Junior wanders the woods with a set of walking sticks.

Junior wanders the woods with a set of walking sticks.

When I first sat down to write about hiking with the kids, I drew an absolute blank. I felt totally unqualified and unprepared to dole out any advice about the topic and, dare I say, I actually felt completely uninspired by it. I know, I know – I felt uninspired by the idea of hiking outside with my kids??! Who am I and why so glum, chum?

But then I flipped my thinking. I realized that whenever I ask my kids if they want to go for a hike (or inform them that in fact we WILL be going for a hike, whether they like it or not), there is immediate pushback. They never want to go. In their minds, hiking is an arduous task. It’s work to get from one place to another. It is strenuous activity for relatively little in return. Yet when I ask them if they’d like to go for a walk (or inform them that in fact we WILL be going for a walk, whether they like it or not), they are always game. They help me choose where we’re going. They want to pack snacks and water bottles. They want to know if the dog can come, or if we can bring friends. They are excited. They are clamoring at the door while I finish getting our things together. And that’s exactly the flip my thinking needed.

Hiking, with my very young children, is in fact not pleasurable. If we leave the house with the sole objective to start on foot in one place and end on foot in another place, I am most definitely starting off on the WRONG foot. I am setting myself up for failure.

Junior was so proud of himself when he reached this little summit on our hike in Baja.

Junior was so proud of himself when he reached this little summit on our hike in Baja.

But when we go for a walk, or even better yet, a wander in the woods, we are infinitely more happy. When the kids set the pace and the agenda, we all have more fun. That’s not to say we never make it anywhere. It’s just to say I can’t ever count on us making it somewhere specific and if we do, it’s never within a predetermined timeframe.

Later this year, the Captain is hoping to take Junior on a backpacking trip. Just to remind you, Junior is still four years old. And though he isn’t a super-enthusiastic hiker (YET), we think he will actually love being out there, making his own progress and carrying his own gear, if we frame the experience correctly. First, we are going to try to coordinate with some friends so that he has some positive peer pressure to help him along. Next, we are framing it as a privilege. Backpacking is something that can only be done when you prove you’re ready for it. You have to be able to walk a couple miles with a pack on your back. You have to put in some work to reap your rewards. You have to be physically and emotionally strong enough to keep up. In short, you have to be a big kid.

Obviously, having just turned three, Little Bear isn’t there yet. He’s still at the meandering-through-the-woods phase. Which is just fine. Sometimes we have to meet our kids right where they are. And so, for Little Bear and little people like him, here are my top 3 tips for hiking wandering the woods with very young children.

  1. Enjoying a wet snack in the soggy woods.

    Enjoying a wet snack in the soggy woods.

    Bring plentiful snacks. This is pretty much my top tip for anything with kids. Skiing? Bring snacks. Sailing? Bring snacks. Hitting the beach? Taking a road trip? Sticking your head out the window to check if it’s raining? Always bring snacks. There will come a time when you will be running out the door for a very quick errand or simple stroll to get the mail and you will fool yourself into thinking it’s okay to not bring snacks, but you will be wrong. Very, very wrong.

  2. You may set a target destination or a target timeframe, but never set both. If you’re trying to get somewhere specific, allow all the time your kids want to take. And believe me, that will be ages. Epochs even. Or, if you know you don’t have several days to wander the woods, set a timeframe and confine your explorations to areas that are easily accessible. That is to say, don’t wander off deeply into the woods only to find your time expired and your car two miles away. Murphy’s Law says that this will happen every time, and that your child will then either take four times as long to return to the car, or will need to poop immediately.

    When they want to stop, discover and observe, go ahead and stop, discover and observe right alongside them!

    When they want to stop, discover and observe, let them!

  3. Don’t push it. Go in with low expectations, and let your kids set the pace. Instead of walking ahead of them, follow along behind. When they stop to look at something, stop to look at it with them. If they are tired or uncomfortable or hungry, listen. If they are fussy, ask yourself if they could be tired or uncomfortable or hungry. It is usually one of the three, and all can be fixed. Stay one step ahead of them in preparations, but one step behind in pace. Your patience will be rewarded.

Have you wandered the woods with the very young people in your life lately?

Wandering the woods with friends on an incredible fall day.

Wandering the woods with friends on an incredible fall day.