Hiking with kids is great for them and pretty much essential for adult adventure-frothers who’ve made the transition to family life. But you can’t expect little legs to instantly cope with long distances, or even guarantee that they’ll be interested in trying.
Luckily, Helen Cooper of Primal Adventures is here to help. She reckons our children are far more capable than we think, we just need to give them opportunities to stretch their legs. Here are her tips on training kids up for multi-day hikes plus 9 techniques to keep them motivated on the trail.
Training Kids Up For Multi-Day Hikes
I love living in the city. It’s an exciting and vibrant place full of opportunity, diversity and colour. But my heart has always been in the wilderness. I became convinced at an early age that immersing oneself in the wilderness was wonderfully restorative, enriching and enlivening. That I needed to be in the bush as much as I needed to be in the city.
Before having children, I had worked in Outdoor Education and as a Hiking Guide all over the world – I was a care-free hiker and traveller. Moving back to the city and having kids has been fulfilling — I was fortunate to have two born 17 months apart and live in the inner suburbs of Sydney with all the trappings and pressures that come with it. I always knew I would get back out to explore wild places, but just didn’t know when.
The truth is you can get back out on the trail sooner than you think and kids will walk and carry their gear with much more joy than you can imagine. With the right preparation and a few tricks to keep them going, kids can take on longer hikes before you know it. Here’s how we went about training our girls up for multi-day hikes.
Baby Steps… Literally
When our children were very little we kept on exploring… in a small way. Sometimes just a couple of hours on the Eastern Suburbs Coast Walk, other times a half-day hike in the Blue Mountains. As they grew we took them on lots of day hikes, and they got to see the world peeking out the top of a baby-backpack. They got to crawl in the leaf litter, paddle in all manner of waterholes, and know what it is like to be out in the fresh air away from the distractions of city life.
Go Long… But Keep It Light.
When our oldest daughter was 7 and youngest had just turned 6, we decided to hike the Queen Charlotte Track in New Zealand. This is a 5-day hike in the Marlborough Sounds, and great for families as, if it really gets too hard, you can take a water taxi between camps. The other super-bonus is that you can arrange to have a water taxi pick up your gear each day and drop it off at the next camp. You just need a day pack and some decent shoes. For little kids it is the ideal track to get some experience walking and build up their strength, as it’s safe and comfortable to explore.
It was a huge success, the girls loved it, and it gave us the confidence to explore further.
No Turning Back
Last year, when our children were 8 and 9, we were fortunate (and organised!) enough to be able take 6 months off and travel around parts of Australia. Early in the trip we did many day walks through the Flinders Ranges and Central Australia as a warm up to the first multi-day trip we had planned.
This was 30km over 2 tricky sections of the Larapinta Trail outside Alice Springs over 3 days. It’s beautiful, steep, a bit exposed and quite challenging for little legs. Before we set out, we took the kids to a camping store and made a big ceremony of buying them their very own backpacks. They got to try them on, got them fitted, and chose the colours. One of our children was so keen she even bought her own camping pillow with her own money!
The trip was a roaring success. For the 3 days they carried their sleeping bags, mat and clothes. Between Mike and I, we carried all the food and enough water to get through 2 of the 3 days, which was pretty heavy work to start with. Apart from the odd meltdown on day 1, they carried their packs mostly without complaint. There were a few short moments when we had to shoulder their load as well, but they were thankfully brief. By the end they were really proud to have hiked the distance.
Feeling emboldened by the success of this trip, we hiked the incredible 5 day Jatbula Trail. If you don’t know it, it’s a spectacular 66km hike from Katherine Gorge to Edith Falls in the Northern Territory.
As the days went by, the sections got longer and the waterholes more refreshing. No need to carry tons of water as you could literally stand under a waterfall, open your mouth and drink! The kids really got into the rhythm and carried their packs the whole way. We even steadily increased the load by asking them to carry their own snacks for the day as well. This made the load lighter for us and increased their sense of independence. At the end of the 5 days, we were all feeling on top of the world, so deeply connected to each other and to the sacred land that we had been walking across, as others had for thousands of years.
I recall one of us asking the girls somewhere on the trail, “So do you actually like hiking” and I was pleased to hear that they replied with a resounding, “Yes!” Seeing the pride in the children as we approached the end of the journey, knowing they had just walked 66km, was sheer delight.
Hiking as a family has been a real turning point for the independence and confidence of our children. Now that we have returned to Sydney I have a renewed enthusiasm for enabling others to find the peace and connectedness that comes from wilderness adventures with kids.
Our children are far more capable than we think. If we give them opportunities to stretch their legs and a little support, they always amaze us.
9 Techniques To Keep Kids Moving And Motivated On Multi-Day Hikes
# 1 Create A Routine
Make sure you let the kids know before heading out approximately how long it will take, when you will be stopping for breaks, what time lunch is, what time you expect to get into camp… Create your daily family hiking routine and stick to it.
# 2 Give Them A Reward
But not too frequently… On the Queen Charlotte Track, the kids’ reward was just one Freddo Frog mid-afternoon, with the caveat of no whinging before then. This was the best deterrent to any complaining, and ensured that the last bit of the hike just before camp was also great, as they had received a little treat to spur them on. It doesn’t take much – oversupplying treats does not make them go faster!
# 3 Look After Yourself
Make sure you have had enough food, are not too tired, have ‘walked-in’ your shoes and adjusted your pack properly. Grouchy mum and dad do not make for a fun trip.
# 4 Operate As A Team
Most importantly, make sure all the grown-ups are on the same page and can reinforce the same expectations. Walk at their pace (with encouragement to go faster!) and put them in front if possible. If they are a real dawdler, hold their hand to help them along.
# 5 Throw In Some Games
Play I spy, follow the leader, spot the bird species, sing songs they love, anything to keep their mind off putting one foot in front of the other.
# 6 Give Them Jobs
They might be the navigator, the leader, the timekeeper, the snack distributor, or the entertainer. Ensure they have a useful role in the team dynamic and they can also learn great skills at the same time.
# 7 Keep It Positive
Give them tons of positive reinforcement. Ignore the glaringly obvious other indiscretions and annoyances. Grit your teeth and take a few deep breaths. When they have made the distance, take lots of photos and tell everyone you know how great they were, in front of them.
# 8 Do Loop Walks
Or start and finish in different places, rather than a hike where you can turn around after a certain distance. It makes it a journey, and one that they (or you!) can’t flake out of.
# 9 Have Them Carry Their Own Gear
Even if it is only a water bottle, get them starting to carry gear even on the shortest hikes. If they carry a small backpack with a water bottle and a snack, it gives them some autonomy and self-determination. When you get to multi-day trips, they will be more ready to carry their sleeping bag and clothes as a start.