Ages 3-5

Zen and the art of hiking ... very ... slowly

Picture this: You're walking in woods with no perceptible goal or momentum. Your route goes in small circles that resemble, actually, being lost. You and your cohorts change speed every 20 steps. And at a mossy stump shaped like a throne, you stop to take turns sitting in it.

Hiking with young children is very different from hiking with adults. It's a halting, recalibrated version of the sport, and not so much a sport as a pastime -- literally. "We call hiking 'voyages of discovery,'" says Sandra Guth, a former national park ranger and solo backpacker from Olympia. When Sandra and her husband, Paul, a botanist, had their daughter four years ago, they decided to put off rigorous hiking "until it sounded fun again." For now, they explore the woods near their house to gather plant cuttings for study.

The Guths' "botanical" approach to hiking with their daughter isn't unlike the approach of a lot of other hikers who have young children. Instead of forcing their kids to move at adult speed toward preset destinations, they slow down to share the wilderness in itty-bitty, bite-size chunks. And most say it's well worthwhile. "It can be frustrating, but what's rewarding is just spending time in nature," says Donna Sakson, a Seattle mother of one. "The hope is that my child will come to love the things I love. Hiking can become a way to connect with her throughout life." In Washington, with five glacier-capped volcanoes, mountain ranges riddled with lakes, rivers and waterfalls, and vast wild beaches, there's much to connect with.

Keep it fun

Here's one key rule: Keep it fun. Some tips:

  • Adjust your expectations. Set realistic goals in terms of distance and difficulty. Expect to spend time looking at spiders, dewdrops and pebbles. Rethink your attachment to "destination." Is it really necessary? Rene Tobin, a mom of two who lives at Wallace Falls State Park in Gold Bar, says "Go where you can pick berries or throw rocks in rivers." To sneak in some exercise for yourself, she says: "Pack your kids or push them."
  • Pack patience, flexibility. Let your children set the pace, and be willing to change plans. Delegate control: "Let them choose the spot for a rest and a snack, so it doesn't feel so forced," says Sakson. Or enlist their help with planning the route, the destination or the food.
  • Stop often for water and snacks. And don't scrimp on treats, especially when the going gets rough.
  • Praise. Nothing fires kids up like the right words, at the right times.
  • Gear up thoughtfully. Make sure children are wearing comfortable, sturdy, well-fitting footwear and wicking socks, shorts or pants that don't rub, and proper clothing for unexpected weather (think layers). As an option, you can give them their own pack with some necessities in it. If you're carrying your child, use the best carrier you can get your hands on.
  • Bring along a friend of your child's age, or a small stuffed animal. A magnifying glass might slow you down but adds a fascination factor.
  • Bring another adult they enjoy.
  • Play games like "Follow the Leader." Rene Tobin hides "treasures" at their destination when her kids aren't looking.
  • Sing.
  • Be positive. "Stop and take a moment to go, 'Gosh, we're so lucky to be here with our kids right now.' That's what it's all about," says Sakson.
  • Keep your perspective. It's a kid's hike. If you need an adult-grade fix, plan a separate outing.

Make it safe

If you're like me, you're wondering why you should bring a map and compass you don't know how to use. Now there's a great project to take on with your budding wanderer, at home or in the woods.

A former and future backpacker, Natasha Petroff is currently a writer and editor, mother and stepmother, and PEZ dispenser at switchbacks.

Hiking with kids? The Mountaineers have compiled this list of the "Ten Essentials," which should be taken on any hike:

  • Extra clothing (for changing weather or unplanned swims)
  • Extra food
  • Sunglasses
  • Pocket knife
  • Fire-starter candle
  • First-aid kit
  • Matches in a waterproof container
  • Flashlight (with working batteries)
  • Map
  • Compass
  • Also bring:
  • Treats (a favorite sweet to celebrate a job well done)
  • Sunscreen
  • Bug repellent (if desired)
  • Tissues
  • Cell phone (for emergencies only -- keep it turned off!)
  • Your wallet (never leave anything valuable in your car)

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