9 Tips for Hiking with Young Kids
We accomplished a feat on Friday that I would not have considered possible just a few short months ago. Our family hiked to the most southern point of Australia* in Southwest National Park, Tasmania. The amazing part was not reaching the southern tip about 100 days after reaching the northern tip of Australia, but rather that the boys walked over 15.4 kms / 9.5 miles to do it! We were walking for just over 6.5 hours to make it happen.
In accomplishing our goal of reaching the southern tip of Tasmania, the journey solidified a lot about what we have learned about hiking with young children:
1) Hiking / bush walking is more of a mental challenge than a physical one for kids. Our boys have boundless energy, but long walks can be boring, which rapidly can lead to whining. Keeping kids engaged makes all the difference. We normally begin walks with a long story from Jay. The boys pick the characters and seemingly will walk to the end of the earth (they nearly did!) just to hear what happens to their characters. Turns out Jay can keep a story going for about an hour and that gets the kids over the initial hump of a long walk.
2) Goals are important. We talked with lots of excitement about how Lake and Finn would be the first 5-year-olds from Brooklyn to reach the northern and southern tips of Australia. (No Guinness Book verification on this one, but it seems a reasonable assumption.) On the track, we try to identify many interim goals so they can feel their progress. A goal is often getting to a particular feature of the walk (e.g. waterfall, open field, etc.) or it may be arriving at the next stop (e.g. lunch). We often spend the last part of the hike talking about all that we saw and all that they achieved. On this trip, the boys were positively energized during the return portion of the hike. The first half of the journey took 4 hours, whereas the return was only 2.5 hours. There weren’t any large descents to account for the discrepancy. It was mostly excitement of having reached their goal. Lake proudly told each of the 3 groups of walkers we passed on the way back that he had reached the southern point of Australia.
3) Lots of snacks are key. Kids burn energy quickly and keeping them fueled up is an important part of multi-hour walking. We carry a wide assortment of bars, fresh fruit, dried fruit, and sandwiches in addition to sweet treats. Walking is a great excuse to treat kids to usually restricted treats. Normally, our kids get biscuits / cookies and lollies / candies quite infrequently. The allure of getting a treat as we pass different milestones on the track is a great motivator. The boys are always willing to go a bit further on the promise of a marshmallow. We also find that the sugar rush provided by these sweets helps the kids keep going and we don’t see the hyper, sugar fueled kiddos that can sometimes come from eating sugar.
4) Good equipment makes a difference. It makes a difference for adults and it does for kids too. We got the kids good hiking boots, hiking socks, rain jackets, rain pants, and appropriate layers for the conditions. (We were fortunate to find the rain pants at a great second-hand, pop-up shop in Hobart since it rains so frequently here.) For shorter trips, the kids often wear sneakers or hiking sandals, but I think they end up expending a lot of extra energy trying to keep their footing. Adequate footwear reduces this issue. At the end of our hike, Lake told me his boots had “really improved their mud skills” on the trek. He was right! He was able to keep his footing and his feet stayed dry all day in spite of the intermittent rain.
5) Steep inclines and declines are hard and kids need extra support. Not rocket science here, but holding hands on steep inclines and helping share the burden make these portions of the track much more enjoyable for all. It also helps keep pace going uphill and avoids discussion of needing to be carried. Similarly a strong hand going downhill can help avoid many slips and tumbles as kids learn better foot placement skills.
6) Let the kids lead the conversation. This is not new parenting advice, of course, but I have found long walks to be a unique opportunity to let the kids talk. It creates a rare, focused, uninterrupted time to talk. The boys relish in this opportunity. On this excursion, conversation spanned magic green and blue Knights with the ability to start a campfire with their swords to the process of mummification in ancient Egypt to various uses for a grappling hook. As our conversation followed the amazing journey through their heads, we also made great progress on the track. There are no toys, no chores, or other activities to distract any of us from focusing on one another.
7) Separating for portions of the walk into one parent / one child teams works well for us. It allows each of our boys to get uninterrupted attention from a parent and to focus on what interests him most. It also has the side benefit of avoiding a seemingly contagious condition of “I’m tired”-itis.
8) Observing our surroundings helps keep it interesting. The boys love to stop and look at different kinds of rocks, plants, and water features as we walk. We discuss the changes in landscape, types of trees, mud, rocks, etc. as we go. Picking specific items to observe at different points in the walk often encourages the boys to run down the path in search of the anticipated item. Trail markers can often be enough to keep them fascinated with the path ahead.
9) It’s a mental challenge for the parent too. I realized that believing the boys could do long walks was an important part of their succeeding. We had never tried long walks because the boys often complained about very short walks. Turns out that with longer walks they are able to get into a rhythm that we hadn’t experienced on shorter walks. On the long walk last week, the boys started to hit a wall about 30 minutes from the turnaround point. We were 3 hours into the adventure when they started to complain that they were tired. I felt myself panic. We were 3 hours of walking into the middle of nowhere and I found myself worrying about what would happen if they melted down. How would we get back? What had I done?! Turned out a 5 minute break, re-tying of the shoes, some extra attention and they were back at it. An hour later, we were running down the path and I was digging deep in myself just to keep up.
I told the boys I was writing this post and asked them if there are things he wanted to share. Lake wanted me to be sure to tell you that he taught Mommy that even though she was tired she could still run (he’s right). He also noted that his favorite parts of hiking are seeing beautiful things you couldn’t otherwise see and feeling proud when it is finished. He made sure to clarify being proud of his hike is different than liking every step. Finn’s advice is “bring whatever snacks the kids want!”
As with everything else in parenting, hiking / bush walking with young children is a different experience than doing it without them. It rarely includes the meditative silence I found on previous trips and I also find a lot less space for whining to myself about my own fatigue. In place of those things, I get to explore nature in a new way with my attention brought to little ferns and bizarre insects all the while having genuine quality time with kids. Over the next few days, we’re looking through a book of hikes as a family to pick our next one!
* We decided to exclude islands for our definition of northern and southern points. The northernmost point of continental Australia is the tip of Cape York. The southernmost point was a bit more complicated. We decided we would choose a point in Tasmania to meet the goal of southernmost point rather than the more commonly known, more northerly point in Wilson’s Promontory on mainland Australia. The problem is that the most southern exact point can only be reached by boat. We decided the most southernpoint that can be reached on foot was a lofty enough goal for our crew.