Nature Hiking with Kids

My son is a hearty 3 year old, so we finally feel we can take both the children on wilderness hikes. Not only is it wonderful exercise for the children, but it's a great way to learn more about God's creation. But hiking with young children isn't the same as hiking with adults only. Here are my best tips for making sure your hikes equal family fun - not family misery.

* Choose relatively level trails. At least to begin with.

* Avoid narrow trails with high drops offs.

* Trails that loop are more interesting for kids than trails that must be backtracked.

* Not sure where to find good trails? Try ALLtrails or

* For a rough idea of how far your child can hike, Family Fun magazine suggests the following calculation: a mile for each year of age. However, if walking distances is new to your child, plan on taking even shorter routes until he or she gets used to hiking.

* Make the hike about the journey, not the destination. Let kids stop and study things if they want to. Put on your patience cap!

* Give your child his or her own binoculars or monoculars. Most young children find the latter easier to use - which is fine because you can buy them more cheaply. Try looking for great deals on eBay; I've purchased durable monoculars for under $10 there.

* Consider bringing a magnifying glass for close inspection of bugs, leaves, and such.

* Encourage your children to listen, rather than talk. Frequently ask, "What do you hear?"

* Also ask, "What do you smell?"

* Encourage your children to look closely for wildlife. It's everywhere - at their feet, in the air, in the bushes, and in the trees.

* Look for animal tracks. Take along a pocket guide to tracks, such as this one. (To find a free guide for your state, try Googling: pocket guide animal tracks + the abbreviation for your state.) Or, if you must go digital, try the app MyNature Animal Tracks. What can you learn about an animal by it's tracks?

* Bring at least one backpack with safety items. No one should go into a wilderness area without two ways to make fire (such as a lighter and a flint stone), food, water, and space blankets. Other smart helps include a compass (while you're at it, have fun teaching your kids how to use one), a flashlight, a signalling device, and a small first aid kit. When packing snack food, portion it out into individual bags so you can walk and eat, if desired.

* Keep children close. Don't let them wander off or walk much ahead or behind. Dangers such as getting lost or bumping into a bear or cougar are very real. Teach your children what to do if they find themselves face to face with a potentially dangerous wild animal.

* We rarely play trail games, because there is so much else to do while hiking, but if you like, try a few. One idea: Ask kids to how many lumpy things they can find; how many slick things, etc. For more ideas, visit the Appalachian Mountain Club website.

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