Take a Hike

by Margaret and Stephen Kosnar

Our daughter Eileen was a little over 2 years old when we took her for a hike on the Broadwater Lake trail just south of Red Lodge. My husband carried Eileen perched over his head in a Kelty backpack. At one point where the trail rose up above Rock Creek, I drifted ahead of my husband and Eileen. When I turned around to check on their progress, I saw a large female moose standing less than 5 feet from the trail. I had one of those moments where the phrase “maternal instinct” became crystal clear. Without missing a beat, I began frantically flapping my arms and gesturing to my husband so that he would steer clear of the moose, as they can be very aggressive.

Of course, the moose was hidden from his sight, and my husband shot me an “are you crazy” look just before the moose barreled across the trail up an embankment. We looked up the slope and realized that her calf had been on the other side of the path, about thirty yards back.

My heart was still pounding as we regrouped and watched the two moose from a safe distance. A handful of other hikers had collected around us. Moose will never win any animal beauty contests, but there was an unmistakable splendor to the pair—a mother and her young one standing in the shade of cottonwoods and pines. The scene made an impression on Eileen, too. She pointed and said, “Look. Moose is pooping.”

By the end of our 5-mile hike, which I believe took nearly five hours, my husband and I had discovered many lessons about what aspects of hiking and the great outdoors kids find the most enjoyable. Here’s what we learned.

As adults we like goals, which in hiking terms translates to having a destination, for example, a lake or a waterfall. These end points don’t necessarily have the same value to children, and the extra quarter, half, or mile to get there when a child is tired might mean the difference between backwoods happiness and backwoods meltdown.

Be creative. I’ve heard fellow hikers describe trail scavenger hunts as a way to get kids more excited about the walk. Ferns, fallen logs, and rocks all draw children down the trail and give them concrete things to watch out for. I even overheard one mother talking about placing Skittles along the trail (which I’m not sure I recommend because candies left behind could be eaten by wildlife) to coax her children to explore specific areas of the wilderness.

Children don’t find as much interest in big picture landscape—a sprawling meadow or massive granite peaks—as they do the “little worlds” they encounter. We stopped for 15 minutes when Eileen found an eddy the size of a dinner plate; she scavenged for different things—pebbles, sticks, dandelions—that she could throw into the calm water.

The more tactile the better. Kids learn about the world around them with their senses. Eileen was the happiest when she was dipping her toes into the ice-cold creek water, touching the rough texture of pinecones, or tickling her feet with blades of grass.

Much to our chagrin, kids don’t get hungry “when they’re supposed to.” On our hike, we found that after 20 minutes Eileen decided it was lunch time. Packing plenty of portable snacks—raisins, crackers, string cheese—can buy you an extra mile or two without having to unpack the entire food bag.

Dress appropriately. It’s always a struggle for us to convince Eileen that a princess dress and tiara are not appropriate for hiking and active outdoor activities. But this is one of those battles worth fighting. Kids are much happier, despite their initial protestations, when they don’t end up with blisters or sunburned arms. A wide brimmed hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen are a must (and don’t forget the first aid kit).

One of my favorite aspects of hiking is the tranquility and quiet. Our daughter and quiet, however, are mutually exclusive. It was hard for me to adjust to her running commentary for basically the entire hike. If you need a communing-with-nature, peaceful fix, I recommend planning a separate outing without children or breaking up the hike, where one adult watches the kids while the other goes off by him or herself for a short trek.

Be realistic with expectations for the outing. In their piece “Children in the wilderness,” appearing in Wilderness Medicine: Management of Wilderness and Environmental Emergencies, Judith Klein and Barbara Kennedy state that children between the ages of 2-4 can routinely hike 1-2 miles, but parents should plan on stopping every 15 minutes for breaks. This age group is still in an “oral” phase and needs to be watched closely to make sure nothing poisonous goes in their mouths. School age children have a longer attention span and can not only hike longer distances but also participate in other outdoor activities. They enjoy following their progress with a topographic map, can begin to use a compass, and enjoy helping set up camp. In addition, at this age they can carry their own soft backpacks complete with some snacks, a small toy, sunscreen, and a whistle in case they become separated from the group.

Utilize area resources. We have wonderful wilderness areas just next door in Red Lodge, and Yellowstone Park has a wonderful Junior Ranger Program where kids, ages 5-12, can learn from real naturalists.

One way of thinking about hiking with kids is that you are trying to establish a foundation for enjoying the outdoors for a lifetime. If children are uncomfortable or unhappy during their first hiking experiences, it can create a permanent barrier to their exploring the outdoors later in life. So while pine cones and poop don’t hold the same endless fascination for adults as they do for kids, it’s probably best not to fight too hard against them. My husband and I like to think of it not so much that we’re taking our daughter for a hike but that she’s taking us.

Margaret Kosnar is a family practice resident. Stephen Kosnar is a freelance writer. They live in Billings and enjoy spending time exploring the outdoors with their two children.