As your Denver pediatrician, the integrative pediatric care we provide for your kiddos extends beyond office visits and includes providing advice on outdoor activities for kids to help them be healthy and happy. If you live on the Front Range, you may already be personally familiar with Colorado’s hiking trails, but have you hiked those trails with your kids? Time spent in the open spaces of Colorado can be a fun and positive experience for the entire family. Come join us as we explore hiking!
It’s More About the Journey Than the Destination
As an adult, you may set your hiking goals with a destination in mind, trying to reach the peak or the next great view. Hiking with a child, though, becomes more about the journey and what can be discovered and experienced along the way. Depending on their age, it can be good to let the kids set the pace and to allow them to make some choices along the way, such as deciding which trail to take or where to stop for lunch. Remember to have fun and be flexible and ready to change your plans, if necessary!
But First, the Basics
Although there are different hiking guidelines that may apply depending upon the age of your child, there are certain basic, common sense pointers that apply across the board:
- Bring snacks and plenty of fluids. Make sure to stop and have your child drink frequently, even if he or she isn’t complaining of being thirsty. High energy foods and plenty of water will keep kids moving and in good spirits! The ideal drinking container, bottle or reservoir varies with age. For help with staying cool when it’s hot outside, a spray bottle is handy for all ages, including adults!
- Dress in layers and visible colors. You have probably learned from experience that it is best to dress in layers when hiking–the same applies to your kids. A child who is being carried may be cold, whereas the opposite may be true of a child running around and playing. Remember that if you have multiple kids you are watching or kids who may want to run ahead, it is best to dress them in bright visible clothing so you can more easily spot them.
- Check the gear list: Until your child is old enough to be self-sufficient, it is up to you, as the parent, to make sure that your family has all of the necessary gear it needs to ensure its comfort and safety. Essential items include: navigation items, such as a map, compass, altimeter, GPS device, personal locator beacon (PLB) or satellite messenger; headlamp, plus extra batteries; sun protection, such as sunglasses, sun-protective clothes and sunscreen; first aid, including foot care and insect repellent; knife, plus a gear repair kit; fire items, such as matches, lighter, tinder and/or stove; shelter, which should be carried at all times (can be a light emergency bivy); and extra food, water and clothes. The specific items you decide to bring can be tailored to a particular hike. When deciding what to bring, consider factors such as weather, difficulty and duration of the hike, and distance from help.
- Watch the weather: Keep the hike fun and safe for everyone! Be ready to change your plans and head for shelter if it looks like a storm is rolling in.
When hiking with infants, it is important to find the right baby carrier, one that can be adjusted to fit either parent. Kids need to be swaddled in front until roughly 6 months before graduating to a backpack-style carrier. It is helpful to get your infant used to a new child carrier before hitting the trail. Other tips:
- Because the hiking motion may put your infant to sleep, it is best to time your hike for naptime to avoid interfering with your baby’s sleep cycle.
- You may want to limit your first hikes to a couple of hours in order to ease your baby into the experience.
- Cover your baby with a sun hat that has a brim broad enough to cover his or her neck. Babies aren’t very good at regulating body temperature, so dress them in layers and be aware of the temperature and the weather.
- If your baby is formula fed, you may want to hike with the powdered form, which saves weight.
- Pack along a separate clean bottle to give extra water.
- Pack plenty of diapers and enough waste bags to double-seal them– please remember to carry all your soiled diapers out again!
Hiking with Youngsters (1-4 Years Old)
If you are hiking with a 1-4 year old, you know you have a toddler who is going to want to spend at least part of each hike walking, rather than just being carried. Make sure you have time built into your hike to slow down or even stop and allow your child to explore in safe areas on the trail, and be sure that you aren’t so far from the trailhead that you can’t carry back a suddenly exhausted toddler! (A child can ride in a carrier until weighing about 40 pounds.) Toddlerhood is a good time to begin fostering a sense of independence in other small ways, too, such as providing a child with a small backpack to carry something lightweight in (such as a jacket or extra socks for when your child has found those oh-so-exciting puddles to splash in!). Because a toddler will be walking only occasionally and in safer areas on the trail, sneakers, rather than boots, should be fine to wear. It is a good idea to bring a kid-size water bottle to encourage your child to drink and stay hydrated while on the trail.
