Hiking with Kids in the Santa Monica Mountains

Children on the Trail
Author's daughter on hike
Author's daughter on hike. From age five on, most children should be able to complete a hike under their own power.

Hiking poses special challenges when children are among your companions. Some of those challenges are physical, others are psychological. In both cases, it pays to be prepared.

In general, a baby is old enough to be carried on a hike when it can hold up its head without difficulty, something most infants are capable of by the age of six months. In some ways, this is the best age at which to bring children on the trail, mainly because they'll sleep much of the time, don't weigh much and they'll stay where you put them when you stop for a lunch break or an hour of wool-gathering at a spectacular viewpoint. On the other hand an infant isn't very good at conversation and is decidedly unawed by scenery, Each age brings with it a unique combination of advantages and disadvantage.

There are several lightweigt child-carriers on the market which will allow you to carry an infant in relative comfort even on a long day hike. Their thin shoulder pads and belts are not adequate, however, once the child reaches about 20 pounds. For toddlers you'll need a heavier pack, one designedlike any good internal- or external-frame backpackto transfer most of the weight to your hips. Several models of the heavier child-carriers are available although they are costly. Shop carefully, or inquire about rentals. Look for strong construction, plenty of adjustability to ensure your child won't outgrow it quickly, ample padding in the straps and hip belt, and storage for the many items you'll need to carry. Take time in the store to try it on with a real kid on board. Both of you need to be happy with the pack if you hope to enjoy your hikes.

Children develop at different rates, so it is risky to generalize. But you can probably count on carrying your youngster on most hikes until the age of three. After that, you'll need the pack for trails longer than a couple of miles, and those that involve much elevation change. From five on, with judicious trip selection, your child should be able to make it most of the way on his or her own.

Even if you are an experienced backpacker, carrying a child on your back will pose new challenges. For one thing, 30 pounds of kid does not behave like 30 pounds of tent, stove, sleeping bag, cookset and clothing. Kids move, throwing you off balance at critical moments. As cargo, a seated child has a lower center of gravity than a well-packed load of inanimate objects, making it almost impossible to achieve ideal weight distribution. Practice by carrying the child around town before venturing into the unpredictable backcountry.

There are a few other things to keep in mind when preparing to take your child on the trail.

1. Pack snacks such as bite-size pieces of fruit, raisins and crackers in small plastic bags so your child can munch as you walk. This will help prevent fussiness in a child riding in a pack, and will give an energy boost to one on foot. Don't wait more than half an hour into the hike to provide a child on foot with something to eat, or you'll risk the crankiness that comes with depleted blood sugar.

2. Bring spare diapers and a sealable plastic bag in which to store them when they're soiled. Do not bury disposables.

3. Remember to stop every hour or so and remove your child from the pack. A toddler will need to run around a bit, and an infant will welcome the change in position.

4. Apply sunscreen to your child, keeping in mind that shade is rare or nonexistent on the Channel Islands and other coastal parks.

5. If the weather is cold, keep your child bundled up. You might not be cold, but a child kept motionless in a backpack will become chilled long before you do.

6. If the weather is hot, a T-shirt and shorts are probably all you'll need to dress your child in. Hemmed in by the unbreathable nylon of most pack cloth, your youngster may have trouble staying cool. A hat is a good idea, although it's a rare child who won't send it sailing into the underbrush. Clamping a small umbrella to the pack frame to provide shade is a good idea, too, if you're hiking in open country.

7. Establish safety rules for your child. Before taking a youngster on a hike, make sure you discuss the importance of halting and remaining on the trail in the unlikely event you become separated. Dress your child in bright colors to make him or her easier to spot. Consider providing a plastic whistle the child can use to summon help. Emphasize the danger of sticking hands and feet into rocky crevices that might harbor snakes, scorpions or spiders, and caution against turning over rocks for the same reason. If there are several members in your party, designate one adult to lead the way and scout the trail for obstacles. Designate another adult to act as"sweeper" to bring up the rear and make sure no youngster falls too far behind.

8. Scale back your expectations. Whether your child is riding on your back or tramping at your side, he or she will determine the pace. Some youngsters will plug along at a good clip or ride uncomplainingly for hours in a backpack, while others stop to examine in minute detail every stick, rock and bird feather they come across. Remember that young children are not goal-oriented, and cannot be urged along by promising a beautiful view around the next corner. Neither of you will enjoy the trip if you spend most of your time commanding your child to move faster or to sit still in the pack and keep quiet. Resign yourself to a slower pace than you are used to, and enjoy the natural inquisitiveness that children display whenever they encounter unfamiliar sights and soundseven if it takes the form of unanswerable questions repeated insistently during a steep ascent that has robbed you of breath.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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