Take a Hike with a Tyke
Short day hikes are the best way to get the feel for how you, your child, and the outdoors will interact. The trick is to keep your hike manageable, fun, interesting, and safe.
What to Know Before You Go. Before you head off to the back of beyond, you should have a fairly accurate idea of how far you can walk, how far your child can walk, and how far you can walk carrying your child (guess who's going to be carrying Junior back to the car when that last mile is just too far?). Remember that a trail mile, with its roots and rocks and uphills and downhills, can seem a lot longer than a city mile.
Feet First! Believe it or not, the wilderness bugaboo that's most likely to jump out and ruin your hike isn't anything as dramatic as a bear or a snake: It's a blister. Your best defense is a pair of comfortable, well-broken-in hiking boots, although for short hikes, you can get away with a pair of old running shoes. Even so, you should carry a blister treatment. Two recommended products: Spenco's Second Skin, and Dr. Scholl's Moleskin. Both are available at large drugstores and sporting goods stores. Read more about blisters.
Babypacking Basics. Baby carriers come in all shapes and sizes, but look in a camping store for models appropriate for hiking. What's the difference? First, you're looking for heavy-duty durability because you can't afford to have something snap three or four miles from help. And second, carriers designed for hiking feature some of the sophisticated elements of high-quality back-packs, which are designed to haul 50 or 60 (or more) pounds. So you get cushier waistbelts and a better distribution of weight, and that means more comfort for you.
What to Wear. Follow the same rules that serious backpackers and mountaineers do. Take extra layers of warm clothing and a waterproof outer shell or poncho, and avoid clothing made of cotton. Cotton absorbs sweat and rain, and it dries slowly, sapping heat away from your body. You're better off in unfashionable polyester, which wicks sweat away from your skin and dries quickly. If you're fashion conscious, not to worry. Your local outfitter has a selection of designs in fabrics that both look good and perform well in the backcountry.
Where to Go. State and county parks often have well-marked trails, including nature trails with signs explaining local flora and fauna. Pick up a map at the visitor's center, where you can also inquire about special children's programs, ranging from geology to animal tracks. Another hint: Check out whether your community is located near a "rail-trail" (contact the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, 800-888-7747). These rail trails are great for long walks, as well as jogging, biking, and in-line-skating. Another benefit is safety: Most of them are off-limits to motorized vehicles.
Setting Goals. Having a neat destination helps make your hike worthwhile and rewarding. It doesn't have to be fancy. Some ideas: a rock formation where the kids can climb, a beach, a waterfall, or a stream. For older children, a mountaintop is a great goal and reaching it is a satisfying achievement.
A night out is a grand adventure, even if you're within sight of your own home. A real camping expedition to a national forest campground is an opportunity for the whole family to really escape from the routine of everyday life. But a successful trip takes a little planning. Bring along your sense of humor, too.
Gear. Try before you buy! It's a mistake, not to mention a waste of money, to buy camping gear before you know exactly what kind of camping you'll be doing. Fortunately, you can rent gear from your local outfitters (look in the Yellow Pages under "Camping Supplies"). At a minimum, you'll need a tent, air-mattresses and sleeping bags. Camping stoves can be rented, but if you're camping close to your car, you might enjoy a small hibachi, instead.
Start Close to Home. Like adults, children sometimes get disoriented when they wake up in a strange place. So break into camping easily by starting with a night out in your own backyard. A trial run will also help you figure out what gear you need (and what you don't need) for the "real thing." If you're an urban dweller or live in a neighborhood where camping out might not be advisable, you might "borrow" a backyard from a suburban friend. If you don't have access to a suburban lawn, rearrange your living room furniture to make room for a tent and "camp" indoors, without electricity, of course.
Car Camping. When you're ready to venture out, start in a campground where you can pitch the tent close to the car. That way, you won't have to haul your possessions too far. It also means you can bail out if a surprise storm rolls in. You'll find campgrounds in most national forests, national parks, and state parks. Be aware that some campgrounds, especially in national parks, require reservations. Arrive early if you haven't been able to plan ahead, especially on holiday weekends when sites fill up fast.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication