In the past year, we've slowly emerged from a period of time during which I couldn't take my three kids out to hike by myself. When Sadie was born, Lachlan still very much needed to be carried after a short period of walking. He can tire easily (he only has half a heart!), but sometimes he just didn't feel like walking – something he shares with most kids of preschool age, I imagine. And when a preschooler doesn't feel like walking, well … you shift your ideal to accommodate your reality.
My ideal is being able to enjoy multi-day backpacking trips with my kids. I grew up next to the Tahoe National Forest, and my dad and I would often head to the trail for the weekend. My dad is not an effusive guy, but during those hikes, camped beside isolated Sierra Nevada lakes, we connected. We didn't talk each other's ears off, but we did hard things together, and shared many funny moments. I want to experience that same distraction-free connection with my kids. Also, my dad's implicit confidence in my resilience as a backpacker framed so much of my self-conception as a woman today – no less capable of doing hard, adventurous, physically and mentally demanding things than my three older brothers. This is an image he cultivated in me from the time I was four, when he and I summited Mt. Lassen. Throughout my life, he told that story proudly. How the rest of the our friends' kids grumbled their way up the trail, and I kept on truckin' and singing, all the way to the top. He and I did a goofy dance in the summer snow patch at the summit. It is one of my most cherished childhood memories.
My little guy with a congenital heart defect would not have been able to summit Mt. Lassen at age four . Instead, I adjusted my ideal and we picked hike-free natural places to explore while he grew in physical and mental resilience. We would (and still do) bring a picnic, art supplies, nets, magnifying glasses, field guides and set about exploring and simply enjoying the nature right around us. Sometimes we would go for very short hikes, but we tended to stick nearby. I wanted to cultivate positive vibes about nature. Check.
And yet … I didn't want our experience of nature to remain sedentary. I am very aware of the benefits of moderate physical exercise for heart kids. Lachlan's heart function depends on a lifestyle of movement. His little heart is a muscle, and the more regularly he works it out, the better and longer it will serve him. He won't be able to play competitive soccer, basketball, or any organized sport like that. But as a family, we can provide him the knowledge of a physical activity that he can continue to enjoy well past the time that most adults stop participating in organized sports and start sitting in front of a computer screen for work. Hiking. Outdoor adventuring in general. A joyful gift of lifelong movement and health.
Here are the things that I'm currently doing to pass along a love of movement in nature, with a goal of going on our first family backpacking trip within the year.
Scavenger hunt hikes
Sometimes the excitement of a scavenger hunt will get them out of the house in a jiffy. These can be “collecting” scavenger hunts, where they look for bits of nature to bring home for the nature table, but sensory scavenger hunts are my favorite. They have a list of things to see, smell, touch, or hear. Check out Pinterest for inspiration.
Have snack, will walk. It's really amazing to me how far my youngest two can go when they have bags of crackers or popcorn to dip into. While I try to keep cracker-face-stuffing to a minimum at home, on the trail they are a much-anticipated treat.
Gear Up the Kids
Sometimes the gift of a special hiking backpack, hydration system, hiking boots, or trekking poles will inspire them to make some forward momentum on the trail. Lachlan is a big fan of “gear”. (Finn would go naked and barefoot into the woods, and Sadie of course prefers wearing her Halloween-princess-costume-turned-hiking-dress, but Lachlan is motivated by his backpack!)
Gear Up the Mama
Two items have changed my ability to hike solo with my little family: my backpack with a comfortable hip belt and my ultra light-weight Boba Air baby carrier, which folds itself into a tiny zip bag when not in use. I'll start with the Boba carrier – I always stow it in my backpack. In case Lachlan or Sadie get tired, I can pop them in the carrier. In case both of them get tired at the same time, I can (as a last resort) put one in the carrier and the other on my shoulders and view it as an excellent work out! (I always anticipate this, and consider it a gift of a great work out rather than a situation to be feared and avoided at all costs.)
My backpack is filled with crackers, extra clothes, and water, mostly. It also provides me with the ability to facilitate a sweet little rest time, if needed. I love to pack a nature-themed story book like The Burgess Bird Book for Children, as well as some simple nature journal supplies (The boys tend to carry their own sketch books and water in their trail packs now, but I started out carrying everyone's supplies so as not to weight them down before they were ready.)
Sometimes a Curriculum is Helpful
I have loved some of the suggestions in Exploring Nature with Children, a Charlotte Mason-inspired homeschool curriculum. While we are radical unschoolers and don't follow curricula, I use this as a learning resource for myself, so I can be informed about seasonal details in nature. The book's suggestions are great, as are the themed nature walks. There are even some crafting ideas thrown in there! Highly recommended.
We've also participated in and enjoyed the Wild Explorers Club. The kids get weekly “assignments,” which vary from week to week. Some of our favorites have been making your own special walking stick and creating a map of a hike or natural area. When they complete a level (about 4 assignments), you can order them a special badge. We put our membership on hold this fall, but the boys have been asking to start up again. I should get on that.
Find a Hiking Community
It's no surprise that kids move more quickly, and with more gusto, when they are doing it with friends. So much more running happens on the trail when we hike with other kids! We are fortunate to have outdoor-loving friends. If you're still searching for your tribe, see if Hike It Baby or Adventure Mamas has an active community in your area.
Go Slowly, Go Quickly
Be prepared to stop and play in water. Be prepared to marvel at small things. Be prepared to notice the feeling on dirt as it sifts from one hand to the other. Children move slowly, and we should follow their lead. Conversely, be prepared to play a game of tag. Be prepared to race to a tree. Be prepared to be playful. Children can move quickly, and we should follow that cue, as well. Nurturing a balance between fast and slow will keep everyone in balance as you hike.
Talk it Up, Build Their Identities as Hikers
Just like my dad did for me, talk about what amazing hikers your kids have become. Be in awe of their small triumphs, their resilience, their ability to do hard things. After a hike, talk up all of the neat things you saw, all of the fun you had. Plan hikes together - start a Pinterest board together of nearby trails you'd like to get to know. Teach them navigation skills, give them a camera to help document your nature discoveries. Let little ones take turns leading, and thank them for their help afterwards. Tell bedtime stories about them as explorers. Brag about their hiking to their grandparents in the same way you would mention how well they are learning to read. Essentially, communicate that joyful movement in nature is an esteemed family value. In time, your children will come to self-identify as capable outdoor adventurers.