A good hike is more than just slapping on sneakers and hitting the trail. To insure safety and success - especially if you go with children - you need to make some preparations beforehand.1. Know where you are going. Before you leave home get a map of the trail area or get explicit directions. Learn how far it is, what kind of terrain to expect and if there are hazards or any restrictions on fires, pets or even times when the trail might be closed. Getting lost in the mountains with your children may not be safe, and it sure won't do a lot for family morale.
2. Carefully plan the time of day you hike. It's fun to take a picnic lunch to a mountain lake. But sometimes midday is the worst time for kids to hike. In hot July sun or anytime in desert country, lunchtime can be miserable hiking.
A breakfast hike is a nice alternative for families. Start in the cool early morning and put some sweet rolls, containers of juice, milk and little packages of dry cereal in those packs. Part way, stop in a shady spot for breakfast so little bodies don't have to go far on an empty stomach, and save a cookie or something as a treat to eat at your destination.
Consider hikes that start late in the day where practical. Late afternoon light in red rock country enhances the rock colors and creates beautiful scenes.
Don't expect little ones to hike during their usual nap time. Both child and parent will be miserable.
3. Always take food and water. Even if you don't plan to be gone very long, have at least a snack with you and a generous supply of water. (That means enough to rinse off a scraped elbow, too.)
Canteens can be handy and readily available. But I like pint or quart sized plastic containers better. I'm squeamish about sharing one canteen with five slobbery kids, even if I am their mother. These water bottles are fairly inexpensive and available in most stores with camping supplies. Plan to carry at least 16 ounces of water per person for a simple hike of a few miles or not more than two hours, and twice that much or more if you will be hiking strenuously or will be in hot weather.
Stop at regular intervals and have everyone take a small sip of water. It's important to drink frequently before you feel great thirst, because by the time you can be aware of it, you may have already depleted up to 25 percent of your body water supply. Short, regular rest stops allow your energy to renew better than going a long distance until you're bushed and then resting for a long time.
Kids who hike are always hungry. Always take just a little more food than you think you'll need. Food makes a great motivator, too, as in, "We'll stop at the top of the next hill for our fruit snacks."
There are lots of nutritious trail mixes and granola stuff available - and my husband and kids love several kinds. Myself, I prefer real food. Pack only foods you've tried and know you like. It's awful discouraging to be 5 miles from anywhere and have only granola bars you hate to get home on.
Grapes and cherries packed in a water-tight, non-squishable container with a couple of ice cubes makes a juicy and refreshing snack. Apples and oranges pack well and fruit juices make good hiking fare.
Kids always love a chocolate candy bar, but nothing is messier on a warm day. Hard cookies, hard candies and licorice sticks are better hiking treats.
4. Dress appropriately. Protection is the key element here. Foot protection is important. No matter how much the kids beg, don't let them wear thongs or sandals or even those favorite cowboy boots on a hike. (Most cowboy boots have slippery soles on rocks or wet trails and cause lots of scraped elbows.) A good pair of sneakers work great, and of course, hiking boots are nice if you've got them.
Long jeans protect the legs from sun, bugs, bushes and most sore knees. Try layering on top. Over a lightweight shirt put a sweatshirt and then maybe a jacket, too. Several layers make it easy to adjust for heat or cold, and the temperature on the trail will never be quite what you expected.
At our house, hats and jackets are required baggage on hikes.
Add a layer of sunscreen and bug spray before you leave home, and carry more with you.
5. Be prepared for the unexpected. In addition to the items mentioned already, it's wise to always carry along: tissue; a pocketknife; matches in a waterproof container; Bandaids; antiseptic cream; sunscreen; insect repellent; a flashlight; a signal mirror; a bag for garbage; and rain gear. (Only once were we caught unprepared in an unexpected thunderstorm. We made it home safely, but with miserable and crying children. Now we always carry ponchos and garbage bags for rain cover no matter what the sky looks like.)
Also consider taking along: binoculars, a detailed map of the whole area, lip balm, whistles, rope or cord, water purification tablets and a tiny lightweight "space" or emergency blanket.
6. Teach your children safety and good citizenship on the trail. Be a good example on the trail and teach your children the importance of some basic hiking guidelines:
(BU) Always stay on the trail
(BU) Never roll or throw rocks down a trail or hillside
(BU) Never litter, mar rocks or trees or pick the flowers
(BU) Never drink water from a stream or spring unless it is an emergency. (Many water sources, even in wilderness country in recent years, have been contaminated by giardia, a parasite carried by beaver and other animals. The bug doesn't hurt the animals but makes humans very sick several days after drinking the water.)
(BU) Pack out every speck of garbage and everything else you packed in. (Never bury garbage, no matter who told you it was okay back in 1963 on that hike you took.)
(BU) Don't build fires except in already-established fire pits. Save the big campfire for back in the campground.
(BU) Don't take pets with you. Our mountains store our drinking water. Dogs and horses are allowed on trails in only certain areas. Check first.
(BU) Teach the kids to hug a tree. Lost children who are wandering around in the woods are very hard to find. Teach them to sit down where they are or to hug a tree as soon as they realize they are lost and to wait for you to find them.
(BU) Hand out the packs and let everybody share in carrying the load.