Hiking is a wonderful way to reconnect with your family. Not only are you getting exercise, you're also getting away from the distractions of TV and computers. It's satisfying to watch your children's eyes refocus on the world around them. But if the prospect of persuading your kids to walk anywhere, let alone in the wilderness, seems daunting, don't worry. These ideas can make the experience fun and low-stress.
Just remember, it's about the journey, not the destination. Relax and enjoy the slower pace that hiking with kids can bring.
Picking a route
You'll want to choose a hike that's challenging, but not too challenging: somewhere in between a trek to Machu Picchu and a trip to the mailbox. For tips on picking the right track, we asked Helen Olsson, author of "The Down and Dirty Guide to Camping With Kids."
For a rough idea of how long a trail to try, figure that a child can walk about a half mile for each year of age. So a 6-year-old should be able to handle a 3-mile trek. (Of course, you should take into account your child's disposition and energy level.)
Loop trails are more interesting than out-and-back trips, which have you retracing your steps on the way home.
For a group goal, set a destination to reach, such as an old cabin or a pond with a beaver lodge.
Consider the change in elevation (meaning, how steep the trail is). Two miles on a flat trail is easier to hike than a trail with a vertical gain of 500 feet. That said, many kids find uphill routes, with their opportunities to scramble up boulders, more engaging than flat trails.
What to bring
Bring or wear these essentials for a safe and happy hike, says Karthika Gupta, owner of the family adventure travel agency Memorable Jaunts.
Sturdy, supportive walking/hiking shoes
Track pants/waterproof pants or shorts. If there's any chance of rain, skip the jeans — denim is very uncomfortable when gets wet.
Light, rainproof jacket. Dress in layers; weather in the mountains and in forests tends to be much cooler than at lower elevations.
Daypack. (An everyday backpack is fine.)
Snacks, such as trail mix, granola bars and nuts. Individual portions are easier to dole out to hungry hikers.
Notebooks and pens so that kids can doodle what they see.
Water. A general rule of thumb is one 8-ounce bottle per person, but more is always better.
Small flashlight, especially if you're hiking near dusk.
Compass. It's a great educational tool and a good backup to cellphones and a GPS device.
Small first-aid kit containing bandages and antibiotic ointment (such as bacitracin) for any cuts or scrapes along the way.
Bug spray, sunblock, sunglasses.
Matches (in case you get lost or stuck and need to make a small fire for warmth).
If you have the space, add these unessential items to your pack for on-the-trail activities.
Magnifying glass for getting a closer look at interesting bugs, mosses, and rocks.
Spray bottle. Fill it with water and use it to mist spider webs, making them easier to examine. Spray rocks to see if they become more colorful. Turn the sprayer on yourselves if you're in need of cooling off.
Games to play along the way
A simple game can rejuvenate hikers and head off boredom at the pass.
Hold a sensory scavenger hunt that'll encourage your kids to focus on their surroundings. Instead of giving them a list of items, ask them to find something that's lumpy, orange, smooth, rough, sticky, cold and so on.
Play classic car games as you walk, such as 20 questions or "I'm going on a hike." For the latter, one person says, "I'm going on a hike, and I'm bringing _________" (filling in the blank with something that begins with the letter A). The next person repeats what the first person said but adds an item that begins with B: "I'm going on a hike, and I'm bringing applesauce and brownies." The next person adds something that begins with C, and so on.
Remind kids to stay on marked trails by making it a game. Who can spot the trail blazes — those dots of paint or plastic markers affixed to tree trunks — first?
Take turns being the leader. The rest of the family has to follow the leader's movements as closely as possible. If he skips while flapping his arms, you do the same.
Clear packing tape. Loop a tape "bracelet" around your child's wrist, sticky side out. She can adhere leaves and other lightweight nature finds to it as she walks. (Note: Some parks have a strict "leave what you find" policy. Don't play this game if so.)
Crayons and paper for making rubbings of tree bark and rocks.
There's an app for maps
Like us, trail master John McKinney (author of "Hiking With Kids") hopes you'll be "unplugged" during your hike. That said, he recommends a few smartphone apps to enhance the experience.
The websites trails.com (and free iPhone app) and alltrails.com (free iPhone and Android apps) offer the two most comprehensive collections of trail descriptions and maps. Their latest apps offer hiking distance, elevation gain, GPS locations and weather conditions.
Maplets (iPhone, $3) allows you to download thousands of maps — not just of parks but also of cities, theme parks, subways and more. Some maps are GPS-tagged so that you can see your current location.
These other apps can help you learn as you explore.
Find out who shared your trail with MyNature Animal Tracks (iPhone and Android, $7).
Name that blossom with Audubon Wildflowers (iPhone and Android, $5).
Meet the flockers (or at least identify them) with WildLab Bird (iPhone, free).
For hikes on clear nights, find stars and planets with Sky Map (Android, free) or Star Walk (iPhone, $3).
When you get home
Back at home, write down the name, date and location of your hike in a special notebook. Ask everyone to add what they liked and didn't like about the trail. Invite them to include drawings or any other observations. Your Explorer's Log will serve as both a journal and a handy reference for future adventures.