Punxsutawney Phil, that fabulous groundhog who predicts when winter is going to end every February 2nd, isn’t the only one who likes to poke his nose outside after a long winter. Depending on where you live, spring is a chance to drop heavy winter coats and venture outside without freezing. Hiking is a good way to get the family out in the fresh air after being cooped up all winter. With some advanced planning, hiking can be an enjoyable family bonding experience. It’s also a good way to get exercise that can be easily adjusted to fitness levels. If you haven’t hiked and are thinking of going beyond a neighborhood walk, here are 10 tips to get you started on your journey.
Tip 1: Location, Location,Location
This recommendation applies to hiking as well as real estate. It may go without saying, but you probably don’t want your first hike to involve climbing up steep, rocky terrain on a blazing hot day. If your child has lots of energy and is quick on his or her feet, and you’re confident in your ability to keep up, this tip may not be for you. For most beginning hikers, though, it’s better to start with a short walk on a relatively flat path. It’s hard to avoid tree roots, rocks, and holes because hiking trails are part of nature. If your child has coordination challenges, you may want to avoid paths that are slippery, rocky, or both. This doesn’t mean you can’t build up to more advanced trails, but don’t be overeager your first time out! Look for a short trail that you can finish rather than having to give up and turn around halfway. Completing a trail will give you a sense of accomplishment. Visit the websites for your local, state, or national parks to consult their trail maps and descriptions. If you’re still not sure, call the park office to see if any of the trails meet your needs.
Tip 2: Don’t Get Bugged Out
Our son’s first hike was a school trip to a local nature preserve in first grade. The preserve is a popular school trip destination, which is perfect for rambunctious six-year-olds who only tire when they have to walk. He was looking forward to the trip until the brochures came home. One of them had a tick the size of a small dog on the cover with a warning to use the appropriate bug spray, wash as soon as you got home, and avoid straying from the trails. The brochure included a list of potential tick-borne diseases that you might develop if you met up with “Ticky.” As an advanced reader, he read the whole brochure before we had a chance to prep him. All of the cautions were correct, but our son, who is now a teenager, still calls that preserve the “Tick Capital” of the state. He became so nervous because of that flyer that getting him to hike was a challenge. He went, but it took him awhile to let down his guard, even with the appropriate bug spray! Make sure to follow park directions and use the right bug spray for the area you’re in, but keep it low key. Avoid scary pamphlets!
Speaking of bug spray: Only use what you absolutely have to use. If a spray feels terrible on bare legs, then perhaps a roll-on or dry spray would work better.
Tip 3: Dress for Success
I wouldn’t say I have too many fears, but high on my list is clothes shopping with our son. He likes one kind of sneakers that have to be just a bit too big, or else they feel too tight, but not TOO big that he’ll walk out of them. Pants can be a bit baggy but poorly fitting shoes can cause all sorts of problems. Why am I going here? I can’t even imagine buying him hiking boots.
If you go hiking, before you run out and buy hiking clothes, make sure that the comfort level is adequate. It’s better to start on paths that don’t require special boots. You may also want to consider whether or not your child likes pants or shorts and choose your first paths appropriately.
May I say one other word about clothes? The layered look is in. Why layered? Depending on the time of day, the temperature might change during the course of your walk. Comfort is key to minimizing complaints! It’s a good idea to bring a backpack along to keep a light jacket or sweater to put on if it gets cooler. Extra socks and shoes are handy too, in case you run across puddles. Having a small rain poncho that folds up can also be handy in case the weather takes an unexpected turn.
Tip 4: Pack Accordingly
Aside from a change of clothes and bug spray, what else should you carry in your backpack? You don’t want to make it too heavy that it becomes burdensome, but don’t forget to bring along water, snacks, sun screen, and a small first aid kit, including any medications that might be needed along the way. Don’t forget inhalers for asthma if needed! If you want to share the load, you can purchase a backpack with a favorite character on it for your child to carry. Just be cautious about the load in your child’s pack because you may end up carrying two backpacks instead of just one.
