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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Hiking with a Six-Year-Old

Yesterday, AralBear and I made our way up into the Cascades to spend some time walking. This is not the first time we’ve done this, but he did amazingly well.

We ended up hiking Snow Lake Trail 1013 despite seeing the parking packed with about 30 cars; more than expected for a Friday, but most parties were small and spread out along the whole distance.

Trail Conditions

By and large, the trail is good repair. There are a number of locations on the climb up to the pass between Chair Peak and Snoqualmie Mountain where rock retaining work has eroded and soil, as well as trail surface, is being lost.  The far side of the pass, where the trail descends to Snow Lake has a good deal of snow pack left over the trail. It’s melting rapidly, but still, presents a technical obstacle for hikes especially on the descent.

Between Aral and I we picked up a good collection of trash. A great indication of how much love this trail sees during Independence Day celebrations. Add to this that we encountered no less than three parties of people playing music over a Bluetooth speaker and you get the general idea of how the first half of the hike worked out.

Things to Follow Up On

As you can imagine hiking with a very active and curious young boy represents some challenges. The good news is that AralBear is both excited for the adventure and happy to be out on the trail. That really helps me stay motivated. We ran into a small pile of challenges on this trip because I didn’t prepare enough.

Dry Socks

We ate lunch near one of the many streams that feed Snow Lake. The sun was out and there are a bunch of different perennials in bloom right now. This particular spot was jam packed with both. Despite the temperature, Aral wanted very much to test the waters. I let him.

At one point, while jumping from rock to rock, he dipped a shoe and sock into the water and came up soaked. Then later, after I had spread out his footwear to dry, in the sunshine he sat in the water. I brought myself dry socks (which I didn’t need), I neglected to pack a pair for him.

To follow up on this I’m going to need to acquire some more hiking capable socks for him. I know he’s going to use them.

Lightweight Sunscreen

Usually, I carry zinc oxide in a tidy and lightweight tube for sunscreen. However, these days I’m having difficulty keeping the stuff on for any length of time. So far I’ve burnt my shoulders twice this season. The stuff that works usually comes in a big ass can, which is both too big and heavy for me to ever want to add to my pack.

I’m going to need to examine my options here. This may require that I start buying/wearing long sleeves for more complete coverage?

Keeping Clean

AralBear schooled me yesterday. What I learned is that I am not prepared to keep a kid like him even remotely clean over any distance. At one point, on our way back to the car, we had this exchange.

“Dad, what’s all this brown stuff?”

I turned and looked over my shoulder to be sure. His chest was covered with rivulets of grimy trail dust. “That’s dirt.”

“Oh good, I thought it was poop.”

Part of this solution set is going to be teaching him good trail hygiene habits. Right now he’s just into everything regardless. But, until that time, I’ve got to add something my kit to aid me in cleaning him up.

Teaching Aral About Wilderness

Last and perhaps most important I need to work on passing on the value of wilderness to Aral. I’m uncertain if he really understood the world he walked into yesterday when he passed the obligatory boundary marker with me.

On Getting Outside

Sixth, seventh, and eighth grades, in particular, were rough on me. As a boy amongst peers I was smaller and slower than my peers. Awkward is a pretty good word to describe me. But that awkwardness also made me frustrated and angry. So much so that I struggled with this and a serious lack of self confidence for years.

I just read an Op-Ed by Peter Brown Hoffmeister that Tess found and passed along. It described me during those years. It also describes a trajectory that is not uncommon for boys of that age. And finally it talks about a solution to this problem, one that I know works because it has helped me time and again throughout my life.

The summer of my freshman year in high-school my mother prodded me to apply for a job at a summer camp I had been to when I was younger. I landed a job washing dishes and mowing lawns, but more importantly hiking, horseback riding , and rafting all summer long. Later that fall I discovered bicycle touring.

The summer of my sophomore year in high school I applied to work on a portion of the Colorado Trail through the Student Conservation Association. I spent most of that summer moving dirt, taking out stumps and working with other awkward kids my age in the San Juan’s of Colorado.

This kind of activity was a regular occurrence in my life at this time. I learned to value these experiences much more than all that hurt and frustration I had pent up. In fact, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to say that these kinds of pursuits saved me from a very terminal path.

I know I have been harping on the idea of gun control for a while now. And I don’t believe that assault weapons have a place in modern society, but perhaps here is a point at which I can get off that tired old topic and say that if we, as a nation, want to stop shootings and bombings than we need to get (especially) our young men outside early and often.