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As much as you love your little one, being cooped up in the house all the time can lead to a pretty severe case of cabin fever. Consider exploring the great outdoors with your child – and we don't mean your backyard. Many parents discover that hitting the hiking trail is the perfect tonic for parenting stress.
How to find tot-friendly trails
The best way to research good places for family hikes is to ask other parents where they like to go. You can also check online or call your county's or state's parks department to get information on open space and marked trails that are suitable for children.
The Sierra Club has a database to help find trails near you. Day-hiking guides from the bookstore or library can also steer you in the right direction. Online message boards or email trees for parents and hiking enthusiasts are other ways to find family-friendly trails.
But to some extent, you really won't know whether a hike is child-friendly or interesting for you until you get there. Be prepared to hit and miss – and realize that sometimes the misses will be as fun (at least in retrospect) as the hits.
Try a dry run without your child. Familiarize yourself with the trail, find out what the terrain is really like, and get an idea of how long the hike will actually take. If your favorite places have lots of water, you might discover you have to go inland to seek out little creeks and swimming holes. Others might choose a particular trail based on the proximity of restrooms and air-conditioned restaurants.
Choose a trail that's the right distance and terrain for your youngest hiker. Nothing spoils an outdoor trek more quickly than an unhappy hiker. Whether you're taking a group of children or going with just one, be sure the youngest will enjoy the hike as much as the oldest.
Go early. You want your child to have his batteries fully charged when you hit the trail. If you're at the trailhead at 9 a.m., you can work your muscles, soak up all the good eco-vibes, and be home by noon – perfect timing for lunch and a nap. With an older child who can hike longer distances, starting early will still get you back to your car before the sun starts to set.
Plan rest stops. Children tire easily, so plan to stop and explore more often than not. Choose a spot about halfway through to rest and refuel with snacks and water. Set goals. Sometimes a waterfall, lake, or beautiful vista at the top of a trail is an exciting goal to hike toward. Just remember your child will likely be more energized by the journey than the destination, so be flexible and prepared to let go of goals if your child gets sidetracked.
Make it fun for everyone. Think of educational and fun activities to do along the way that will keep your child entertained. Learn to identify some of the local trees and flowers so you can point them out to your child as you wander. Singing, playing games, and telling stories will also keep children interested and make the experience enjoyable for everyone.
How far your child can hike
That depends on how old your child is and whether you carry her, push her, or let her walk by herself – and how energetic you both feel that day.
Here's a closer look at appropriate hiking distances for different ages:
Newborns: Don't even think about going on a hike if your baby is less than 1 month old. (You may even want to wait a couple of extra weeks to give yourself time to fully recover from the birth of your baby.) Babies this age are just too young to be exposed to the sun, the possibility of bad weather, and the jostling that comes from walking on rough terrain.
1- to 5-month-olds: How long a hike you can take depends on your stamina and your baby's. A front carrier is a good idea for babies this age for head and neck support. An infant, especially one not used to the confinement of a front carrier, may get fussy after just a short while. Older babies may be content for more than an hour before the cranky, hungry, and wet diaper factors set in.
6- to 14-month-olds: The key here is a good back carrier. It's safe to start using one when your child is able to sit up on her own – usually when she weighs at least 15 pounds and is 6 months old. If you're well rested, your baby is comfortable, the weather is temperate, and you pack enough supplies (snacks, drinks, and diapers), you may last several hours if you take a few breaks.
14 months to 4 years: Once your child starts walking with some confidence, adjust your expectations. You can still put her in a back carrier if you've invested in a good one with a wide age and weight range (up to 60 pounds). But toddlers like to get out periodically to walk by themselves. That will slow you to a snail's pace as they look at this leaf over here, and that puddle over there. Given ample water and snacks, 2- to 4-year-olds can usually hike a mile or so in good weather if the terrain is safe and predictable and you take breaks. But be aware, you'll probably end up carrying your child at times, especially on the way home.
What to bring with you
Most wooded areas have a few hazards: Poison ivy or oak, tricky topography, ticks, mosquitoes and snakes, and of course, the sun. You can avoid most of them with good preparation. What to bring:
Snacks and drinks: For kids 1 to 24 months old, bring breast milk or formula (or cow's milk if they're at least a year old). Bring a bottle of water for each hiker, too. (Kids can get dehydrated even if they're only passengers.) Keep milk and formula cool in a collapsible insulated tote bag or small cooler.
For 2- to 4-year-olds, bring a variety of snacks (peanut butter and whole grain cracker squares, low-sugar granola bars, O-shaped toasted oat cereal, dried or fresh fruit), water in squirt bottles, and 100 percent juice packs.
Gear: Pack a blanket or sheet to sprawl on, a lightweight first-aid kit, a fully-charged cell phone in case of an emergency, a GPS, and, if you have a curious toddler, a shovel and small coffee can or plastic bowl with a lid to gather treasures.
The right clothes: Dress your child in long cotton pants, a long-sleeved T-shirt, and a wide-brimmed hat. This outfit will keep him cool, comfortable, and protected from the sun and ticks. Sturdy hiking shoes or sneakers and socks are better than open-toed sandals or rubber shoes. Bring a spare T-shirt and extra layers in case it gets chilly. And don't forget a diaper or two.
Sunscreen and bug repellent: Keep babies younger than 6 months out of direct sunlight as much as possible. If the sun is unavoidable, sunscreen is safe – in small amounts – for babies under 6 months. Bug repellent isn't recommended for children younger than 2 months, so it's best to keep your infant covered with clothes and a hat.
If your baby is older than 2 months, sunscreen and bug repellent can be useful as long as you don't get them in his eyes (and avoid putting repellent on your child's hands). But don't rely on them too heavily – clothing is still the best protection against bites and burns.
When choosing a bug repellant, look for products designed for children. Avoid anything that contains both sunscreen and insect repellent, or has more than 30 percent of the chemical DEET. (Check the label to be sure.) Products containing DEET are linked to certain health problems.
The right attitude
Mellow is the name of the game. Hiking only a few hundred yards while investigating the flora and fauna can make for a great trip. Overachieving can lead to overtiredness, probably your greatest adversary on a day hike.
Infants in carriers are self-regulating; they sleep when they're tired. But toddlers are another story: If they get tired, bored, or grumpy, time to head for home.
Your time on the trail can be a fine adventure if you bring digging and collecting equipment for the many treasures that you'll find along the way – roly-poly bugs, sticks, and rare pebbles. Prime your child the night before with bedtime stories of hiking and being in the woods.
When you're out on the trail, encourage your little hiker with abundant praise, and remember to enjoy the fresh air and the unforgettable bonding experience you're having.