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When my children were barely more than babies, I took them hiking on designated nature trails. Each of them had a small pack they would carry, full of their favorite snack or drink. Now, obviously, you cannot cover long distances with young children with you, but you can expose them to the wonderful world of nature. By the age of one year, all three of my children had been camping. As they aged, our hiking trips covered much longer distances. So, the next time you consider living the kids at home with a sitter or dropping them off at mom’s house, reconsider.
However, most children (even some out of shape teens) will not be able to walk far and some will have very little fear of the outdoors. This means, they can be a bit of a problem for the adult that takes them, but it is well worth the hassles. I usually start with very short walks around the campgrounds and acclimate the child to the pack, boots, and to learn to listen to the adult (regardless of the age of a child this is a good idea). The listening part is crucial, if you want a safe trip.
As far as safety is concerned, I have found most youngsters, in spite of age, do not like to hold hands when they walk on a trail. I suspect, just like us, they enjoy the independent feeling that comes with hiking. So, you can expect trips, falls, and minor injuries. I always carry a small first aid kit, filled with disinfectants, band-aids, and other need medical supplies. Now, I have been taking children hiking for more than thirty years, and I have yet to see a child experience anything worse than a scrape. I also keep a few suckers in my pocket, as a treat to reward the bravery of a small injured child.
Now, keep in mind, it is important to treat any injury as soon as you see it. Small cuts, scrapes and punctures can become infected very quickly in the woods. Make sure you wash the injured area with soap and water, apply an antiseptic, and then cover the injury with a band-aid.
While some people may think my hikes with young children are silly and dangerous, they really can be very rewarding. The eyes of a child come alive as they see the blooming flowers, hear the birds chirp, and perhaps see a small animal. Due to the amount of talking most children do as they walk, you will be very lucky to encounter a deer or other large game. Nonetheless, the idea is to get the child associated with nature, so they are not frightened being in the woods.
At the same time keep a close eye on the little tykes. They have a tendency to want to pet or feed small wild animals, catch grasshoppers, or even snakes. They have no fear at all, so they need constant watching. Make sure you set the rules about wild animals before you leave the camp area (i.e., no touching animals, no petting or feeding, and no attempts at catching any animal or snake).
Also teach your children not to play with, or pick up, any plants. Some, like poison ivy, or sumac, can cause rashes and require medication. And, it you see a child touch a plant you are unsure of, immediately wash their hands with soap and water (usually it is the oils or sap in a plant that causes the rash). Some plants are poisonous if eaten, so instruct the child to eat only what is in their backpack. If a child ingests a plant and has a physical reaction, seek medial attention immediately.
Keep your initial hikes short, perhaps only a hundred yards or so. Stop at the halfway point and have a short picnic. Let the child open their pack and remove their snack. Have them sit on a blanket or ground cloth as they eat (this will cut down of the number of invited insects you have). I have found most of them really enjoy drinking from a canteen, and my son had his own plastic mess kit he used when we hiked. The idea here is for the children to enjoy the trip and gain confidence in the field.
And, trust me, you will have to be patient. They will seem to talk endlessly about what they see around them. They will ask about the plants, the trees, and any small game they may happen to see. It makes them aware of a new world away from a television, computer games, and movies. It opens up a whole new world for them, and you are the one to do it.
My children are grown up and the two oldest are out of the home now. David, my son, hunts, fishes, and winter camps in Alaska. He has developed into a very experienced outdoorsman, and I had very little to do with it. I merely introduced him to nature and then let him go. Sure, I offered suggestions as he grew, but at times I let him learn on his own. My daughter Lisa and her family camp often. They have turned some weekends into family trips, and they have loads of fun. Amie, my youngest daughter, camps, and fishes, with the best of them. Your child can learn to do the same things.
If you want your child to grow up knowing nature and not fearing the outdoors, expose them now, while they are still young, to the wonders of woods. Take them on a hike and watch their faces as they see a whole new world open up. After all, don’t we owe it to them?
Take care and I will see you hiking on America’s trails.