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Tips from a Dad: How to Hike with Kids (Successfully)

Regan Betts

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As a new parent, I recently asked Oboz Ambassador and dad, Stephen Pierce, how he transitioned from hiking exciting and challenging trails to dialing it back and taking much easier routes with brand-spankin' new trail users. Read our Q&A below.

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Oboz Ambassador Stephen Pierce with his two daughters in their discovery years.

How old were your kids when you and your wife decided to take them hiking?

Our two daughters were trekking up mountains and through state park trails from toddler age, but for the most part, they rode piggyback in a backpack carrier. It wasn’t until they were five and eight years old did they hike on their own. Our first adventure was in Rocky Mountain National Park. Our youngest, Margaret, still needed a few rides on my shoulders, but our oldest, Katherine, even fought through a day of altitude sickness to do it all on her own.

Do you remember that first hike?

We stayed at the YMCA of the Rockies near Estes Park for a week, and did a series of moderate hikes around in that area of the park. We did a few peaks, including Estes Cone (11,000 ft) and Hallett Peak (12,073 ft), but Margaret, age 5 at the time, stayed back with my wife while Katherine, age 8, did both with cousins.

How did hiking change when you starting taking the kids?

The biggest change for me was learning how to curb the ambitions of any hike I wanted to do, certainly in terms of both total mileage and vertical gain, but also with the condition of trails we selected. The trail condition might be the most important of the three—that’s why we did much of our early hiking with kids in National Parks where trails are well-groomed and graded out for even the most inexperienced hikers. We saved the unmaintained, boulder and root-infested trails of the backcountry trails for much later.

Elementary-aged kids who are reasonably in good health have a surprising amount of stamina and patience, but if the challenges of the hike become overwhelming, you might be in store for a major meltdown. We’ve all experienced a volcanic explosion in a grocery store or two, but if you are five miles along a wilderness path, there is no quick exit to the car and home. You are in for the long haul, literally.

What’s your favorite time of year to hike with kids?

We have hiked with our kids in all seasons, but I think fall would be everyone’s favorite season for family hiking, at least in the northeast where fall foliage explodes with color. The air has a crisp coolness, the bugs are minimal, and every turn brings now brilliant colors.

Let’s talk gear. What was your kid carrier?

We’ve used older versions of what are now the Osprey Pogo AG Plus and the Deuter Kid Comfort Pro (that we brought from LL Bean). Both were very comfortable for the adult and the kid passenger. The ones we had lasted for years and took a lot of abuse.

What kinds of snacks would you pack?

Now we’ve come to the important topics: food and drink. First rule—don’t run out of either! We tried to get the kids using hydration packs as soon as possible. Nalgene bottles are fine, but your little one is not going to want to carry it for long, resulting in more load for you. Camelbak has a great “mini M.U.L.E.” pack that I’ve even seen two-year-olds handle. Osprey carries hydro packs for little ones as well.

Our snacks varied but were generally heavy on carbs and protein with a side order of chewy candy for instant sugar burst when needed. Various versions of trail mix was the staple...dried fruits and berries, granola, nuts, and seeds (especially pumpkin seeds when available—the kids loved the salty taste). Roasted almonds, banana or peanut butter-based protein bars, turkey jerky and/or salami slices, various cheeses, fruit roll-ups, and chewy Lifesaver candies. Clif Bar makes a dynamite granola that comes in small re-sealable packages.

One important note: if at all possible, include the kids in the choosing and packing of snacks. It helps them feel some ownership in the hike. Besides, it helps build anticipation for the next day’s adventures.

How old were your kids when they started hiking on their own, wearing their own packs? What was that transition like? 

I can’t nail down an exact age, but both began doing some hiking on their own by age three or four, though our youngest begged for rides more often during that transition. Whenever I’d try to beg off carrying her by saying, “But Margaret, you’re getting too heavy to carry,” she’d flop down in a dramatic fashion, crying, “But I’m too heavy to walk!”

How do you keep kids interested on the trail?

We found so many ways to keep our two engaged, but some of it happened well before the hike. As soon as the girls were old enough to converse, we would try to include them in the actual planning, map studying, packing, and learning key facts about the area. I can’t emphasize enough how important this is. During the hike, we’d try to get them talking about a favorite movie, book, or TV show or play some game along the trail. But honestly, if they felt like they “owned” the adventure, at least in part, many times they were leading the way down the trail. When hiking with other families, we always made sure at least one adult was willing to move at the pace of the various groups of kids. They often want to pair off with one group racing ahead and another bringing up the rear. We always felt it was important that they were allowed to set their own pace and on occasion explore a bit off trail.

Did they ever fall? Assuming this is unavoidable at some point, what did you do?

We’ve had all sorts of bumps and bruises along the trail, and there is no foolproof trick for getting them through the pain of a bad fall or a stinging head bump. The main thing is being prepared with a well-stocked first-aid kit and up-to-date CPR & first-aid certification. As a coach, I went through updates ever other year. There are also excellent wilderness first-aid courses that make hiking with young children that much safer, especially in the backcountry.

What’s the worst thing that ever happened on the trail?

During our first trip to Rocky Mountain National Park when our girls with three and five, we hiked up Estes Cone for its spectacular 360 degree view. Because the summer thunderstorms regularly rolled in by late afternoon, we got on the trail early to peak before noon. Unfortunately, the daily storm came in early that day and minutes after we reached the peak, black clouds rushed in, the temperature plummeted 20 degrees, and lightning flashed all around us. We hurried off the exposed peak as a hail storm began. 

Scampering down the trail, we realized that a man and his 4-year-old daughter who had joined us during the last hour of our uphill did not make it down with us. I sent my wife and daughters on down the trail and scrambled back up, the storm still raging. The man and girl had become disoriented and tried to head down the back side of the peak. They were huddled under a boulder. I got their attention, led them off the peak—hail, lightning, & thunder still rocking—and then ran down to catch up with my family. Halfway down the trail, the sun came out again.

The best?

The same hike.

What advice do you have for new dads with goals of instilling in their children a love of hiking and the outdoors?

Our view of any hiking trip was that there were three essential elements that made for a great adventure: 1) the planning and packing beforehand, 2) the trip itself, and 3) the remembering and talking about it afterward. 

Whenever we did a family hiking trip, we made sure that we did all three together. Children learn to love certain things, whatever it is—camping, reading, playing sports—mostly because they associate the warm feeling of spending time closely with one or both parents. Our girls associated some of their closest family time with hiking in some of the most beautiful places in the country. Our two daughters are both well into their 20s now, living and working on their own. My wife and I hiked all over the country with them since they were old enough to ride in a backpack, and now, in their 20s, they’ve become explorers in their own right. (And honestly, I think that outcome is one of the most rewarding possible!)

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"The family that adventures together, stays together." - Stephen Pierce

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