We’ve had many requests lately for tips on hiking with kids and teens. So to help give your children a strong start outdoors, let’s bring in an expert!
Today’s guest post comes from the amazing Lisa Tabachnick, a mom and journalist who blogs at Kids & Mental Health. Lisa is a prolific writer who has covered health, children, parenting, and education for dozens of publications. She is a champion for children’s rights who has served on the board of a large children’s mental health organization in the Toronto area.
In today’s post, Lisa shares some of the benefits of getting outside as a family, plus tips for safe and fun hikes with kids — even with technology-loving teens and tweens.
Photos courtesy of Lisa Tabachnick.
Growing up in the ‘70s, we spent a lot of time outdoors during all four seasons. Whether we engaged in skipping rope after school, playing hide-and-seek with the neighbourhood kids, building snow forts in the front yard or biking to the corner store for candy and chips, we were often outside for long periods of time and in all types of weather.
Luckily for me, my parents made an additional effort to take my brother and me on nature walks and hikes exploring the beautiful trails and parkland near our childhood home in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. Lucky for us, Gatineau, Quebec is only a 25 minute drive from the city centre and, in addition to providing myriad trails for walking, cycling and hiking, Gatineau Park offers stunning views of lakes, rivers, forests and wildlife.
Flash forward to 2019. Today, things look different for many families: Most parents work outside the home and children and teens may be on their own more often and/or in after-school programs or daycare. As well, young people tend to spend more time looking at screens — one recent study indicated that kids ages 8–18 spend an average of 7 hours per day looking at screens! As crazy as that sounds, I’m not going to delve into the evils of technology at this time both because I watched a heck of a lot of TV as a child and because technology can be truly helpful, inspiring and useful in many ways.
However, because my two kids (ages 12 and 15), are tech lovers like their peers (and, if we’re honest, like me too), I feel it’s imperative to get them out of the house and expose them to fresh air, nature and exercise on a regular basis.
Myriad benefits of family hiking
One of my favourite activities to do with my children is taking them on hikes in the forest. Beyond the glorious zen that stems from intense exercise and taking in nature’s glory, here are a few other amazing benefits of hiking with your kids:
- Cost-effective: Hiking is essentially free save for perhaps gas or whatever gear you might like to invest in. Depending on the season and conditions, no gear is necessary beyond normal outdoor shoes/boots and outerwear.
- Eco-friendly and energy efficient: This is especially true if you walk or bike to your trail of choice.
- Educational: While hiking, you can learn about local flora and fauna, birds, animals, bodies of water, geography, orienteering, benefits of exercise on your body, history of the region, local wildlife patterns, weather and temperature, and the list goes on …
- Serenity: Hiking is of course is awesome for all humans but, for adults and children with mental health challenges or neuro-atypical behaviours, hiking in nature can be soothing and calming as our brains relax in nature.
- Energy expending: Again, this activity is fabulous for almost everyone (more on hiking for people with disabilities later in the post) but is additionally helpful in allowing kids expend their energy in a positive, productive way.
- Bonding: Hiking with your children is a wonderful way to build a relationship with them. Older tweens and teens who may not be as keen to spend time with their parents are often more likely to talk and share while exercising.
- Neighbourly: We often bump into friends and neighbours or acquaintances while hiking. Whether it’s offering a friendly “hello” to a neighbour or meeting a beautiful new dog, the friendly nature of hiking is an added bonus.
Getting outdoors every day is ideal for many families. However, sometimes life gets in the way. Personally, I never regret taking the time to get outside whether it’s on my own, with a friend or with my children. I am sure at the time, I complained as a child about the nature walks we participated in with my folks. But now as an adult, I look back fondly on that time and I’m sure it’s influenced me to insist on regular jaunts in nature with my own children.
Now, that said, there are precautions and caveats to consider when taking this on with your own family.
Tips for hiking with babies, children and young adults
- Weather: Be aware of current and forthcoming weather conditions when you’re out with your kids. Thunderstorms, drops (or increases) in temperature, icy trail conditions, etc. can be concerning especially when hiking with younger children. I recommend checking the weather right before you leave and keeping a cell phone on you in case you need to call for help or a pick-up and/or one of your children gets lost or injured.
- Injuries or illness: Per the above tip, bring along a small First Aid kit and keep a close eye on your kids while on the trail. In addition, bring at least one (ideally reusable) bottle of fresh water and some granola bars or other non-perishable food items. It doesn’t hurt to be prepared for a serious incident or more innocently a sudden bout of hunger or thirst.
- Harsh conditions: Make sure you and your kids are dressed for the weather. I haul my (older) kids out during the coldest days but we are always dressed appropriately and often the temperatures can change near bodies of water or while out in the open forest. And, it’s not just snow, ice or cold to be aware of; the heat and sun can be devastating for kids. They may not want to wear hats, sunscreen and protective clothing, but you do not want them to get sunburned or overheated. Make sure that everyone drinks water and stops in the shade (or in a warm spot if in the winter) frequently.
- Exhaustion: For people with toddlers and young children, bring along a sturdy trail stroller or buggy or baby backpack. Kids’ little legs and feet can get tired and you don’t want to be stuck in the middle of the trail when they decide they can’t go any further and you need to carry them all the way back.
- Ability: Not everyone is able to just jump onto a hiking trail and go. For adults and children with physical or emotional challenges, hiking can be more difficult. It’s not impossible to hike with a physical disability but you will need to research your preferred trail initially and make sure it meets your and/or your child’s needs. Your local Parks & Recreation department may be able to provide maps and answer questions in advance.
- Animals: Recently, we witnessed a large dog inadvertently knocking over a toddler on a bridge while we were out hiking. The dog didn’t realize the kid was there and vice versa and the poor little guy hit his head on the bridge quite hard. Please watch your children carefully along ridges, bridges, near bodies of water and around animals – this includes both wild and domesticated animals. Don’t let your kids get too far ahead or behind you when hiking.
- Overall: Be realistic about the trails you choose and the length of time that you’re out. You might want to pick a hike close to home at first and see how you and your kids manage. Get them used to being out in nature, listening to the rules, following the trail signs, watching for debris, bodies of water, animals, cars, weather, etc. Once everyone is comfortable, you can expand the length of time that you’re out as well as the difficulty of the trail.
I hope you found this overview helpful and that it inspires you to get outside and explore the wonderful forests, hikes and trails in your own region.
Read more from Lisa Tabachnick at her blog, Kids & Mental Health.
Do you have useful tips for hiking with kids? Comment below to share!
Originally published April 9, 2019.