I’ve been asked so many times how I’ve managed to coax my 3 year old into hiking with me and my husband. “I can’t get mine to walk down the road before they’re having a meltdown!” I hear my friends complain. Well, don’t be fooled people, our daughter Acacia was just the same, it’s quite normal.
Now she’s going on three and a half and she’s the youngest person to have hiked the TCT (Trans-Catalina Trail on Catalina Island off of mainland Los Angeles). She completed the four day, 40 mile (65km), 9,600ft elevation hike at 3 years and 3 months old. A whole three years younger than the youngest person to complete it before her.
How on earth did she do it? Or, should I say, how did my husband and I prepare her for such a daring feat?
We started her young and made it her normal.
Weekend thru-hike camping trips and weekday mornings of brisk loops to get her legs accustomed to the concept of walking for no reason other than to just walk.
It took many many months, meltdowns and more patience than we ever knew we had to get her to the point she’s at now. But let me tell you it’s worth it!
Weekends of nature escapes, climbing to vistas and morning reserve walks instead of being glued to the screen or frustratingly finding something new and interesting to do at home every 15 minutes.
We went through the trenches and came out the other end so that now we can share with you our secrets and tips on how prepare YOUR toddler or child for hiking life.
1. SNACKS, SNACKS…THEN MORE SNACKS
Come prepared with delicious, cajoling treats that won’t just rev up their energy levels but keep their mouths and minds so busy with chewing that they’ll forget about the monotony of what their legs are doing.
These treats are best in bite-size form. For example; dried mango, nuts, polenta chips, dates or pieces of raw bar are easily popped in the mouth so as not to become a stop-and-focus subject of their attention. Save the sandwiches for the sit down lunch break.
What’s important is that they are high in energy and tempting enough to be used as a happy distraction while walking for miles through the bush.
2. TARGET POINTS
When we first took Acacia on a long hike we quickly realized that she, unlike us, had no real purpose to walk a great distance in the woods just because.
They have no concept or need for exercise, bucket list ticking of kilometers hiked or knowledge of how much further to go until the viewpoint comes into sight. To them it’s rather humdrum.
So, we started setting target points for her to get to that were in clear eyesight. They’d be about 100-200 meters away with a distinctness about them like a fallen branch, or the sap on a tree, or a stump. Once she reached that target she’d either get a bite-sized snack or a high-five until the next target was set.
This does become tedious work for whoever is doing the training, but as you start to stretch out your target marks and the snacks become less you’ll find they soon get their legs.
3. GET THEM TALKING
The brain is a powerful thing. Children can run around in circles all day long (literally running for miles in a day) and never tire.
Why don’t they ever complain about being tired at the park with their friends 10 minutes in? Because their brain is pre-occupied with something else.
So when you find yourself asking the question of how your usually buzzed child has gone limp just 200 meters into the walk, it’s time to switch their brains from focusing on their legs/feet and onto any thrilling subject of conversation you can think of!
This might be, singing songs from their favorite movie/nursery rhyme, why their favorite color is purple, what they’d like to do over the weekend, if they can spot any birds, where you think your lunch spot should be…etc.
Just keep the conversation flowing and their minds preoccupied, their legs will do the rest.
4. TREASURE HUNTING
While the purpose for you might be to complete a 3 kilometer hike with your toddler, that’s not enough of a reason for your kid to want to try it again.
That’s when you hand them a basket/backpack/vest with several pockets and go treasure hunting. This isn’t just a good way to get them excited about the trail but an excellent pre-cursor to more craft fun back at home with all the rocks, feathers, leaves, flowers and tree nuts you’ve collected along the way.
While you may encounter a lot of stopping and starting and lingering and questioning it’s all part of getting them excited. Once they’ve got the general hang of it, give them some time to collect then encourage them to keep moving so they don’t miss out on better things ahead.
In other words, lure them out of their dawdling. Keep them moving!
You’ll need a lot of this too, it’s psychological warfare out there.
Your kids will need to be worked, encouraged, enticed and talked into it every week until they start to get the hang of it. It’s like anything. But you have the chance (at this young stage) to choose what you want their normal to be.
If hiking is for you, it can be for them too.
And just when you’re ready to throw in the towel you’ll hear, “Mum can we go and climb some mountains!”
6. INVEST IN THEIR FEET
And lastly, invest in their footwear!
I’m not kidding. I know it makes little sense to spend more on your children’s shoes than your own (or at least the same) but it’s well worth it when they cease complaining about their feet.
Think about your energy levels after a few hours of walking in high heels or a pair of badly fitting business shoes. It can suck the life out of you right? Then consider the little feet that haven’t yet developed the years of muscular strength, flexibility, control and abrasion we’ve had.
Those cute little bundles of flesh need some serious support in the form of Merrell’s, Teva’s (2-4 years old), Altra’s or Saloman’s (4+). They might set you back about $60, but they’ll set you back a lot less on the trail because of them.
It won’t be easy, but you already know that.
If you invest the time and energy (like anything in the parenthood realm) you’ll see the benefits tenfold.
And then one day, you hear one of you’re kids shout,
“Come on Dad! Who’s not picking their feet up now?”
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