“Mom, I want to do this.”
My son was holding a hefty book entitled The Four Thousand Footers of the White Mountains, a bible for New England hikers embarking to climb all 48 of New Hampshire’s 4,000 foot plus peaks. “And I want to do it before I turn 14,” he added. That gave him less than two years and only one full summer to complete this goal. He had to get on it! Because he was only 12 he would need some form of adult supervision, not to mention transportation to and from all those trailheads. Translation: Mom had to get on it too!
The day before school started we embarked on the mission with a hike up Mt. Tecumseh, which barely squeaks into the club at 4,004 feet. From there he hiked with gusto, sometimes with Dad, or with big bro as a whole family, or with friends, and often just with mom. Any worries I had that he would lose interest in the pursuit evaporated as we got past the initial panting dread and into the rhythm of each hike, met people along the way, discovered new folds and bends of the White Mountains and plotted out the next hike.
Of course there had to be setbacks, and our first came in the form of a broken foot which, it turned out, really didn’t work for hiking. But now that prime hiking season is in full swing we are back marching up the Whites. No matter how many summits we tick off the list the goal has already proven a worthy pursuit by igniting a passion for an often underrated outdoor activity. Hiking is the antithesis of the organized team sports that we sometimes feel obligated to chase with and for our kids. No teams. No score. No warming the bench. No entry fees or release forms. No winners and losers. No MVP’s or awards banquets. The value of each day is whatever you make of it.
So yes, I strongly urge everyone with the opportunity and ability to do so, to get out there and take a hike. Simply starting up a trail is a great way to be outdoors, get exercise and spend time with someone you dig or just want to get to know better. Need help figuring out where to start? Read on!
• The Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), on top of maintaining trails and huts and offering outdoor adventures, provides an incredible resource of information. Because we live in New Hampshire, the AMC is our personal go-to resource.
• For larger scale North American ideas, see trails.com for trail guides, USGS topo maps, GPS routes, reviews/visuals/forums, travel and attraction advice organized by outdoor activity ranging from trail running, fishing, mountain biking, sea-kayaking, snow-shoeing, surfing, backcountry skiing and snowboarding, to plain old walking/hiking trails.
• Some of my favorite basic hiking tips are found at REI’s, Backpacking With Kids by Doug Peterson.
• For more specific recommendations on what to bring, check out REI’s Backpacking Checklist, a super comprehensive, tried and true guide to packing smart.
• And for the King Daddy comprehensive hikers checklist that will show you how to be the best prepared hiker on the trail, look no further than the Essential Three-Season Gear for Northeastern Hikes.
• Get a quick course in basic hiking safety etiquette and rules of the trail by familiarizing yourself with what’s known as the Leave No Trace Principles. These are the golden rules of outdoor recreation. As the Wilderness Society puts it: Leave the wild places you visit the way you would like to find them.
• Finally (and when I say finally, I mean before you read my super personal recommendations below) browse topics covering everything from avoiding bears, staying dry, taking care of your feet, to choosing gear and dressing for cold at AMC’s Hiking and Backpacking Resources.
So that’s the official advice I offer. Here are nuggets of wisdom we’ve learned (sometimes the hard way) from my own time on the trail with son, Ollie
Happy Feet (And Marshmallows) Make Happy Hikers:
• First off: clip your toenails. It will make your mother proud, and prevent a painful irritation that can ruin your experience.
• Second: get good waterproof hiking boots. The extra support is much needed when you are hauling a pack over rocky footing.
• Third: Don’t go for short little tennis socks that slide down and irritate you while letting dirt and rocks in. Go wool and go tall.
• Finally, bring marshmallows. A piece of marshmallow wrapped in plastic can neutralize most any blister, and make your socks smell nice at the end of the day. We made a few friends atop Mt. Adams with this trick.
Pay Attention to Signs:
• Trails signs aren’t the only breadcrumbs showing you the way. Blazes on trees and rocks also mark the trail as do those piles of rocks (called cairns).
• As tempting as it might be to disassemble or mess with a cairn (I’m talking to you, young rock-tossers. . . don’t do it), we’ve recently been reminded of their value on a foggy day on a treeless summit in NH. Were it not for cairns and blazes, we would have easily wandered off course. We vowed to turn around if we couldn’t see to the next cairn or blaze.
• Check your map to see if there are multiple trails off the summit. Make sure you head down the right one, as they are not always marked. Nothing kills the jubilance of summiting like a less than jubilant “re-summit”, to find the right trail.
Pack Low-tech Insurance:
A few things should just live in your pack to be there for any hike no matter the weather:
• A physical map
• A headlamp
• A knife
• Duct tape (even just a few long strips layered on each other)
• A light windproof/waterproof jacket
• And, just in case, the flashlight app on your phone
• Games are good. Let’s be honest, here. Six plus hours on the trail (with your mother!) means you’re going to run out of conversation. 20 Questions, word games, songs, lists and riddles, silly limericks, haikus, or song lyrics all pass the time and keep the mood up. Our current time passer is trying to learn how to whistle from the many online tutorials out there.
Timing is Everything:
• Respect the Everest Turnaround Time: You know how those guys make it almost to the summit of Everest and have to turn back because it’s gotten too late, or conditions aren’t right? That hurts. But if they do it on Everest with months of time, and tens of thousands of dollars invested in reaching the summit, you, too, can turn back – despite a few hours on the trail and a tank of gas.
• Start early! We’ve been astounded by how late we see people heading up some big mountains, knowing they would descend in the dark or turn around well short of their goal. In fall, when daylight is short and lower sections of trail are often obscured by fallen leaves, hiking can grow dangerous quickly.
Honor Thy Snacks And Frequent Water Breaks:
Drink often and before you feel thirsty. And stay on top of your game with simple, robust fuel. Anything tastes good on the trail, and enjoying a well-timed snack provides just the mood and energy boost you need to keep pushing to the top. Keep snacks easy to eat and easy to grab. Our go-tos are:
• PBJ “sushi” (peanut butter and jelly rolled up in a tortilla and sliced in rounds)
• Any trail mix, including “Deconstructed Nutella” (hazelnuts and milk chocolate chips that turn into something quite wonderful as you chew)
• Apples, the indestructible juicy treat any hiker welcomes after a sweaty ascent
Prepare for Your “After”:
• Cotton isn’t ideal on the trail (we figured this out on our first rainy hike when our shirts gained 5 pounds and were plastered to us) but it’s excellent as a cozy stash of post hike clothes in the car.
• Remember the leisure shoes. Nothing feels quite so excellent as getting your feet out of dirty sweaty hiking boots and into a light pair of of flip flops.
And did I mention MARSHMALLOWS?