By Elizabeth McGuire
Besides “Drink more water” the phrase my kids hear most often is “Go outside. Now.”
For me, everything improves when it’s outside. And fresh air is the single most effective head-clearing, attitude-shifting tool I have in my arsenal, so I tend to get evangelical about it with my own offspring.
The problem is, kids are not always immediately receptive to their parents’ brand of gospel, so over the years I’ve had to learn a few extra tricks to make outdoor outings fun for everyone. Spoiler alert: it’s not complicated. Just aim for simple and light-hearted and the fun will follow.
Today let’s talk hiking. Remember hiking? It’s like walking but with all your senses in overdrive. It’s like exercise dipped in make-believe.
So how do you make hiking fun for your whole family? Besides the commonsense guidelines of “Know your route; stay together; wear sunscreen; carry water” here are a few of my favorite tips.
How To Make Hiking Fun for Your Whole Family
- Don’t call it hiking. Call it adventuring! Hiking means trudging along one foot in front of the other. Adventuring means exploring new lands and bringing home treasures. It’s all in the pitch, y’all.
- Keep your expectations realistic. Before you start, establish a general timeframe with a beginning, middle and end. “We’ll explore for a while, stop for a swim, then go get tacos at the end.”
- Bring a snack no matter the distance. A granola bar goes a long way if anyone gets grumpy. There’s also no shame in amping up the treats. On longer hikes I never leave home without a candy stash. This is especially effective if you limit candy during their everyday lives. I grew up associating peppermint lifesavers with extended church services. Family hikes are now our form of worship, and my kids get through the long ones with the help of Saint Jolly Rancher.
- Travel light, but smart. I’m a big fan of making kids carry their own water because they have easy access to it, they feel independent, and of course because I’m not schlepping it for them. Camelbaks or similar water packs come in all different sizes, and your kids can also use them during bike rides, sports practices or field trips.
- Make a game of treasure hunting. Find the perfect hiking stick or a small rock or leaf to bring home. Our family is always on the lookout for heart-shaped rocks, but we typically bring home only photos of them.
- Look for local birds, animal tracks or even better…scat. Show me a kid who doesn’t like to talk about poop! And really, if you’re out in the nature it seems more than appropriate.
- Entertain each other on the trail. Sometimes we make up stupid songs or wild stories. More often we play Categories (where you take turns naming fruits or Harry Potter characters from A to Z.) When questions come up like, “What kind of tree is that and why does its bark look that way?” we try to answer without our friend Google…which usually means, “I have no idea. Let’s brainstorm the reasons.” Remember the fun of not knowing the answer to something? Old school!
- Talk to each other, or not. With older kids, hiking is a great time to simply be in the same place with them, even if you aren’t talking. On the trail, I never have to push the conversation with my tween or teen–it usually happens at their own speed and on their own terms. They love this.
- Stop periodically. Climb a tree, build a fort from branches, skip some rocks, or take a dip in a creek.
- Quit while you’re ahead. When in doubt, finish early so you end on a high note. Next time you can push it further. For now, go get those tacos and plan your next adventure.
Great places near Austin for hiking/adventuring:
- One of the many greenbelts in Austin: Barton Creek, Bull Creek, Slaughter Creek.
- A short drive from Austin: McKinney Falls State Park, Reimers Ranch Park. Pedernales Falls State Park
- A day trip from Austin: Enchanted Rock State Park, Bastrop State Parks.
Elizabeth McGuire is a writer, photographer and mother of three from Austin. Her words and images have appeared in print, online and on stage. She is a 5th-generation Texan who loves boots but somehow doesn’t eat barbecue. (www.ewmcguire.com)