Hit the trails!
5 plan-ahead tips to make family hikes fun, memorable, and safe.
We are always looking for things to do as a family. Some of our best times together are spent on hiking trails, and there are plenty to choose from right near our St. Croix Valley home. Taylors Falls, MN, St. Croix Falls, WI and the surrounding communities offer miles of trails of all types. When we hike, it’s a time to unplug, engage with each other, and stay active. Carving out these slices of time have been great memory-makers and our hikes end up being not only about learning the surrounding environment, but surprisingly, about each other.
Now, having said that, these hikes with kids did not come without plenty of meltdowns, and the ever popular “Are we there yet? My kids are 4 and 9 and we’ve had them on the trails since before they could even walk them on their own. The trick is planning ahead.
1. Gear and Snacks
First off, choose shoes wisely! Proper fit with no fuss ties will save your sanity. Check the soles and choose something that has some grip to it. Rocks and leaves can get very slippery whether it’s dry sand or water. And for goodness sake, leave the flip flops at home unless you want to hear “my feet hurt” about 1000 times.
Your child will most likely want to bring the entire pantry and all the refrigerator goods they can find, so have a plan or you’ll be weighed down like a pack mule. A couple granola bars, a bag of cut up fruit and a water bottle should be sufficient replenishment for a short hike, but if you’ve got time and backpacks, by all means, bring a picnic lunch.
Tip...have a plan for who is carrying what (and what they are truly willing to carry the whole time) unless you want to be holding three backpacks and four water bottles at the end. Double tip...letting them carry gear is a good opportunity to teach a little gem of responsibility too!
Have little ones? No reason to leave them behind! Invest in a sturdy hiking carrier (or front pack, such as a Baby Bjorn, if your child is under 6 months or hasn’t reached the weight minimum yet). My kids loved the vantage point of being up so high and taking in the scenery (except of course when they were sleeping, which almost always happens). The carrier does double duty as a backpack (free hands!) and once you get used to the feel and weight, it is a prudent little calorie burner for the pack carrying parent.
© Linda Shober Designs & Images
2. Consider the Hiking Terrain
So you’ve likely chosen a trail (or if not, may I suggest a few in the St. Croix Valley?!) Try a few of the trails mentioned here! Now you may think it best to keep the trail simple, flat, and easy. But in my experience, those little ones (and big!) love the thrill of scrambling up and down boulders, climbing wooden and rock stairs, and running freely on winding trails. My 9 year old daughter loves to sprint the top of the Curtain Falls Trail in Taylors Falls. She says it makes her feel like she is flying. It is such a great way to get kids to relate fitness with fun. But the more rugged the terrain, the more safety becomes important.
Two words: Be Vigilant. Kids will wander, step without thinking, and come so close to the rocky cliff edge that you’re likely to have a coronary. It’s part of their nature to be curious, and that is a good thing. But set limits. If the trail is narrow with no rail, remind them to walk on the inside. If they tend to run ahead, make the rule that they must remain in view at all times. It’s ok to remind them that we share the woods with wildlife and that bears, coyotes, fox, and yes, even cougars have been spotted throughout the Midwest forests (but very rarely, so please don't let that deter you).
4. Plan out your stops
If you have a trail you frequent, planning stops can be a little easier. You’ll learn where all the best climbing rocks are, the great places to climb “that” tree, and where the whole family needs to stop and catch their breath. Having those planned stops can keep the group moving forward and not make the quarter mile hike turn into a five hour event. We like to choose water stops, snack points, and rest breaks at about 1/3 increments so we are not stopping every few seconds. If you are hiking on an unfamiliar trail, check out the map kiosks and say something like “When we get to this campground, we can stop for our snacks”.
5. It’s not all about moving forward
Adventure, education, skill building and just plain fun are all beautiful things that can happen when you take your family to the trails. If you’re itching for some education, grab a plant identification book and pick out a few in-season flowers and foliage for your kids to spot. Speaking of itching, this is a great time to teach how to spot poison ivy/oak and to explain that some berries are meant just for birds. If you go for the edible, be smart about it. Stick to what you are absolutely sure about. When in doubt, leave it alone.
But don’t be afraid to keep your eyes out for the unexpected. Our family discovered that we have cactus (yes, cactus!) growing right here in the St. Croix River Valley. Other fun things to incorporate are scavenger hunts (prepare a list specific to where you will be hiking), or become an expert animal tracker. Bring a guide book and if you are feeling really ambitious, bring some quick-dry cast material to capture those deep footed animal imprints for further study at home. Feeling adventurous? Turn a hike into a treasure hunt by incorporating some geocaching. Geocaches are small bins of various trinkets hidden in the woods that are meant for others to discover. Check out geocaching.com or ask our local experts at our area state parks (Interstate MN, Interstate WI, Wild River State Park, and William O'Brien) for a list of potential geocaches on the trails you are hiking. You can go old school and locate on your own, or use a GPS system, which is a great way to learn about mapping, tracking, and following coordinates. Just remember to be respectful of the trails.
Other times, it’s just about having fun or breaking up the long stretches when the kids are getting tired. Try picking an animal and imitating how it walks and moves. This is a great activity for all ages. From the two year old scurrying like a mouse, to dear old Dad plunking along as an elephant, you’ll be sure to hear that laughter echoing all through the woods. So pick your next trail, make a plan, and start creating lasting family memories.
By Linda Shober, tourist turned transplant to the area. Trail hiking junkie. 2x finisher of a 27+ mile trailrun/hike. Fitness Trainer. Promoter of all things St. Croix Valley. Mother of two.
Top photo © Linda Shober