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Keep on Hiking with Your Child on Board!

Author Jeff Alt
Author Jeff Alt

Jeff and Beth on their hike with their daughter
Jeff and Beth on their hike with their daughter
By Jeff Alt, author of the award-winning travelogues, "A Walk For Sunshine" and "A Hike For Mike"

I hoisted my 40-pound pack onto my back, cinched down the shoulder straps, clicked the waist belt on, slipped my hands through the loops of my trekking poles, tucked my map into my pocket, and headed down the trail.

All these initial steps were routine practice for all my other expeditions but this particular hike was anything but routine. For starters, my 40-pound pack weight wasn't from my tent, sleeping bag, and weeks' worth of food; those items had been replaced with my 27-pound daughter and all her supplies.

Oh yeah, I forget to mention one additional step: before I put on my backpack child carrier, I make sure Madison is safely strapped in!

Not only was I embarking on my first expedition with my daughter, wife, and extended family, but this was our first adventure out of the US-all the way to Ireland.

If you think your days of trekking through the mountains, forests, and national trails end with the birth of your child, think again. Having experienced the triumph of fulfilling outdoor dreams by walking the Appalachian and John Muir Trails, I wasn't about to shelve future adventures due to fatherhood. We trekked over 50 miles with my 21-month-old daughter and my four-year-old nephew. Our journey was a far cry from a death-defying feat up Everest, but if including your child in your adventures is important to you, then toning down your pursuits until your child is older is worth every step.

OK, so my trail vocabulary was altered a bit to "Do you want your sippy cup?", "Where is your pacifier?", and "Here, have a gold fish cracker." But being able to include the whole family in an outdoor adventure was worth the small sacrifices.

We trekked the Burren Way which had a haunting "Lord of the Ring" feel with grass-covered ancient hills speckled with medieval granite, Walt Disney-looking castle ruins, and roofless peasant rock hut remains overgrown with chest-high grass. For six days we followed trail markers snaking along rock fence-lined farm lanes, most certainly the same paths the medieval Celtics once traveled, with the Atlantic Ocean and distant islands in view; we trekked along the massive, breathtaking Cliffs of Moher and over rock fences through cow and sheep pastures.

We bedded down in cozy family-run B&B's, and dined in pubs, eating Irish Beef Stew, fresh battered cod, and smoked salmon, washed down with Guinness. My daughter, Madison washed hers down with a sippy cup full of milk. The Irish lived up to their hospitable reputation, shuttling us into town for dinner, carting our dirty laundry to the cleaners, and cooking up a very hearty full Irish breakfast each morning. Having lodging at the end of the day allowed us to rid our pack of dirty diapers, get out of the unpredictable wind-lashing rain, maintain our child's bath routine, and bed her down in somewhat familiar sleeping quarters.

My wife, Beth, carried all of our clothes, snacks, and amenities in her backpack which defied the laws of physics, crammed beyond capacity, taking on the roundish looks of a pregnant cow about to go into labor. Beth beamed a smile from ear to ear when she learned that the B&B's would portage her backpack ahead to the next night's lodging.

Our daughter enjoyed the entire journey. She was like Queen Tut slathered in sunscreen and bug repellent, layered in warm clothing, perched high on my back, with a half circle weather cover propped over her. She was amused by the horses, mules, and cows that would stick their heads over the rock fence, like Mr. Ed. She learned to play the harmonica as we trekked along, and read a book tied to the side of the kid carrier.

Walking as a family was a priceless bonding experience. We were able to share our hiking passion with our child and her smile assured us it was worth every step.

With a few key pre-planning steps you can plan a safe trek with your child:

Train with your child.
Six weeks before leaving on our trek, I started carrying Madison around the neighborhood a few miles a week. This helped me adjust to carrying her and it helped Madison acclimate to the routine of riding in a pack. Take your older children (4 and up) on weekly walks. Talk to them about the journey. Have the older kids carry their own fun adventure pack filled with a few toys.

Choose a trail that offers easy access to domestic amenities.
Having a base camp or prearranged lodging allows you to be a parent, not a Sherpa.
- Check into transportation options. You should have a plan if you need to get off the trail. Every B&B we stayed at shuttled our gear ahead for free. Inquire about grocery availability. Since you're traveling on foot, it's good to know what's available before you arrive so you know what to pack.

Research the area you plan to trek
- Obtain maps and guidebooks of the area.
- Check with the local travel experts on hiking (rangers, guides, etc).
- Is the water safe for drinking?
- What kinds of wildlife can you expect? Avoid hiking in grizzly country. If you're going to be in mountain lion or black bear country, never let your child out of site, always travel with more than one adult and brush up on proper etiquette if you encounter a lion or bear. Check out the National Park Service's Wildlife & Safety page for tips.
- What are the weather and terrain like? Avoid hiking in freezing temperatures, lightning storms, extreme heat, high altitude trails that require acclimation, and dangerous glacial areas.

Be prepared for trail emergencies.
- Carry a first aid kit and brush up on child first aid and CPR.
- Learn about the dangers of hypothermia and monitor children for signs.

Keep the journey fun
- Make your journey a child-directed event. Whatever animal or rock your child takes interest in, stop and let them play.
- Talk to your child about what you're seeing. Label the animals, rocks, trees, and flowers.
- Bring along some trail toys: harmonica, flute, bells, books, teddy bear.
- Reduce your mileage to the comfort level of the child.

Plan a child-friendly adventure in a U.S. national park.
Acadia, Shenandoah, and Yosemite National Parks are some of the child friendly hiking destinations we've enjoyed.

Ennis Tourist Center
Arthur's Row (off O'Connel St.)
Ennis, Co Clare p:065 6828366

Jeff Alt, author of the award-winning books A Hike for Mike (John Muir Trail) and A Walk for Sunshine (Appalachian Trail), has been a guest hiking expert on ESPN's "Inside America's National Parks." His adventures have been widely featured in media across the country.

The Gear List Jeff and Beth Packed for Their Child
Look here for a link to the child carrier Jeff used as well as the must-have items for your family trek.

Editor's Note
For local hikes, check out the Santa Clarita Guide's Wilderness page, where you'll find out how you can access the Pacific Crest Trail. California's wilderness is all around us in the Santa Clarita Valley.

If you'd like to head out into California's High Sierras, you'll find info on our High Sierras page.

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