Family Hiking is the third installment of our new series: Mamas in the Wild: How We Survive When We Opt Outside, sponsored by REI. This four-part series focuses on real life mom-to-mom tips and tricks for getting outdoors with your family. Need to catch up? Check out the first and second posts in this series.
Family Hiking Benefits
Whether you were a lover of the outdoors before you became a mom, or you simply turned to nature as an outlet for taming rowdy kiddos, it’s likely that you’ve experienced the numerous benefits that come from opting outside. Hiking is one of the easiest outdoor activities to engage in with your family. Anyone can do it—you, your kids, their grandpa, his dog—and you don’t need to be a certain age, gender, or fitness level to step out on the trail. It’s free, you don’t need any special gear (though we’ll recommend some that might make your hikes more comfortable and enjoyable), and you can do it just about anywhere.
But sometimes getting outdoors with kiddos is easier said than done. There are several challenges that can arise when doing any activity with kids in tow, and hiking is no exception. More than one trail mama has rued the day she managed to get all her children (including the two she was tandem-carrying) halfway down the trail only to realize one kid wasn’t wearing socks, all the snacks got left at home, and wee babe just had a blowout.
In this third installment of the series Mamas in the Wild: How to Survive When We Opt Outside, the TMM team has collected all our outdoor-mama expertise together to deliver some tips and recommendations that we hope will help you to cope with these challenges and make your next hike more enjoyable for both mama and kids.
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Unlike the old days when all you had to worry about was yourself, getting outdoors with kiddos takes a little more intention and planning. If you’re new to hiking (or new to hiking with kids), start small. Don’t expect to bag any peaks on your first outing with a two-year old in tow. Set realistic expectations that take into account both your kids’ abilities and your own, as well as the weather and trail conditions for that day. Expect to go at a slower pace, and appropriate enough time to stop for exploring, breaks, or potential meltdowns. Be stoked if you get a mile or two and realize that the stars must have perfectly aligned if you get more than that!
If you have littles, make sure you are well-prepared before you head out. If you’re going to be baby-wearing, invest in a comfortable carrier. It is so important to try several brands’ packs on before you buy to get the best fit for your body shape. It’s worth every penny if you are comfortable while carrying that extra 20-pound kid for five miles. You’ll want to get outside more, and your kid will be more comfy too. We have tested quite an array of both soft-structured and framed kid-carriers over the years, and you can check out all the reviews to help find the right pack for you.
We also suggest that you use your carrier as much as possible off the trail as well. This makes it easier for them and you, so you are not trying something new out on the trail.
Have two little ones that aren’t great walkers yet? Tandem carry with a soft-structured carrier on your front and a framed carrier on your back. It’s a great core workout, though, so start small! Hiking poles are especially helpful when balancing a double load!
Plan for poo! Even if they already filled a diaper that morning, don’t underestimate the power of a baby’s poop. You never know when the dreaded blowout will strike, so bring a spare change of clothes for them. And here’s our expert advice: bring a spare change of clothes for mama too, because we all know baby likes to share that business.
When organizing your gear, use clips or carabiners to attach a snack cup or a stuffy buddy to the carrier so babe has easy access without the risk of dropping that precious friend out in the backcountry. If your kids are old enough to carry their own pack, share the load. Check out the first post in this series, which lists important safety gear that your kids can carry themselves.
Once you’re all psyched up and ready to go, there are three key areas to focus on to make your hikes with kids go smoothly: Food, Comfort, and Fun.
The importance of snacks cannot be overstated when hiking with kids. Whether you’re a health-conscious mama who packs only fresh fruit and veg or you’ve got a pack stuffed with animal crackers and jelly bellies (no judgment!), snacks are a mama’s best friend when it comes to motivating your kiddos down the trail. Bring way more than you think you will need (and go ahead and leave a permanent stash in the car just in case). Especially with older kids, be sure to plan for teenage metabolism in overdrive!
