Kids Gone Wild: 5 Easy Mistakes to Avoid When Hiking With Children

Repeat after me: It's not about speed. Photo: Katie Arnold

Recently, a couple of friends and I decided to mark the last days of summer by taking our kids for a hike. It was a warm, sunny, windless afternoon, the top-five-best-days-of-the-year kind of day that makes you wistful for summer before it’s even gone. The kind of day you wish you could stitch into your skin so you will remember it six months from now when it’s 20 degrees outside and the trails are slick with ice. These days are numbered.

We met at the Dorothy Stewart Trail, a two-and-a-half-mile lollipop in the foothills above Santa Fe. Among us, we have six children between the ages of four month and four, so we wanted something easy and short. But truthfully, we didn’t give it much thought. We hike, run, and ride these trails all the time on our own, so the familiarity bias was in full effect. How hard could it be to corral little ones along a gently rolling loop right in town?

“Did anyone bring snacks?” Kate asked within seconds of setting off. She’d hitched baby Max to her front in a Baby Bjorn carrier, and was patting the pockets of her shorts, as though she’d forgotten something. The nuts. They were back in the car. There’s a time and a place for using food as emotional bribery, and hiking with kids is high on my list. On my way out the door, I’d thrown a couple handfuls of lentil crisps, two pouches of applesauce, and five tiny squares of chocolate into my pack, just in case.

The children, meanwhile, were struggling to find their footing on the loose rocks and small, rocky ledges. I’d forgotten about those. Two-year-old Maisy took one step and toppled forward, but her knees were so banged up from crashing her bike the day before, that I couldn’t tell what was yesterday’s hurt and what was fresh. One after another, they slid on bottoms and skidded on the dirt, came up whimpering and dusty but game to carry on. The carnage was minimal, but sort of shocking, nonetheless. Lesson learned: An adult’s mellow trail is a three-year-old’s technical scramble.

Once the bigger kids got it together, though, they were off, tearing and shrieking down the trail so far that we had to shout to rein them back in. Lagging behind with the little ones, Kate, Blair, and I debated the likelihood of mountain lions lurking this close to downtown. “They’re making so much noise, they’ll scare them off,” Kate said. Maybe, but the sight of three little, morselly bodies loose in the wild? I wasn’t so sure. I decided not to think about the cougar that had broken into a jewelry shop a couple years ago, right on the Plaza—not a joke. Kate jogged ahead to lay down the rules: Always stay in sight of an adult.

Meanwhile, Maisy was insisting on walking. I spent the last few months testing baby carriers and writing about how best to tote your tot on a trail, but I couldn’t get my own girl to ride in the KangaKid pack I’d worn for that purpose. “I walk!” Maisy declared over and over, plodding up the trail as fast as her little legs could carry her, which was still maddeningly slow. I shuffled along behind, reminding myself that this, after all, was why we were here.

Dawdling 101: Stop and rake the dirt. Photo: Katie Arnold

Way up ahead, I could hear screaming and what sounded like a rabid animal screeching. I scooped up Maisy, who’d stopped to pee all over her sneakers, and ran to see what was going on. It was Kate, playing “Monster” with the bigger kids. Once my heart stopped trying to break through my skin, I started to relax. Kate was right: We weren’t going to sneak up on any wildlife with this crew. And I hadn’t seen four-year-old Pippa hike this fast in her life. When we go hiking as a family, she’s an accomplished dawdler, stopping to look at berries and rake pebbles into small piles. Forward progress is not a priority. Peer pressure, it turns out, works wonders on the trails.

When we got to the outermost part of the loop, we stopped at a bench to take in the view. The cottonwoods lining the Santa Fe River showed only the slightest fringe of yellow, and to the west, town basked green and peaceful in the late-day light. It was tempting to linger, so we did, while the kids wolfed down the chocolate and lentils and began to dismantle the bench and fling rocks at each other—early warning signs of an impending meltdown. But the afternoon was so lovely it lulled us into forgetting the old mountaineer’s adage: The descent is the hardest part. Harder still when you have six kids and it’s almost dinnertime.

