Taking kids for a hike is a reckless act of bravery and/or foolishness. Your choice. Tantrums and meltdowns a kilometre into the woods are no one’s idea of communing with nature. Last summer my kids were two and seven, ages heavy with whining and parental resistance. They’ve taught me that, instead of trying to get the kids to hike like adults, I need to hike like a kid or I’m going to walk out of the woods with nerves more frayed than when I started.
My seven-year-old is old enough to make her own choices, but my toddler needs thick pants like jeans to protect her knees when she inevitably stumbles on uneven terrain and exposed roots. Likewise, a lightweight, long-sleeved shirt is her best defense against bug bites and UV rays when the bug spray and sunscreen starts wearing off.
Next comes my personal hiking hack: a small picnic. Nothing elaborate, just a few simple eats in reusable containers. Any friction I meet getting out of the vehicle or starting down the trail can always be mitigated by a picnic.
The responsibility of finding the best picnic spot falls to my seven-year-old and, in all honesty, her choice is usually half a breath from the start of our hike. It’s too soon for a break, but we stop because we’re hiking like kids, not adults.
We sit in nature out of sight of cars and civilization, have something to eat, and get comfortable. It eases the kids’ tension of leaving their toys, electronics and routine behind. They chew on something, kick at the duff, wander off to see if they can climb that tree over there, and mentally transition into an afternoon in the woods. There’s a moment when I can almost see them let go of any lingering resistance. Thank you, picnic.
When we finally get to hiking, or tripping over roots if you’re my two-year-old, it’s more of a scramble from one point of wonder to the next, rather than a solid line on a map. I could rush them, and sometimes I get frustrated with our (lack of) progress, but checking off kilometres to reach a destination is grown-up hiking. Kid hiking is about exploration.
The woods are full of wonders: fallen trees, flowers, strange rocks that might be castle ruins, squirrel-nibbled mushrooms, lichen-covered rocks, and scat. Kids love finding animal scat. It reminds the kids that they are not alone in the forest, an exciting clue to an unseen mystery. And it’s gross. Kids love gross.
“Mom, what’s THAT?” There’s a hint of proper horror in their voices but it’s tinged with delight.
“It looks like raccoon scat.”
They crouch around their wondrous find like little scientists. If they happen to have a stick in hand, they will use it to poke at the droppings. “Why is it PURPLE?”
“Hmm. Can you think of anything purple that’s ripe right now?”
“Blueberries! Do you think there’s more around here?”
A small guide to animal tracks and scat can go a long way to adding to the adventure, but taking photos to look up online later works just as well. Be prepared that your children are going to remember this find for a long time. “Ooh, that’s where we saw the purple raccoon poo last summer. Do you remember that, Mom?” Don’t be surprised if they tell the cashier about their scatological discoveries the next time you’re shopping, too.
We’re not always going to get lucky with purple scat though, which is why hikes with features along the trail are good choices for kids. Places like Fundy National Park’s Caribou Plains Trail with a boardwalk and bog-watching decks, the Crooked Creek Trail with multiple lookouts (but please be careful on the tower mid-trail as the lower guard rail is above a two-year-old’s head), and the Dobson Trail with benches and creekside beaches (especially on the Riverview end). Landmarks to watch for and frogs to spy on gives kids something to look forward to. I’m amazed how far my kids are willing to walk for the promise of a bullfrog on the other end.
When the kids fall quiet, their enthusiasm waning, they’re getting tired. It’s time for a break, a small snack, and probably to turn around if we’re not on a loop trail. There will be a lull in the fun as we trudge along, the kids getting overwhelmed by the Herculean task of walking all the way back to the car. My children always forget that walking back is magically faster than hiking in, and don’t believe me when I tell them. It sounds suspiciously like the sort of thing a parent would say to get them moving. This is when the ‘I Spy’ game, a few stories, and silly songs like On Top of Spaghetti can re-ignite their sense of fun. It's hard to stay grumpy when you’re singing about a meatball.
Against their darkest premonitions, we will make it back to the parking lot. The girls will climb into their car seats, ask for their water bottles, and stare out the windows. If I’m lucky, one of them will giggle to themselves without sharing why. They’ll probably fall asleep on the way home; fresh air does that to kids. But one thing’s for sure, we made some memories and everyone, even mom, had fun.
For more information on Trails, see Exploring Our Trails.