A recent study suggested that spending at least 120 minutes in nature each week could help you be healthier and happier. Hiking with your family is an excellent way to ensure you get that dose of 120 minutes. Besides its obvious health benefits, hiking can be a way for us to seek respite from all the distractions of our daily life – by shutting out all the noise and chaos; disconnecting from technology and reconnecting with each other.
The best part is, you don’t need any fancy equipment and the outdoors is free!
Tips for hiking with kids
1. Manage your expectations
It is important to be realistic, especially when you are first starting out. Kids will be kids – and you should never expect them to hike beyond their limit. The trails you choose must be suited to the level of fitness of the least fit in your group, or the age of your youngest hiker. For the first few times, do find a trail that is nearby (so the drive there is not too long), and a hike that is not too strenuous.
For us, the obvious choice was Bukit Kiara, a 5-minute drive away from our house. We kept our first few hikes no longer than 1 1/2 hours (our youngest was seven years old then) and chose a trek that has gentle slopes with long, flat trails in between.
2. Find a trail that is interesting
Try looking for paths with fascinating features; waterfalls and streams to cross, boulders to climb, a great view of the sunrise, caves to explore, or interesting wildlife. You don’t have to go far when first starting. Hiking at Bukit Gasing offers our young hikers a chance to cross a suspension bridge and a quick water play in the stream at Taman Rimba Bukit Kerinchi. You could also climb up to the Hindu Temple for a view of the KL/PJ skyline. A day hike (where you have to travel a bit further) can be scheduled once a month, so the kids can look forward to exploring some place new, and challenge themselves.
3. Keep it fun and be flexible when necessary
If the kids are not having fun the first few times, they would not want to hike again, and that would be a shame. Be creative and keep the hikes fun. You can try scavenger hunts, counting games, and look for signs of wildlife. Some kids love being given responsibilities so you can keep them happy by allowing them to lead, or taking care of a younger sibling. Do be flexible and change things about when things are not working out. If the kids are not up to a hike, or if the weather changes on you, consider cutting the hike short or be prepared for a miserable hike for everybody.
4. Keep Cool. Be Prepared.
Do keep cool when unexpected things happen. The kids will look to the adults for reactions to any changes in plans, and how you set the tone and mood of the hike. Keep your spirits up and the mood light, and the kids will follow your lead. Just try to be as prepared as possible (see the Ten Essentials checklist as a guide and adapt it to your specific hikes. My list – as listed below – is a guide to what I usually bring and adapted from that checklist.) Think about and be prepared to handle potential emergencies along the trail.
5. Set Goals
We started hiking earnestly as a family (sans the youngest two) in 2016 when we decided to hike up Gunung Kinabalu in 2017. The eldest two were 14 and 12 then, and we went hiking with a group of friends that planned to summit Gunung Kinabalu together. The children liked having a goal to aspire to, especially on those mornings when we have to wake up at 4 am to go on day-long hikes for training. They were proud of themselves, being able to rise to the challenge of going up Gunung Kinabalu with their older group mates. We are planning to bring our youngest two (currently 9 and 11) and set our target to summit Kinabalu as a whole family in 2021.
6. Invite Friends
For some kids, having friends along can be a lifesaver – they can play and keep each other company. Having friends and cousins i.e. non-siblings, may also cut the amount of whingeing down to a tolerable level (but, the reverse can be true as well. Sometimes, having a friend there may actually increase the amount of complaints!) Find the right hiking buddies, and you and your family are pretty well set for enjoyable hikes in the foreseeable future!
7. Pack plenty of water and their favourite snacks
Bring along their favourite snacks. For us, that means candy bars, biscuits and milo energy cubes for short hikes and onigiris, roti canai, fruits or pastries for day hikes. Most important consideration is bringing along snacks or treats that they will eat, as they need to keep their energy up for the hikes. Always bring a bottle for each child to carry themselves. You will always need more water than you think in our climate.
8. Safety rules
Kids that are old enough should carry their own backpacks with snacks and personal water bottle. Remind them that when leading the hike (as some would love to do), to never go beyond a trail sign or fork in the road without waiting for the adults to catch up. Kids should be equipped with a whistle and told what to do if they are lost; stop, stay put and blow their whistle in three short bursts.
9. What to wear
- Wear quick dry/moisture-wicking fabrics instead of cotton t-shirts/sweats. Try to find brightly coloured clothing or accessories (backpacks, hats or shoes) that can be easily spotted. This is especially helpful when you have kids that want to take the lead and hike ahead.
- Sun protection is key. Bring along sunscreen, sunglasses and cap.
- You can wear ordinary trainers if you keep to Bukit Kiara/Gasing trails, but having the right hiking shoes when you go on more technical trails for your day hikes, is very helpful. Kids will feel more secure with their footing and this will help them enjoy the experience more.
- Pack rain gear and extra socks in case theirs get wet as they cross streams or waterfalls.
- Keep a change of clothes in the car. Knowing they can change into clean and dry clothes when they get to the car may allow them more freedom to play in muddy puddles and enjoy themselves while hiking.
Adapted from the Ten Essentials Systems Checklist that works for my family:
1. A 2-hour to half-day hikes
Sunglasses, hat and sunscreen, for sun protection. Simple first aid kit, wet wipes/tissue, hand sanitiser, and enough food and water for everyone.
2. Day Hikes
Everything for a 2-hour hike plus:
- Navigation; map, compass, GPS device, portable chargers for your devices (bring a Ziploc or dry bag to keep your devices dry, if going to wet areas)
- Tools: knife, headlamps/flashlight, whistle.
- Extra food, water and clothes (rain gear and extra socks in the backpack, change of clothes plus extra water and food in the car)
- Emergency shelter: a survival/emergency blanket will do. Keep it handy and hope that you never have to use it.
- Trash bags to bring your litter out.
- Optional: trekking poles, insect repellants, lighter/matches, stove – if you plan to cook outdoors or make hot drinks on the trail. It is absolute bliss having a hot cup of Milo or coffee after a quick dip in the cool water at waterfalls.
Model the behaviour for your children to follow
- Follow the rules. Many public parks and forest reserves have rules against removing any plant or animal, and bringing pets (I’ve spotted several hikers bringing their pet snake to the Kiara Park!)
- Adopt the 7 principles outlined in “Leave No Trace”– it is a list of best practices that we should all follow to enjoy and protect our natural spaces. A popular mantra is “Pack it in, Pack it out” – pick up all trash and spilled food and try leaving the place cleaner than when you found it.
- Be aware of your status as visitors, and that your very presence affects the environment and the wildlife living there. Extend the courtesy to other visitors as well, and leave the portable music devices at home (other people might want to enjoy the sound of nature rather than listening to your choice of music). Let your children know to keep shouts for those times of distress.
With us spending most of our time indoors during the week, hiking during the weekend is a perfect way for all of us to go outside, enjoy nature and go on an adventure. In this era of greater anxiety among the children regarding climate change, introducing them to wilderness education by taking them hiking and sharing the responsibility of stewardship could also help foster greater appreciation and connection to nature. We should all play a part in ensuring each generation is responsible for what we leave for the next.
By Nadiah Tajudin
Nadiah is a stay-at-home mom of four (17, 15, 11 and 9) who loves spending time outdoors – hiking and gardening. An avid reader, she loves sharing book recommendations with family and friends as well.
Photo credit: Author’s own