Jeff Alt, a hiking author who’ll be in Spokane this week to talk about trekking with kids, remembers his first “real” childhood hike as a child as both painful and profound.
Alt was 12 or so when he and his brother and stepbrother, both a couple of years older, launched themselves from their family campsite into the woods for a parents-free overnight stay along the Appalachian Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The boys carried their water in 2-liter soda bottles and their sleeping bags, canned food and candy bars in trash bags slung over shoulders. Starting at the foot of Clingmans Dome, they aimed for a shanty near the summit’s peak, at 6,643 feet elevation.
Halfway up the mountain, the exhausted brothers lay down on the trail, until a passing ranger encouraged them to get moving unless they wanted to sleep with the bears and the snakes.
But they made it to the summit and back, grateful to return to their parents, their camper and their cooler of food. And that first hike planted a seed that grew into a passion: While the boys’ bodies ached, “we also felt like true adventurers,” Alt said, “like we had accomplished the wilderness.”
From his home base in the Cincinnati area, Alt has become an accomplished hiker. His third book, “Get Your Kids Hiking,” follows books chronicling his adventures as he completed the 2,160-mile Appalachian Trail, which stretches from Maine to Georgia, and the 215-mile John Muir Trail in California’s Sierra Nevadas.
Yet before his first child was born, he worried about parenthood would affect his hit-the-trail-at-a-moment’s-notice lifestyle. He found that his experiences on the trail helped make him a parent equipped to expose his kids to the fun outdoors – and better compete against the tablet and video-game temptations indoors.
To write his book, Alt, 46, drew on his own family’s experiences, recording what gear, clothing and techniques worked on their hikes and what didn’t. He and his wife, Beth, 39, are parents to Madison, 8, and William, 6, who both were carried on their first hikes as newborns. At 21 months, Madison accompanied Alt and other family members – including Alt’s 4-year-old nephew – on a 50-mile trek on Ireland’s Burren Way.
Alt combined those experiences with research and his knowledge about child development gained through his work as a speech language pathologist for a K-12 school district outside Cincinnati.
What he learned: “Keep it simple. Make it fun. Let the child lead,” Alt said. “And make sure you have all the right stuff.”
Some other advice Alt shared in an interview from Cincinnati, where he was planning a westward tour including days spent exploring the Spokane area and a trip to Glacier National Park:
Preschoolers are highly distractible. And that’s OK.
Children’s transition from packs on grown-ups’ backs to their own two feet can be frustrating for parents with agendas, Alt said.
Hiking with a 3- or 4-year-old, “you’re not going to get your workout in,” he said. “You’re probably not going to make it to the view.”
Alt’s key to success: Let the child lead the way. The hike should be an adventure, not a chore – fun, so the child wants to go again. Let him throw rocks in the creek or stop to examine a bug or a flower. Teach her to play “I Spy.”
“Whatever she’s learning in preschool – colors, shapes – that’s all in the woods,” Alt said.
Pack an “adventure pack.” Viewed through an inexpensive magnifying glass, an ant is fascinating. Let your kid use an old camera to take pictures, which he can use to help describe the adventure later. If he wants to add a couple of Matchbox cars to the adventure pack, that’s OK, too.
The 4-year-old on his family’s Ireland hike had a great time, Alt said. The crew covered roughly five miles a day.
“We were letting Dylan lead the pace,” he said. “When he stopped, we stopped. If he tuckered out, we didn’t push him. We stopped. And if we were in a pickle, we used the (umbrella) stroller. We didn’t really have a goal in mind, other than the next hostel, which was only a short distance.”
Consider holding off on overnight trips, Alt advised.
He warns against backpacking with babies, because infants are more prone to hypothermia and force parents to carry more gear.
Alt’s family went on their first backpacking trip just last summer, after a five-mile hike staying one night in a shelter on the Appalachian Trail, which let them hike tent-free.
“We stayed in the shelter with through-hikers, walking from Georgia to Maine, and (the kids) thought they were through hikers,” Alt said. “They wanted to do the chores. They were so excited to go pump water out of a stream.”
After the trip, Madison announced her intention to hike the entire Appalachian Trail at age 10.
Each family has their own methods for addressing discipline problems. They extend to the trail, Alt said.
“Just like we do time out in the house, we do time out in the woods,” he said – consisting of time spent facing a tree.
But sometimes a whiny child signals room for savvier parenting, he said.
If parents are walking in front of kids, “I bet you’re going to have whininess, because you’re dragging that kid down the trail,” Alt said.
For babies and toddlers in packs, use shoelaces to tie pacifiers, toys and board books to the carrier they’re riding in. The children can reel in their toys to amuse themselves.
No matter the child’s age, parents don’t have to look far for on-the-trail entertainment, Alt said.
“Look at what they’re looking at,” he said. “Kneel down at their height. They’re seeing a world different than you. Try putting yourself in your child’s shoes.”
Jeff Alt offered this clothing and gear checklist for young hikers.
Footwear: Comfortable, water-resistant shoes will work until the child can walk consistently on their own. Kids around 3 and older should wear lightweight shoes or boots with sturdy soles. No cotton socks – they should be moisture-wicking and made of wool or synthetic materials.
Clothing: Again, no cotton. Dress kids in breathable fabrics and water-wicking layers appropriate for the weather, including wide-brim hats for sun protection, rain parkas and fleece hats and gloves.
Packs: Besides being size- and age-appropriate for the babies and toddlers being toted, they should fit the hiker comfortably. Built-in hydration hoses facilitate water breaks.
Trekking poles: They’re good for young hikers, too, Alt said. Each hiker should have a collapsible, adjustable pair.
Water: If you’re not carrying a hydration-hose system in your pack, pack bottles. Ask park officials before your hike about available water sources. Carry an ultraviolet wand, micro-straining filter or another system to treat wild water.
Gadgetry: A GPS unit can keep families moving in the right direction and be used for geocaching. Older children can use a smartphone to take pictures and upload them online – a good way to keep them engaged, Alt said.
Other: Sunscreen, bug repellent, a first-aid kit, a compass and map, matches, a whistle, a signal mirror, a survival knife with a locking blade, a headlamp and extra batteries, 50 feet of rope or twine – and several feet of duct tape, because a parent never knows when she’ll need to fix something.
What: Jeff Alt, author of “Get Your Kids Hiking,” will present a clinic on hiking with children and sign copies of his book.
When: 7 to 8 p.m. Thursday.
Where: REI, 1125 N. Monroe St.
Registration: Limited spots remain available for the clinic. Reserve a seat at www.rei.com/event/51605/session/73287.