How to Select a Good Trail for a Child

How do you know what trail is best for children to hike? Maybe you may live near a park or national forest and pass a trail on your way to work or when running errands. You may have overheard other hikers or parents talking about them. Even then, you probably don’t know much about those trails or if they’re right for you and your family’s hiking experience.

Start by making a list of potential trails to hike. To do this, go online and look for trails near your house or where you’ll be traveling, simply by entering the name of the town and “hiking trails” in a search engine. Many of the websites you’ll encounter will be blogs, discussion boards, and chat rooms about hiking. They can give you insights on what to expect on the trail and problems encountered.

After listing five or six potential trails, narrow them to the ideal one by considering these factors:

Local weather and seasons – Always check to see what the weather will be like on the trail you plan to hike. While an adult might be able to withstand wind and a sprinkle here or there, for children it can be pure misery. Dry, pleasantly warm days with limited wind always are best when hiking with children.

Length – Don’t choose a trail that is any longer than the youngest child in your group can hike. Adults in good shape can go 8-12 miles a day; for kids, it’s much less, and there’s no magical number. The reality is that every child is different: different leg lengths, different attitudes toward hiking, different levels of physical fitness, different levels of physical development, different expectations about being carried, and more. You’ll have to gauge what your children can and are willing to do.

Elevation gains – For teenagers, peakbagging or hiking to a mountain’s summit can be fun. The younger the child, though, and you’ll want to avoid switchbacks and large elevation gains. Simply put, the younger the flatter. A single high knoll can wear out a three-year-old kid who otherwise could handle a mile of flat ground. If the child is walking, limit elevation gains to 500 feet for older elementary school children and to even less for preschoolers.

Quality of trail – There are three elements to consider. The first is turf. If the trail surface is extremely rocky or sandy, children will have difficulty walking across it. Next is width. A narrow path not any wider than your body often means children are going to rub up against bushes and tree branches, potentially resulting in scratches and ticks. Finally is overgrowth. When plants block portions of the trail and prevent you from seeing where you are going, the path has become overgrown, and this also likely means scratches, bugs and getting lost.

The perfect trail for a hiking child is dependent on a number of factors, such as its quality, width, length, and elevation gains.

Uniqueness – A hike of quiet reflection through the woods may sound great for an adult, but it’s a big bore to kids. They want to see things along the way – lakes and ponds, interesting rock formations, waterfalls, fire lookout towers, wildflowers, streams, boulder fields, sweeping vistas, nature center, abandoned buildings (though you shouldn’t go in them), fossils, stream crossings (only for older kids) and more. Water almost always is a winner with kids.

Dangers – Learn what plants and animals are in the area you’ll be hiking, so you can avoid the dangerous ones or know what to do if you were to encounter one. If you don’t know much about the plants or animals – such as what they look like – you’ll want to research that, too.

Using these various factors, decide which trail will best match your children’s abilities and interests. You may need to go on a couple of hikes and learn by “trail” and error what your children like best.

Each child is unique and so will handle elevation gains and trail lengths differently.

 

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