2020 Is the Year of the Hike

updated Nov 24, 2020
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Brother and sister kids walking along a fallen tree in a forest hiking
Credit: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock
Let them climb and play!

For my family, the Year of the Hike started on New Year’s Day. After having been cooped up for the winter break, my husband, son, and I bundled up and headed out for a walk in the woods on January 1st, despite the frigid temperatures. Up until then, longer walks had been a bit much for our son, but at almost 4 1/2 he was able to tackle two miles.

They were not fast miles, but they were just the thing to cure an energetic boy of his wiggles and two weary parents of their cabin fever. Plus, those miles made us all appreciably hungry and our little guy ready for a nap (a quality every parent wants in their kid come Sunday afternoon). So the next weekend, we bundled up again for another long walk, and a new family tradition was born. 

The pandemic brought our hiking into high gear. Suddenly our usual weekend routines were off-limits: No more lunch at our favorite Indian restaurants, no trekking to other neighborhoods for special coffee and donuts, and forget about playdates or brunch with friends. Suddenly, our entertainment options seemed limited to stewing inside our small home or getting outside in all weather. So, we ordered snow pants and rain jackets and found our inner John Muir.

In the last nine months my family has hiked miles. One by one, I’ve crossed off new trails in our trail guide. I’ve seen more of New York State in nine months than in the previous 20 years. As we’ve gotten more serious about hiking, we’ve also learned a few tricks that make it easier. Here are my best tips for hiking with kids:

Start small

A mile may sound like a very short walk, but once you throw someone in the pre-K set into the equation, a mile can be l-o-n-g. For our five-year-old, two miles is pretty perfect. We can do three, but I need to be ready to give him a piggyback on the last leg. When a hike has been too long for my son, I’ve looked for ways to break it into multiple, shorter hikes that cane be done on different days, say by parking at different access points to the trail or coming in from the opposite side.

Warm layers are a must

Especially at this time of year. I cannot stress the importance of wool socks enough. My gang are big fans of Darn Tough hiking socks for both kids and grown-ups (an investment, but they have a lifetime guarantee). Lots of layers are key to specially for a little guy who heats up fast. 

Be strategic about snacks

Because my family’s hikes are not long, we usually hike without snacks. This may seem counterintuitive with a young child in tow, but we have found that it makes for a much more peaceful lunch at the end of the outing. (A kid who is genuinely hungry will sit still and eat whatever you put in front of him.) I also noticed that when we hike with snacks he spends half the hike asking for them. If you do bring snacks, decide ahead of time when or where you will break them out and announce this before you set out to eliminate the whining.

Fold in a picnic

We often time our hikes to end at lunchtime. Once we get back to our car we grab our packed lunch and camping chairs, and eat a picnic somewhere near the start of the trail. Lately, our go-to lunch is something hot, like soup or chili. I put the meal into insulated thermoses (or in a pinch in an insulated to-go coffee mug), and it’s a treat to have something hot to each outside.

Ignore the complaints!

Your kids will tell you they don’t want to go on a hike. My son repeatedly claims he hates walking in the woods, but it’s not true. There is no faster way to dispel a bad mood than to get him outdoors. Once he’s at the trailhead, he has never once offered an ounce of resistance. 

Spark their imagination

The woods are an ideal place for make-believe, but sometimes kids need a little help to get their minds turning. I’ll ask my son questions like, “Who do you think lives in the hole in that tree?” or “I bet this is what the woods looked like when unicorns were around,” and it will get him imagining that we are on a big adventure.

Let ‘em pick up sticks

On playgrounds and in schoolyards, I always discouraged my kid from picking up sticks for fear of some child’s eye being poked out. But alone on the trail, I let him whack and toss big sticks with reckless abandon. 

Be an amateur naturalist

We don’t walk with any guides, but we do try to observe and notice plants and animals along the way. Creatures have been one of the greatest allures of our long walks for my son. We’ve seen chipmunks, frogs, turtles, hawks, and even once a pair of eagles. In early spring and fall, we now know the places where you can see seals haul themselves up on the shore. Trees suddenly have personalities. And we’ve practiced identifying them by their leaves, bark, and root structure. I am delighted that my five-year-old can point a finger and say, “That’s an oak!” This beautiful book that explores the world of plants has also been a hit back at home.

These hikes are not all about a parent finding a way to pass the time. I too have been changed by our walks in the woods. I feel more in touch with the natural world than ever before. Some of this is because I spent my adult years in New York City, but even as a child and a teenager in the suburbs, no one ever encouraged a deep curiosity about the natural world. In fact in my schools growing up, the natural sciences were viewed as second-class sciences (anyone else refer to geology as Rocks for Jocks?). Chemistry and physics were so dull to me that they made me weep, but now as an adult, I am full of wonder about the way plants grow, how rocks are formed, and the patterns of succession in nature. These are the things I wish someone had encouraged me to learn about! 

So now my son and I are learning a little more about nature every time we head outdoors. I hope that our walks in the woods, which were born out of a little boy’s bottled-up energy, might lead him to a life more keenly aware of the natural world.

This piece was created for Cubby, our weekly newsletter for families at home. Want more? Sign up here for a weekly splash of fun and good ideas for families with kids.

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