I was clinging precariously to the side of Elmore Mountain in northern Vermont, one hand perched a few inches beneath my daughter's butt, the other beneath my nephew. The two five-year olds were blissfully oblivious to the consequences of a misstep on the steep greasy rock we were scrambling up. At a particularly delicate moment, when Ariel had her feet wedged in a crack and both hands wrapped around a small sapling with me hovering nervously beneath her, she stopped. Freeing one hand to point, she motioned to a soggy patch of moss in front of us.
"Hey Dad," she said in an awestruck tone, "look at those mushrooms—they're green!" She motioned toward some tiny fungi growing out of a wet crack. The object of her curiosity was so tiny that I had to squint to see it. This microuniverse was engrossing to her but nearly invisible to me. I was pleasantly reoriented to the wonders of the small world. After briefly savoring the epiphany, I returned my attention to preventing her and her cousin from peeling off the side of the mountain.
I could wax poetic about the pleasures of hiking with kids, but that might lead some to suspect that I had never hiked with kids. The reality of tyke-hiking can range from family euphoria to patience-frazzling perseverance.
Hiking with infants and toddlers is easy: You can load them in a kid backpack and hike anywhere you normally go. But by about age four, they're too heavy and too impatient to just sit in the back seat—they want to get behind the wheel. So begins a major re-orientation process for mom and dad. No longer is an outing dictated by where you want to go, it's determined by where they are able to go under their own steam. Choose well and you can enjoy a fun day in the hills together. Pick something that's too steep/long/wet/flat for their abilities, and you're in for a whine that'll last all day.
There's a few truths that most hiking parents agree on. . .
"Always bring a friend," advises Mike Woodfield of Calais, Vermont, father of 7-year old Mila, when I meet him and his daughter's friends on Elmore Mountain. Why? Because peer pressure works better than a winch to get kids up the hill.
Bribe 'em. Child psychologists will freak about this, but they don't hike. Some parents have been known to place M&M's or other treats on rocks as they go up the trail to lure their progeny forward. Summit suckers, trailhead treats—it all falls under the rubric, "if it works, do it."
It's the journey, not the destination. Enjoy the trip and if you're lucky, you'll get the summit, too. But the top doesn't matter. Fun on the mountain does.
Ages 0-4: They go where you go. Kids can sit in a child carrier backpack as soon as they can hold up their heads, usually at about four months. Tie favorite toys to the pack, and carry a small hand-held mirror so you can see what they're up to. Bug netting may be useful during black fly season.
Ages 5 and up: They're self-propelled now. But there's more to hiking than hiking. Look for blueberries and raspberries along the way, and stop to play in a stream. Embellish the hike with trips to fantasy land. Veteran hikers Gina Campoli and John Brodhead have been entertaining their threesome on the trails of New England with the saga of "Huey, Louis, and Dewey in the Mountains" for a decade; it inspired their 6-year old to hike up and down Mt. Washington, the highest peak in the northeast, this summer.
Show them what's around you. Identify plants, find animal tracks. Bring a "bug box" for catching insects and holding interesting rocks. As they get older, they should carry more of their own day gear, including a water bottle (and they should use it). Learn to "leave no trace" in the backcountry.
Vermont's Best Kid-Friendly Hikes
Look for hikes with rewards along the way, not just at the summit: views, waterfalls, and scrambling make the adventure last all day. Kids love winding, rocky trails; straight paths get tedious. Shorter distances, water, and scenic summits are other kid-friendly elements to look for.
Elmore Mountain, Elmore (2.1 miles to summit) - An old fire road leads to a moderate trail and the remains of a ranger cabin. Steep last half-mile to summit is a fun challenge. Other plusses include the fire tower on the summit and Lake Elmore at the base.
Mount Mansfield - The Sunset Ridge Trail (2 miles to summit from Underhill State Park) is rocky and scenic along the way. You don't need to summit to get the views and the scrambling.
Bald Mountain, Townshend State Forest (3.1-mile loop) - A gentle climb with good views. Along the way you cross cascades and find an old cellar hole.
Mount Philo, N. Ferrisburg - This is a great beginner hike. Distances range from 3/4 mile and up. Excellent views of Lake Champlain and Adirondacks.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication