I think, if it were possible to write a guide about how to get *any* six-year-old out on the trail with a minimum of hassle or complaint, I would have already written the definitive tome. This activity, as we all know, requires subtlety and nuance; you’ve got to have the right touch at the right time in order to make it happen. Success is fleeting, but I’m here to tell you that getting to the point where your kid finishes a hike and immediately asks when the next one is going to be is possible.
That said, here are my top five suggestions (I won’t say “rules” because then they’ll just get bent and become useless) for taking your favorite child on the trail.
1) Set Reachable Expectations
Understand your kiddo. Figure out what motivates them and then use this as a carrot to propel them along your chosen path, sure. That’s good advice, but learn to set expectations with your kids too.
My six-year-old likes to know what’s coming. The expectation is that I will choose interesting trails for him to hike and let him know some of the things he can expect to see and experience along the way. In return, he knows that I expect that he’ll have a good time, exercise his curiosity and learn without whining. All this is reachable.
Neither of us expects the other to do more than we’re able. In his case, I can’t demand he hikes a 25-mile day with a pack (not yet anyway). In my case, AralBear understands that I can only endure so much slowness before I crack. We’re honest about how we’re feeling and performing too, without being judgy, which means that we’re staying ahead of those acute moments where burgeoning hikers become couch potatoes.
2) Good Boots, Better Socks
AralBear has a couple of different pairs of shoes that are hiking capable: a sturdy set of Keen’s and now a pair of Vasque boots which protect and support his ankles. The problem with the former is that the tread is meh on snow fields and in the mud. Additionally, they’re not waterproof. They’re great for shorter, dry distances but when we’re stretching our distances beyond three or four miles they’re worthless.
Enter the need for the Vasque boots. These dandies have thick lugs, are waterproof, and I haven’t heard a peep about his feet hurting since getting them. Maybe they fit a little better, maybe they’re just that much more comfortable.
Or maybe (and this is where I’m putting my money) the new socks I got to go with the boots are entirely responsible for the improvement in his experience. Ever since an early season hike we went on where his feet got wet, I’ve been buying him a couple of pairs of really nice hiking weight socks a month. Now I carry a spare pair for both of us (and I carry them because I don’t want the spares to become wet or dirty on accident). On long days, if he starts to complain, I usually insist that we sit down and take our shoes off. I’ll have him switch out socks after a quick blister check and a snack, and then I hang his dirties on my pack to sunbake for a bit. We’ve always been able to get back at it without further problems.
3) Change the Narrative
“How much further?” or “When will we get there?” or the fatal “I can’t do this. I hate you forever.” Add to the list your favorite excuses for not being able to finish a trail, mount a series of switchbacks or and acute and undying need to turn-around-now-yes-right-now-before-I-lay-down-on-the-trails-of-throw-an-unholy-devil-fit-Dad-why-are-you-so-mean.
Adults do this too, but kids, man, they can really invent some amazingly rich narratives. Add a little pain to the mix and you’d think that they were trudging toward an icy Channel swim before an invading Nazi army.
My advice is learn to help them take control of their narrative. Arrest those negative thought patterns as early as you can, confront them with some reality, then provide some suggestions for alternative lines of thinking.
With my eldest, I wasn’t very good at this and ultimately I paid for my own deficit. With AralBear I’m very conscious of the tone and tenor of what he says when we hike. “Dad, my feet hurt.”
Okay, I buy that, but what can you do to change the narrative? “Try using these rocks to massage your feet as you walk. That’s it, roll your feet over each of them and feel the stretch in your arch and heel. Work those toes. Can you feel it?”
“Yeah Dad, I feel it!”
Help the pick the lens they’ll use to look at the world around them.
4) Channel Patience
Sometimes, I’ve got to yell “Hey, don’t go further than you can see me.” Sometimes.
Most other times, AralBear’s pace is somewhere behind mine. He’s got things to do and see. That means I’ve got to wait.
Forty-year-old Matt is orders of magnitude more patient than twenty or even thirty-something Matt ever could have hoped to be. He watches at the six-year-old Aral is doing and saying (especially when he stops to beatbox … go figure).
Point being, patience is your friend. Get comfortable with it and you’ll be living on six-year-old time.
5) Be Picky About Friends
This is a tough one, of the five, the toughest in my opinion. Of AralBear’s array of friends, however, there’s only a handful I’d like to take with us on a hike.
First, it’s difficult to impossible to apply the first four rules-of-thumb to other people’s kids. I can’t afford to shoe the world with good boots (and socks) and when I attempt to help an unknown kid change his or her narrative I’m increasingly likely to be met with the OMG old man eye-roll.
Perhaps, most importantly, if you allow the wrong kid to come along you’re tainting your hiking ecosystem. To be clear, when I speak of hiking with a kid, I’m talking about the cultivation of a precariously balanced mental garden. Keeping your rose standing up tall in the sunshine can be difficult on its own, but let another flower into your garden and you’re likely going to watch both of them wilt.
That’s not to say you can’t have outside kids come. I’ve had some great times with other-people’s-kids along for the trek, but, I’ve also learned that it’s important to understand what these boys and girls bring to the trail.