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:
Slow down, Mama
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.”
Let sleeping babies lie at home
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.
If a child whines in the forest …
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.”