Top Five for Hiking with a Six Year Old

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.

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Secret Plans

I just answered the leader of my local writing group with this current description of my state of being. “Shocked, rudderless, angry, and feeling very solitary.” Up until I met with a physician yesterday I thought I might be coming down with a case of cancer, now that seems less likely, but yeah, still riding on my raw nerves.

And there are the election results, or should I say, then there is the expected Electoral College results. Mixed into that all the ridiculous and regressive ideas that have plagued our nation and held us back for so long. The result, I’ve lost skin, I feel flayed.

My friend Jefe recently posted this personal account of some of his troubles and it’s got me thinking. This is the same Jefe that has held the CTR course record since I started following the race and the same Jefe who has taken home top honors on the GDMBR too. Point is, the guy is a machine that gobbles up the miles and he’s always sort of been someone I look up to. But just like me, he’s recently encountered some challenges.

This present state of less than 100% has kicked my ass. Mentally it has crushed me. The past few months I feel like I have been pulling back on everything that has made me tick in the past. The passion for riding, racing and pushing boundaries has been so instrumental in keeping me moving forward, staying positive, and focused, has been subdued.

Since the seizures started. That’s the point I started to pull back, now every little twinge in my body gets treated a catastrophic sinkhole on the road to my health goals. And this messes with me, regardless of if I admit it to myself or not.

Add to this that my goals are somewhat divided. Often my responsibilities and my desires compete for my time and motivation. Balance is just a myth, a story we tell ourselves before we collapse into bed at night.

RAID Runner in Training

Here’s the deal, I’m never fully alive, never completely as mindful and living in the moment as when I’m trotting along some trail. I need to feel my heart pounding in my chest sometimes. I want to suck in chilly morning air that bites the insides of my nostrils. This is the way it’s always been.

The harsh reality I’m faced with is that I have very localized responsibilities. Kids, house, an aging dog, and now a need to develop our family’s independent sustainability for the impending doom of the Presidential shit-show consuming the country.

Since September I’ve been working on a slow comeback. I’m gotten religious about my Primal Endurance. I’ve been working with a coach as if I was new to the practice of running. I see my physical therapist regularly. I’ve lost weight, regained flexibility and swimming around the back of my mind is a long list of goals and ideas for places to go, things to see, races to enter, and trails to run.

Truth be told, I’m a long way away from racing or record fitness, but the motivation is still there. Besides, “winning” has never really been what it’s about.

But I can get out there, where I’m happy. I can run my butt off, run until there aren’t any more worries. I can be glad I can run at all.

Instinct

Yesterday, I went for a slow paced trail run at Island Center. Nothing special, I’m working on building aerobic efficiency right now which means I’m trying to keep my heart rate below 136 BPM (more on that later).

The sun was out. The sky was an azure blue seldom seen this close to the dirty air of Seattle. The dense trees cast their shadows over the trail before my feet. I’d left my sunglasses in the car, and I have a horrible time with the glare, so I’d been squinting and tripping as I covered the ground.

Then out of nowhere, I noticed something and my body stopped. Of its own accord. I drew up short before a garter snake laying in a pool of leaves, stones, and sunshine. I stood over the snake and watched for a good long while and while I did I realized that something in the back of my brain had fired. I’d just had a very primal experience.

https://www.strava.com/activities/725951284/embed/3eb4f07b5c7e502cd3e0920cf103a9d990902a21

My unconscious mind had seen the snake before the rest of my gray matter could even bother. Apparently, somewhere in my genetic history is the hereditary understanding that it’s a bad thing to step on serpents.

Beyond this immediate recognition is the understanding that there is power here. If you’re trying to push your body toward the health of your ancestors it’s imperative to find and leverage these bits of knowledge.

Silent Celebration

Good grief! Twenty-five years ago I was sitting atop a pile of lumpy scree in the Flat Tops Wilderness. I had, in fact, previously dumped the greater portion of the contents of my backpack — a huge Lowe Special Expedition approach ruck which must have weighed six or seven pounds all on its own — at a trail head along the South Fork of the White River. Beyond some very basic things, I wasn’t carrying too much. I was easily trekking 35 miles a day, sometimes a lot more.

I can recall sitting on top of that mountain, listening in on campground hosts as they negotiated how many bog rolls needed to head to Trapper’s Lake and where they would all meet for dinner, while looking at a map. I was marveling at the distance I had traveled and staying off the transmit button on my radio because I’d dumped the extra batteries along with all the extra stuff.

My foray into MYOG and ultra-light backpacking started on that trip and I became aware of what it meant for me on this afternoon twenty-five years ago, today.

The Spread: Gear laid out for last week's bikepacking trip.

The Spread: Gear laid out for last week’s bikepacking trip.

Today, I spent the morning in physical therapy, working my back and legs in the hope that I’ll be able to return to that sort of life. So many decisions, in my life, have been predicated on this singular realization that is now a quarter century old.

My mind stutters at the implications.

Yesterday, most of you were shooting off fireworks and blowing things up. Yeah, ‘Merica! I could smell the smoke from the beach far below our deck, so don’t try and deny it. I kept on returning in my mind to the long climb up W Mountain while snow blew in my face and lighting flashed on the Hog Backs many miles away.

Somewhere, on a back burner of my brain, simmers the idea that I’ll be able to return to this sort of existence. A living in which celebrations are only in the moment and never extend beyond the bounds of your own perception. A wild grin on a dusty trail, a welcome rest on top of a stormy mountain.

My biggest challenges at this switchback are finding ways of enticing A-bear toward this lifestyle and figuring out how to capitalize my efforts as well. I have ideas.

If you’ve been watching my Strava feed you’ve noticed that Aral has been walking/running/biking with me on my regular “workout” trips. His willingness to participate varies, but I’m finding that the more I engage him this way the more likely he’ll want to come along. My struggle here is dealing with his slowness compared to my own pace and occasional fits along the way. These are both artifacts of his age and conditioning through repetition will reduce their frequency.

A friend recently suggested that I stop writing science fiction and instead focus on writing stories from my past. Turning all that history into something I could sell has merit, and apparently I’ve done some crazy things that have a certain appeal. I’m not certain I’d necessarily need to stop writing SF, but yeah, penning some of those experiences as stories, memoirs, or even trip guides or write-ups has potential.

The more I think about it, writing about blending hiking with children and ultralight philosophy has exceptional potential. I’m noodling.