Off the main roads, Tips: Big hikes for little ones …Oct. 10, 2013

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A recent hike with my exuberant little niece made me think of how important it is to get your kids out into nature. Here are a few tips to help you addict your kids to hiking.

• Make it fun. If you want your kids to be excited to go hiking with you again, don’t get so committed to your “destination” that you forget your kids’ priorities. Bugs, acorns, tree roots and pine cones are wonderful discoveries to be examined and not just trail-side distractions.

• Make it educational.
The wilderness is a perfect open-air classroom. Carry field guides (or use a phone app) to inform you on trail history and help you identify the plants, rocks, birds and animals your kids encounter along the way.
Leave no trace. Teach your kids “Leave No Trace” principles to help them grow into stewards of the outdoors. Find useful and cool LNT reference cards — one with a cartoon Bigfoot — at http://lnt.org/shop/reference-cards.
For natigation, use a fun activity like Geocaching to introduce bigger kids to the basics of map, compass and GPS.

• Make it safe. Dress your child in bright, easy-to-spot colors, make sure they carry a whistle on a lanyard — teach them to stay in place and blow it if separated — and have easy access to a headlamp.
Practice. Introduce little legs to hiking with extended walks (up to two hours) in a natural setting near home. The earlier in life your kids become comfortable on long walks (as early as age 3), the more likely they will enjoy hiking later.

• Get them involved. Make trip planning a family affair. Ask your kids for ideas of things they’d like to see or do at your destination or along the way. Listen to them.

• Share (a little of) the weight. Kids like to feel a degree of independence. Give your kids a small pack and let them carry a few lightweight items like their favorite snacks, water, trail-side treasures and rain gear. You can still carry the weight for your smallest kids so they don’t get worn out and frustrated.

• Bring a friend. Having a good friend or special stuffed animal to share the trail discoveries with can make a world of difference. For smaller ones, make sure to tuck their Teddy bear in their pack (with his head sticking out for a better view) to share in their adventures.

• Be prepared. As an adult, it is your job to think ahead and always carry the “Ten Essentials.” (Search it online.) Make sure you have enough food, water and comfortable, weather-appropriate clothing for you and your kids.

• Be watchful. If you have two-plus adults in your party, keep one in the lead and one following behind to serve as the “sweep,” with kids securely in the middle.

Don’t forget to have fun. Remember, you have long legs, an adult timeframe and adult priorities.

Go at a kid’s pace and respect their interests. Relax, learn to marvel at the natural world with your child’s fresh eyes and your hike will be a hit with many encore performances.

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