Sure, kids love playgrounds, but Mother Nature provided something even better – miles and miles of woods and fields to walk through, complete with rocks to climb on, streams to wade through, and animals to gawk at. What’s the advantage, you ask? Well, experts say that kids who spend time outdoors in nature (and no, no matter how rambunctious they are, the kids at your local park don’t count as wildlife) are less stressed, healthier, better able to concentrate, and show more advanced motor skills than their mall-crawling peers. They’re also significantly more likely to care about the environment. Hiking is a great way for families to unwind together while getting some exercise, and it’s a lot more fun than hitting the gym.
Whether your kids are pocket rockets or confirmed couch potatoes, you’ll want to pick a trail that’s well within their abilities for your first expedition. That means something relatively flat, with an easy pay-off like a beautiful view or waterfall at the end of the trail. Make sure everyone knows what to expect. Show them what poison ivy and poison oak look like and tell them to stay on the trail and pack out everything (tissues, trash) you packed in.
Dress in layers and make sure your kids wear comfortable, well broken-in shoes. Stock your backpack with sunscreen, bug spray, hand sanitizer, a first aid kit, plastic bags for trash, a compass, map and whistle (just in case) and lots of water and healthy snacks like cheese, fruit and nuts. Candy and caffeinated drinks only dehydrate and tire you out. Consider providing your children with blank sketchbooks and pencils to take notes or draw pictures of what they see. Leave the iPod at home; the beauty of escaping into the woods is turning off the noise and tuning into the natural world.
Don’t expect much trail-blazing; when kids come along, Point A doesn’t usually lead to Point B without a dozen stops to clamber up rocks, throw pebbles into a stream, tie shoelaces and look for snakes along the way. Don’t think of your hike as a race; think of it as an exploration. Enjoy the sounds of the forest, the chirping of the birds, the sights that you’d miss if you walked any faster. In this respect, kids have as much to teach adults as vice versa; in family hiking, the journey really is the destination.