Hiking and Paddling for Kids
Getting kids hooked on outdoor recreation helps them grow to be physically active. Hiking and canoeing are sports they can start as preschoolers and enjoy for a lifetime.
"I think it's important to teach kids to be active in a way they can maintain as a lifestyle," says Andrea Muller, who oversees youth outdoor education programs for the Appalachian Mountain Club in Pinkham Notch, New Hampshire. Participation in team sports, she notes, often stops when schooling does.
For small children, don't set lofty goals like climbing to the top of a mountain. Begin gradually with a short hike to collect different kinds of leaves or a canoe ride to spot turtles and other aquatic life. Be flexible about your plans, and let your child's curiosity be your guide.
Children can begin hiking adventures as soon as they can walk (or earlier if carried in a baby backpack). Hiking strengthens the legs, the heart, and the lungs. It provides a fun form of fitness for the whole family.
For short legs, take short hikes in parks or on nature trails with relatively flat terrain. With older kids or teens, head to the hills and count up the miles.
Plan hikes with exciting destinations—a panoramic view, a waterfall, or a lake for swimming. Pre-teens and teens can take part in planning the trip. Let them choose a destination, map out a safe route, and help pack the necessary supplies.
Younger children can enjoy the ride in the canoe. As children get older, they can start paddling, which builds upper body strength. Be sure to select paddles that are the appropriate length and weight.
For stability and room, pick a long, flat-bottomed boat. Children can sit in the center or, if small, in the bow in front of an adult. Once they start to paddle, they can rotate between the bow and stern to learn how to propel and steer the boat.
In an open canoe, you will want to protect your belongings. "You'll need a dry bag for food, a first-aid kit, and extra layers of clothes," says Muller. "Nice waterproof packs that float are available."
Start with short outings on quiet water—small lakes, ponds, or slow-moving rivers. Older, more experienced children, can try rivers with stronger currents or even white water.
Plan to stop to picnic and give everyone a chance to stretch their legs. Choose a spot where you can safely climb in and out of the boat.
What to Wear
For any outdoor activity, dress using the "onion principle"—wear multiple layers like T-shirts, sweaters, and jackets, which can easily be peeled off or added. Avoid pure cotton, which can make you cold and miserable when wet. Cotton blends, wool, and pile (like Polartec) provide better insulation.
Hot and Cold
Keep in mind that children overheat and cool down faster than adults. Also remember a child carried in a backpack or sitting on the bottom of a canoe is likely to be colder than hikers or paddlers.
Bring along rain gear just in case, and wear a hat with a brim to protect against sun and bugs. Sunglasses with UV protection are also a good idea around water and at high altitudes.
For hiking, wear walking shoes or lightweight hiking boots that have plenty of room for the toes. Break in your new boots at home before you venture out on a hike. Wear two pairs of socks to help prevent blisters.
For canoeing, wear sport sandals or water shoes to protect against sharp rocks or broken glass.
What to Bring Along
Appalachian Mountain Club
National Park Service, United States Department of the Interior
Great Canadian Parks
Top 10 safety tips. American Canoe Association website. Available at http://www.americancanoe.org/?page=Top_10. Accessed December 6, 2011.
National Park Service, Department of the Interior website. Available at http://www.nps.go.... Accessed December 6, 2011.
Swimming safely in lakes, rivers, and streams. American Red Cross website. Available at http://www.redcros.... Updated 2010. Accessed December 6, 2011.
Insect Repellents. Healthy Children website. Available at http://www.healthy.... Updated May 17, 2011. Accessed December 29, 2011
Last reviewed December 2011 by Brian Randall, MD