The point of taking your kids hiking is to have fun and grow as a family. If you plan ahead and use your noggin the vast majority of trips will be a tremendous success. But sometimes, no matter how careful you are, things can (and will) go wrong.
When you are outdoors safety MUST be your number one priority, ESPECIALLY when children are involved.
Interestingly enough, ol’ Murphy was right: things go wrong when you least expect them and when you’re least prepared. Incidents often occur in places that you know well, and when no one is doing anything ‘dramatic’. In fact, most hiking related injuries are the result of two general factors:
- Carelessness, and/or;
In our case there is a third ‘general factor’ of kids being kids, and everything that goes with it – an overall recipe for disaster no matter where you are or what you are doing, but let’s focus on the first two for now.
In the first case, you may be hiking a section of forest that you have been to many times before, one with lots of exposed roots, for example. The first time around you placed your feet carefully and ‘planned’ your steps, but now you got comfortable and careless, focusing more on the conversation than your hiking. However, one slip is all it takes to sprain an ankle or lead to a tumble.
The second factor, fatigue, is more common. At the end of the day you are tired, your mind looses concentration, your muscles are weak and flimsy. Responses become slower. You may simply not have the strength and reflex to counterbalance a slip, landing you hard on your tail, scraping your knee, or worse. It is common for a major injury to take place ‘within sight’ of the parking lot – ask any physiotherapist and they will confirm.
The good news is that these two major factors, carelessness and fatigue, can to a large extent be controlled. The former requires active mental awareness from everyone involved, especially the group leader or most experienced member. Active mental awareness means staying alert and keeping control of your situation. It’s not that during a trip everyone should be silent and focus on nothing but foot placement; on the contrary, a hiking trip is a great time to talk about family matters or relate with friends. But when you reach a section of trail that could pose a threat, you should have everyone stop the chatter for a moment and focus on the task at hand. It’s up to you as a parent or an experienced hiker to demonstrate leadership in this regard.
The second factor, fatigue, is effectively controlled by proper trip planning. When choosing a route, always work around your weakest group-member – most likely your youngest child. It’s awesome that you can run a marathon backwards hopping on one leg, but if the rest of your party cannot, than don’t plan for a marathon. Furthermore, monitor the state of your group continuously. If you see someone getting tired earlier than you expected, take more breaks and consider adjusting your plans to accommodate the situation. There is nothing wrong with shortening your trip or even turning back entirely, but there is something peculiarly uncomfortable about carrying someone on your back because they sprained their ankle, or worse. Remember why you are there… to have fun! Account for that.
The above are elements that you can control, at least to a certain extent. What you can’t control – under any circumstances – is that kids will be kids. They will chase each other, climb onto anything that they can climb onto then attempt to jump off of it, run in (and into) places where they shouldn’t be running, and sometimes do other things that seem thoughtless to you, but natural to them. You should try to control them – certainly in dangerous sections of the trail – but at other times it will be difficult, and maybe that’s even the point. After all, you need to let kids do their thing. But chances are that when hopping over a log, jumping off a rock to show you how to do a 360o spin, or playing ‘swordsman’, eventually something will happen, and when it does, it’s a good time to talk about a proper first aid kit!