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Every hike starts with the best intentions. But sometimes, despite our thoughtful preparations, things go wrong. We’ve hiked with our kids for over 14 years, and even we still make mistakes, including an epically bad trip I’ll tell you about in a minute. First, here are 9 mistakes we’ve made while hiking with kids, and what we’ve learned as a result.
1. Not taking extra clothing and diapers
This seems so obvious, but it’s easy to overlook when you’re managing water bottles, snacks, backpacks, and making sure everyone is actually wearing shoes. When you’re hiking with young children, make sure you take extra clothes like pants and socks. And if they’re very young, extra diapers or underwear. It doesn’t even have to be a potty accident, simply plopping onto their butt in a stream is enough to ruin a hiking trip. I’m going to add that a wet bag (a small bag made of waterproof material, usually with a zipper) is a perfect, lightweight addition to your hiking bag. This is like a reusable ziplock bag that will keep your other things dry when you’re carrying wet clothing.
We don’t always take extra clothing on every single hike, but we make sure we have extras in the van at all times. Even if we finish a hike with a wet kid, we all feel better on the drive home if we’re all wearing dry clothing.
2. Mom & Dad carrying too much
This mistake is less obvious, but one we made far too many times before we finally learned our lesson. We were so used to “doing” for our kids that we did it all, even on hikes. My husband and I would carry backpacks filled to the brim with everyone’s water, snacks, and unwanted coats. This worked okay until a little one didn’t want to walk anymore. Now we’re carrying weight on our back and in our arms. When we wore baby carriers, we were doubling the weight on our backs. Finally, we realized this just wasn’t working. Over the course of a couple of hiking seasons, and a couple of Christmases, we bought some gear, changed our plan and things are working much better now.
Kids of all ages can carry a little something. Our bigger kids carry their own water in bladder bags, and each of their Camelbaks has a pocket for snacks. Our younger kids carry Camelbaks too, but since they can’t do the valves yet, I leave out the bladder and just slip in a small water bottle instead. The littlest ones may only carry a couple of granola bars, but they like to have a backpack too!
3. Forgetting to take a baby carrier
If you have a hiker under the age of 3…take a baby carrier! Whether it’s a fancy hiking carrier with an internal frame, or a soft-structured carrier that can pack down into a small bag, at least have this in your car. We often wear them empty until a kiddo needs up. An easy one-mile hike can turn into an hour of misery if you have a child who can’t (or won’t) go the distance. Carrying a kiddo in your arms or on your shoulders is only fun for a few minutes, and then it’s just drudgery. Preparation goes a long way when you’re hiking with toddlers. And honestly, we still carry a pack for our 6 year old. He is small for his age and has low muscle tone, and sometimes he just can’t go one…step…further. He’s 45 pounds and my husband uses a Deuter Kid Comfort II with an internal frame.
4. Going too far on an out-and-back hike
You’re feeling great, everyone is happy, and the scenery is beautiful. You know you’re child has a hiking limit of about 2 miles, but there’s another waterfall just around the corner, and you really want to see it. Mistake! Suddenly, you’re 1.5 miles out, and you still have to hike back. Oops, looks like you’ll be carrying him out again.
Yes, we’ve made this mistake many times. Now when one parent suggests going “just a bit further”, the other one is likely to remind us all that we still have to hike back!
5. Not following warnings about trail conditions
This one is painfully obvious. I’m ashamed that I even have to include it. But yes, we’ve actually made this mistake, and we’ve done it recently. For our first major hike of the new year, we decided to head to Parker Falls, east of Cottage Grove. We printed some maps and read reviews on AllTrails. Recent reviews said the trail was a mess from last winter’s snowstorm, which brought trees down all over the forest. The trail to Parker Falls hadn’t been cleared yet. Some reviews even said “Not safe for kids.”
But, but, but…the nearby Trestle Creek Falls trail had JUST been cleared two weeks before. We figured the Forest Service was working their way up the hill and that Parker was probably cleared by now. So off we went. The first 0.1 mile was fine. Then we encountered the first blowdown, a huge tree the stretched both above the trail and below. There was plenty of space for us to crouch underneath, and I took adorable photos of the kids walking under the huge log. Then, more blowdown. And more. Soon, we were scrambling over and under logs more often than we were hiking. Finally, at 0.7 miles, we could see a long stretch of trail ahead and it was more of the same: tree after tree across the trail. We turned around and headed back, counting trees as we trekked down the hill to the van. Nineteen large trees, all requiring us to climb over, crawl under, or maneuver around. Not our best decision. I do believe our kids were safe, we’re fanatical about trail safety, but still. We should have heeded the warnings, and for all our effort, we never made it to the falls.
6. Attempting a trail too difficult
We’ve never really done this, we’re pretty honest with ourselves about what we and our kids can manage. But we did attempt a trail that was too long once. We knew the cool stuff was 2 miles down the trail and that everything between the trailhead and the cool stuff was pretty average. But the cool stuff sounded so cool! Nope, we made it 1 mile down the trail, and started a long, arduous hike back while carrying two toddlers who were done. We knew their limit was just over a mile. So why did we attempt a 4-mile round trip hike? Well, what can we say? It was supposed to be really cool. We thought we could make it there, take a long break, and then head back. Be safe: know your kids’ limits, know your own limits.
7. Setting a pace that is too fast
My husband is 6’1″. Our toddler is 36″. When he takes a step, she takes six. When he is walking, she is running. And she can only run for so long. We’ve been hiking with our kids (ages 1-14) for their entire lives, and we’ve learned to adjust our pace to their much slower one. People sometimes marvel that we hike with our kids…well, it’s more like a nice, slow walk through the woods! Toddlers are slow, they just are. And we adjust to them. If we want to move faster, we use our baby carriers.
8. Not managing expectations
This goes along with numbers 6 and 7. We’ve made the mistake of not managing our expectations. If we expect to see the waterfall, or the “cool stuff”, and we don’t…are we disappointed? Is the hike a failure? No! Not seeing Parker Falls was kind of a letdown, sure, but climbing over trees and crawling under them? That’s an adventure! My kids loved it. They had a blast trying to navigate the trail. And missing out on the cool stuff? That waterfall isn’t going anywhere, we’ll try again later!
We actively teach our kids that the walk itself is enough. We sometimes go on short hikes to find painted rocks. If we find one, great! If not, then it was a fun chance to stretch our legs and get some fresh air. We try to find the value in what we can accomplish, rather than feeling disappointed if we don’t reach the goal. And yes, when hiking with kids, we don’t always make the goal. Sometimes, we leave without seeing the waterfall or the “cool stuff”.
9. Not bringing snacks
This is the biggie, the numero uno. It’s so easy to fall into the no-snack trap: we’ve eaten a big meal, and immediately set out on a short hike afterward. We don’t need snacks, we just ate! Immortal words spoken by every parent ever. But when hiking with kids, don’t make this mistake! Take all the snacks. All. The. Snacks. They can be used as “motivation” to continue hiking just a little further, or a well deserved treat at the end of the trail. We often pack granola bars and applesauce pouches since they travel well, but pack whatever your kids enjoy.
I’m sure there are tons more mistakes we’ve made. As I think of more, I’ll add them. We’ve learned a lot about hiking with kids: how to do it, what not to do, and most of all that it’s really fun when you get it right. Don’t be afraid to take your kiddos along and explore a new trail!
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