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Hiking with Kids - Make it Fun!
Hiking with Kids - Make it Fun!

Best Hikes with Kids Colorado, 4th Edition

Photo by Mountaineers Books

By Maureen Keilty

When your hiking companions have short legs and often shorter attention spans, make it fun for everyone. At creek crossings stop to launch a leaf boat for the rock gnomes. Announce, "Let's climb this gigantic rock!" "Try walking silent as a fox." "Hug your favorite tree." "Sing with the birds." Encourage your children to experience the sights, smells, and sounds of the trail, and they'll want to keep on hiking.

However, before skipping down the trail, you'll need a bit of preparation.

First, find a kid-friendly hike. Sometime called family-friendly, these trails are typically less than 5 miles in length, relatively flat, (less than 1000 feet elevation gain per mile) and most importantly, feature a destination kids love, often a lake or waterfall. Information on trails for kids can be found in area hiking guides and leaflets available at a town's visitor center or the nearest land management agency office. Keep in mind that a trail with a cool name like "Sharkstooth Trail" or "Bishops Castle" automatically appeals to kids.

Spark interest in hiking by enthusiastically describing what you've learned about the trail. "We get to explore a sparkly cave near a lake where we can swim! Along the way we'll feel beaver-chewed tree stumps and see their lodges in a pond. Maybe we'll spot a deer or a moose, and we won't get home till dinner time!"

Involving your kids in trip preparation can be as much fun as the hike itself. Start with snacks. Let your kids pick out their favorite treat so that when you say, "Snack stop at the top of this hill!" there's no lingering. Assign an official "water bottle filler" a "rain gear gatherer," someone to mix and bag individual trail mix portions. (Check that bottles and bags are sealed well.) Ask your companions to model their hiking shoes and socks while you check for fit and lace condition. Keep it "e-free," as hiking today is as much about unplugging as it is about tuning into the natural world.

As a group, pack daypacks with bright colored layers for warmth and rain. (It's much easier to spot an orange baseball cap bopping off the trail, than it is to find a brunette in blue jeans wandering into the forest's shadows.) Give each hiker a whistle with instructions to keep in their pocket and use only when lost. Stash the trail map, first aid supplies, and a surprise snack in your pack along with along with an "emergency only" cell phone (turned off) or gps devise. Tell someone else where your group is going, expected return time and stick to the plans.

Invite your child's buddy along, you'll hear less complaints and more laughter. The pair will concoct crazy games while walking and neither will want to look slow.

Arrive at the trailhead early in the day, the best way to avoid afternoon thunderstorms and have time to watch that beaver swim back to its lodge. Have all hikers use the nearest toilet then check that each one has their own water bottle and daypack. (Discourage water bottle sharing in order to keep tabs on each hiker's fluid intake.)

Assign hike leaders. (or "engine" and "caboose" for very young hikers), The status gives kids an energy boost and encourages them to pay close attention to the trail. Switching the title to a lagging hiker keeps the group moving at a steady pace. It's only fair to let young leaders know in advance where the "change of command" takes place. Have a group "sunscreen slather" then announce, "drink five big gulps" and start hiking.

As every parent knows, kids thrive on praise and patience. Be liberal with both. It's more effective to give compliments early in the hike than later to encourage slow hikers. Let your kids know how proud you are of their hiking strength, or that you like the "secrets" they've discovered along the trail. Remember to take it slow, it's not your day's workout.

Take interest in your child's natural curiosity. When your son shows you a snail captured in his palm, enhance his discovery by asking him questions like, "How does it see?" "Can you find its mouth?" "Do you think it can hear us talk?" Maintain the pace by asking, "What else will you discover along this trail?"

Make rest stops frequent, brief and upright. Your announcing, "Water and gorp at the next switchback," accelerates the climb. Breath-catching breaks should last thirty seconds to a minute and a half. Longer stops allow the cardiovascular system to slow down, making it harder to start again. Keep the crew standing, another energy saving, motivation preserving strategy. For truly tired hikers, turn around when continuing would do harm than good. Do so at a viewpoint or destination-like place, giving young hikers the sense of completing the hike.

Review with your crew after the hike. Wait till they're well-fed and rested before finding out, "What did you like best about that hike? Should we go back in the fall, when the leaves are gold? Did we go fast (or far or long) enough? What treats did you like? Where do we want to explore next time." Their answers are clues to having another fun outing with your kids.

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