One of my favorite “wild” tales is a weekend trip I took several years ago to Pisgah National Forest of North Carolina.
An old hiking buddy wanted me to experience the Linville Gorge Wilderness Area. Linville Gorge is famous for the spectacular, well-visited Linville Falls, which is a must-visit for anyone who enjoys the beauty of nature. But that’s not what we were there for. My friend wanted me to experience the south end of the gorge, the true wilderness area, home to some of the most strenuous hiking west of the Mississippi.
We trekked down into the gorge together and spent a couple hours enjoying the roaring cascades of the Linville River. When the time came to make it back up the mountain, I made the conscious decision to split from my partner and take the more challenging trail out of the gorge. Note: do as I say, not as I do. You should never hike alone, especially not wilderness hiking, and I knew better.
The trail I just had to experience is called Rock Jock Trail. The write up in the state guide says “This hike is not for the faint-hearted. It is difficult, remote and overgrown in many sections. Only hikers with above average experience and navigation should attempt this trail.” Sounds delightful, huh?
It was indeed rough, but halfway up the trail, I was in good shape and thoroughly enjoying myself. That’s when I heard the noise. And it was unlike anything I had ever heard before. It was an ear-piercing shrill, almost like a cross between a screech owl and a coyote call. It was coming up behind me, and I could tell it was getting closer whatever it was.
The trail was much too steep and rough to run, so I backed off the trail and nestled close to a large tree, holding my hiking pole in hand like a weapon. There was a rustling of the thick brush hanging over the trail and then it stepped out right in front of me. The sound was like a young child screaming in uncontrollable anger and was indeed just that.
Passing me on this rugged trail was a father, virtually dragging his screaming young son by the arm back up the mountain. Just behind them I assume was the mom, carrying their young daughter who was crying uncontrollably — which harmonized quite well with her brother.
My first thought was, we are only halfway out, and they still have almost two hours of uphill climbing to get out of here. But my second thought was: what are they doing down on this trail with kids anyway? Have they lost their minds?
This brings me to my topic of the day — hiking with children.
Trail hiking with the kids can and should be one of the most rewarding and enjoyable experiences you can ever have outdoors. But, as noted, it can also be a hellish nightmare that could permanently scar the desires of your kids and you from ever wanting to hike again.
The following are some quick tips regarding family hiking.
Obviously, we must choose our trails wisely. They need to be age-appropriate both in length and difficulty. I am not a big fan of using the one-word descriptions that refer to trail difficulty (for example, strenuous, moderate or easy). They tend to be accurate only in the eye of the beholder. Find yourself a topographical map of the trail and check out the elevation gains. I also like to read the numerous trail reviews from other hikers, many of them hike with kids.
Second — and this one is a great pet peeve of mine — put the kids in some decent shoes. It makes me crazy when I see parents wearing the latest and best, ultra-expensive hiking boot, while their kids are in sandals or canvas tennis shoes. Any hiker will attest to the critical importance of proper footwear, so let’s not forget the kids. Make sure they have good ankle support unless you enjoy carrying your children several miles.
The third tip is more for the moms, since the men generally don’t think of these things. A snack pack and an emergency pack are essential. This is one time you can get by with offering healthy snacks because, trust me, once the kids have spent an hour or so on a trail they will eat just about anything you put in front of them. Also, have plenty of water and a decent first aid kit.
Finally — perhaps most importantly — take the kids on trails that they will see and experience something more than just the beauty of nature. That’s fine for the adults, but kids will get bored to tears taking in the sky, trees and fresh air. Find hikes that give them an unforgettable experience, something unusual, something they can touch.
Unusual rock formations are good, caves are even better. Creeks, water holes or waterfalls are always winners with the young ones. Then make sure you build in time for them to climb, explore and splash. The making of fond memories in your children’s minds is what will get them addicted to the great outdoors and bring them back for more. Now, go get wild!