Do you want your kids to enjoy nature, but don't know how to get them away from their screens? Do you think you're not outdoorsy enough to plan a hike?
Julie O'Neill and her husband, Cory, hiked the rugged John Muir trail with their two kids. Get her expert advice and practical answers to all your questions, from why outdoor time matters to what to do if the kids complain.
Spending hard-earned time off in the dirt, braving the elements might seem extreme. But so is life in our fast-paced, over-stimulated world. Trading the rat race for granite rocks and quiet streams reconnects us to God, one another and the natural world God created. When we unplug, we multitask less, talk more, slow down, notice the stars and enjoy uninterrupted time with those we love.
Hiking the 215-mile John Muir trail with my 12-year-old daughter, Rebekah, and my 14-year-old son, Cade, my husband, Cory, and I have watched our kids grow stronger, more independent and more spiritually grounded. And we have all grown closer to one another, overcoming challenges and spending endless hours talking as we walk and camp. When the din of the city fades, God’s still, quiet voice blows in with the gentle breeze and a family can relax, have real fun and join the very stones that line their path as they “cry out in praise” (Luke 19:40) to the God of creation.
From the day your kids are born they are ready to join you on your adventures. Whether it’s on a trail, in a canoe, with a bow and arrow or on skis, bring your kids along. Cory and I are often asked how we get our kids to hike. The simple answer: We take them with us. And we started young.
Young kids are less captive to digital devices. They know instinctively the joy of outdoor play. They teach us what to do outside. They run free, feel the wind on their faces, splash in streams and skip rocks on lakes. Their eyes light up, like our son Cade’s did, when they snag their first fish. No video game can match that. If your children are old enough to be carried in a pack or to toddle on their own two feet, they’re old enough to hike. They have to be out to figure it out.
Yes, you are. Don’t let the ads for outdoor gear fool you. Those images of fit young people can make the rest of us feel like amateurs. I sure felt like an imposter on my first backpacking trip. Yet the beauty of Oregon’s Mount Hood was overpowering, and I was hooked. Like me, you don’t have to be a world-class mountaineer to enjoy an afternoon ramble at a local park with your family. Start where you’re comfortable and commit to getting outside once a week or even once a month.
No matter where you live, there are open spaces to explore within an hour of your house. Bring the kids, pack a lunch and leave the agenda at home. Expose the kids to car camping. And when you really want to experience God in nature, take them backpacking. Our very first overnight trip with a child was a whopping two-and-a-half miles from the parking lot to a lake. Fourteen years later, our kids hike hundreds of miles each summer. Yours can, too!
If short walks in the park leave you and your family wanting more, you’re ready for a longer day hike. Build excitement by including everyone in the planning process. Where to go? What do you hope to see? What do you need to take? If the word “hiking” makes your kids groan, call it “adventuring.”
Don’t limit yourself to seeking great views. Head for destinations kids like—caves, gigantic trees, lakes, waterfalls. Kids are stronger than you think. Younger kids can walk up to three to five miles. A motivated 11-year-old can go up to 10 miles. Make sure each person in your group has sturdy shoes, warm clothes and a backpack to carry water and a sack lunch.
Lunch often makes the best turnaround point, so consider starting in the morning. Let the youngest hiker in your family set the pace. When you finish, celebrate your family’s success with some fun food and laughter!
If you go shopping for backpacking equipment at your nearest big box outdoor store, be prepared for serious sticker shock! For families on a budget, there are many ways to equip everyone with great gear for less. In fact, you probably own much of the necessary clothing already. Look in your closet for wool, nylon and/or polyester shirts, leggings, sweaters and parkas (no cotton—it's too cold and clingy when wet). Don’t forget a sun hat and a beanie for cold evenings. Tennis and trail running shoes work great for kids and adults with stronger ankles.
If you're planning to backpack and camp, consider making some of your own gear. Check out the “Tuna Can Stove” and “DIY Tarp Tent” on Google for great ideas. If you’d rather have store-bought gear but not pay new prices, try your local used gear store, Craigslist or Ebay. If you do decide to invest in more expensive gear, go slow and start with the big three: tent, sleeping bag and backpack, in that order.
Kids will have good moments and not-so-good moments on the trail. Moans and groans could be hunger or thirst they’re not recognizing, so make sure they have easy access to a snack baggy and water, and remind them to eat and drink. Sugary snacks lead to emotional and physical crashes, so fuel up instead on protein, dried fruits and veggies.
Too much groaning could indicate your trip planning wasn’t kid-friendly enough. When kids are truly ready to stop, don’t push them much farther. If you’re backpacking, extended time at camp can be a highlight of the trip. Mostly, however, kids groan because they’re bored. They’re used to the constant stimulation of digital devices. A little boredom never killed anyone.
When your kids tell you they’re bored, let them be bored. Eventually they’ll fill in that stimulation gap themselves, and that’s when the magic happens. Especially outdoors, where there’s so much to see, do and think about. God designed this world for us to enjoy. He wants us to explore his majestic landscapes. Give your kids time and they’ll discover that.
First, remember that just being outside, in God’s grand creation, is a spiritual experience. Cory and I learned that from a wonderful, godly man named Ranger Jay Snow at Death Valley National Park. Jay’s salt-and-pepper hair and deep lines on his sun-weathered face testify to the years he’s spent exploring outside. His thick Oklahoma drawl and contagious energy make it impossible not to adore him. “This place is awwwesooommme!” he likes to declare, gesturing at the park around him.
As we’ve gotten to know Jay, we’ve learned that his love of nature is rooted in his relationship with the God whose “eternal power and divine nature have been understood and seen through the things he has made” (Romans 1:20). With that in mind, we try to enjoy the outdoors like Jay does, in every detail.
We talk with the kids about what the mountains tell us about God—his power, his majesty, his artistry. We pray for guidance on the trail. We talk about Bible verses that tell of creation. And we spend lots of time sitting still, hearing God in the silence. We love the physical rewards of hiking, but we make sure the kids know why we’re really outside. The world is God’s handiwork, and we worship him with every step.
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