Taking kids hiking – the agony & the magic

17 minutes. That was our magic number.

You’re not going to believe me, and maybe for your kids it’s more like 11 minutes. Bless your heart if it’s 25.

For me and my kids, the first 17 minutes of many walks in the woods was dotted with protests, complaints, delay tactics and general griping. It can be tough to pitch trees and dirt over videos and the couch. There’s a settling-in period and often it’s not pretty.

Tuscarora Trail near Berkeley Springs.

Hiking or going on a nature walk with kids can be magical. That’s what you’re imagining when you load them into the stroller, or the baby backpack, or tie on their tiny sneakers for a walk. You envision there will be birds singing, vibrant wildflowers blooming, cool rocks to be discovered and maybe a wild animal frolicking among the trees.

Your children may not experience any of those things during the first 16 minutes of your outing. That means you won’t, either.

They will, instead: cry, complain about their lumpy sock, stop every four steps to adjust their hat, fall down, poke each other with sticks or poke you with a stick, lose a sneaker, slip in the mud, need a snack, almost die of thirst and maybe get stung by something.

Maybe none of those will happen and they’ll just spend 16 minutes asking you over and over how far and how long they have to walk. This is a difficult time for you, a parent who is simply looking for the peace and tranquility that nature has to offer. Currently, that peace is nowhere to be found.

At Bedford Springs, Pa. on a trail hike a few years back.

Do Not Give Up Yet. Hold out.

What will happen, as it does in other aspects of family life, is that the kids will get tired of complaining and will resign themselves to their lot.

They will then stop focusing on you, and drop their campaign to get a Happy Meal instead of a walk.

They’ll start to look around.

They’ll notice their feet make crunching noise in the leaves on the ground. A squirrel hole in a tree along the trail will be worth looking into. That dead log will appear to be a very fine balancing beam to walk along. Moss on top of a rock will need to be touched. Acorns will be collected in pockets. A frog will hop into view. Your child will stop, bend down and look closely at some tiny mushroom you didn’t even notice. You’ll tell them not to touch it, of course, but then you’ll realize it has happened…you’re actually on a nature walk now, not a march of torture.

Don’t get too crazy…this lovely period of curiosity and peace won’t last forever. Someone will fall down, need a snack or have to poop. But it’ll be different this time…just a physical necessity and not a ploy to get out of the outdoor experience.

Even now, well into their second decades, my sons go through these stages during a hike with me.

Sometimes they outright refuse to go along and they’re too big for me to carry against their will.

But not too long ago, we set out on a bright, cool afternoon for a walk together. In the first 10 minutes, one got a side cramp and needed to sit down. The other wanted to look into a cave that looked bear-ish and almost fell on his butt into a stream. By the time we got to the top of a pretty steep ridge, everyone had worked out their complaints.

We walked silently for a few minutes, then my teenager started talking about some worries from school as we trudged along. I listened, and his little brother joined in. Soon, the two of them had dropped back from my pace to pick up some sticks and were having their own conversation about the worst teachers in their grades, some stupid rules they hated and other subjects. I kept on hiking, looking at the late afternoon light through the canopy of leaves that were starting to turn yellow and red in spots. I didn’t join in their talk, just heard what was passing between them.

Cooped up at home, they bicker, keep score on who has done more chores or accuse each other of stealing chargers or candy. Outside, under a full forest canopy, they were kids together…brothers walking through the world side by side. In typical fashion, these kids who were so tired at the start of our 3-mile hike raced each other to the end of the trail.

As soon as we got to the car, they started bickering again about something. But they talk about that hike, and picture the trail when I suggest we visit it again They remember the cave and the sinkholes and the birch branch that tasted like root beer when we chewed it.

The same thing has happened again and again.

They tease me about the times I forgot the snacks, or promised them a short hike that wasn’t so short, or wouldn’t let them bring a lizard home. They laugh now about how they give me a hard time for the first few minutes of a hike, then actually do have fun.

I know, fellas…I can almost set my watch to it.

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