There's one golden rule when traveling with children.
Bribe them.Child psychologists and yuppie parents may call it "rewards" or "positive reinforcement." Sounds nice, but it's basically bribery. And it works.
During a recent family hiking vacation in Washington's North Cascades, I found myself using the most basic of bribes - sugar - to keep our 4-year-old daughter moving along the trail:
"See that big rock up there? Once we get there, we'll stop and have a rest and a trail treat," I announced.
Trail treats, as she well knows, are sugary foods that her dad and I don't let her have most of the time, such as granola bars and trail mix (and she is allowed to pick out the chocolate chips).
With sweet bribes, and a few more wholesome techniques, she happily scampered for 4-1/2 miles on the high-country trail.
Hiking has always been a big part of my family's recreation and vacations. But with a child who's now too big to be carried in a backpack, keeping us all happy hikers has demanded some planning and strategies.
The guidebook series "Best Hikes with Children" has become our outdoors bible. We've used some of the 13 volumes, which cover areas throughout the United States, to find kid-friendly hikes in Utah, California, Colorado, Washington and Oregon.
Joan Burton is the author of the two-volume series "Best Hikes with Children in Western Washington and the Cascades." Burton and her family have been hiking and camping together since the kids were teething.
Here's some advice on hiking happily with children, gleaned from Burton, the "Best Hikes with Children" books and my own family's experience.
- Destination: Choose a trail that's right for the youngest person on the hike. Nothing will turn off kids more quickly than a too-tough, too-long trail, especially if you're just introducing them to hiking. Start modestly - a hike of maybe just a mile or two with little elevation gain - to create a feeling of accomplishment. And dish out plenty of praise for the child's hiking prowess.
Choose a destination that has something fun to do at the end of the trail. Adults may be happy with big views and just hiking along the trail, but kids want to get somewhere and do something. A lake or even just a stream is an ideal destination. Even if it's too cold to swim, kids can wade, build rock dams, look for bugs and frogs.
- Pace: Adults like to hike at a steady pace. Kids don't. Do it their way, or you'll end up nagging them the whole time. Stop to throw rocks. Stop for snacks. Stop for rests. Stop to smell the flowers.
- Play along: Boredom or tiredness setting in? Roll out some trail games.
"Play the `I spy' game or hide-and-seek," recommends Burton. (Parents of young children may want to have an adult or teen-ager hide, too, to make sure a youngster doesn't stray too far off the trail.)
Ever since a family hiking vacation in Utah, where cairns (small piles of stones) marked the route over featureless slick-rock, our daughter has wanted cairns on every trail. So on almost every hike we make a couple of cairns on the way up, then search for them and dismantle them on the way down.
If your child is still young enough, telling a story can make for happy trails. I spin out some favorite stories for a mile or two and make up stories about the deer and birds we see along the way.
- Take another kid: Take several children on a hike, recommends Burton, to make it easier on everyone. "It gives a child companionship and some friendly competition. My children loved to alternate being the leader on the trail. It was a privilege for them."
- Treats (or bribes): Make hiking special by handing out "trail treats" - granola bars, trail mix, whatever works. I usually try for something with some redeeming food value along with the sugar and sometimes make cookies that are loaded with nuts and oatmeal for energy. Pack more food and water than you think you'll ever need; the appetite of a hiking child can be immense.
When we're staying at a motel and doing day hikes in an area, the really big incentive is a pool. Swimming is our daughter's passion; whining on the hike means no swimming in the motel pool later that day. And a happy hike means extra pool time.
- Safety: Hiking has risks, but probably the most common for children are weather-related - overexposure to the sun and hypothermia from being cold and/or wet.
Make it an ironclad rule that your child wears a hat and sunscreen. Pack a complete change of clothes, including an extra pair of shoes, plus some extra warm clothes.
And be sure to take a first-aid kit and any medication your child requires.
- Carry the kid?: Until she was 3-1/2, our daughter often rode in a child-carrier backpack. She's too big for it now, and we prefer to avoid constant pleas for piggy-back rides by declaring that she must hike the whole way on her own two feet. That means we have to be sure to tailor hikes to her abilities, but we prefer that to endless requests for a ride.
- Attitude: A good attitude is one of the most important things you can take hiking, says Burton. "It's very basic to believe that it's a fun time together. Don't look for problems or hazards, although you do want to be prepared for bee stings, nettles, rain, whatever. But if you're self-confident and enjoy it, the children will."
More information the "Best Hikes With Children" series includes guides to hiking in New England, New York's Catskills and around the West and the Southwest. Each volume includes detailed trail descriptions and maps, plus tips on safety and wilderness ethics. The series is published by Mountaineers Books; each volume costs $12.95.