Read a childhood classic such as ‘Swallows and Amazons’ and you’d be forgiven for thinking that children naturally spend their time running carefree through miles of glorious countryside in pursuit of adventure.
This romantic ideal of childhood has grown evermore distant as society has moved on. These days over 80% of the population in England and Wales lives in urban areas (2011 Census) . Children are more likely to be found indoors playing lego, watching CBeebies or playing on an iPad than roaming free.
In the Baby Routes household we have been keen from the start to get the kids out walking and to share our love of the outdoors. I believe it’s hugely important to engage children with nature whilst they are still young. Hopefully that way a little part of them will always appreciate the natural world and the opportunities it offers, even if they do turn their backs on it a bit during their teenage years.
Getting out walking with a baby requires a bit more prep than in pre-child days, particularly if you live in town, but it is not rocket science. Making hiking with young kids a regular, fun event can be more challenging. Here are some things that I’ve learnt whilst trying to do just that:
Roo and Beth were both bundled up in slings and out over the fields within the first few weeks of being born. They both spent considerable time as babies in the fresh air. It calmed both them and their sleep-deprived parents! It worked equally well later during toddler tantrums.
When Roo was tiny being upright and soothed by the steady rhythm of my steps helped calm her from her terrible reflux. I recall her craning her neck back as far as possible when we walked in woods to watch the way the trees swayed above her. It was like an enchantment.
Longer walks had a soporific effect and the more time we spent outdoors, the more the girls seemed to want to get outside. It’s no coincidence that nature words were amongst the first words Beth spoke. These days they both go a bit bananas if they don’t get a daily good dose of fresh air.
Keep walks short & regular
With a baby you can head out on a decent hike in the right conditions, scheduling in regular feed and wriggle breaks. Once kids are beyond the snuggle and snooze stage and start taking a real interest in the world then consider cutting down on longer hikes to avoid bored children.
Once kids find their feet, things change again. Prioritise slowly building stamina and encourage little people to engage with their outdoor environment. Do a lap of the park on foot before heading to the swings, walk back from play-school counting birds and trees, head to your nearest green space for a nature treasure hunt or stroll along the river a bit before feeding the ducks.
Keep walking but make most routes short, sweet and accept that for a little while they are going to be painfully slow (we’re talking covering 1km in over an hour). Leave the pushchair/sling/scooter behind on super-short outings. What’s the worst that can happen?
Don’t give up
When Roo got to the stage above I began to despair of ever walking further than the park again. Roo wanted to walk – great! She loved being outdoors – great! She could only do short speedy spurts though before sitting down and declaring defeat. Alternatively she would dawdle over every stone, stick or bug, turning what used to be a 15 minute stroll into an hour long hike.
In the end I briefly gave up on walking anywhere but the same familiar short local trails. That way retreat, if needed, was simple. Five minutes of walking followed by five minutes of play proved a winning combo to complete a short circuit. Accepting the continual nature play as the positive it is and allowing more time for our outings also helped.
Within six months Roo was walking half an hour. These days she can go for a couple of hours comfortably. The dawdle stage does not last long – something we tell ourselves lots given that Beth, at two, has just hit this stage. At least following her big sister adds extra motivation now. Just keep getting out there!
Think like a kid
Tell a kid they are going hiking and be prepared to be met with looks of indifference. Ask them if they’d like to go on an adventure, for a teddy bear’s picnic, on a treasure hunt or to find a castle and the response is likely to be the opposite.
At four Roo is now able to share some more ‘grown-up’ hiking goals, such as reaching a landmark. When she volunteered to wear a head-cam for a couple of walks though it proved her perspective of a walk is still very different from ours. Instead of footage that slowly took in the path and surrounding views, Roo’s video was a mad dash from one tree to the next – a dizzy medley of looking up to see a bird, down to examine a rock and then manic galloping to a gate or to climb a tree. It’s no wonder she gets tired before us!
Our most successful walks are those planned with the children firmly in mind. I plan routes that include river paddling, old hill-forts, walking under railway bridges or duck & boat spotting opportunities.
For walks without an obvious feature themed hikes are always popular. We have been on a ‘Peter Rabbit hunt’ (complete with bunny ears), looking for animal tracks or chanting an adapted version of ‘We’re going on a Bear Hunt’. Walks with a purpose e.g. to the woods to building a den, foraging or to take bark rubbings are also good. Don’t forget a bag for any nature treasures!
Consider the weather
By this I don’t mean only go out in summer. You can go hiking with very young children most of the year, it’s just about adjusting time outside, distances and kit.
Really horrible weather is another matter. A bit of rain is ok and cold in the right kit is fine. Hiking in cold wind with tiny tots though is just not worth it – I’ve found this out the hard way! Even with children who actually keep hats and hoods on, a strong, cold wind seems to make little ears ache and for young walkers it can make the going very tough. It also makes it hard to hear properly which means you can’t distract or entertain children easily to keep morale up. Keep walks low, sheltered and super-short or just swap the walk for garden/park play.
Mud is the other condition to watch out for. Peppa Pig and her puddles are all very well but try and walk any serious distance on soft ground with a little hiker after prolonged heavy rain and you will quickly find those little wellies weighed down. You’ll end up carrying them (and if you do, take those wellies off first)! Head for well-draining high ground or paved puddley paths to keep the kids smiling.
The sunniest day can turn bad quickly in the UK and even grown-ups have their ‘off’ days! Check your hiking route in advance for potential ‘escape’ routes and shorter options in case things do not go to plan. Pack a simple first aid kit.
