As grey, rainy days recede, more and more Seattleites emerge from hibernation to venture into the wilderness. For those who have encountered a trailhead parking lot resembling Costco on Saturday afternoon, it will come as no surprise that we are a hike-loving city.
According to Neilsen surveys, the greater Seattle area experienced a dramatic uptick in hikers (40% of the adult population) during the pandemic and a downtick (36%) in this post-pandemic window. Still, 1.17 million Seattleites hit the trails in 2023—and that doesn’t include kids.
Hiking requires planning
But along with all that enthusiasm for nature and movement must come caution. Hiking, though it seems so benign, can be deadly without proper preparation. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, there are an average of 28 avalanche-related deaths in the U.S. each year. Last year, 2023, five of those deaths happened in Washington. Beyond snow and ice slides, dirt can slide and steep trails and dense brush can turn hikers around. So before setting out to forage for berries or find an enviable Instagram perch, educate yourself and your kids on hiking safety.
For more than a century, the Seattle-based Mountaineers have prepared Pacific Northwest residents for outdoor adventures. Their in-person and online programs offer a variety of opportunities for young people and their families to learn how to enjoy the outdoors.
“It’s important that kids are getting outside and enjoying the outdoors and that they have a connection to nature from the start,” says Sarah Holt, Mountaineers associate director of South Sound programs. “They’ll feel like it belongs to them and they’ll be more inclined to support maintaining and protecting wilderness areas.”
Programs that teach hiking safety to kids
The Mountaineers offer several programs geared toward young people, organized by age group: Mini Mountaineers (ages 2-5), Pioneers (ages 6-9), Explorers (10-15), and Mountaineers Adventure Club (MAC; 14-18). The younger groups are for parents and their children; the MAC gives young people more independence. The Mountaineers also offer summer camps and outreach programs in conjunction with local schools and community groups.
“If they’ve been trained in how to react if something goes wrong, they’re going to take a more proactive approach rather than just letting Mom and Dad deal with it,” says Holt. “What if they go out with Dad and Dad’s the one who gets hurt, or they get separated from their parent?”
Carl Marrs, former program manager for the Seattle Mountaineers’ youth clubs, now a guide at Edgeworks Climbing Bellevue recommends at least one Mountaineers’ courses for novice hiking families: “Backpacking with Kids.” Scholarships are available to help offset costs.
Hiking with kids: 10 essentials
If Mountaineers classes aren’t a possibility, Holt and Marrs offer some easy steps to prepare novice hikers. The Washington Trails Association has searchable hike maps with driving directions and trail maps online. Trip reports on the site let you know about trail conditions, closures, and other important information. “It would stink to show up at a place and not have hiking poles when you need poles or trying to hike up an icy trail without spikes,” Marrs says.
The Mountaineers developed a list of the “10 Essentials” that every person — kids included — who ventures into the backcountry should have with them:
- Navigation: Note that a GPS requires batteries; a compass does not
- Sun protection: Sunglasses and sunscreen, even in the winter
- Insulation: An extra set of clothes to keep you warm in a worst-case scenario
- Illumination: A headlamp, flashlight, or lantern with extra batteries
- First-aid supplies: Treatment for blisters, a few bandages, adhesive tape, pain relief, and disinfecting cream or spray
- Fire: Waterproof matches stored in a watertight container — bring more than you think you’ll need. Some sort of fire starter, like dry tinder, lint, or any number of commercially available products
- Repair kit: Duct tape and a knife or multitool
- Nutrition: Extra energy bars, trail mix, jerky, or freeze-dried meals
- Hydration: Water bottles, and also a water filtration or purification system
- Shelter: Depending on the length of your trip, this could range from a tarp (that could be used to make an emergency shelter) to a sleeping bag or tent
Remember, animals live in the woods
In the last few years, there have been several bear and cougar sitings—and a handful of cougar attacks—along Washington trails, state wilderness areas, and even in local cities. The most recent attack occurred in mid-February 2024 when five mountain cyclists were attacked by a cougar. It is critical that both you and your children be aware of that possibility on trails and know what to do in the very rare case that you encounter a cougar, black bear, or other large animal while camping or hiking. When it comes to cougars , the National Park Service recommends:
- Never hike or jog alone.
- Keep children within sight and close to adults.
- Leave pets at home.
- Be alert to your surroundings when hiking.
- If you meet a cougar, do not run. Running could trigger the cougar’s attack instinct. Instead, group together, appear as large as possible, keep eyes on the animal, make lots of noise and shout loudly.
- Throwing rocks or objects at the cougar is also recommended.
To learn what to do in case of a bear attack, check out “Wild animal attacks: How to protect your hiking family.”
Leave your family’s hiking itinerary with someone who is not going on the trip. Include when and where you’re going, what trail you plan to hike, and its location, what you intend to do after your hike, and when you expect to return. Check in with the person who holds the itinerary at appointed times, but especially when you return.
Finally, know the trails. People work hard to maintain the trails. Volunteering for one of the WTA’s trail work parties is an ideal opportunity for those new to the outdoors to learn about trails and get comfortable on them. No training or experience is required, but be prepared to work as a team and do some hiking and cleanup work. Information specific to each activity is available on the WTA’s website.
“The earlier you get into it, the more benefit you’ll derive from it,” says Marrs. “It’s more than just driving your car out to a trailhead, hiking up a trail, taking a picture, and hiking down.”