“My kids ate like horses on our Trans-Catalina Trail backpacking trip and we ended up needing to resupply mid-way through our hike to accommodate their enormous appetites!” – TMM team member Nancy
Make sure your kiddos drink plenty of water and eat as they go. Don’t wait for them to bottom out before you act. A dehydrated, hangry kid means melt-downs… and for the big kids you can’t just scoop them up and carry them on down the trail. Try snacks that take a long time for them to chew or enjoy, like nuts or cheerios (small bites). Pack a variety of options, and save their favorites for that final stretch of the trail—this is an excellent motivator when they just CAN’T go any further.
If you’re carrying an infant, make sure she is well-fed before you head out as babies are often lulled to sleep on the trail. Be prepared to feed her if she wakes up hungry, either with boob (wear tops made for nursing, and quarter- or half-zip options) or with bottle!
The ultimate goal of family hiking is to enjoy your time together, and no one is going to be having a good time if they’re dealing with pain or discomfort. The first tip here is dress for the weather. We are big proponents of the saying, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.” You can get outside in any season as long as you plan ahead and dress yourself and your kiddos accordingly.
If the weather is warm, be mindful of heat and sun-protection. Try Sunday Afternoons’ Play Hat to keep kiddos shaded and Minishades Classic sunglasses which go all the way down to infant sizes. We love REI Co-op’s Sahara convertible pants which unzip to shorts, and the Patagonia Capilene silkweight tops. These are perfect for dunking into a stream crossing or dousing with a water bottle to cool down a hot hiker.
If the weather is cold, layer up! Follow the three-Ws: a wicking layer, a warm layer, and a weatherproof layer. Avoid cotton as it will hold moisture; instead, stick to synthetic fabrics or merino wool baselayers. The weight of your mid-layer will depend on the weather. For something lighter, our go-to is Columbia’s Steens Mt II fleece jacket, or for frigid weather we like the REI Co-op 650 down jacket. For infants, the rule of thumb is to dress them one layer warmer than what you’re wearing. Bring extra layers/hats/mittens, especially when hiking in the mountains, as conditions can change quickly.
If the weather is wet, you’ll also need a waterproof outer layer. REI Co-op carries both rain jackets and rain pants for kids that work great and won’t break the bank. These types of shells pack down small and are easy to keep stored in your pack in case of unexpected rain.
Footwear is key for hiking, even for littles. Don’t let hot temperatures tempt you to allow flip-flops unless you don’t mind a little broken ankle. Invest in some Chacos or closed-toe sandals that can hold up to the demands of the trail while still keeping your kids’ feet comfortable. Conversely, in cold, wet weather you will want shoes or boots that keep feet warm and dry through all that puddle-jumping.
Regardless how well you’ve prepared, be aware of how your kids are doing during the hike. TMM team member Valerie recommends you do a head-to-toe check every so often.
“We regularly hike 5-10 miles at a time, and my kids are past the whining/crying stage, so often they just keep their woes to themselves (until it’s a huge problem!) unless I’m intentionally asking them to check in with their bodies. Once, we set off on a nine-mile hike and my daughter was wearing a brand new pair of shoes! Oops. Three-quarters of the way through the hike, I noticed my daughter (6 years old) was stepping gingerly. She had hot spots, super close to blisters. Needless to say, she hiked the rest of the way without shoes, in a triple pair of socks. Now, I check in.”
Do a once-over, checking feet (for blisters, hot spots, pebbles), thirst (Have they been drinking enough?), temperature (Need to find shade and take a break? Need to add some extra layers?), and energy (Are they sluggish? Do they need a snack, or need to turn around?).
Finally, remember to have fun! For younger kids, play games like follow the leader (who may hop, skip, or jump and the others follow in stride) or I Spy. Bring along binoculars or a magnifying glass and allow plenty of time for them to explore along the trail.
For older kids, show them the map beforehand and let THEM plan out the route and lead YOU. Teens especially are much more likely to enjoy a hike if they have some involvement in the planning process. Set a goal or destination and offer incentives. A waterfall, mountaintop, or promise of ice cream goes a long way. Give them their own camera to help them develop interest in their surroundings. Perhaps you could let them pop in an earbud and listen to an audiobook or music along the way. And bring friends along. Peer pressure and a little change-up of the hiking crowd can have a huge impact on attitude.
There are so many benefits to family hiking. The physical benefits, the opportunity to see nature in a new way, and the joy of accomplishing a goal. Happy Trails!
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