The Lowdown Chart

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The Lowdown Chart

Is your kid ready for a Class IV river trip? A 5.5 climb? A five-mile hike?




The Big Picture This sport is the ultimate in problem-solving: Kids have to learn to get from Point A to Point B without Type A adult interference. At first they’ll learn proper body positions and foot placement by traversing boulder problems, then it’s up the wall on easier climbs rated 5.0 to 5.5.
Age Guidelines Kids as young as four can scramble up the easiest routes, but everyone should start there anyway, mastering each level before moving up to the next. Confidence is key, but climbs are rated for good reason.
Sweat Factor High
Kid Endorsement “The feel of the rock is incredible–it’s cold and hard, and the holds aren’t as easy as the ones in the gym. They belong there, they’re not just put there. On a rock face, you really have to think.”  –Nicholas Pfeil, 12
Parental Aside Fear not, climbers wear harnesses and are on belay. If they fall, they’ll be caught and lowered safely to the ground. Kids love the sense of danger; parents love the sturdy belay lines and carabiners.



The Big Picture Kids are drawn to water like investors to stocks, and they’ll love getting dirty and wet. Let them yell with abandon through the white stuff, then pilot the craft and start oar wars through the dead stretches. Rivers are rated from Class I (bathtub-flat) to Class VI (unrunnable).
Age Guidelines Never underestimate the scariness of rapids. Some kids dig the dread; others see it as sanctioned child abuse. Break in kids six and under on a Class II river; by age nine, they’re ready for Class III. Class IV? Save it for 12-year-olds on a guided trip. Beyond that? Don’t go there.
Sweat Factor Low
Kid Endorsement “Going rafting was awesome–big walls, red rock. The rapids were freaky, especially since I almost got thrown out of the raft. I liked the camping, and also being splashed by the river.”  –Veronica Weser, 9
Parental Aside Kids must wear PFDs (personal flotation devices) at all times and be taught at the outset how to lie on their backs pointing their feet downriver if they fall out of the raft. With that in place, you can savor the camaraderie of a river trip–group screaming can be a bonding experience.



The Big Picture Horses can chauffeur kids into serious backcountry faster and more easily than little human feet could ever manage. A seasoned kid’s horse will quietly shuffle about in an effort to put a beginning rider back in balance; more spirited horses can show braver kids the gallop of a lifetime.
Age Guidelines Leg length is the determining factor here. If your child’s legs are too short, he or she will simply pogo-stick unpleasantly in the splits position. Kids under eight should probably be led, but by age eight, they’re usually strong enough to ride unassisted.
Sweat Factor Moderate
Kid Endorsement “Horses put me in a good mood. I love going really fast. In the mountains you can’t ride as fast–you have to act a little more responsibly. But the mountains are really beautiful.”  –Annie Banes, 11
Parental Aside With younger kids, you’ll need a horse that’s “bomb-proof.” It won’t finish first in the Kentucky Derby, but it won’t scare your little one either. Let this four-legged professor safely teach your child the fun of riding.



The Big Picture The rudiments of paddling are a snap to learn, but you should start out with a two- or three-day trip to see how your little ones handle the experience (they’ll either love it or be bored to tears). Kayaks are the best way to get close to marine birds, sea otters, and seals.
Age Guidelines Under age nine, kids are just passengers in the front of their parent’s double kayak. From nine to 12, they should still ride with a parent but can participate more. By 13, kids are physically ready to pilot their own craft, and the fun begins.
Sweat Factor High
Kid Endorsement “We paddled around and snorkeled, and we saw giant pelicans, sea cucumbers, and these schools of bright-colored fish. Paddling can be hard work, but it’s still fun.”  –Dachin Frances, 10
Parental Aside Tide pools teem with marine wildlife, so bring pencils and a journal for kids to draw and record discoveries. Pack a sea kayak as you would a car before a road trip, with plenty of snacks and distractions within easy reach.



The Big Picture Canoes are quiet, fast, easy to paddle, and rich in lore–if the kids have seen Pocahontas or The Last of the Mohicans, they’ll be psyched to try them out. The good news for parents is that canoes hold tons of stuff, like big tents, coolers, chairs, and other backcountry luxuries.
Age Guidelines We’ve heard of car seats being gaffer-taped to the boat for infants; toddlers can sit safely next to a watchful parent. By age six, kids can take a stab at paddling; by ten, they’re ready to really pitch in.
Sweat Factor Low
Kid Endorsement “The peace and quiet were unbelievable. Bald eagles, wild sunsets, crystal-clear water, and as much fish as we could eat. The portages were a pain, but canoeing isn’t hard. We sort of learned as we went along, and we did fine.”  –Jeramie Bisagna, 14
Parental Aside Always keep the PFD cinched snugly around your kid, no matter how tame the waterway. Start out on a small lake to determine whether this experience is right for your family. Then you can attempt a multiday trip.



The Big Picture Kids love to pedal, whether they’re road cycling or mountain biking. Organized road trips let you go at your own pace, tailed by a support van. Older kids love mountain biking, with the bugs-in-the-teeth, rock-hopping downhills.
Age Guidelines Infants can be towed in cycle caddies, while toddlers can handle bike seats. By four or five, they can pedal using trailer cycles bolted to their parents’ wheels. To tackle mountain biking, kids should be buff and bike-savvy eight-year-olds (ten is better).
Sweat Factor High
Kid Endorsement “Would I rather hike or bike? What do you think? Biking is so much cooler. I like going really fast and finding stuff to jump off of. I really like getting air–the bigger, the better.”  –Grant Duke, 9
Parental Aside One word: Helmets! Always use them. Also, fanny preparation is important, so rack up some pretrip rides to condition the buns. Off-road riders should acquire basic skills, like how to change a tire and read a topo map.



The Big Picture Hiking (as opposed to backpacking) implies a lifeline to civilization. Unencumbered by heavy packs, you can book through the wilderness and then call it a day. Whether it’s a 15-mile epic or a 15-yard toddle from base camp, you can return to creature comforts at the hike’s end.
Age Guidelines Real hiking doesn’t begin until about age six; a three-mile loop is a big day at that age. By age eight, a kid can handle four miles; by age ten, up to five or six miles. Keep it light; kids won’t enjoy it if it’s a forced march.
Sweat Factor Moderate
Kid Endorsement “My dad and I scrambled up this boulder field and shimmied out onto this high pointy rock. My grandparents were watching us from the ground. They looked like ants.”  –Dylan Marshall, 8
Parental Aside Any kid over the age of two can put one foot in front of the other. Resign yourself to the 40-minute mile while the kids inspect bugs under every rock–the pace will quicken as they get older.



The Big Picture If hiking is an omelet, backpacking is a soufflé. It’s harder and requires more expertise, but the payoff is richer. Anyone can hike, but true backpackers need to read weather patterns and maps, build camps, and deal with emergencies.
Age Guidelines Kids under two can be strapped into a child-carrier backpack; ages two to seven should stick to hiking, since they’re too young to go far. At eight, they can handle the hike, but you’ll probably have to help carry the pack. By 11, kids are ready for some challenges, and by 14, they’re pros.
Sweat Factor High
Kid Endorsement “I like to backpack because when you get to the top of a big mountain, you really feel like you accomplished something. When people say hiking is boring, I say, ‘If you’re bored, you just have to hike up bigger and steeper mountains.’ ”  –George Heinrichs, 11
Parental Aside Don’t skimp on equipment quality. Good boots, warm socks, impermeable weather gear, and a cozy sleeping bag are all necessities. Make room in the pack for diversions like a deck of cards, string for knotting bracelets, and postcards.


Lisa Twyman Bessone

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