Hiking With a Large Family
You've never been into hiking, your spouse has never been into hiking, and you've never taken your children hiking. But you're planning on visiting a national park, and you want to be able to hike the trails to be able to see the sites. Or, you want to get out with the family, and you've decided that a great way to do this is to hike. Both of these are excellent reasons to start hiking together as a family. Hiking together can also have other benefits, such as increased family bonding and great memories that you and your children will take home with you, not to mention that it's a great way to get exercise.
I am part of a large family, and we've hiked together for years. Part of this is due to the fact that our parents love to hike, but another part of it is that we enjoy walking together and seeing new and interesting places. However, it can be daunting to try and figure out how to get all of the children to the end of the trail and back again. In this article, I will try and explain how to hike with a large family. Remember, however, that this is from my own experience, and that your experience will likely be different than mine. Mix and match my ideas and your own ideas and expectations to create something that will work for your family.
We didn't wake up one day and say, "Hey, let's start hiking 10-mile trails." This has to be worked up to, especially if you are hiking with several children. When we first started, we were walking the 400 ft. to overlooks. As we grew, our abilities grew, and we began hiking longer and longer trails.
Therefore, you will need to work up to hiking long distances. This can be accomplished by walking on local trails that are somewhat similar to the longer trails you plan to do later. For example, you can begin by walking mile or for a certain amount of time (such as 1 hour) and then work up to longer trails and longer timeframes. This will also help the parents gage the abilities of their children, and help them select trails that are not above their own abilities. Great places to hike are local parks, state parks, rails-to-trails areas (these are flat and often easy to walk on but usually lack nice views), and other local wild areas that have trails. The internet is a great resource for finding trails in your area. In this article, when I talk about "hiking", I mean walking trails that are at least a mile long. This information may also be useful for shorter distances, but in general this information applies better to longer trails.
Gaging Your Children's Abilities
When hiking with your children, assess their abilities as well as their desires. Do they simply not want to go any further when they say they're tired after the first 10 minutes? Or are they really not up to a long hike? This takes discernment on the part of the parents, and understanding the children. A good attitude on the part of the older children and parents helps: I have found that if the older children think this is some kind of cool adventure, the younger children are often more than happy to join in on the excitement. However, remember that the point of hiking is not to have a forced march that no one enjoys. By having hiked with your children before and understanding their abilities, you can choose trails that are within your children's ability, but that perhaps push them just slightly further...and then a little further...so that it builds their ability slowly.
You may find that the older children are far more capable than the younger children at hiking long distances. This is not surprising. After all, they have to take two or even three steps to every one of your own! However, this does not mean that you must carry the child. I feel so sorry for the parents I see who are still carrying their 5-year-old. The parent is huffing and puffing, and the child is just there for the ride. We usually carried our children until they were about three years old, and then eased them into hiking on their own, or holding the hand of an older child or adult. Even after that, though, we would occasionally carry a child if they had been hiking a very long time and were tired.
Another way to keep the younger children hiking is to tell them stories. The parents can do this, as can the older children. Some of the younger children can also tell their own, although most of ours preferred listening to the ones we came up with. Stories can be classics like "The Three Little Pigs" and "Goldilocks and the Three Bears", or you can make up your own.
Older children can be very helpful with the younger children. I really enjoyed carrying my younger siblings, even if I was only 11 and they were 1. Later, when several of us were older (13+), we did all the carrying of the younger children, and our parents rarely carried any children, even on long hikes. Even if they can't carry a child, older children (6+) can walk with their younger siblings, helping them along the way, holding their hands, encouraging them to keep going, and so on. Often we'd just end up helping them, but sometimes we would be assigned a child, like, "Ok, until the next rest break, you get to walk with your youngest brother" or something like that. If your family has a buddy system, this is a great place to use it. Sometimes children like to run ahead on trails. This may be fine in some situations, especially if the children are older, but you may want to restrain them by, for example, telling them not to go out of sight of you.
What to Take With You
The age of your children and the length of the hike will determine exactly what you need to take with you. For example, if you have very young children, you will need to take diapers, wipes, formula (if you use it), etc. for them. You may even have to dedicate a backpack to this type of stuff. Some baby backpacks come with pockets for such things, but I have never found these to work very well. Also, if you're taking a longer hike, you'll need to bring more food and water than if you are taking a shorter hike.
Probably the most important thing to take on a hike is water. This is especially true if the weather is hot or you are hiking in dry areas such as the American southwest. In such weather or areas, it is very easy to dehydrate, so bring plenty of water for each person. We have a plastic refillable bottle (16-oz.) for each person. These are easy to refill and transport on the trail. On very long hikes (8+ miles) we bring extra water in a small water jug (1-gallon) which fits into a daypack.
Another very important item to bring is food. "An army marches on its stomach" and so do hikers, especially children. Small snacks can make the difference between making it back to the parking area in a reasonable time and dragging the children for hours on the last mile. The packs can be heavy in the beginning, but everyone will be thankful for the food later in the day.
Who should carry this stuff? Well, it will depend on the age of your children, in part. Older children (6+) can carry daypacks with food, water, or other items in them. This is especially helpful if the parents need to carry smaller children. Another option is for one parent to carry a child and the other to carry some of the food, etc. See what works for you. We nearly always take at least five packs to spread out the weight between as many people as possible (usually this means the five oldest children are carrying backpacks). The water bottles themselves usually get spread over two packs, or each person carries his or her own.
Hiking as a family can be a fun experience for everyone, especially when there are many of you to enjoy it together. However, each family is different and will need to figure out what works best for them. Once you have worked out what works best for you, you can enjoy many hours of walking and enjoying the outdoors together as a family.