BY JEFF ALT SEPT 2016
How to teach your kids to enjoy hiking.
When you want to know how to teach your kids to enjoy hiking, you go to an expert. “Getting kids outside is more important than ever,” says outdoor enthusiast and author Jeff Alt. “TV, phone, computer, and game addictions are replacing outdoor play time. Passive indoor entertainment is contributing to the obesity epidemic!” Fortunately, Georgia is a hiker’s paradise from Providence Canyon in West Georgia, one of Georgia’s 7 Wonders also called Little Grand Canyon, to the wilderness of Cannon Point in St. Simon’s Island, to the grand Appalachian trails. Central Georgians need not go that far. Nearby High Falls State Park covers 1,050 acres in Monroe County and makes for an impressive hike. So get back to nature. Pick your trail and take a hike!
Jeff Alt is an avid hiker. In addition to walking the 2,160-mile Appalachian Trail, he also walked the 218-mile John Muir Trail with his wife, and trekked across a fifty-mile path in Ireland with his wife, young daughter, and extended family. His son was taken on his first hike when eight weeks old. He shared with us his favorite hiking tips::
Start early; develop a routine. Give your kids a healthy dose of “Early Outdoor Intervention.” It will pay off later. You can start hiking with your newborn. Children weighing less than fifteen pounds should be carried in a front carrier or sling. There’s also the new Chariot stroller that can be pulled like a sled behind a hiker or skier. Kids weighing sixteen to forty pounds can fit in a child carrier backpack. Kids weighing over thirty pounds might be ready to hike short distances.
Let the child lead. This helps you focus on what they’re interested in and keeps you from leaving them in your dust.
Get outside every day. Take a walk with the family daily. Walk around the block, go to the park, and go to the beach and river. Keep it fresh, and get maps and books to search for new places to go.
Save money and the environment. Walk, instead of drive, to the library, stores, or a local restaurant for dinner. Make walking and hiking as routine as eating.
Bring the outdoors inside. Educate constantly to generate interest and enthusiasm. Get magazines, videos, and artwork that show places you want to go. Rent movies about faraway places. Use the Internet together to look at maps and photographs of the wildlife, environments, and spectacular scenery you will be visiting someday. When you go, take lots of pictures, place them around the house, and send them in newsletters and Christmas cards.
Go high tech. Bring on the gadgetry! Turn your computer game nerds on to adventure technology, e.g., GPS, pedometers, headlamp flashlights, geocaching. Teach them all about how these incredible devices are being used for fun, like scavenger hiking in the Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountain National Parks (see Kat and John Lafevre’s Scavenger Hike Adventures). Take the kids to a local orienteering course—and learn how to use GPS and compass together.
Involve the kids in planning out all trips and adventures. Older children can use the computer to research your destination or sport. (All national parks and most other destinations have websites chock full of facts and information, maps, and wildlife.)
Friends add fun. Let the kids (especially teens) bring along a friend. Get permission from parents and make it a club adventure.
Prepare your family. Many of the same equipment decisions that you make for your own adventures can be applied to outfitting your children. Have your child help you with researching the destination and activity. Google park websites, go to the library, visit the bookstore travel section, and outfitters stores like Bass Pro Shop.
You’ve got mail! Send for maps and guidebooks of the area, and check with the local travel experts on hiking, rangers, guides, etc. Have the packages sent to your child or children. Attend local slide shows/lectures (at outfitters/libraries/bookstores) every chance you get.
Plan ahead—especially when you have younger children. Choose a trail that offers easy access to domesticated amenities. Having a base camp or prearranged lodging allows you to be a parent, not a Sherpa. Check into transportation options. You should have a plan for what to do if you need to get off the trail.
Identify the restaurant and grocery amenities. Not only is it good to know what’s available before you arrive so that you’ll know what to pack, but if the weather turns bad, you’ll need a backup plan.
Prepare and plan what you need based on information you find. What kinds of wildlife can you expect? Will water be available? What are the weather and terrain like? You want to avoid hiking in freezing temperatures, lightning storms, and extreme heat. You want to identify and find swimming holes, wildlife, enjoyable views, and great places to look at flowers and spectacular trees.
Acquire the right gear. Get everyone properly fitted into gear, particularly boots and packs. Dress in layers (synthetics, fleece, wool, and waterproof breathable items). Some advise using breathable, 100% cotton; Jeff advises against it. Bring what you need for the weather and conditions you will encounter. Don’t forget the Deet-free bug repellent (Repel, Nutrapell, Coleman, etc.) and children’s sunscreen.
Train at home in your neighborhood. Before you go with your child into the wild, practice carrying your child in the child carrier. This will help you adjust to carrying the pack, and your child will acclimate to the routine. Take older children (age four and older) on weekly walks so that they are physically conditioned for the journey. Wear your boots and all your gear on your training hikes to condition you and make sure everything fits and works before you leave town.
Bring plenty of water. An adult should pack quarts of water. Children will vary depending on age and exertion. Inquire about water availability before you hit the trail. Acquire a treatment system so you can use the water along the trail (water filter, Iodine tablets, etc.). Drink before you go. Take frequent sips, and don’t wait for thirst.
Think food. Pack their favorite snacks. Desirable and nutritional foods will help encourage your kids to eat and stay energized. Pack more food than you think you will need. Try out your food and your stove at home before a trip to ensure they’ll like it. Bring items that are lightweight, need little water, and easy to prepare or ready to eat. Plan for two pounds of food per person per day. Eliminate bulky packaging; condense food into plastic bags. Some suggestions are freeze-dried meals, pasta, rice, beans, foil-wrapped meats such as tuna or chicken, dehydrated fruit and veggies, sliced apples, grapes, bananas, carrots, energy bars, peanut butter, cheese and sausage, nuts, and oatmeal. Depending upon where you go, remember to bring a food bag and rope to hang ten feet up, so the bears can’t get to it.
Learn first aid and be prepared for trail emergencies. Carry a first-aid kit, and brush up on child first aid and CPR. Learn about hypothermia, and monitor children for signs. Pack all of your child’s medication. Know the location of the nearest medical facility.
Learn how to use a compass and map or GPS. Learn how to make a quick shelter to keep warm and dry. Keep matches and lighters dry and in a safe place. Know how to start a fire to keep warm. If you get lost, make yourself as visible as possible. Place a bright item in the open. Make distress signals, and make noise. If you brought a phone, check periodically to see if it works. Leave a copy of your itinerary with a friend or family member. Have a plan in case a person gets lost or separated from the family.
Fun should be the priority. Let kids lead the way and tell you what they want to do. Whatever animal or rock your young child takes interest in, stop and explore with him or her. Talk to your child about what you’re seeing. Label the animals, rocks, trees, and flowers. Tone down your mileage goals to the comfort level of your child. Engage older children with trip planning, animals, local history, or anything that applies to what they are learning in school. Teach your children good backcountry ethics. Kids can learn to pack out trash, use proper backcountry toileting habits, and take nothing from the woods but memories and pictures. #
Courtesy of Jeff Alt—member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America . Featured on ESPN, Hallmark Channel, CNN-Radio, and NPR, Alt also wrote A Walk for Sunshine and A Hike for Mike. Visit jeffalt.com for more info.