As soon as we began the long loop back, it became apparent that we had a situation on our hands. The kids went all Lord of the Flieson us, sprinting out of view, whacking each other with sticks, and in Maisy’s case, plopping down every 20 seconds to take off her shoes, like some delusional hypothermic lost in the woods. Kate and Blair got crafty and began singing songs, while I tried to cajole Maisy into racing me down the trail. When she didn’t fall for it, I picked her up and tried to wrange her into the pack, but that only elicited more deafening fury. Suddenly I’d become that parent: The one who’s dragging her screaming, boneless toddler by the arm along the trail. We passed a few walkers who looked at me with a mix of pity and revulsion. I was breaking all the rules: Maisy was going to hate hiking for the rest of her life, but I was too hell bent on getting home to care.

Eventually we made it back to the cars. Of course we did. We were only a mile out at most. No big deal. But when kids are combusting, even the most innocuous circumstances can seem dire. I sat the girls down in the back of Kate’s hatchback to gorge on nuts while I walked around the bend to retrieve my car and settle my brain. All along the road the mustard-yellow chamisa was in bloom. It reminded me of when I first moved to New Mexico a million years and two kids ago, and rode my mountain bike nearly every evening through arroyos lined with the golden, weedy shrub. I tore off a few bristly flowers and pressed them to my nose: They smelled, just like they always have, musty and pleasingly sweet, like a wet dog lying in the sun.

And don't forget to hug a tree. Photo: Katie Arnold

I felt my breathing shift and slow. Really, there’d been no reason to rush back. It was 75 degrees, and we still had an hour of daylight. Maisy was just being Maisy, two years old with a mind of her own. It was a glorious day. The kids had hiked farther than they ever had and mostly had a blast, Maisy included. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been out on the trails in that magic hour just before sunset, let alone been able to share it with my girls, their friends, and mine.

Later that night, I gave Maisy a bath. “Do you like hiking?” I asked her sheepishly, a little afraid of her answer. Maybe I’d really done it. Maybe I’d ruined the outdoors for her. She gave me a mischievous look, flung her head back until it was practically underwater, then flipped forward again with wild-eyed glee. “YES!” she cried. Phew.

Hiker gang: All's well that ends well. Photo: Katie Arnold

I’ve hiked peaks with little ones in all seasons and I still space the basics. It's worth remembering these 5 simple ways to make day hiking with kids more fun. 

BRING SNACKS: No matter how short the hike or how close to home. Food gives kids energy and motivation to keep going. A little chocolate at the top doesn’t hurt, either. And, p.s., parents need snacks, too.

GO HALF THE DISTANCE YOU WERE PLANNING: This is especially true for out-and-backs, because once you reach your turnaround, you’ll feel like you’re “done,” only you still have to walk back. If you’re like me and always go 10 minutes too far, set your phone alarm to go off after half an hour or 45 minutes. Kids aren’t like horses—they don’t speed up on the way back to the barn.

BRING A CARRIER FOR LITTLE ONES AND BE PREPARED TO USE IT: Give the reluctant or tired hiker two choices: Walk on their own or ride in the pack, period. No more dragging them down the trail by their elbows. Make sure you have a pack she’s comfortable in because when it’s 6 p.m. and the day is fading, you need to make tracks. 

PLAY GAMES: Songs, monster-jumping-out-from-behind-a-bush, find-the-hidden-trail, ants go marching two-by-two—you name it. Almost any silly antic will distract young hikers from remembering how hungry, tired, or bored they are. 

REMEMBER WHY YOU'RE THERE: You’re there to hike with kids. Outside, in the fresh air, for fun. Don’t push them too far, too fast. Don’t let your own arbitrary, adult schedules stress you, and them, out. If you have snacks, warm clothes, and daylight, there’s no need to be a slave to the clock. Look around and enjoy the day. That's the point, remember.

—Katie Arnold

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