Tramping is amazing! I love being outside immersed in nature and that feeling of getting back to basics. Of course I want to share outdoor adventures with my children and spread the joy, but it can be a bit daunting when you haven’t done it before.
One day not so many years ago, I found myself wishing that someone wrote a book called How To Take My Baby Tramping or How to Prepare The Kids For Their First Hiking Trip. My wish went unanswered so through trial and error, we did it anyway. Since then, I’ve written a couple of blog posts describing the first overnight tramps we did with our kids, for example to Lake Daniells and Mount Somers. Those stories described ‘race day,’ but skipped over much of the preparation. Like most things, a strong foundation is what makes achievement possible, no matter the goal. In the case of tramping, children require the physical, mental, and emotional ability to get there.
Here are my top 10 suggestions to get you started:
- Go on day walks. A 4-year-old can’t be expected to go out and walk 10 kilometres if she’s never walked 5 kilometres before. First, she needs lots of positive experiences succeeding on shorter walks so she is familiar with the feeling of being able to rely on her super strong legs that have persisted, despite being tired. Make achievable walks part of your weekly routine. Gradually increase the distance and difficulty.
age- and stage-appropriate challenges. Children go through stages where they will be more or less interested in walking, regardless of their physical abilities. Start your baby off with long walks in a child-carrier or buggy, ensuring that they have the chance to sit on the ground, crawl in the grass, or walk a short distance along the way. As your child grows, add walks around the neighbourhood, around the park, or on short walking tracks. Over time, walking distances should increase, but with an awareness of your
child’s interests at that moment in
time. Your goal is to nurture a love of tramping and that means focusing on your child's joy and not the pressure to complete.
A couple of days before Dan’s second birthday, he decided he wanted to walk to the top of Mount Maunganui, which is over 3.5 kilometres round trip with an elevation gain of 232 metres. We brought the child-carrier and repeatedly asked him if he wanted to have a ride. He insisted that he wanted to walk, his resolve deepening each time we asked. So we walked, ever so slowly. It took us almost 4 hours to walk up and down again, but he did it. After the first time, he didn’t want to do it again for another 6-months so we didn't push it, waiting until he was ready. On the other hand, Sadie had just turned 3 when she decided to bag that particular peak for the first time and has been keen to do it whenever the opportunity arises ever since. Other children might not be ready until they’re older. Ensure the children are given the chance to try walks that were once too hard and take on new challenges. Give your children the opportunity to surprise you!
- Expect the kids to carry a comfortable backpack. If your child is beyond the child-carrier stage and you've chosen a tramp that matches her age and stage, don’t carry your child or her pack. Her load should not be great, but kids need to know they must carry their bag for the whole tramp. At the very least, we expect our kids to carry a pack, even if it's empty, but ideally, they should carry a small water bottle. You can work towards having a full set of basic supplies, including rain gear, extra clothing, first aid kit, and a snack. If she complains, provide encouragement and support. If that fails, carry the contents of her pack, but maintain she continue to wear it. If she really can’t walk any longer or carry her empty bag, take a break and try again after a rest. If not, turn around and choose a shorter walk next time. Overnight tramps are much more achievable when everyone shares the load (even if it's a little load). It may also be safer as children will have access to their own water for hydration, extra layer for a chill in the air, and a whistle for emergencies. Remember to work up gradually and build on success. Kids need positive experiences to learn that they can keep going, even if it’s hard sometimes. There are tiny little packs available for toddlers in Canada and New Zealand. Warning: Cuteness overload.
- Give your children practice carrying their own gear. They can carry some of their belongings almost everywhere you go, not just on tramping trips. If you’re carrying something, the kids should be carrying something. If this is a difficult transition for your family, the kids can carry an empty bag that you can add to as they get stronger and more comfortable. Kids should carry their own school bags. Choose a school bag appropriate for their age and height. Anything the kids are carrying should be packed smartly so they can carry it comfortably.
- Involve your child in the planning. Would he like to visit an old favourite or explore a new track? Will it be a waterfall, mountains, or a swimming hole that’s most appealing this time? Maybe he’d like to go somewhere where you can have a bonfire or visit some glow worms. Would it be more fun to pitch the tent or stay in the hut? Will you invite another family along this time? It's fun to brainstorm, to think of new adventures, and reminisce about old favourites.
- Have a pre-trip family meeting. After you've decided on a destination, discuss the trip with the children. Describe where you are going. What’s special about the destination? What can you look forward to seeing along the way? How much walking will it involve? Who else will be coming? What obstacles might you encounter? Discuss potential issues with a problem-solving approach. What do the kids need to do to make it work? How can everyone work together? Kids often come up with unique solutions that work for them.
- Get the kids to do their own packing. Talk to the children about layers of clothing and the types of fabric you should wear camping. Discuss why it’s not a good idea to wear their favourite cotton Star Wars t-shirt or glittery butterfly top. Tutus are okay with appropriate layering, of course. Go into detail about how many tops, bottoms, undies, socks, etc. they’ll need for the trip. Depending on your child's literacy, you can create a list with pictures, photos, or words, and let your child tick each item off as it is added. You can use this list as a guide (link). Encourage the children to gather all of their supplies into a pile in your lounge or packing area. This really gives the kids a sense of personal expertise about tramping and further reinforcement that they’re capable trampers in their own right.
- Spread the can-do attitude. It’ll be fun, it might be hard, and together you can do it. "I think I can, I think I can..." Tell stories of persistence or using mantras can help provide inspiration to keep going.
- Make it fun. Bring a friend, sing a song, tell a story, play tag along the way, hide some rocks. Fun is the best kind of motivation.
- Celebrate success. Give heaps of praise for their efforts along the way, when you reach the destination, and when you get home again. Recall perseverance fondly, as in, "Remember when you were so tired and you just wanted to stop, but you kept going anyway?" Sadie was feeling extra tired on an overnight tramp recently and blamed her heavy boots angrily. When I acknowledged her fatigue, she smile with relief and said, "I'm tired, but I can keep on going." Emphasise how the children’s positive attitude and determination helped them succeed. Choose tramps with natural rewards, such as the tops of peaks or thunderous waterfalls. Our tradition is to toast reaching the destination with a round of dried mangos and a group photograph. Start your own celebratory tradition.
Out of the mouths of babes
Curious to hear what my children might think, I read this list to Dan (7) and Sadie (4). Dan told me I’d done a good job, but that I needed to emphasise to parents that it’s important that kids carry a little water bottle and a little snack. He relishes being in charge of the rationing of his healthy treats, like bliss balls and muesli bars. Sadie said, “Don’t forget about sharing your power.” The kids often like to hold hands with Jack and me or each other when we’re walking. When the going gets tough, I sometimes squeeze their hand gently, lean over and say, “Did you feel that? That was some extra power to help you keep going.”
Good luck sharing the power, and your love of tramping, with your kids!
When you're ready to go, check out the list of what to pack for your kids' first overnight tramp.