My husband and I have been watching Missing 411. Yikes, right?!?! We watched both Missing 411 and Missing 411:Hunted over the past week, and both are equally disturbing. For those unfamiliar with the films, they stem from a series of books from author David Paulides, a former police officer who investigates and writes about the disappearance of people from National Parks. Missing 411: Hunted focuses on skilled hunters who mysteriously disappear while Missing 411 features children.
As parents with four kids, state and national parks are our traveling bread and butter. Traveling with kids can be expensive, and state and national parks are wonderful places for them to be exposed to new adventures at a minimal cost. Yet, as Missing 411 demonstrates, they can also be places for kids to wander off and become lost.
While my husband and I would not consider ourselves hiking experts by any means, we typically visit 10+ state/national parks a year with four elementary aged kids in tow. Freak accidents can happen anywhere to anyone at anytime. In fact, a state park very local to us has experienced multiple emergencies over the past 6 weeks due to lost hikers or those who have not heeded warnings. I cannot imagine with anguish of parents who have children who have became lost in a park! These parents should never be criticized or ridiculed.
Kids are quick and nimble. Anyone who has had an eight month old climb out of a crib or scale a bookcase can attest to this. It only takes a split second for a small kid to head out of our line of sight. For our own family, we’ve implemented certain ground rules in state/national parks that our kids know are for their safety to try to minimize these risks.
Disclaimer: These tips are meant for recommendations only. Always read and follow the rules and warnings at each state or national park that you visit. Use your local park ranger as an experienced resource for hiking as a family, especially in an unfamiliar area. Please use the utmost safety when hiking in any park on your own or with children.
Safety Tips when Hiking with Kids
Start with smaller, local hikes to gain experience and learn ground rules.
If kids have little to no experience hiking, do not start out with a moderate trail. Start out with a smaller trail. Research local places with minimal risks and plan a Saturday morning hike there. Some state and national parks have dedicated Kid-Friendly trails that are great “first hikes,” as well.
During these first few smaller, local hikes, use the opportunity to do a few things:
- Determine your child’s stamina when hiking.
- Determine your child’s interest in hiking and outdoors.
- Pay attention to what distracts your child. For instance, I have one son who loves to look for interesting sticks. He would become distracted by this, and we learned quickly that this was something that we needed to address first hand. He now knows to let us know if he sees a stick that he wants to check out, and we will pause and go with him to check it out.
- Lay your family’s ground rules for hiking together. If kids cannot listen on a smaller, easier hike, it will be challenging to trust them on a harder, more rural hike. Use first hikes to let them know what you expect from them.
- Inventory your needed supplies, water, and snacks. I had a bad habit of underestimating how much water and snacks that we would need when exploring the outdoors. During our first few hikes, I paid close attention to how much water we consumed as a family and adjusted this to be prepared for more challenging hikes.
- Teach kids about hiking mishaps. These can include plants to avoid (poison oak, etc.), insects or animals to look out for, what to do when separated from the group, etc.
Research the hike
It’s easy to find an awesome looking hike while scrolling through social media and make a quick decision to jump in the car and go. This spontaneity might have worked in my pre-kid days, but I don’t recommend it when hiking with kids. Research the hike on social media. Between state and national park information and reviews from hikers, I can get a great idea of how difficult the hike will be. I can then use the evaluations that I’ve made on previous hikes (this is where some of those first hike determinations come into play!) to decide if this hike is appropriate for my kids’ ages and skill levels.
Suggested Ground Rules
Each family is different and can set hiking rules that work for them, but here are a few ground rules that we have implemented:
- We always have a minimum of 2 adults when hiking with kids. Hiking with only one adult is not recommended.
- The kids must stay in between the “Parent Sandwich.” An adult leads the hike, and an adult is the last one in line. All kids must stay in between the adults. This helps reduce the risk of a kid running ahead and encountering a steep cliff, animal, or other unforeseen issue. This also makes sure that kids are not left behind.
- Every person over the age of 18 is designated as a responsible party. One issue that we have discovered when hiking in a group is that everyone thinks that someone else is watching the kids. When group hiking, meet before the hike and empower all adults to be a lookout for kids. This does not mean that any certain adult should be left alone with a child, but it helps enforce the “It Takes a Village” mentality when hiking with a group.
- Stay on the hiking trail. Kids like to wander, but the trail is there for a reason. Not only does it keep us safe, but it also protects the wildlife.
- Do not leave trash on trail. Leave no trace by packing out with all trash.
- We also have a “Bring it, Carry it” rule. Excluding hiking supplies and water that my husband and I carry, we do not carry any odds and ends that the kids want to throw our way. They are responsible for carrying their jackets, sticks, etc.
- No hide and seek on the trail. This one is pretty self-explanatory.
We have made wonderful family memories at state and national parks all over the US. I hope that these safety tips will help as your family does the same.
Looking for more tips? Here are 6 Tips for Hiking with Kids from Hobbies on a Budget! Also, see a few of my favorite places in the Southeast to visit with kids.