The June when Mason was three, we went hiking in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge. At one point, Mason stopped in a bright yellow wildflower field, and I photographed him rolling around on the side of the trail. Then I made the mistake of posting that picture on my personal Instagram account.
I immediately found myself at the center of a social media storm. People argued whether or not it was OK that I had clearly let Mason wander off-trail and into the flowers, against Leave No Trace ethics, and then had the nerve to post about it. I understand that this maybe wasn’t good modeling on my part as the founder of Hike It Baby, especially since the field is a highly trafficked area and we have a lot of followers who could have been inspired to do the same. But it also got me thinking. When getting outside with kids, it’s hard to rigorously stick to Leave No Trace all the time. How bad should we feel about that?
Kids in early development are very tactile. Everything goes into the mouth or gets torn up by pudgy baby fingers, and they find nothing more thrilling than squashing, mashing, and breaking up nature, then taking the mess home in their pockets.
I get why we want to teach our children to be highly sensitive to our impact on Mother Earth, but I also see the argument for experiential learning in nature. At what age should you start teaching environmental impact? And what does that look like to a baby or toddler? I know we all have varying opinions on this, so all I can do is share my own and offer Hike It Baby’s community guidelines to help you figure out the right path.
Know the Landscape Before You Go
Understand the outdoor space you’re venturing into. If it’s an incredibly fragile environment where it’s hard to see the barriers, such as an open desert that might have a lot of cryptobiotic soil you don’t want to impact, that’s a hard concept for your little one to understand. In the case of the desert, you could make a game of it: say that the sides of the trail are hot lava and you have to stay on the trail so you don’t touch it.
Pack It In, Pack It Out
When I talk about “pack it in, pack it out” for parents, I ask people to consider taking your diapers and trash home versus leaving it in the park dumpsters. An estimated 3.5 million tons of diapers go into the landfill each year. While you aren’t improving the statistic by taking your diaper home, consider that park services are already heavily understaffed and overburdened, especially with the increase of people using parks. It’s great to see that so many people with young children are getting out there on trail, but a hike with a handful of families all dumping diapers can really fill a trash can quickly in a morning.
Animal encounters are a natural fascination for kids. Help your children understand how to keep a safe distance from wildlife. Quick movements and loud noises are stressful to animals as well, so encourage a whisper policy when an animal is present. Model it by dropping your voice as soon as a you come upon a deer or a group of birds. The one rule to take extremely seriously is to never feed animals, no matter how tempting or seemingly tame the animal is.
Leave What You Find
This can be difficult for kids. When your kid discovers a cool rock or finds the perfect hiking stick, it can be really hard for them to leave it behind. With toddlers, a first step can be to limit trail treasures to one item, and talk to them about the cumulative negative impact of picking flowers and leaves. For older kids, you can give your child a camera to take photos of the treasures they find, or have them carry a nature journal to record their discoveries. Print those up at home and help them make a nature diary.
While it’s so tempting to get that perfect shot in a field of wildflowers, we now try to remember that little kids look adorable no matter what. Placing them in that wildflower field trains them from a young age that it’s OK to stomp on wildlife. That said, on a number of trails I hike, there are trees that kids like to climb. I have seen a substantial impact on these trees after years of kids climbing, and there’s no going back and fixing those naturally occurring spots. Recognize where those highly impacted places are and encourage stopping there versus a more pristine area, especially when hiking with groups.
Goeocaching and Painted Rocks
Geocaching and painted rocks are hot topics in the Leave No Trace world. While they are so cool for little kids to find, they also alter the landscape. If you’re a fan of them, consider placing your own on the trail for the hours you’re hiking, then looping back around to pick them up before you leave the area. We recently found our first geocache, and while it was cool to find this treasure chest with things that were 15 years old, I was also disappointed that someone put a marijuana pipe in there for my five-year-old to find. He had no clue what it was, but it was a reminder that it’s worth thinking twice about what you’re leaving behind for others to find.
Treat Nature as Your Friend
Encourage kids to be respectful, courteous, and polite when playing outdoors. Turn nature into a living being. Tell them to view nature as their friend, and help their friend stay healthy by picking up trash and treading lightly. Talk with them about human actions that disrespect nature, like graffiti, and why we like to keep nature untouched and pristine.