pictures, videos and highlights of the places they will go and the things they will see. Use books, magazines, maps and the Internet-especially park websites and videos showing the spectacular wildlife and locations they will see.

Suit-up in Comfort and the Latest Technology: Take this checklist with you shopping so you cover the bases:

Footwear: Until your kids are walking consistently on their own, fit them with a comfortable pair of water-resistant shoes. Make sure kids ages 3+ are wearing light-weight trail shoes or boots with a sturdy sole. A Vibram© sole with a waterproof breathable liner is preferred. Wear non-cotton, moisture-wicking, synthetic or wool socks.

Clothing: Dress for the weather! Wear non-cotton, synthetic, wool and fleece clothes and dress in layers. Wear multipurpose clothes like pants that zip off into shorts or shirts with roll-up sleeves. Pack a waterproof, breathable rain parka. Dress for the season with fleece hat and gloves, or a hat with a wide brim for sun protection.

Packs: Get age- and size-appropriate backpacks that fit each hiker comfortably, with hydration hose capability.

Trekking Poles: Get a pair of adjustable, collapsible poles with an ergonomically designed handle for each person.

Fresh, Clean Water: Bring plenty of water. You can get a hydration hose system for your pack or just use bottles. Disinfect wild water using hi-tech portable treatment water systems such as a UV wand or micro-straining filter.

Taking a break while hiking
The Alt family taking a break during
a hike.

Communication: Bring a smart phone so you can take lots of pictures, and, if there's connectivity, email to family or upload to your online blog or social media site. Carry a GPS unit to keep you located on the trail and for geocaching.

Other "Must-Haves": Pediatrician-recommended suntan lotion and bug repellent containing DEET or Picaridin; first-aid kit that accommodates the whole group, and first-aid knowledge. Bring a compass and map and brush up on how to use them. Keep matches and a lighter in a dry place, and know how to make a fire to keep warm. Carry a whistle and a signal mirror in case you get lost. Pack a survival knife with a locking blade. Bring a headlamp or flashlight, extra batteries, 50 feet of rope or twine, and always have a small roll of duct tape for that unexpected repair.

Bring Food Kids Love: Hand out food and water as needed on the trail. Pack kids' favorite snacks. Stop often for a drink and a snack.

Pack Fun Items: Let young children fill their adventure pack with a bug catcher, magnifying glass, binoculars, a camera, a map and compass, whistle or flashlight. Let your little adventurer take ownership and pack a few items of his own; even if it's not hiking related.

Play Games and Bring a Friend: Play "I Spy" using your surroundings as you walk along. Create your own scavenger hunt in search of animals, plants and views along the way. Make up rhymes and sing songs as you walk. Pack plant- and animal-identification guides for your older child. Let your social butterfly bring a friend, with parental permission. Intrigue your computer-savvy child with the high-tech hiking gadgets like GPS, headlamp flashlights and pedometers. Use your GPS and take your kids on a geocaching adventure.

Take Advantage of Park Activities and Guided Nature Experiences: Use and enjoy the amazing services and resources offered by our parks, trail and recreational system and associations. This will help ensure that the experience is enjoyable and memorable.

We all want to give our children an edge as they head out into the world. Guiding your kids step-by-step into the wonderful world of hiking will serve them well in the rapidly changing environment in which we live. Introducing your child to a sport that can serve as a relaxation and thinking tool, while providing them with an inexpensive way to stay both mentally and physically healthy, is worth every step.

Get Your Kids Hiking book cover

Traveling speaker and hiking expert Jeff Alt has been hiking with his kids since they were infants. He walked the 2,160-mile Appalachian Trail, and the 218-mile John Muir Trail with his wife. Visit Jeff Alt's website to learn more about Jeff, including information about his seminars and books, which include Get Your Kids Hiking; A Walk For Sunshine, a 2,160 Mile Expedition for Charity on the Appalachian Trail; and a forthcoming book, Four Boots, One Journey.