Lessons Learned on the Trail

By Kim Foley MacKinnon

The beginning of my working relationship with the Appalachian Mountain Club began a few years ago when I was hired to write the Outdoors with Kids Boston bookNow, writing a book of any kind is a lot of work, and writing a hiking book has its own special set of challenges. The only way to do it properly is by researching it in person (always something to make sure the author did when buying a guidebook!). And writing a hiking guidebook with 100 hikes especially good for families with kids adds one more layer of complexity.

When I started the project, as far as I was concerned, my daughter Sadie, who was 12 at the time, would be my research partner. She wasn’t entirely on board with the idea–after all, 100 hikes is a lot–so I came up with some strategies to make it fun. We had a whole summer to hike all over New England and we did. Here are a few of my tips and tricks, which work for any hike with kids.

Bring friends
As the mom of an only child, I learned long ago that letting my daughter bring a friend along for all sorts of events and activities can help ensure everyone has a good time. Since the bulk of our research was during the summer, finding friends to accompany us was pretty easy. Not to mention the grateful parents who were happy their kids would be outside exploring with us rather than doing stuff like watching TV, playing video games, or even having to pay for babysitters. By the end of the summer, we had a core group of kids hiking with us and everyone had nicknamed our adventures as going to “Kim’s Kamp.”

Have kids help plan
While my book had to include 100 hikes, I had discretion about which ones to include. In New England there are thousands of options, so letting my daughter and her friends help me pick where and what kind of hike we would do was easy. We could choose to hike up a mountain, swim in a lake, go bouldering, pick a place to see wildlife or wildflowers–the sky was the limit. Letting kids have a say in the planning means they’ll be more enthusiastic and invested in the experience.

Kids carry their own packs
Even the smallest kids should be able to at least carry a water bottle and a snack. Being responsible for some of their own gear is a good way to teach responsibility and to take ownership of their own stuff. It also means all those “essential” items that they ask you to carry may turn out not to be very essential, after all.

Any place that we hiked that had maps available, I always made sure to take one for me and one for the kids and we would go over the trail we would hike that day. Normally, we would stick together, but sometimes I’d let them branch off on their own, which leads to my next tip.

Space to explore on their own safely
When it seemed appropriate and the kids asked me, I would let them explore a bit on their own. I usually asked them to take photos and make a few notes on their map. They were more than willing, happy to have a job and a role in the book. 

We discovered pretty quickly that many places, like the Trustees of Reservations and Mass Audubon, offer scavenger-hunt type activities to make exploring even more of an adventures. Clues and word games lead visitors through properties while explaining the flora, fauna and other features of the site. For those who like to geocache, many times you can find one near where you’re visiting, which can also be a lot of fun for kids.

Time to play
Forced marches are never a good idea and I quickly became attuned to all the kids’ tolerance levels on our outings. Taking breaks is important for everyone, but especially for kids. When I sensed someone needed to take five, I’d find a place for us to relax awhile.

I always had my camera on hand, but I also encouraged the kids to take their own photos too, especially when they were off on their own. They were always excited to show me what they had captured.

Leave no trace
This is another thing you’re never too young to learn and I made sure the kids packed out what they packed in. We always brought our own food and drinks and had a picnic at lunchtime. After we were done, we all made sure we collected everything to bring home. I also asked everyone to pick up any litter we saw on trails and carried a bag for just that purpose. 

Know when to call it
To be honest, more than once I probably pushed us too far or went out in iffy weather when I shouldn’t. One notable time resulted in us being soaked to the skin and me apologizing. Fortunately that time it was just me and my family, so the ribbing I took at least stayed in house.

Packing in 100 hikes over one summer quickly taught me what worked and what didn’t. Strategies that might have taken us much longer to figure out are now part of what make our hiking adventures that much more fun.

Get advice on raising the next generation of outdoor enthusiasts in the Great Kids, Great Outdoors blog and find more tips and trip ideas in the Appalachian Mountain Club’s community for families, kids.outdoors.org.

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