If hiking is going to be a regular family activity then I believe it’s worth investing in good kit. Nothing spoils a walk faster than wet, cold, grumpy hikers! Take your time to research your waterproof fabric ratings, invest in wind-proof head-wear and in decent footwear for both yourself and the kids.
If cost is an issue then buy kids’ kit in gender neutral colours – my experience is that quality kit will stand the test of time to be passed down to younger siblings and can be resold at a good price. If you only buy one coat then make it a waterproof/windproof shell. It’s easy to pack, can be used in all seasons and you can always layer other clothes underneath it.
If you’re going to be hiking regularly cross-country with a baby on your back then I recommend always walking in footwear with decent ankle support, even in good, dry weather. I’ve nearly gone flying on some really small, insignificant lumps and bumps in the past when in the wrong footwear.
Footwear becomes even more important when carrying bigger children, in muddy/icy conditions or on rugged terrain. You really don’t want to take a tumble with a tot on your back or sprain an ankle when carrying the kids is the only way to get home.
Getting the right sling, carrier or pushchair is also important. I’ve tested a lot of carriers and found that unsurprisingly the most comfy ones are not usually the cheapest. The same goes for the more versatile cross-country pushchairs. Borrow carriers from a friend first or check if you have a local sling library so you make the right choice – you’ll need to test for at least 40 minutes to know if it’s going to work out walking for you.
Finally, don’t forget the snacks or drinks even on short walks!
Learn some tricks
At some point you will have a tough family walk. The kids won’t be in the mood, the route might prove over-ambitious or the weather turn miserable. Whatever the reason, every hiking parent will at some point find their kids hunkering down mid-path and refusing to carry on. Moaning ‘I’m tired’ whilst dragging their feet at snail speed, with the knock-on effect of younger carried siblings kicking off too because the pace has slowed is also likely!
At these times it’s best to leave the trip dissection for later. Your immediate problem is getting home with happy kids. It’s time to pull out your arsenal of motivational tricks. Here are some of my favourites:
- Point out interesting plants, trees shaped like animals, clouds, anything that is at least a meter ahead!
- Use sticks to make wands to ‘magic’ children into moving in different ways. Make stick antlers/horns for their heads so they can gallop like deer/unicorns/monsters,
- Refresh your repertoire of nursery rhymes Now might be the time to give-in to humorous or personalised lyrics!
- Focus on small distances and goals. ‘I bet there’s a bear round the next corner’ or ‘where’s Daddy gone’ are all winners in our household for gaining a few more speedy precious meters.
- Tell outlandish group stories (ask them for characters if they really don’t want to join in),
- Play silly games (flapping to the next corner like birds or ‘vrooming’ like a tractor is always popular).
- Send them ahead to find ‘treasure’ of nature items or to find the most interestingly shaped stick or stone.
If all fails then please don’t feel guilty about small ‘rewards’. It pays to have a secret stash of something tasty for these moments to ‘help give them some more energy’ when they reach a set point. A promise of a hot choc or cake at the end of the walk can be equally as effective. I’m sure there are plenty of more virtuous non-food alternatives out there.
Having a stowable sling for young walkers is also a good idea for emergency use. The Patapum one is great for older toddlers.
If you offer piggy-back rides then remember that your light-as-a-feather angel will feel like a sack of potatoes in a matter of meters! Delay rides until the final section if possible. Also, if like me you want to be able to hike solo with more than one child then resist letting other adults carry the kids too often on group walks – they may well expect you to do the same when you’re hiking alone.
With both emergency carrying and rewards, just make sure these are used sparingly or you’ll get nagged on every future walk…
Recoup and encourage
After a tricky walk it’s important to get back out again soon in a really positive way. Don’t call it a walk – go for a short outing to spot boats by the river, wander along the beach to find shells or head out to the park. After the (hopefully positive) outing ask kids if they had a good ‘walk’. Don’t attempt anything challenging until they’ve positively reset the word ‘walk’!
It goes without saying that praise goes a long way with children. Whatever their walk experience, focusing on the good things and turning challenges into how adventurous they were helps a lot.
Involve the kids
Getting buy-in from kids is crucial, particularly as they get older. Ask them for walk theme and location ideas. Show them maps and explain some of the symbols. Let them choose a footpath from a restricted pre-selection and listen to how the are feeling that day about getting outdoors before selecting your final route.
Have fun and be flexible!
Above all, the key to making family hiking a habit is to make it fun for everyone. For parents that might mean discovering new definitions of a ‘good walk’ and being prepared to alter hiking plans if the conditions (kids’ mood included) just aren’t quite right.
It’s amazing how much you learn from kids about enjoying the outdoors in a childlike way again. Walking slower has tuned me in more to wildlife and small observations that I missed back in the days when I’d march past intent on reaching the view. I’ve also found I still enjoy climbing trees just as much as Roo and Beth (plus I can get higher these days)! Spending time with family is rewarding enough and to watch kids switching on to the natural world is a huge joy.
As my older relatives and friends tell me, before we know it our mini-hikers will be fully grown and ready to embark on more extensive and grown-up outdoor adventures independently. Just like all stages of childhood I plan to make the most of each age of my outdoor children – I know I’ll miss it when they finally stop poking everything with sticks! Hopefully developing a happy hiking habit now sets them up for a life-time of outdoor adventure.
This post is sponsored by specialist independent outdoor retailer e-outdoor.co.uk from whom I received my fantastic, complimentary new Meindl hiking boots! All words, experience and advice remain as ever entirely my own, especially the ‘using sticks as deer antlers’ idea. I’m particularly proud of that one.