It can help children burn off energy, stimulate their minds, provide valuable family time and it’s a lot cheaper than Disneyland. What is it? It’s hiking with kids! Of course, like any activity, hiking with kids can have its share of challenges, particularly for the unprepared. In this interview, Kim Tracy Prince, mother of two and avid hiker, shares her experiences and insights regarding family hikes, including tips on planning adventures, combating moodiness, finding time for nature in a busy world, getting high-tech kids to unplug and experience the outdoors and – perhaps most importantly – snacks. Enjoy!
How old are your kids now and how old were they when you first started taking them hiking?
My boys are 12 and 10, and we hiked with them as soon as they could be carried in a hiking kid carrier! My husband and I used to take them up to a nice easy trail in Porter Ranch every Sunday, and one of their earliest hikes was in Big Sur.
How often do you hike with your kids these days?
We used to go hiking together a lot more often, but now that the boys are older, sports kill our weekends, so it’s more like a few times a year. Sad!
Is hiking something that you have to prod your kids to do? If so how do you motivate them?
I do have to guilt them into going with me on my birthday and Mother’s Day, and sometimes I simply demand that they come with me. They are always motivated by food—a good sandwich and chips picnic at our halfway point usually does the trick.
What are some must-have supplies when hiking with kids – particularly things you didn’t realize you needed until you started hiking with your kids?
Snacks. Lots of snacks and different kinds. I fill my pack with chips, apple slices, chocolate covered raisins (although those don’t do well on hot days, ask me how I know) and plenty of water. I also stash basic first aid supplies in my pack just in case. Extra sunscreen. These are things that make sense for anyone to bring, but once I started packing for “just in case” for my children, I realized I need them when I go without them, too.
How do you handle complaints and moodiness when you’re on the trails?
When my boys start to whine during a hike, my first instinct is to regret bringing them with me. But I stick it out and I still make them go again and again because it is imperative for them to appreciate the beauty of where they live. Sometimes to distract them, I let them help choose our route (we usually do loops) or I give my phone to one of them so that he can watch our progress on the map app.
Do you engage in any kind of activities while hiking (bird watching, geocaching, etc)?
I love geocaching! My kids and I started doing it together several years ago. Our first find was at Reyes Adobe Park in Agoura Hills, and then we went hiking to find them on the local trails. The kids are not as
obsessed interested in geocaching as I am now, but when I fire up the next find on a trail, the search motivates them to keep going.
As the kids are getting older, do they start taking a role in the planning of hikes?
My boys have strong personalities and they have no problem voicing their opinions. When it comes to planning our family hikes, their opinions sound like moans and groans and requests to “keep it short.” However, when we are on the trail and I show them the maps and give them options (“Waterfall or rock formations?” “Ocean view or cool rocks to climb on?”) they will get interested and engage in the adventure.
Is it tough to find time to hike when you also have to contend with school and extracurricular activities? Any tips for busy families about how to prioritize hiking?
We rarely go hiking during the school week because of homework and activities. In spring and late summer, we have gone to Chesebro Canyon for short hikes just to get outside and move our bodies. (That network of trails is kind of like our local break, to use a surfer term. It’s close by, familiar, and always has plenty of parking.) And on weekends, the kids often have sports games. One way to get around that is to give up on hikes with the whole family. I’ll take one of my sons with me while my husband is at the other’s game. Or we find the one day when nobody has a game. If we keep the hike to a few hours, it can fit into a weekend day nicely.
Speaking of sports, has hiking benefited your boys athletically?
I don’t use hiking to train the kids athletically, at least not physically. However, I have used it to give them a sense of accomplishment. I remember as a young woman, stuck between jobs and not knowing yet what I was meant to do with my life, I would take off on hikes in Connecticut, exploring and climbing and pushing my endurance limit. Whenever I reached a summit or a spectacular view, I felt like I could accomplish anything. The sense of conquering an obstacle was so strong for me then, and such comfort. So in recent years, when my boys have experienced frustration or heartbreak, I made them come with me for a tougher climb than usual.
In one particular case, my older son was about 10 years old. He played flag football on the worst team in the league. One Saturday, he threw interception after interception, and his team was getting pounded. He expressed his frustration by lashing out at his teammates and his coach and especially me and my husband. I pulled him from the game for his bad attitude, and made him change his clothes for a hike. I drove him to the base of a steep hill that has cutouts for drainage pipes. The hike up to the top was pretty roundabout, so I chose to scale the cutouts and get straight up there, picking our way along a game trail. It took us hours, but we got to the top, and we turned around to survey the view of our neighborhood. He threw his arms into the air and shouted “We did it!” with a giant smile on his face. Now whenever we drive past that hill, one of us remarks “Remember that hike we did?” and we exchange a knowing look. I hope he felt the way I felt: proud of himself, and like he really could do anything.
In L.A., state parks and natural areas have to compete with Disneyland, Magic Mountain, Universal City and many other big attractions. How do you make hiking exciting and relevant to your kids when there are so many other tempting destinations?
Letting my kids invite friends to join us on our hikes is always the best way to get them excited about going out in nature instead of heading to a big-ticket attraction, or to the movies, or laser tag, or other indoor or pricey activities. They are at the age that when we bring friends along it’s more fun for them.
It seems lately that a lot is being made about kids and “screen time.” Is it hard to get the kids to unplug and immerse themselves in nature? Do you allow technology on the trails?
The only technology I allow on the trails is my own phone, and that’s for geocaching, referencing the map, and taking photos. My kids definitely get a lot of screen time, but they don’t have their own phones, so they are used to being screen-free when we are away from home. Disengaging from their computers and video games does come with a lot of complaining, but they simply don’t have a choice, and they’re usually happy and tired when we are done with our hikes.
Any tips for parents who want to hike with their kids but are concerned about safety?
There are so many places in and around Los Angeles where a young family or beginning hikers can get started with flat trails, more populated hiking areas, and places close to home. I would start with fire roads or paved trails if you’re worried about snakes (a valid concern), and plan your route ahead of time so you know what to expect. You can always bail early and take the kids out for ice cream.
What are your favorite family-friendly hikes in the L.A. area and why?
Charmlee Wildnerness Park in Malibu is my favorite place to take the family because it has a wonderful variety of trails. There are rolling meadows, oak groves, cool rocks to climb on, chaparral-covered slopes, and ocean views. The network of trails offers multiple loops to design for your short or long hiking adventure. Another favorite is the hike to Paradise Falls at Wildwood Park in Thousand Oaks. Because, waterfall! This hike also features a giant teepee and a native American cave. Lots to explore!