On beautiful summer days, there’s nothing like a robust hike to bring the family together for equal measures of fun, exercise, and nature awareness. The opportunity to learn firsthand about the natural environment, and rediscover each other under conditions other than frenetic mealtimes and the burgeoning pressures of work and school, is one of the season’s gifts.
Whether day trekking in the Grand Tetons or traversing the local bike ‘n hike path just outside the city, adequate preparation for rising temperatures, strong sun, pesky insects, nutritional and energy needs, first aid contingencies, and inclement weather that may be just around the next bend can mean the difference between a day of joyful bonding and discovery and one you’d rather forget. A well-organized, needs-anticipated hike can set the precedent for a summer of family adventure you’ll want to repeat year after year.
For starters, while seizing the day a la Dan Aykroyd in The Great Outdoors may be high on the agenda, a dose of realism is probably in order in assessing the family’s physical ability, stamina, and endurance. Does everyone spend hours at the local gym, track, or on the football field? Chances are maybe one or two family members do, but a punishing hike up steep, backcountry trails geared toward someone at the top of the athletic food chain, so to speak, will only frustrate other family members, and may even result in injury. Will young children be in tow, and what about the family pet? While a challenge may bring you closer together, identifying individual needs, goals, and limitations before mapping out a course that accommodates everyone will make for a fun, attainable, successful family hike, and provide incentive for the next one.
Though some claim hiking with small children can slow them down, kids love adventure. For them, a day in the woods, wading in lakes and rivers, climbing hills, identifying birds and wildflowers, picnicking on a rock, and getting dirty in general can be like a trip to Disney World with trees, so ensuring they get to experience it all at a reasonable pace will make it more enjoyable for all. A hands-on experience is also the best way to teach children about the environment, and help them identify ways they can help to maintain the natural world.
The following are some valuable tips for making the most of a family hike:
Meals, snacks and water: A light but healthy lunch with a good mix of lean protein and unrefined carbohydrates – like turkey sandwiches on whole grain bread (try mustard in lieu of mayonnaise in the summer heat) with carrot and apple slices – can help facilitate a day of exercise. High-energy, nutrition-packed snacks, like nuts, dried and fresh fruits, can see your family through an energy-slump or two (watch for trail mixes that contain chocolate bits, as they can melt), and may mean the difference between young children staying on course or not. Water (not high sodium soda) should be offered and encouraged plentifully, as warm temperatures and exercise can quickly cause sluggishness and dangerous dehydration.
Clothing: Age-old wisdom about layering for the outdoors is true in summer, too. Wear gear like hooded sweatshirts (for bug protection) and windproof jackets that can be peeled off in the heat of day, over a synthetic T-shirt. Contrary to popular thought, most synthetic fabrics have higher breathability than cotton. Though temperatures may rise, long pants and socks are preferable to shorts if mountains and/or wooded areas are on the agenda, where ticks may be abundant. Tuck portable rain ponchos into a backpack for the unexpected shower.
Taking the dog: Some parks and trails do not allow dogs, so be sure to phone ahead. If bringing your pet, ticks can be a major problem. Talk to your vet at the start of the season, and use tick protection. There are many effective natural products today if that is your preference. Dogs are subject to heatstroke quickly, as loyalty (keeping up with even the fastest family member) often trumps their attention to the weather and how they are feeling. Be sure to take frequent water breaks, find shade, and provide protein-and-carbohydrate-rich snacks, even if you don’t as the norm, as exercise may deplete and dehydrate your pet as much as it does you. Though the temptation may be to let Rover run, leashes are better because dogs follow scents, not trails, and may quickly become entangled with other animals, or even lost. Always make sure your pet wears a collar with updated ID tags. After the hike, check thoroughly for ticks.
Sunscreen, first aid, maps, and cell phone: Just like your mother told you, sunburn can occur even on cloudy days. Apply sunscreen liberally and make sure children are covered; reapply if they get wet. Sunglasses will shield eyes from glare, and kids may benefit from bands that keep them on. Baseball caps or other hats with brims can protect delicate noses and even prevent sunstroke in the event of strong sun. Ointment for cuts and abrasions, hydrocortisone cream for itching, Benadryl (adult and children), Band-Aids, insect repellant, and bandages are standard hiking components. A map, compass, and cell phone (one with GPS, if possible) are proverbial rules of the hiking road. Even if cell phone service is tenuous, in an emergency a signal may be picked up by law enforcement tracking software. It’s also a good idea to make a call in the parking lot, visitor building, or point of entry onto your chosen trail. If service fails later on and you need help, the last point of contact can help authorities locate you.
Most of all, enjoy the day. Make your family hike an opportunity to connect with each other in new and exciting ways, respecting the environment and each other in the process.