Hiking with kids, March 2021 update: With the pandemic’s limitations on life, hiking has been huge! Good luck finding a place that’s not too crowded, and remember to bring masks for when you’re around people. This article was originally published in 2018.
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 the number of Seattleites who hike has nearly doubled in the past five years, according to a 2018 Nielsen survey. Nearly half of the city’s population went hiking at least once during the past year. Seattle is now third among major American cities in terms of number of hikers per capita (Salt Lake City is first, Portland, second. But we beat Denver!).
But hiking, though it seems so benign, can be deadly without proper preparation: This winter saw a record number of avalanche deaths in Washington — more than twice the annual average. Google “missing hiker Seattle” and see what it yields. Steep trails and dense brush turns people around. So before setting out to forage for berries or find an enviable Instagram perch, educate yourself and your kids.
For more than a century, the Mountaineers have prepared Pacific Northwest residents for outdoor adventures. Their programs in Seattle, Tacoma and Olympia 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, program manager at the Tacoma center. “They’ll feel like it belongs to them and they’ll be more inclined to support maintaining and protecting wilderness areas.”
The Mountaineers offer several programs geared toward young people, organized by age group: Mini Mountaineers (ages 3-5), Pioneers (ages 7-9), Explorers (10-13), and Mountaineers Adventure Club (MAC; 14-19). 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.
(Editor’s note: The Mountaineers have resumed some in-person programs, with small groups and COVID modifications.)
“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, program manager for the Seattle Mountaineers’ youth clubs, recommends two Mountaineers’ courses for novice hiking families: Backpacking with Kids and Gateway programs. Backpacking with Kids comprises an evening information session, a “trial-run” weekend hike and camp, and opportunities throughout the summer to hike with your family. Gateway programs are periodic offerings covering topics ranging from cooking in the backcountry to bird and plant identification. 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 for their outing. 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.
And be prepared. 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.
Leave an itinerary someone who is not going on the trip. Include when and where you’re going, what you intend to do, and when you expect to return. Check in with them at appointed times.
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. 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.”
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