Day Hiking The AT With Your Kids
There’s nothing more relaxing than losing yourself entirely to the forest. The solitude of the backcountry and the time to decompress from our culture of being available all-of-the-time are often what draws us hikers and backpackers into the woods in the first place.
But some of us aren’t always able to go out there and hit the trail alone – we have families, and pets, and stuff. Any time I ask my kids if it’s okay for me to pack my bag and head out on a thru hike, they blink at me and ask about who will take over laundry and dinner duties while I’m gone. Apparently, I make the best rainbow waffles around, and they, at least, would be missed at the breakfast table.
So the compromise is that I often go hiking with a ten year old and a five year old in tow, and the adventures that seem to unfold around our rag-tag team are always fun. Day hiking the Appalachian Trail is a perfect way to introduce kids to the wonders of hiking, or to balance your need to be outdoors and their need to never be too far away from Minecraft. Here are some things to consider when hiking the trail with your kids:
Know The Path
Take your kids out on a section that you have already hiked and are familiar with. You want to know the terrain and the difficulty long before you’re half a mile in with screaming kiddos. From my experience, any time I am tackling a shorter day hike, I consider whether or not it might be something for my kids to join me on. Locally, here in New York there are two spots that offer great views and an easy trip from the trail head. Find a spot that will offer a great hiking experience without too much stress.
Length is key when it comes to successful hiking with little ones– my daughter’s first hike in the Adirondacks consisted of her being carried on the shoulders of my friend 3/4 of a mile uphill – howling all the way. Start small – a half a mile to a mile one way has been successful with my brood. As they enjoy the outdoors more, they may want to tackle bigger trips. My five year old was very proud of herself when she recently completed a 2.5 mile loop, proudly telling me to “woman up and keep hiking” at one point.
Be Prepared. And Then Some
Hiking with your kids isn’t the day to figure out how little water you really need, or how ultralight you can pack. They get hungry faster, can’t carry their own supplies (or many), and will come up with the most creative minor injuries any hiker has ever faced. The novelty of being on the trail will also have them wanting more snacks, more water, and sometimes more breaks for the bathroom. So pack more snacks, more water, and more bandages than you think you need.
I make my ten year old carry his own Camelbak and power bars, while I share my pack with my daughter. I recommend bringing dry socks for everyone (especially if your kids are like mine and hate to be damp), healthy snacks, and enough water to float an ark. I also bring a well-stocked first aid kit, a headlamp, an extra flashlight, and damp wipes for messy hands and sweaty faces. Bug spray and sunscreen are also a must – and consider that you will be out much longer in the sun than you would be by yourself – kids’ smaller feet mean it’ll be slower going.
Since you’ll be taking the kids on smaller hikes, carrying extra things that you may not need will not cause you unbearable stress or burden, but it may keep the afternoon going wonderfullly.
Make It Fun
The best way to making hiking the Appalachian trail with your kids enjoyable is to make it fun! Find a section of the trail that leads to a cool viewpoint, a nice stream, or some other destination that the kids will want to trek to. Bring a map, even if you know the route inside and out, and let them try and read it. Show them where they are going and how far they are going to hike – it will make them feel like real mountaineers and will keep them engaged.
Pack some blank paper and pencils or crayons too – they can be a life saver with smaller kids who are losing interest. When you stop for snacks or a break, encourage them to draw their own map, or a picture of what they see around them. I’ve stopped a few stormy moods by pulling out a notebook and some crayons at the right moment – and it allows me to take some photos and enjoy the view.
Perhaps the easiest way to get the kids engaged on the trail is to get them looking for the white blazes in front of them. Show them what they are looking for and let them scour the forest for the next spot marking their way. You may know the trail like the back of your hand, but to them it’s a really big deal to try and navigate the new forest on their own. If you’re lucky enough to be hiking with more than one child by your side, see who can spot the next blaze first.
Hiking with your kids should be fun! And like any time you’re on the trail, a number of different things can happen that you weren’t expecting. Sometimes you have to cut your day short and hike out early because the kids just aren’t having it. Sometimes you have to tell the four year old that there is a panda ‘just up ahead’ to keep them stomping along. And sometimes someone bites clear through the bite valve on their hydro pack and starts pouring water all over everything in sight.
So pack your bags, get the bug spray and the snacks, and pick a spot on the trail. Hiking is supposed to be an adventure – the kids will make sure it doesn’t disappoint. Hopefully their early steps on the Appalachian trail will lead to later journeys along its entire length!
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