This last April, I planned a camping and hiking trip for my family of four to the Columbia River Gorge. My kids are fifteen and seventeen and experienced campers. However, I was nervous about cold weather in Oregon. We haven't camped much in the cold, and it was our first trip to the Columbia River Gorge.
I'm happy to report that though it was cold, we had a great trip. Once we drove up the Columbia River Gorge Highway and saw the vibrant green and the waterfalls, we were all immediately impressed by the scenery. I could feel the mood in the car shift from "what are we doing," to excitement.
The experience made me realize that there are several valuable pieces of advice about hiking with school age kids and teenagers that I can pass along to other parents. Kids have different degrees of interest in hiking, so I'll talk about that challenge as well.
7 Ideas for Hiking with Grade School Kids and Teenagers
1. Gauge your audience and incorporate the excitement of discovery! Older kids respond to exceptional views and scenery. My kids and their friends have been impressed by cliffs, waterfalls, caves, rolling hills, wildlife, wildflowers and all around dramatic landscapes.
I've also taken teens hiking that don't hike a lot. I try to remember my goal is to turn kids onto the outdoors and not prove anything. For less experienced hikers, I pick short, scenic hikes of one to four miles. If they discover they love it, then they'll hike more frequently in the future. I resist making it a forced hike over mountains -- "You must like it, d*** it!"
2. Instruct them to stay together and Tell Them to Stop at Every Trail Sign. Repeat often. In middle school, my daughter and her friend breezed by a trail sign because they were talking. We got to the end of the trail and they were no where around. My husband and I ran back up the trail looking for them. I hadn't run that hard since high school. It was early in the day and fortunately we found them pretty quickly. They'd sat down when they realized we weren't anywhere behind them. That's when I learned the kids need to look for and stop at every trail sign. Remind them every time you go on a hike.
Younger children should stay with the group and go no more than a block ahead. If they have a ton of energy, let them run forward and back. Older kids can go further ahead in my book, but they have to stay with their hiking buddy and stop at junctures. If they don't stay with their friend or stop at junctures, then they need to walk with the group.
3. Teach them what to do if they get lost. They must stay on the trail and with the group. They can carry whistles and use them, but only if they are actually lost. On the trail they can walk back where you last saw each other. If they are unsure, they should stop where they are. Again, teach everyone to stop at the junctures and repeat this advice every time you go hiking!
Here's a short article that covers this safety topic: https://www.outdoors.org/articles/amc-outdoors/teaching-kids-how-to-avoid-getting-lost-and-what-to-do-if-it-happens/
4. Check their footgear, even if they are old enough to know. I tell my kids what to bring for warmth and wear good foot gear, but they've gotten it wrong several times. Teen stubbornness no doubt. There was the time my daughter's middle school bff came hiking with us with and her canvas shoes were holding by a thread. Last week my daughter wore brand new shoes on a four miler with socks that no longer fit. Just last month my son took new shoes on a Crosscountry trip and left the older pair at home though I'd told him to bring them. He came back with sore achilles heels.
I would do a quick shoe inspection when hiking with your kids or other people's kids. I'd ask them the obvious. Are those shoes brand new or have you had them a while? Are they comfortable? Are you wearing socks, show me please?
5. Bring warm stuff / sunscreen. My son is rarely cold, but even when I say it'll be cold, he'll leave his warm gear at home. Now I say nothing but I do stash an extra coat or sweatshirt in the car. When its a family trip, I'm bringing extra because I want to be able to relax and not worry.
I do expect him to take care of himself. If he fails to bring something warm when he's with his friends or school, I'm not bailing him out.
6. Bring along a friend or camp with another family. Friends can help reluctant or new hikers have more fun. You just need to make sure to invite a friend who likes to walk.
7. Bring food or have your teens pack food, because nature makes us hungry. I'd do this for myself and any group. Often food tastes better on a hike.
Remember to keep outings fun so kids are willing to hike with you again. Your teens will appreciate exceptional landscape. My teens have been stubborn about shoes, coats and sunscreen. If yours are the same, check on them. Yes, you want them to be independent but we want to enjoy the day as well.
I wish you happy hiking with your middle or high school age children.
Encourage a love of nature in your kids. It will serve them through out their lives.