My favorite kinds of family trips are those for which we spend a ton of time in nature. Day hikes, camping—you name the outdoorsy activity and it’s on my list. In this case, you could call me a Louvite, which is to say that I ascribe to the beliefs and research of Richard Louv.
This also explains why I loved Jeff Alt’s forthcoming book, “Get Your Kids Hiking: How to Start Them Young and Keep it Fun!” In the book, the Cincinnati-based author offers tips and tricks on age-appropriate ways to include your child in all aspects of a hike, checklists of what to pack for any type of hike and advice for hiking with a special needs child. In short, he presents the Appalachian Trail of books about family travel outdoors.
I recently caught up with Alt to ask him about his work. Here are some highlights of our chat.
Q. Why is it so hard for parents to get their kids to embrace the outdoors?
A. There’s a fear factor that’s been instilled; within my own family ranks, we have families that literally are afraid of the outdoors. Also, as parents we’re all so busy now, and handing your kid a Smart phone or a gadget is easier and instantly quiets them down. So there are bad habits that have formed.
Q. What are the biggest challenges around building family vacation around being outside?
A. The biggest challenge is finding something age-appropriate. Some people might feel limited if their children are just starting to walk on their own or the kids are too heavy in a child carrier. My philosophy is that from birth to age 3, you can do whatever you want, so long as you can carry your child. Whatever you decide to do with your kids in terms of hiking, I wouldn’t recommend extreme weather hiking. And nothing too strenuous.
Q. Gear is so expensive these days. How can a family take up hiking without breaking the bank?
A. Gear can be expensive, but in general, hiking is probably the cheapest form of family time and entertainment available. If you think about it, you can acquire everything you need from second-hand clothing store. Child carriers, clothes, things like that. Finding long john underwear for your kids is harder; sometimes brand like Patagonia is the only choice in that department. Also, when they start to hike more, then you want to look at a good pair of running shoes with a decent sole on the bottom. If you have more than one child, buy things in neutral-colored clothing so that your young son can wear what your daughter wore.
Q. What’s the most important lesson to teach kids about life on the trail?
A. My first goal when I take my kids out is to make sure they know we’re not required to get anywhere or do anything. I follow their lead. If they want to walk for an hour, we do that. If they want to skip rocks across a creek a quarter-mile from the trailhead, we do that. I call this ‘child-directed hiking.’ My goal as a father is to make the whole experience so much fun that they want to go again and again. If they seem engaged on a hike, I know the hike has been a success. Another key lesson is to make sure they know that they should take nothing from the woods but memories and pictures.
Q. How old is old enough to overnight in the backcountry?
A. Personally, I don’t recommend hiking overnight until a child is old enough to carry some or most of their gear. Another potential problem with getting kids to do overnights too soon: You run the risk of putting your child into this forced road march, which could turn them off to the point where they won’t go again. I recommend base-camping and day hiking from there. Before you leave on your adventure, I recommend taking walks with the equipment you’re going to wear so that you—and your kids—can get used to it. Make sure the only surprises are what they’ll find on the trail. This will make everyone happier in the end.