Hiking with kids? It's never too soon, author suggests

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Think hiking with young children is a hassle?

It doesn't have to be. Jeff Alt just wrote a book full of tips and detailed instructions to make hiking with kids an adventure and even a stress reliever.

In "Get Your Kids Hiking: How to Start Them Young and Keep it Fun" (Beaufort Books, $13.95), Mr. Alt, 46, draws from his own experiences to show parents and caregivers how to hike with their little ones starting from their first few months of life. He has hiked the 2,160-mile Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine, and he tackled the 218-mile John Muir Trail in California with his wife, Beth.

The Alts took their daughter on her first hike to Red River Gorge in Kentucky when she was 2 months old and their son to Shenandoah National Park when he was only 6 weeks old.

The book includes chapters devoted to different age groups, backpacking, overnight trips, safety tips, using park resources, supplies you will need on the trail and more.

Mr. and Mrs. Alt live in Cincinnati where they both work as speech language pathologists. This summer they are touring around the country and sharing their wisdom with parents and caregivers. They appeared Tuesday at the REI at SouthSide Works for a book signing.

Here are some of the strategies they've picked up when it comes to hiking with children:

Hiking with infants

All you need is an infant carrier or sling, a sturdy pair of running shoes for yourself and moisture wicking clothes and socks. Hiking with your baby can be as simple as walking a few blocks around the neighborhood. The goal is to establish a routine so that your child will come to see this as a normal part of his or her day. Set aside 30 minutes for hiking each day and stick with it.

"An infant is the easiest time to hike because they're not going to object or say no," Mr. Alt said. "They just think that's what you do, and that's the best time to get out there with the child."

Hiking with your preschooler

"I'm tired. I'm hungry. I'm hot. I'm thirsty. I WANT to SIT DOWN!"

Hiking with preschoolers can be among the most challenging ages -- They're too old to be carried but too young to have much stamina. This can cause stress as they will want to stop every few feet to explore their surroundings. Mr. Alt's solution: Let them.

"The philosophy is to make this a child-directed deal," he said. "You may only hike 100 feet and stop at a creek and splash your feet and throw rocks in the creek or something, but if they had fun and that's what they wanted to do, they're going to want to go again."

Child-directed hiking is when the child leads. Let them pick the pace and look at things through their eyes. You can also keep them engaged by having them pack an "adventure pack" that includes supplies such as a water bottle, binoculars, a flashlight or even a toy.

Getting your teenager involved

Mr. Alt recognizes that the teenage years can be hard on children. They are going through physical and emotional changes and hiking may be the last thing they want to do. Whether they have been hiking for years or are new to the experience, it is important not to force them to go hiking as this may result in more resistance. To get them engaged, incorporate some of their interests into the hike. If they like hanging out with friends, invite them along. Let them have a hand in planning the trip with a pre-trip adventure party, where you can all go over the cool sites, views and activities. Take their abilities into consideration when planning the trip. Challenge your seasoned hiker with a new destination or a longer hike but always keep it manageable.

Let your children use their tech-savvy skills

There is no denying that today's children spend a lot of time plugged into their gadgets. Engage them and build up their excitement by incorporating electronics into the hiking experience. Mr. Alt suggests letting the children hop onto the computer to research the park you're going to. They can look at maps, find out how long the trails are and see which animals they might encounter. Look up useful apps such as a compass that you can download onto your smartphone. Have the children carry pedometers or teach them how to use GPS coordinates.

Bring snacks and water

When hitting the trails, it is important to stay hydrated. Pack water bottles or hydration hose systems and make sure to stop every 15 or 20 minutes for a water break. When the kids begin to tire, a snack could give them a burst of energy. Now is not the time to try out a new snack; bring food the children will enjoy eating because "if they don't like it at home, they're not going to like it outside," Mr. Alt said.

Hike local

You don't need to cart yourself to a national park. If you're ready to move beyond your neighborhood, check out one of the many parks in Pittsburgh and its surrounding areas. Start simple and plan a picnic adventure for the kids. There also is the Three Rivers Heritage Trail System, a 24-mile trail and greenway system that runs along the three rivers in Pittsburgh. Among the options outside the city are the trails around Ohiopyle State Park in Fayette County and the Rachel Carson Trail, a 35.7-mile trail between Harrison Hills County Park and North Park that could be hiked in sections.

It is also important to outfit yourself well. "If you're going to do this a lot, you want to have the right clothing like non-cotton clothing and well-fitted shoes," Mr. Alt said.

Keep it fun

Whether your child is 6 months old, 6 years old or 16, Mr. Alt said that the ultimate goal is to make sure everyone is having fun.

"We adults want to hike out to that view, we want to go to the top of that mountain, and that's not the goal with kids," he said. "They may not even know there's a view out there. All they know is they're on an adventure, and they're experiencing a lot of this for the first time."

For more tips and personal anecdotes from the Alts' hiking experiences, check out Jeff Alt's "Get Your Kids Hiking." There are chapters devoted to different age groups, backpacking, overnight trips, safety tips, using park resources, supplies you will need on the trail and more.


Kitoko Chargois: kchargois@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1088.


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