Into the Woods
JON DUFORT PHOTO
Hiking can be an adventure for kids of all ages. The earlier you expose your children to the great outdoors, the more likely they’ll grow up to enjoy it. Because it can be done in nearly any natural setting, and requires simple gear, hiking makes a wonderful family outing that can become more challenging as your children get older.The youngest ones, of course, require more gear and might even need to be carried. Older toddlers and young school-age kids can transport themselves but allowances should be made for appropriate distance and rest stops. Tweens and teens will lead the way and may get to show off things they learned in science class.
Lorraine Baxter, publicity chair with the Adirondack Mountain Club’s Onondaga Chapter, says that Central New York has many great hiking spots, from Highland Forest and Beaver Lake to Chittenango Falls and the Ithaca gorges area.
“There are so many well-maintained trails in this area,” Baxter says, “that hiking can be an all-season sport.” She also recommends the Finger Lakes Trail for its shorter segments and single-file trails.
When hiking with kids, the destination isn’t nearly as important as the journey. Spending a day outside, eating a simple picnic, or exploring a place you’ve never been can instill an appreciation for both nature and a fun physical activity.
The rules of the trail remain the same whether you’re with kids or adults:
Pack it in, pack it out. Leave the trail in the same condition you found it. Take your trash back home with you. Or better yet, pick up and remove any trash you find.
Leave the flora and fauna where you saw them. That critter will not be happy in a glass jar with a few leaves. Leave it behind to enjoy its home. Likewise, flowers or other plants in parks should be left where others can enjoy them.
Be prepared but not overburdened. Taking too much along in your daypack will tire you out needlessly. Stick to essentials!
How to BeginTaking your little children on their first hike can be a momentous occasion. Only you can determine how far they can go, how much they can carry and what gear is appropriate. I’ve included some guidelines, but in general, always err on the side of caution: Go a short distance with a light pack (or no pack) the first few times.
Keep it short enough that your children will end the trip wanting more. Tiring the kids out with a long-distance slog might make the idea of going again less desirable.
Bill Coffin of Chittenango, also an officer with the Adirondack Mountain Club, says that he and his wife Mary took their five children for hikes starting when they were toddlers.
“Mary has a little trick she uses when taking a group of varying ages and ability levels out hiking,” Coffin explains. “She takes the entire group on a loop which takes them back to the starting point. Young ones who have had enough can stay back at base camp with an adult while others take off for a longer, more challenging loop.” The whole group can rendezvous to the starting point and no one feels left out.
Coffin advises one important rule of the woods for young hikers: When you come to a fork in the road, wait for the rest of your party. Never go off the main trail unless you know where you are going. Sage advice from someone who has hiked for 35 years!
Most school-age kids can carry a light backpack for a few hours on the trail. A school backpack will work if it isn’t too big. Discourage taking too many things; there will be plenty to do without taking toys, books or other playthings. Your child can carry her own water bottle, sunscreen, trail mix or other quick snack.
Are We Having Fun Yet?Don’t aim for any big accomplishments the first few times. Just being outdoors, seeing crawling creatures, silken webs, flowers, leaves and cool rocks is often all the excitement kids require.
“Hiking trips are great opportunities for nature walks to observe signs of the seasons and to identify plants and animals,” says Baxter, who is a retired science teacher. She looks for salamanders and newts and her favorite wildflowers while she hikes.
Part of the hiking experience will be finding a place to “camp” for a short time and enjoy a meal or snack. Scout the area for even ground, grassy or with rocks to use as tables or seats. Check for obvious signs of ant mounds or other creatures you don’t want to disturb. Don’t forget to clean up after yourselves.
Even though you’re not hiking the Appalachian Trail, the time spent in nature is a special time for families. You may meet interesting people or animals along the way, and by working together, you’ll reach the end of the trail as brave and seasoned adventurers! Don’t be surprised if your child falls asleep in the car on the way home.
What To Wear and BringHaving the right gear doesn’t have to mean spending a lot of money. Try getting some of the stuff at thrift stores. Good quality items can be had at a reasonable price, especially in youngsters’ sizes, because the gear is often hardly worn.
• Boots or good footwear that has support and covers feet. Don’t wear sandals that can cause rubbing blisters or flip-flops that don’t provide good traction. Well-fitting, comfortable footwear is essential!
• Socks that wick away moisture (avoid cotton).
• Rain gear (store in backpack if not using).
• Layered clothing to allow for temperature drops in spring or fall, and perhaps a beanie hat and gloves to retain heat in head and hands.
• Long pants to protect legs from insect bites or irritating plants.
• A map, and a plan. Keep your trek simple by sticking to the established trails and always let a friend or the park ranger know where you will be if you’re in a large park.
• Compass. Older kids will have fun checking your direction along the trail; a compass can help if you get disoriented (assuming you know how to use it). A short tutorial on using a compass is available at www.wikihow.com/Use-a-Compass.
• Pocket knife. This can have several uses but should only be carried by an adult.
• Whistle. In New York’s bear country, sounding a whistle every now and then will alert bears that you are in the woods so they’ll keep away. (As IF your kid hikers will be quiet on the trail!)
• First aid kit. Helps deal with small emergencies to make the hiking experience more tolerable. A first aid kit can include: antiseptic wipes; sting relief; adhesive bandages of various sizes and shapes; cotton balls; sterile pads, gauze and tape; pain reliever (such as ibuprofen); moleskin (for blisters); instant hand sanitizer; tweezers; and oral Benadryl (in case of insect bite or allergic reaction).
• Flashlight with spare batteries.
• Emergency rain gear (large outdoor trash bags can provide a quick shelter from an unexpected rainstorm).
• Insect repellant and sunscreen.
• Food and water. You’ll need a light snack for refreshment on short hikes and more substantial fare for longer treks. Even a small child can carry a water bottle in a backpack. Take some plastic grocery bags so you can pack out any trash you collect.
Concentrate on carbohydrates and proteins that are easy to eat, make little trash, and taste good.
Snacks to take:
Trail mix (make your own!)
Hard cheeses and crackers, especially with apple slices
Tuna or peanut butter and crackers
Homemade Trail MixThe perfect hiking food, lightweight and easy to store, provides a quick boost from carbohydrates in dried fruit and/or cereal or granola, and sustained energy from fats in nuts.
Combine, in an airtight container or ziplock bag, a variety of the following:
Cereals (like Cheerios or Chex), or granola
Peanuts, cashews or almonds
Small candies (M&Ms, chocolate chips)
Dried fruits (cranberries, raisins, pineapple, banana)
Seeds (pumpkin or sunflower)