This was originally a blog post that I wrote for the Sport Chalet Outdoor Community blog in 2012. It appears that they have taken it down, so I am reposting it here, with some minor edits. All content is written by me. I’ve added some pictures from over the years to illustrate the point that it takes consistency and patience to have a child that loves the outdoors.
“Daddy, when can we climb Black Mountain?” The words were music to my ears. They came from my 2-year-old daughter, sitting in her car seat behind me. Everywhere we went in the car, I would point out different mountains to our daughter, but Black Mountain was special.
Every day, on the way to preschool, we would say “Good morning” to the mountain, which was visible from our home. To have her ask me to go hiking to the top was a success in my book. We’ve been on many hikes before and since, but this was the sign that her motivation was now coming from within.
How did I do it?
Be aware of the outdoors areas around you and point them out to your children
My daughter wouldn’t have noticed Black Mountain if I hadn’t pointed it out to her on our walks and drives around our neighborhood. In addition, as we drove around all over the county, I would point out a peak here and a canyon there. Now she notices them on her own and asks me what they are. Keep in mind that this requires you to do the research to know what they are.
Be a role model
I might be an extreme case, since I am an avid hiker and blogger, but most people spring the idea of hiking on their young families while on vacation and encounter resistance. If you’ve never really hiked before, how could you expect your young children to suddenly be interested in it? Before you take your children on hikes, go on hikes yourself and let your children know about your adventures and share pictures of scenery and wildlife with them. They’ll start to get curious and want to go with you.
Encourage curiosity, wonder, and exploration
Always be on the lookout for local flora and fauna. My daughter and I get as much joy in seeing the local squirrels and woodpeckers as we do seeing deer and bison. My daughter now notices turkey vultures and pelicans from the car and points them out to me. Like pointing out the mountains, it’s also great to point out flowers, mushrooms, insects, and anything else there is to see. I look them up on my phone or ask my social media friends to help identify them, so we know the correct names for them.
Take your children on hikes when young, even if you have to carry them
My daughter actually took her first steps while on a hike. It was when she was just over one year old. I carried her in a backpack on my back in a wonderful area of grasslands and oaks on the Santa Rosa Plateau. While relaxing on the visitor center porch, she decided to start walking. After that trip, I took her on some pretty rugged hikes in the desert, forests, and everything in between, all while carrying her on my back. She would get out of the backpack to play at our destinations, but didn’t have to get too tired on the trail. Now she looks back fondly at pictures of these adventures and knows she’s been in the outdoors since she was a toddler.
Create a positive outdoor experience for your young child
Involve your children in the decision-making process, if possible. Show them on a map where they are going and make sure there is a goal at the end of the hike, like a waterfall or viewpoint. Make sure your children are wearing appropriate clothing for the hike and be sure to pack layers. Be aware of the effects of the sun and bring a hat and sunglasses for your children. You likely wear sun protection, so at least an equal amount of protection would be reasonable for your children. Go to the local outdoors store and let them pick out a day pack. You may carry the bulk of the weight, but let them contribute by carrying snacks or a little bit of water. Ensure they have comfortable shoes and socks and that the hike is an appropriate distance. Nothing sours a child to hiking more than having blisters or being sunburnt after an outing.
I love the outdoors. I love the feeling of scrambling up a rocky trail, wiping the sweat out of my eyes, and being rewarded with a jaw-dropping view. By taking some careful steps, your children can love hiking as much as you do.