Hiking with kids might invoke thoughts of peacefulness, simplicity, family time, and oneness with nature. Or, for veteran hiking parents, it might prompt thoughts of bickering between children over who leads the way, complaining of tiredness, and endless questions of “how much longer do we have to go?” For my husband and me, most days it’s the “oneness with nature” feelings, but the kids still occasionally throw in a day of tired feet, bug bites, and arguments over pointless matters. In other words, hiking is like any other day of parenting!
Nevertheless, I’m convinced that getting my kids (and myself!) out in nature as much as possible is what’s best for us. And, no one ever regrets finishing the hike!
Here are some of the benefits of hiking that I’ve discovered.
Map- and Terrain-reading Skills
Recently, my husband and I hiked at Jordan Lake, our closest state park. We learned the terrain and knew we wanted to bring our kids the next time for a three-mile loop. On that excursion, we had them take a map and told them they were our navigators. They studied the map, looked for tree markers, and occasionally debated which way to go. In a world where the phone GPS reigns supreme, I firmly believe kids benefit from being able to read a printed map and match what is shown on it to the terrain around them.
Immersed in nature, our kids notice the little things—the beetle in the path, the funny looking mushrooms, the strangely shaped stones, the freaky-looking spiders. My kids sometimes bring nets to catch, study, and then release toads. They learn how nature can be both fragile and resilient. As much as I love books, some things are better left to direct observation rather than book, screen, or classroom learning.
Environmentalism is not some abstract concept when you hike. Depending on location, litter abounds. Appalled at how much plastic we saw wash ashore due to recent high water at Jordan Lake, my kids brought grocery bags to help clean up the rubbish on our next trip. They know that picking up after yourself isn’t just something their parents nag them about; it’s an important habit because if they don’t, they’ll be the ones who left the straws, plastic wrappers, water bottles, and Styrofoam containers—all of which are particularly unsightly in an otherwise pristine environment.
Gross Motor Skills
I’m not an occupational therapist, but I notice that my kids have great balance and a healthy understanding of what their little bodies can and can’t do. We love walking across fallen logs as if they are balance beams, jumping across puddles, skipping across bridges, and, of course, climbing trees. In other words, a hike provides a main course of physical activity and a side of motor skills. In an age where kids are getting clumsier due to lack of outdoor activity, hiking can offer a counterbalance.
Hiking and being out in nature, especially when they are leading the way, builds confidence. Even when we’re on a hike that is all uphill, or they feel like they can’t handle one more switchback or mile, my kids have a sense of accomplishment after finishing—just like how I feel when I’ve pushed myself. Back at home, they will write books and tell stories about outdoor adventures. (And the characters never whine!) Along the way, they’ve also picked up some survival skills such as using an acorn as a whistle.
We ask our girls what we need to bring and have them pack our backpack. They know that if you go out in nature, you should have water, a snack, bug spray, sunscreen, phone, etc.
If you’re a parent who likes the idea of hiking with your kids but have been hesitant to embark on lengthier excursions, take heart that the benefits far outweigh the negatives of hiking even on your kids’ whiniest days! And if you’ve ever taken them to theme parks (check out my recent article on Disney on a Budget!), know that this is way, way easier and you’re probably doing even less walking!
Where are your favorite spots to go hiking with your family here in the Triangle? Please share with us in the comments and don’t forget to tell us your favorite tips for hiking with kiddos. We always enjoy hearing from our readers!
*All photography credits: Heidi Scott Giusto, PhD
Heidi Scott Giusto, PhD, moved to the Triangle in 2005 with her husband so she could pursue graduate studies at Duke. Since then, they have had two girls and love calling North Carolina home. Always looking for the next family adventure, Heidi and her husband are on a mission to take their daughters to all 50 states and to all North Carolina State Parks—while traveling on a budget. Beyond family activities, Heidi owns and operates Career Path Writing Solutions, a communications consulting firm dedicated to helping individuals and businesses succeed when the stakes are high. Heidi helps people improve their writing and proactively manage their careers. She is a multi-certified resume writer. Rarely a day goes by when Heidi isn’t working with a client on a resume, cover letter, LinkedIn profile, interview preparation, website critique, or other writing projects. You can find her on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook.