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Jenny Garrett
Three of the Garrett kids pause to explore a creek on a family hike.

Running around the base of the Stewart Falls trailhead in Provo, the Garrett and Jackson kids seemed to have energy to spare, despite the fact that they had just finished a 3.5-mile hike.

Jami Jackson, from Mapleton, said her four kids (ages 12, 10, 8 and 5) enjoy hiking. Her neighbor Jenny Garrett agreed, gesturing to her four children (ages 14, 11, 9 and 6), who were sweaty and dirty from their hike but also laughing and happy as they climbed on and jumped off of rocks.

“There’s so much just in our backyard,” Garrett said. “It’s fun to go explore.”

Not only can hiking be enjoyable, but research suggests it also provides health benefits.

According to the American Hiking Society, hiking can reduce the risk of heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, anxiety, osteoporosis and arthritis. The Huffington Post reported that hikers are more creative and happier in addition to being healthier, and WebMD states hiking can improve blood pressure and blood-sugar levels as well as strengthen legs and core muscles, and improve balance.

“Mountain hiking, in particular, can be a balm to the soul,” said Lori Lee, author of “Best Hikes Near Salt Lake City.”

She said if you use your senses while hiking — listening to the birds and the river and smelling the flowers and fresh air — the experience encompasses the mind, body and soul.

Not only is hiking good for the mind, body and soul, but it is also good for building family relationships, Lee said.

Here are some tips from four families who hiked Stewart Falls recently, as well as some advice from experts, for executing a successful family hike.

Start young and start small

Lee started taking her two sons on hikes when they were each only 6 weeks old.

“I took them out in the little front pack and started introducing them to sounds and leaves and things. They had no idea what I was talking about, of course,” she said with a laugh.

For families who want to start hiking, Adam Provance, creator of YourHikeGuide.com, said people should start with shorter hikes “and work your way up.”

Kristina Veenker, from Pleasant Grove, who recently hiked Stewart Falls with her 7-week-old and 3-year-old daughters and her 13-year-old son, recommends starting slow and going often.

“Go on little walks or get out as much as you can,” she said. “That way your kids are used to being outside and will look forward to (hiking)… rather than seeing the hike as being a challenge.”

A challenge can be good and lead to great rewards, but Lee emphasized that it is important not to push kids too hard.

“Anytime that you push people too hard, they end up not wanting to go back,” Lee said. “With younger kids, you don’t ever push them past the point where they’re having fun.”

She recommends that families should stop often to explore, play in the mud, find bugs, look at leaves and listen to birds.

“It just becomes a miniadventure,” she said.

Research and plan

According to several websites, there are many options in Utah for hikers of all ages and experience levels.

Utah.com, the Utah Office of Tourism and YourHikeGuide.com have lists of suggested hikes for children, including Delicate Arch Trail in Arches National Park, Cecret Lake in Little Cottonwood Canyon and Donut Falls in Big Cottonwood Canyon.

Lee said for small kids, a good hike should be short and shaded and possibly near a slow stream. For teens, she said the hike can be more of a challenge, but she emphasized that it really depends on the experience and skills of individual families.

Veenker suggested having a goal or an end destination makes it easier for kids.

According to Provance, whose website is dedicated to documenting all necessary information for hikes in Utah and a few surrounding states, one of the most important things to plan is a “cool destination.”

Some “cool destinations” can include lakes, pretty views or waterfalls, Provance said.

In addition to making a destination plan, it is also important to know how long a hike will take and ensure there will be enough sunlight to make it back, Lee said.

“Take the time to figure it out so that people don’t get hurt,” she said.

Be prepared

Lee emphasized that it’s important to be prepared before leaving on a hike, including by wearing good hiking shoes and socks.

Fruit, such as grapes and watermelon, are favorite snacks for the Ibarra family, from Meridian, Idaho. The Garretts and Jacksons take trail mix and fruit snacks, and the Veenkers bring sunflower seeds, apples and other healthy snacks.

“No junk food for our hikes,” Veenker said.

Malachi Ibarra, 10, advised, “Never eat too much stuff before you hike.”

Bring plenty of water to stay hydrated, especially in the hot summer months.

“Always carry water. Lots of it,” Jackson said. “Because kids like to drink.”

Nancy Martin, hiking director at the Wasatch Mountain Club, suggested letting kids carry their snacks and water if possible.

“They feel in control,” she said.

It’s also important to be prepared for weather, Provance said. He explained that for many hikes, weather has to cooperate. Lightning and flash floods can be deadly, and hikers should check the weather before embarking. In addition, Martin advised bringing a jacket for each child in case the temperature drops, and Jackson said to make sure to not go when it’s too hot.

Activities on the trail

Hiking is a great way to spend time with family, Provance said.

“(Spending time with family is) really hard to do these days, and whatever time parents can spend with their children is going to be beneficial,” he said, adding that being in nature is a great way to bond.

He said hiking can be an educational experience as parents can teach their kids about different plants and animals.

“Along the way, you point out different things,” Garrett said. “There’s lots of wildlife, or colors, flowers, things like that. That makes it fun.”

Lee said hiking with kids is also beneficial for “introducing them to nature (and) cultivating a love of nature.”

Veenker said she likes to talk, tell stories and sing songs with her kids on hikes. Constant conversation, she said, prevents talking about the length of the hike or the energy levels of the hikers.

Abby Garrett, 14, and Eliza Jackson, 12, also like to make up games while they hike.

One game is called the ABC game, where they come up with different things that could be on the hike that start with the letters of the alphabet, such as A for acorn and B for bear — though they said they’ve never seen one of those.

Whether it’s playing games, singing songs or learning about the environment, Lee said hiking can build family relationships: “You’re making memories,” she said.