Family hiking 101: Five rules for hitting the trail with little trekkers

Story and Photos by MEGHAN McCARTHY McPHAUL
Special to the Union Leader
May 19. 2018 8:20PM
The Artist Bluff-Bald Mountain loop in Franconia Notch rewards hikers with fantastic views. Here, Eagle Cliff and Lafayette rise to the left, with the ski trails of Cannon Mountain at the right and Echo Lake in the center. (MEGHAN McCARTHY McPHAUL)
10 Hiking Essentials
While it's unlikely you'll need many of these on a short trek, it's a good idea to get used to carrying them. I leave everything in my hiking pack so it's ready to go whenever we hit the trail.

• Navigation (map and compass)

• Sun protection (sunscreen, hat, sunglasses)

• Insulation (extra layer, wool cap, and add a rain coat just in case)

• Illumination (flashlight or headlamp - check the batteries before you go)

• First-aid kit

• Waterproof matches/firestarter

• Pocket utility knife/repair kit (extra shoe laces, duct tape, zip-ties)

• Extra food and water

• Emergency shelter (this can be as simple as a couple of large plastic trash bags)

- Meghan McCarthy McPhaul

Granite Staters have been climbing mountains for more than 375 years - ever since Darby Field bushwhacked his way to the lofty summit of Mount Washington in 1642.

These days there are hiking trails aplenty in New Hampshire, and hiking is an activity that can be fine-tuned to any age and interest. It's a great way to spend family time outside and explore some of the innumerable beautiful spots in our state, whether tall mountains, low crags, or quiet ponds.

My own family hikes started when the kids were only a few months old, strapped into front packs and carried up the trail. We progressed to kid-carrying backpacks, then slowly hiking with toddlers and preschoolers. As the kids have grown, so has the size - and the pace - of the hiking adventures.

Along the winding trails, I've picked up a few hiking-with-kids tricks, gleaned from hiking friends, hiking blogs, and simple experience. The most important thing for parents looking to get kids on the trail is to keep it fun.

Rule No. 1: Manage Expectations

This is a tough one. While Mom and Dad may think of a day on the trail as a means to bagging their next 4,000-footer, Junior may be perfectly happy with a 1-mile trek to a nearby pond - and perfectly miserable trying to keep up with longer-legged, more experienced, more driven hikers.

If you want your kids to want to hike with you, you're probably going to have to bring it down a notch (or several).

Parents with kids new to hiking should also plan for outings to take much longer than expected. Little legs require more steps to get to where they're going, and kids can be easily distracted along the trail.

"It's really important to set expectations so the hike is something that's achievable for the kids," said Sara DeLucia, program director at the Appalachian Mountain Club's Highland Center in Crawford Notch.

"When my kids were really young, I came to the revelation that we didn't have to make it to our destination on every hike," said Martha Wilson, an avid outdoorswoman and mom to kids aged 10 and 8, who lives in Dunbarton. "There were times when I really wanted to go, go, go, but the kids were so happy to be throwing sticks in a stream or searching for toads that I had to force myself to just appreciate that we were outside having fun."

Among her family's favorite hikes is Mount Kearsarge, which has several routes to the summit, where there's a fire tower and views stretching from Mount Washington to Boston. For the littlest hikers, there's a half-mile trail from the top of the toll road, which means a short hike can feel like a big adventure.

Sarah Burdette, a hiking mom from Concord, said when her kids - now 11 and 9 with a few 4,000-footers under their belts - first started hiking, she sought trails with multiple options: a longer loop with a shorter escape route if the kids were struggling. She points to the 4.5-mile Welch and Dickey loop in Thornton as a good example: "If need be you can turn around at the lookout (1.9 miles in) and consider it a successful day. If things are going well, you can do the whole loop."

Rule No. 2: Choose a cool destination

The end of a hike does not have to be atop some lofty, boulder-strewn peak. It could be a waterfall, a low summit with a great view, or a stream for little toes to splash in.

My kids' first hike - Bald Mountain and Artists Bluff in Franconia - remains one of my family's favorites, because it's short (1.8-mile loop), familiar, and has a killer view of Franconia Notch from the top. Throw in finding lady's slippers in May and snacking on trailside wild blueberries in August, and this now-easy jaunt can be a great excuse to get everyone out of the house. Echo Lake is also across the road from the trailhead, perfect for cooling off with a post-hike swim.

