Mountain Sense: Hiking with Young Children

A wonderful way to share our knowledge and love of the land with the next generation is to take them hiking. Many of us, as grandparents, great aunts and uncles, friends and mentors, know young ones who are eager to explore the outside world—to climb rocks and wade in streams, follow paths to treasures in the forest, and glimpse wildlife through the trees. Planning before we head out and patience on the trail help to ensure that young hikers come home excited with their discoveries and ready for more.

  • Start modestly, matching the route you take with the age and abilities of the child. Take a short hike, no more than a couple of hours, on a path with interesting features (stream crossings, rock formations, bog walks, viewpoints for snacks and lunch) and a special reward at the end (a waterfall or pond). For children under five, be prepared to backpack them out as far they walk in.
  • Prepare their gear, clothing, food and water with the same care you take with your own. Sneakers with a good tread are fine for small children. Pack extra socks, layers of clothing, a hat (to protect from sun or the cold), and a jacket for changes in temperature and unexpected weather. If three or older, a child can carry a small light pack with a water bottle, sweater and snacks. Make sure your child carrier is comfortable for both you and the child.
  • On the trail, stop frequently for water and refreshment, and take time to explore the terrain. Look at mosses, mushrooms and plants; listen to bird song; throw sticks in the stream. A child younger than three may be content to climb up and down one big rock and go no farther. Older children may be interested in trail features such as rock stairs, water bars and walkways. It’s a perfect opportunity to introduce them to the basics of trail stewardship, Leave No Trace and even map reading.
  • Be ready to turn around if the weather changes or any in your group tires. Reaching the end is not the goal, but a rich and memorable experience along the way.
  • Back in camp or on the way home, relive the experience. Ask what was the most fun and interesting. And talk about how strong and capable they were on the trail; what good hikers!

These guidelines are intended for children between the ages of one and five and should be used together with basic essentials for hiking safety. Two online resources for hiking with children include: Hiking with Infants, Toddlers and Kids and Take your kids hiking: 10 tips to make the adventure fun for the whole family – Ed.

Photo: David Anderson