Even though he already knows the answer, my seven-year-old son asks, “What are we doing after church.” I reply, “Going to the trail. How far do you want to go?” His answer, “ONE STEP.” At this point in the conversation, I think “I should never take a kid hiking.” But then I remember what our family gains from our little one to five mile hiking experiences.
Let’s walk down the trail less traveled and look at the “whys” and “hows” of taking our kids hiking:
Why in the world would we take a kid hiking?
The first reason is health.Yes, even our beloved WebMD proselytizes the physical benefits of this activity. Cardio. It’s good for us! Besides, we get some fresh air, and it gets us away from our other pastime of eating chips while partaking in Netflix marathons.
Secondly, we get to connect.It’s not easy for us to connect with our family, we are all busy; also, all our faces are directed at technological devices when we are home. I know when my son is playing Minecraft, and although there are benefits to games, that is not the time for me to make a meaningful connection with him. Walking on the trail has improved our communication and our ability to have conversations we would not have otherwise.
Thirdly, it teaches perseverance. To get the whole family down the trail and back is an achievement. For those who survive this challenge without snapping like a twig, I am giving you a one-person round of applause from afar. This is a time for the whole family to train in persistence. We may see our children give up easily along the way, which allows us to let our positivity radiate (hint: fake it till you make it) and coach them forward.
How do we hike with a kid?
Mental Preparation. Hiking with a kid is not for the weak-willed. We need to prepare for this activity mentally. This includes organizing our thoughts so we are willing to stop often and walk slow or sometimes fast—it’s a cornucopia of movements as our kids explore nature. My wife and I want to keep walking at a steady pace and upping the steps on our Fitbits. But we know our son needs to visit the world and discover what is out there in the wilderness. A technique for sanity is to remove all expectations and go with the flow.
Weather Preparation. Be prepared for weather. I live in Michigan, and we have four seasons—four unpredictable seasons. But, no matter where you live, preparing for the weather can make or break a walk. In the winter my son has to bundle up (think Christmas Story), and in the summer he needs to make sure he has a coating of bug spray and sunscreen. In the spring and fall, he could be in shorts and a t-shirt—or it could be a full-blown snowsuit.
Footwear Preparation. For shoe aficionados, this part might get you excited; you get to buy new sneakers for the whole family. Yes this is a cost, but you will get 500-1000 miles out of these shoes, which is a lot of adventure. Maybe not the first time out, but we quickly learn specific shoes are needed for long distance trekking. I am sure our podiatrist would agree, we have to make sure everyone is wearing appropriate shoes for the terrain that support our feet.
Transport Preparation.What we have back in the vehicle at the end of the walk can make all the difference of whether we return to the trail the next time. Have a beach towel waiting in the car. We never know what kind of shenanigans our children can get into where they might get wet or dirty. And also have plenty of snacks for the car ride back to your home—or be prepared to stop at the first gas station in sight.
The truth is that not all kids will want to go on the trail at first, but once you get out there, you will each learn something new about each other. This time we spend together is something my family has valued for the last couple of years. We now have a connection with each other and to nature on a level we didn’t know was possible.
Now, I’m off to take the kids out on the trail.
How about you?
Lace up those shoes.
Put on your patience pants.
And put one foot in front of the other.
Ryan Nausieda Ph.D. teaches and manages communication at a community college. He lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan with his wife and son, where he drinks good coffee, reads, writes, meditates, and runs.