By this age, your kids are walking the trails without mom and dad’s assistance! There are some very important safety rules, though, that should first be taught to all young hikers:
- At least for the first few years, a child should be taught to always stay in sight of mom, dad or some other responsible adult. As time passes, this rule can change to “hike ahead for short stretches, then stop and wait until you see your adult again.”
- A child should be taught to never hike past a trail sign, unless they are with their adult.
- Finally, kids should always carry a safety whistle, which can be found in some backpacks in a strap buckle. Kids should be instructed that, when lost, STOP where they are, STAY put and BLOW the whistle in bursts of three.
Once you have taught your child the important safety rules, you can focus on FUN! Be creative and try to come up with a destination where your kiddo can have a fun experience, such as climbing rocks, looking for fish in an alpine lake, identifying different types of trees in a national forest or even conducting a scavenger hunt along the trail. At this age, you can even Involve your child in the planning and preparation for the hike, including selecting a trail (and perhaps a friend to join in on the fun!) and loading their pack (don’t forget a water bottle or perhaps a reservoir if your child wants to shoulder the extra weight). It is suggested that parents teach their kids the “Leave No Trace” rules and the basics of map reading early on. A good way to start with the latter is with something simple, like a trail map, and then work up to a topo map as your kids get older.
Great Hikes Around the Denver Metro Area
Now that you’ve read the above, it’s time to hit the trail! The Denver metro area has some pretty great trails to explore–here’s a sampling:
- Clear Creek Trail in Downtown Golden is a fun, easy trail that’s very pretty, yet still runs through Golden. Make a day trip out of it and check out Table Mountain Inn or Woody’s or some of the other great spots in the wonderful town of Golden! 1.8 miles roundtrip. Drive time from Denver: 30 minutes. Difficulty: Easy.
- The Lookout Mountain Hiking Trails are accessible, easy and extremely beautiful. The Nature Center is an added bonus to these already awesome trails. 0.6 & 0.8 Mile Loops. Drive Time from Denver: 30 Minutes Difficulty: Easy.
- Evergreen Lake Trail is another classic that’s a bit more into the mountains, but still very close to Denver. The hike around the lake is very pretty, and you can make a great day trip out of it and explore the awesome town of Evergreen, too! 1.3 mile loop. Drive time from Denver: 40 minutes. Difficulty: Easy.
- Eldorado Canyon State Park in Boulder has several trail options ranging in difficulty (from easy to hard), but consistent in their phenomenal beauty and charm. These trails are extremely cool. Distance varies. Drive Time From Denver: 50 minutes. Difficulty: Varies.
- Flatirons Vista Trail near Boulder is a very pretty, but fairly easy, trail that’s right off of Highway 93. There are only a couple of hills and the views of the Flatirons are very cool. If you and your kids are a little ways in and loving it, you can always take the longer route. 1.9 or 3.3 miles loop. Drive time from Denver: 40 minutes. Difficulty: Easy to Moderate.
- Roxborough State Park in Littleton has several fantastic trails that are fun, but still accessible to little legs. We highly recommend checking out this beautiful area in Southwest Metro Denver. Drive time from Denver: 40 minutes. Difficulty: Easy to Moderate.
- Rocky Mountain National Park, near Estes Park and Grand Lake, has a variety of beautiful trails, varying in levels of difficulty. Do some research to see what trail will work for you and your kiddos, and be prepared for the elevation gain!
As your integrative pediatrician in the Denver area, we believe hiking, along with other fun outdoor activities for kids, is an important part of pediatric health care. We encourage you and your family to take advantage of the many opportunities available in Colorado to get out into nature and nurture your bodies, minds and spirits. Be safe and enjoy!