"I always try to pick a hike where there is something cool at the end - a waterfall, a pond, an AMC hut, or a cool rock formation," said Amanda Guilbert of Campton, who started hiking with her now 10- and 8-year-old boys when they were toddlers. "Especially when the boys were little, we'd look for frogs, toads, red efts, and any other creature or evidence of a creature."

Guilbert also involves her kids in planning, offering a few suggestions and letting them pick the hike that sounds like the most fun.

Waterfalls are another favorite, and there are several in New Hampshire at the end of relatively short treks. DeLucia lists Arethusa Falls (about 3 miles round-trip - longer if you add the Frankenstein Cliff loop) and Ripley Falls (just over a mile round-trip), both in Crawford Notch, as great water-centric hikes for families. For slightly longer outings, consider Bridal Veil Falls in Franconia (about 4.5 miles) and Zealand Falls in Twin Mountain (just over 5 miles, with beaver ponds and log bridges along the way - and the AMC's Zealand Hut just beyond the falls).

Rule No. 3: Bribery and Distraction

If you're new to this hiking-with-kids thing, it seems only fair to let you know whining will happen. It's all about mitigating the amount of that whining - and trying to ensure the good memories outweigh the challenging moments.

As a parent, I have learned the value of bribery in many situations. Hiking is one of them. I stash secret snacks in my backpack to bring out in dire situations. While good nutrition is important on the trail, bits of chocolate and other small candy doled out strategically can go a long way toward keeping little feet moving.

Distraction is also a great way to combat the "are-we-there-yet" blues. DeLucia sometimes enlists young hikers as animal or plant "detectives," encouraging them to look for specific wildflowers that may be blooming or animal signs - tracks in the trail, marks on trees, or birdsong and other sounds from the surrounding forest.

Hiking games - think road-trip games, without the car - can also come in handy to keep kids entertained. These can include Guess My Animal (most kids know some version of this), 20 Questions, or Would-You-Rather.

Bringing a pal along for the adventure can also be helpful in keeping young hikers happy. We often hike with friends, which means the parents have other adults to help out as needed, and the kids have buddies to chit chat with as they make their way along the trail, which means less whining.

Rule No. 4: Eat (and drink) well

People in general - and especially kids - seem to be happiest when they are well-fed and hydrated. This is doubly true on the trail. Hiking, even slow hiking, expends tons of energy. Figuring out the snack break-to-hiking time ratio is a bit of an art form and will depend a good bit on individual hikers - and the hike.

My kids love making their own snack mix from nuts, dried fruit, and chocolate. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are easy to pack. Various fruit, crackers, and snack bars also get thrown into the pack. I always bring more food than I think we'll possibly need, and we almost always eat it all.

Water is also key, and while kids will ask for snacks, they're less likely to ask for water. Make sure they're sipping along the way to stay well hydrated. Camelbak and other manufacturers make kid-sized hydration packs, which can also hold an extra layer and snacks.

For families just starting out, it's probably a good idea for parents to carry all or most of whatever you're bringing on the hike. Once the kids have done a few hikes, they can carry some of their own gear.

Rule No. 5: Stay safe

Even on short hikes, there are measures families should take to stay safe. The first is sticking together.

"Hiking as a group is really important," DeLucia said. "Make sure your kids know they have to stop at all trail junctions."

All hikers should have good footwear - either hiking boots or sneakers with a good, grippy sole - along with an extra layer and a rain coat. (For more of what to carry, see the box on the 10 Hiking Essentials.)

Parents should be familiar with a route before hitting the trail with young hikers, either through personal experience or studying a good guide book. Always check the weather forecast, of course, and be prepared for changing conditions and cooler temps up high. DeLucia said AMC staffers are always happy to share information about trails and current trail conditions. (AMC lists weather and conditions for many routes at; or call the Highland Center at 603 278-4453.)

Hikers should also make sure someone NOT going along knows what their route is and when they expect to return. While I don't like to use my phone on the trail and generally leave it on airplane mode (which still allows me to snap photos), if there is reception at the midpoint of our hike, I will send a text to a friend or relative at home to let them know where we are, and we always call when we've made it back to the car.

For additional guidelines on safe hiking practices, visit Be safe, have fun, and get out there!


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