It was a rookie mistake. I had fed the kids a snack on the drive to the trailhead. By the time we parked the car and sorted the gear, those precious calories had been spent. With the parking lot still visible, an arms-crossed, “I’m not going anywhere,” tantrum occurred. The woods beckoned, but the choice was clear. Four carside peanut butter and jelly sandwiches later, we set off again—this time, with better results.
CHANNEL YOUR CHILD
Keeping our kids, Mabel, 8, and Gus, 6, energized for backcountry excursions has required patience and an ongoing evaluation of their capabilities. Ashley Lamb—outdoorswoman, mother of two, and pediatrician in Exeter, N.H.—recommends a baseline of at least one hour of physical activity per day for kids, but, she says, “Most kids have the stamina for much more than that, as long as they are given appropriate breaks and snacks.”
Small children take two to four steps for every one adult step, so they burn through their energy stores faster than we do. “Kids don’t tend to be good at pacing, and many do better with going quickly and then taking a break,” Lamb says. “Allowing kids to set the pace can help a lot.” Their gates may feel erratic to you, but push them too hard, for too long, and no amount of cajoling will help.
FEED THE NEED
Children typically need to eat at least every two hours, and more frequently when they are active. Lamb recommends fueling up before an activity and then taking enough snack breaks to stay ahead of the hunger.
Protein-rich foods before and after an activity are essential for overall growth, as well as for muscle and tissue repair. On the trail, provide foods high in fiber and whole carbs, such as fruits, legumes, nuts, and whole grains. These provide a sustained energy burn and leave kids feeling fuller, longer. A handful of M&Ms tossed into a bag of healthy gorp can be a useful and harmless motivator.
My kids often forget to drink if I don’t remind them, so every stop includes a water break. Good hydration helps our bodies regulate core temperature, reducing the chance of heat-related stress or illness.
Lamb knows kids crave routine and struggle with disruption, especially changes to nap schedules. So she adjusted her outings when her boys were toddlers. The family would go hike a nearby trail in town, packing a picnic “so that we could create an ‘end point’ before we headed home for naps,” she says.
Every child is different, of course. Mabel would happily nap in a carrier on my back; Gus would not. Our most successful trips as a family have been when we put our children’s habits, needs, and perspectives ahead of our own yen to bag a peak. I look at every outing not in terms of mileage but as bankable moments with future dividends. If we push them too hard, we risk creating a deficit in their desire to be in the natural world. As Lamb says: “Spending time as a family outside and being active are wonderful and so very, very important to setting a child’s norms going forward.”