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Hiking with the kids can be one of the most fun and rewarding things to experience as a family… or it can be a complete disaster, depending upon how well you plan and implement the hike. So for hiking trips of the fun and rewarding variety, be sure to follow this advice.

Preparing for a hiking trip

  1. Have children wear appropriate shoes: hiking boots or sneakers with socks underneath, and never sandals or flip-flops. If your kids have hiking boots, have them break the boots in around the house before long hikes so that they don’t come back with blisters.
  1. Always let someone know exactly where you are going, where you will be departing from, what route you plan to take, along with what time you expect to return. This way, if something goes wrong, authorities will know sooner and can focus their search in the right area.
  1. Take time beforehand to become familiar with the area you will be hiking, the expected weather, and any hazards you many encounter. If hiking in an unfamiliar area, it’s a good idea to equip each member with a map, or distribute several maps among the adults.
  1. Pack a portable first-aid kit inside a backpack, along with lots of water and energy bars. A flint-lock fire starter is also an important item to have on hand. Nobody plans to get lost, but many rescue scenarios unfold on simple day hikes. If something goes wrong and you end up spending the night in the wilderness, you’ll be glad you have it. Compact, portable plastic rain ponchos are also a good idea.

Tips for hiking with kids

  • Be realistic and know your limits. When hiking with kids, the group can only travel as far and as fast as it’s weakest member. One of the most surefire ways to spoil the fun is to have unrealistic expectations.
  • Use a buddy system when hiking in large groups, making sure that each child is paired with an adult or another child. Make sure everyone knows it is their job to know where their buddy is at all times. Also assign specific adults to specific children, so that you don’t loose track of one because everyone assumes he or she is being watched by someone else.
  • Keep small children at an adult’s side at all times to avoid attack by a mountain lion or cougar. Children are often considered prey by mountain lions, which are silent and quick. Two-thirds of all such attacks occur against children.
  • Make lots of noise when hiking in the wilderness to scare away any bears. (See our section on bear safety.)
  • Learn how to spot potentially dangerous plants, such as sumac, poison ivy, or poison oak. Teach children what the dangerous plants are, and teach them how to recognize them. Kids will usually enjoy learning.
  • Check your children for ticks on a regular basis.
  • Provide children with whistles and mirrors in case they get lost. Mirrors can also make for a fun educational activity: have children practice reflecting sunlight at different angles along the way to make signal flashes.

Hiking safety rules for kids

  • Explain to children the importance of sticking by their parents or another adult in the wilderness.
  • Teach children to never touch snakes or other animals they find in the wild. As a child, I loved snakes. I found one while hiking, and was toting it back to our campsite. I was surprised when a startled park ranger told me to put it down. Turns out it was a baby rattlesnake.
  • Teach children to make lots of noise when hiking to avoid startling a snake, and give them plenty of time to leave. I remember a particular field trip when we discovered two rattlesnakes along our path, luckily long before any children got anywhere near them. But snakes are a constant danger to hikers.
  • Teach children the dangers of drinking water out of a river or stream.
  • Teach children that if they ever get lost, they should “hug a tree,” meaning they should stay put where they are until help arrives later. A lost child often takes longer to find simply because they continue moving, getting themselves more lost, and sometimes doubling back to areas that rescue crews already searched.

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