Last week’s post garnered me a few genuinely nice emails, gently suggesting that perhaps children don’t belong on trails that feature rock cliffs. Or rattlesnakes, for that matter. I don’t really know what to say to that. (But that won’t stop me from writing an entire post in response, of course.) The truth is the woods and mountains and various types of water can be dangerous places. Kids get hurt. They fall off the side of the Grand Canyon, the break bones, they drown. Adults do all those things too, but we’re responsible for ourselves. It’s different with kids. They look to us for protection, and I absolutely believe we should provide that.
But not too much.
You can’t protect your kids from getting banged up by life. They will have their hearts broken, their egos smashed, their bodies battered. I hear that’s for the best, although I’m not sure I agree. I do think, however, that pain is a fact of life, and protecting your kids too much now means it will suck so much more for them later. Anyway, most likely, it won’t be the mountains or a wooded trail that kills your kid. It will be your car, or cancer, or a piece of furniture that you didn’t properly bolt to the wall.
That being said, let’s not be stupid about this. Here are my tips for taking your kids outdoors and coming home safe and (mostly) unscathed.
- Be Prepared: Know where you’re going, have a hard copy of the map (and make sure you can read it), bring enough snacks and water, and don’t forget a first aid kit, even on short hikes. Because I usually am one adult with two kids, I look for high-traffic trails. Read the trail reports. I like Hiking Upward and All Trails. Learn how to read between the lines. Does the reviewer say this trail is dangerous, or does the reviewer say this trail was dangerous for a child who spends most of his time playing video games? There’s a huge spectrum of hiking ability, and you will find people of all abilities reviewing the trails. One child’s easy may be another child’s impossible. Which brings us to:
- Know Your Child: Don’t assume your eight-year-old boy can do as much as someone else’s six-year-old girl. Kids are different. My oldest child is physically talented but emotionally hesitant. My youngest is clumsy but brave. I don’t treat them the same, and I don’t expect them to react the same to identical circumstances.
- Kids Are Dogs: Your kids will probably tire faster than you expect. This is because they behave like dogs. They expend twice as much energy as you do on the same trail. They move faster, run back and forth, sniff all the rocks. Take frequent short breaks to keep them from getting overtired and hella grumpy. Give them lots of snacks, more than you would probably eat yourself. And, also like dogs, understand that on any given trail, you might have to carry them out.
- Tell Them the Rules: Before any hike, I go over the hiking rules with my kids, and I make them repeat the rules back to me. They have heard the lecture at least a couple dozen times by now. I don’t care. They will hear it again. I want it fresh and on their minds for every single hike we do so they remember how I expect them to behave. We go over “stay on the trail” and “leave no trace” and why we do that. We discuss safety like when it’s okay to run and when we have to walk. We talk about what to do when we see a dog (ALWAYS ask the owner before approaching a dog!). For trails like the Billy Goat Trail, I am always between my child and the cliff, or I have a hand on them. One way to make rules more fun is to give children some of the responsibility. One child can collect trash wrappers, one child can lead the hike and look for signs.
- There Will Be Blood: There is a good chance your child will get hurt. Uneven/unfamiliar terrain + children = scrapes and bruises. Accept this. Remember that the blood spilled in the woods is the same blood that spills at the playground, or the parking lot, or the coffee table when your kid stupidly jumped off the couch. Do not freak out, which will only make it harder for your kid to pull himself together. Be prepared with bandages of various sizes and Skittles. Knees are especially vulerable; I suggest pants, even in summer, but I’m flexible on this.
- Make It Worth It: Don’t take your kid on some boring trail that’s all climb and no view. If they’re going to get hurt, dirty, and tired, there needs to be a spectacular payoff at the end. Waterfalls are good. Rock scrambles are exciting for most kids. Or maybe take them on a trail that’s known for wildlife–bears, eagles, moose. Even rattlesnakes. Just remind them that animals are for looking, not touching.
Any other tips? Leave them in the comments!