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


Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.

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 Flies
on 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,

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.

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. 

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. 

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