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A Little Patience Makes a Hike Fun for Kids


Fifteen minutes of tossing pebbles into a stream? No problem. Stop to collect acorns? That's fine too. Scamper to the top of that boulder? Have at it, I say.

Take it from the father of a wilderness-savvy 2 1/2-year-old: Hiking with small children isn't about reaching peaks or pounding out the miles. Hiking--and I use the term in its most general sense--is about having a fun, safe outdoor experience that will help to instill a love of nature and set the stage for those real hikes later in life.

That sentiment is echoed by Kim DeWolf, a Fullerton resident who has been active in the Little Hikers outings committee of the Sierra Club's Angeles Chapter for 11 1/2 years--ever since the group's first outing. Her kids, who were 3 1/2 years and 9 months old then, have mostly grown out of the Little Hikers group (most of the children are preschool age to about second grade), but DeWolf and her husband Bob have stayed active as organizers.

The key concept to keep in mind when introducing youngsters to the trail, she says, is flexibility: "When the kids want to stop and explore, you stop and explore. You can't be a tiger on these walks. If you don't make it to your goal, that's OK. You've done something else worthwhile."

Potential distractions, from watching a sunning lizard to splashing through puddles, are limitless and part of the unplanned agenda of any given walk, especially for the youngest of hikers. For parents, the not-always-easy trick is to avoid becoming impatient. Learn to wait quietly and revel in the simple pleasure of watching your child in the process of discovery.

Beyond these philosophical issues are matters of safety. "Keep your eyes on your kids at all times," DeWolf says. Also, she adds, choose an activity and a time range that are age-appropriate. Entering the wilderness, even the seemingly mild local landscape, entails the assumption of a certain amount of personal responsibility, and when small children are involved that responsibility falls to the adult in charge.

The rules are mostly common sense. Know the limits of your little hikers and keep them from potentially dangerous trail situations, particularly steep drops. Running can be a hazard: A child might be a real expert on the lawn at home, but trails are uneven and can make for a rough landing. Keeping little ones in sight is particularly important around ponds and streams.

Crashing through the brush should be discouraged, not only because trail-cutting is a bad habit but because poison oak is everywhere in the local hills. Learn what it looks like and how to treat exposure. Rattlesnakes are rarely encountered, especially in the well-traveled areas you are likely to take a child, but beware nonetheless. In warm weather, stay close to the kids and have a clear view of where they are walking.

Mountain bikes are numerous in some parks and wilderness areas. It's best to stay off the most heavily cycled trails, particularly on weekends. Where there is any concern at all, I've developed the habit of staying up-slope of my son, especially on blind curves. I'm more visible to a fast-moving cyclist, and more capable of sustaining a hit if it comes to that (it never has).

As for what to bring on walks and hikes, liquids are a must, and DeWolf suggests "warm clothes and plenty of snacks, especially something sweet to give them an energy boost." A small first aid kit is not a bad idea; minor scrapes are almost inevitable, especially with toddlers. And, for sun exposure, sunscreen and a hat may be needed.

Beyond that, equipment needs are minimal. When my son began to walk, I found that hiking boots (yes, they make them that small) offered an extra measure of traction and stability to those unsteady strides. But now that he's an expert, a sturdy pair of sneakers are more than sufficient.

Of course, you needn't wait until a child can walk to take to the trail. For newborns, a soft carrier works well. Once a child can sit up, a child-carrier backpack (there are several brands--check an outdoor store) can be a great investment.

When my son first started walking, I worked out a compromise that enabled me to get a workout. I'd hike with him on my back for half an hour or so, then let him down to do some exploring on his own. Nowadays, alas, he shows little tolerance for the backpack, particularly on familiar trails, but on occasion he can still be persuaded to climb aboard on new terrain.

The final question is where to go. I live in Silverado, and work nights, so my charge and I are out on the trails at the end of the canyon most mornings. For most Orange County residents, however, nature is not so accessible.

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