Washington Trails Association
Trails for everyone, forever
"Best Hikes with Kids" author shares her top tips | by Susan Elderkin
We stood at the Harts Pass trailhead on a blustery and cloudy morning over Labor Day weekend.
“I’m cold,” complained my 5-year-old daughter. “I think it’s going to rain,” stated her older brother, a frown on his face as he looked to the heavy, gloomy sky.
“Once you’ve started walking, you’ll warm up,” I replied perkily. “Besides, at least you won’t be hot! The trail is very level, with great views. You’ll have fun.” My husband and I had been looking forward to this hike along the Pacific Crest Trail for months.
One hundred yards up a short incline, we stumbled upon a patch of ripe blueberries. Both kids stopped in their tracks and started foraging. The wild blueberries were delicious, and quickly everyone’s hands were stained purple and wet from the dew. “My hands are freezing!” I heard. “Can we go back now?”
We could still see our car at the trailhead.
From my point of view, the hike was frustrating. The whining. The crying. The frigid mist. We only made it about a mile before turning back, far from our intended destination.
Three weeks later, Mountaineers Books approached me about writing an all-new “Best Hikes With Kids” book for Washington. I was super excited about the prospect of writing a guidebook, but our latest family hike was fresh on my mind. Were my kids up for the task? Could I motivate them to accompany me on so many hikes?
I took the question to my kids. “You should do it!” they exclaimed in unison. I told them they would have to help—be my research assistants—and that we wouldn’t be able to turn around early. Remember Harts Pass? “Oh, yes! Those blueberries were incredible!” They didn’t remember the hike with regret; they remembered the berries. Once it was clear that the hike had gone sideways, we had let them forage to their hearts’ content. We let go of our expectations and followed their lead, then turned around when cold, wet blueberry hands began to chill the kids a little too much. We could always return, I reasoned.
With a fresh start, I learned a good amount about what motivates kids to hike during 20 months of research for “Best Hikes With Kids: Western Washington.” Separate, together or with friends, my two came along (mostly happily) for more than half of the hikes in the book. I’ve now hiked with children for a dozen years, and while many things have changed as the kids have grown older, there are a few themes that work for a range of ages.
I can’t stress this enough. Pick a hike with a length and difficulty that fits your kid. Toddlers and preschoolers will be happiest on hikes that are short and easy. That gives them time to explore the world around them and hike the whole trail by themselves, thereby building confidence and strength for next time. Older kids can take a bit more challenge, but it is important to choose a hike that has something interesting to discover: a lake to swim or throw rocks in; rusty historical junk; a waterfall or beach; an airy summit; wildlife; huge trees or ripe berries for foraging.
As a new parent, I needed some time to adjust my expectations. This was their hike, not mine. And once I let go of having lunch with a view and getting my heart rate up, I started to have fun noticing the many plants, insects and rocks that I had always blown past as a childless hiker. Your hikes will be short and slow. Go with the flow, and everyone will have a better time.
I’ve also learned to be clear with the kids about what to expect. How long will it take to get to the trailhead? How much time can we expect to be hiking? Is the trail steep and long, or flat and short? Will there be an ice cream stop on the return with good behavior? When I lay all of this out on the table, things almost always go more smoothly.
If a kid is cold, hungry and thirsty, at best it’s not going to be pleasant, and at worst it can be dangerous. In your backpack, stash layers of clothing, a raincoat and extra dry socks for unexpected wet feet. Pack plenty of water, and make sure kids drink often. And bring energy rich snacks to refuel their bodies—I always pack a protein, like jerky, cheese or nuts; energy bars and fruit for carbs; and then something fun, like jelly beans or Skittles, to motivate them over that last hump. Finally, be prepared with a well-stocked first-aid kit to deal with a skinned knee, a hornet sting or mosquitoes, along with the other Ten Essentials.
The miles go more quickly if there are ways to get kids’ minds off the hiking. On longer hikes, bring along items to keep the kids’ interest up, like a camera, walkie-talkies, binoculars or a list of things to look for. Ask them to find where they are on the map or search for letterboxes and geocaches. Play I Spy, 20 Questions or our favorite, a storytelling game where we each make up a few lines, then pass the story to the next hiker.
The magic of a friend is remarkable. It’s more fun to have a buddy along, and it makes it harder to complain.
One of the biggest hurdles to day hiking is the long drive to and from home. Especially when kids are young, you can easily spend more time in the car than on the trail. I’ve found that taking long weekend getaways, where we camp or grab an inexpensive hotel, is the way to go. You can venture farther from home, take a few hikes, then mix it up with something different, like miniature golf, kite flying, paddle boating or lounging around a campfire. The whole family can get into the spirit of the adventure and make some lasting memories together, away from screens and other habits of home.
Just recently, I asked my now 9-year-old what she’d like to do over the summer. After requesting basketball camp, she said she was really looking forward to our mother daughter trip, a tradition I began in order to check hikes off my long research list. When she was 6, we hiked to Eightmile Lake in the Enchantments; at 7, we swam in Spirit Lake at Mount St. Helens; and last year we backpacked to Baker Lake. Maybe this year we will return to Harts Pass for a second attempt and more blueberries.
Susan Elderkin has been hiking since she was 3 years old. Prior to writing her first book, Susan worked for WTA as website editor and communications director and, before that, served on the board of directors.