Tip 5: Nature Isn’t Neat
Wherever you go hiking, it’s best to remember that nature doesn’t vacuum. Sometimes, a park may sweep or mow paths, but, generally, you’re going to run across rocks, dirt, and droppings that you may not run across on your street. There may be different sounds. If you live in the city and are used to the sounds of traffic, then the sound of a running stream is going to be a different sensory experience. Talk to your child about what the park is like and show pictures up front from the park’s website.
Tip 6: Don’t Taunt Wildlife
I have to say, one of the best posters I’ve ever seen is one that simply read, “Don’t harass the snakes or bears.” I’m not sure how one would go about harassing them, but, rest assured, if I see one on the trail, the furthest thing on my mind will be insulting it. I will treat it with a great deal of respect! Fortunately, we haven’t run into any bears, but we have run into a few rather large snakes, turtles, squirrels, deer, herons, and eagles. Note: None of these is your family pet, except perhaps snakes and turtles. Before you hit the trails, find out what wildlife you may encounter and prepare your child. Let the child know that snakes move fast. If you think the animals might scare your child, you may want to go when more people are around or when the animals may be resting. Conversely, if your child loves animals, find out the best time of day to go. Some parks sponsor nature hikes for children that might be appropriate. They may also be willing to host a special autism walk. Have that on your list to ask when you call about the types of trails.
Tip 7: Check for Crowds
Speaking of special programming, be sure to check the park’s events calendar. The reason can be twofold. A special program on a topic that entices your child into the woods may be presented. On the other hand, a special event that will draw a crowd of people, which may be over stimulating, might be planned. We pulled into a nearby state park one day to find it filled with school buses as there was a cross-country meet going on. That might interfere with the normally quiet path you’re looking for!
Tip 8: “Pay as You Go” vs. Park Pass?
Despite popular opinion, the best things in life aren’t always free. Granted, many local parks are free to residents, but state and national parks often have fees during the peak season. Don’t rule out purchasing a season or yearly pass if you think you’ll be making return trips. This is tricky to gauge because at one time or other we have all been enthusiastic and purchased a membership we didn’t use to the fullest. However, park passes tend to be reasonably priced. In some cases, you can even buy a pass to one park as opposed to all parks in a system. For instance, this year we bought a pass to a nearby national park, and within three visits we had recovered our money. We went approximately 14 times and ended up with significant savings. Note that we didn’t buy the pass to go to all national parks, just the one within easy driving distance of our home. The fee was reasonable, and we didn’t spend extra for parks across the country we’d never visit. Also, keep in mind that for state parks, if your child likes to swim, park passes can be used not only to access hiking trails but also to access beaches. That’s a double savings!
Tip 9: Visit Your Local Library
Hold on, I know that’s not outdoors! However, going to the local library to read up on animals, parks, and hiking can be a great way to prepare before going on your first walk. In fact, going to the library first and doing some research incorporates all the previous tips. Want to find out about local trails? There’s bound to be a book on that! Want a story book on birds? Definitely will be a book! Read with your child before the first hike and answer any resulting questions. It will be time well spent.
Tip 10: Embrace the Quality Time
My son is not a hiker or walker at heart. He’d prefer to talk to me about video games, records, or computers to being outside in the heat or the cold sharing a walk with bugs. In our case, we find that shorter walks work best for him. As we walk, he talks to me about his interests. We don’t need to be outside for him to talk to me, but being on a hiking trail seems to make the talk more special and focused. He tends to talk with me as opposed to me. It’s a great time to talk without the regular distractions. If you listen, you’ll hear more than just nature sounds.
Lau Tzu, a Chinese philosopher is credited with saying, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”1 Don’t think of one hike as a thousand miles; think of it as one step. If you like the first step, then take a second or a third step. Before you know it, you may be hooked. Hiking can be the perfect family activity and can be adapted to your specific needs. Try taking that first step. You may wish you had started sooner! n
- Lau Tzu Quotes, Brainy Quote. Accessed December 1, 2016 from: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/l/laotzu137141.html
Elizabeth Irish, MLS, AHIP, is the Assistant Director for Education and Administrative Services at the Schaffer Library of Health Sciences (Albany Medical College) and an Assistant Professor. Her son has a dual diagnosis of ASD and Tourette’s.