So what’s the difference between a nature hike and a nature walk?
Some will try to argue that a hike is more strenuous than a mere walk, but I’m curious where the threshold between the two really lies and at exactly what point a stroll crosses from one to the other. I’m pretty sure nobody really knows.
And some will argue that a walk is on paved ground while a hike covers grass or dirt. But nobody talks about going for a hike on the beach, but lots of people talk about hiking the Great Wall of China.
So I’m confused.
But it doesn’t matter. The two words mean pretty much the same thing, so whatever you choose to call it, a trek through the great outdoors is a wonderful thing for you and your kids!
Why? Here are a few quick reasons:
It’s great exercise for the entire family.
This is one of those “duh-isms” you wouldn’t think needs mentioning, but when I hear about the unbelievable amounts of money some people spend on gym memberships when there are thousands of miles’ worth of FREE hiking trails in the U.S., I can’t help but think some people need the reminder!
Kids, (and usually their parents, too!) spend too much time indoors.
Adults are great at griping about kids not spending enough time outside, even while they are as hooked to screens and cushions and air conditioning as the kids are. Fresh air and sunlight are wonderful for both our bodies and our spirits and heading outside for a little hike is great for the overall health and happiness of both children and adults.
It makes for some great family time.
I think we would all agree families need to spend more time doing things together and less time running in different directions. What better way to do that than in the quiet and solitude of a nature trail?
The entire family can learn about nature.
There’s no end to the interesting terrain, plants, and wildlife you will encounter on a nature hike. No matter how many hours my family has spent foraging through the woods, we still come across things we’ve never seen before. There is incredible wonder in God’s creation and the whole family can learn so much just by partaking in it.
But we live in the city! How can we go on nature hikes?
While many metropolitan areas have remarkable inner-city parks systems, I realize that’s not the case everywhere, and a day spent nature hiking may require some travel, but you likely won’t have to go significantly far from home. I’m fortunate enough to live 10 minutes from Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest, so nature hikes are a couple-of-times-a-week activity for us, but no matter where you live, with some planning you may very well be able to go hiking at least once a month.
Click here for an amazing list of hiking trails, state-by-state. More than likely, there are some near you!
But I have small kids!
Believe me, I know hiking with small children isn’t exactly ideal, but on our family excursions we often encounter determined hikers barreling on with their kids in tow, so it can be done. Baby slings and backpack carriers are great for hiking with babies, (when we had littles, we picked up a backpack carrier at a yard sale,) but many trails are stroller-friendly, too. Obviously the more all-terrain your stroller, the greater your options, but many parks and nature reserves have wheelchair, (and thus stroller,) accessible trails.
Click here for a state-by-state list of wheelchair/stroller accessible trails. Also don’t hesitate to ask at your local park about gravel or crushed stone paths that may be very passable with a stroller or even a pull-wagon. Our favorite hiking spot has many out-of-the-way trails that are actually old access roads now closed off to vehicle traffic. These are great for an easy hike.
Of course, with small kids, (and with bigger ones!) you need to be prepared. Insect repellent is a must. (We keep a can of OFF in our van, though if you prefer a more natural repellent, here is a list of homemade bug spray recipes. One of our sons was a mosquito-magnet when he was a toddler and he would have awful reactions to every. single. bite. I think I tried every bug spray or lotion known to man, with no success. Several reviews I found online suggested Avon’s Skin-So-Soft Bug Guard Lotion with Sunscreen for kids and I was finally able to get my son some relief. It’s also DEET-free. (Many people complain about it’s awful blue color, but it worked! You may want to try it for a child with particularly sensitive skin.)
Light-colored clothing makes it easier to see any ticks that may find their way to you. And good shoes are a must for the entire family.
Take plenty of water along. My own kids are so well-trained they go to the fridge and grab bottles of water on their own before we leave the house. Just make sure you have plenty to keep you and your kids hydrated, particularly if it’s a very hot day.
Bring along snacks, especially for little ones, though the whole family may appreciate some cheese and crackers or fresh fruit after the good workout of a hike.
Keep a cell phone with you. I love using the pedometer app on mine, but you never know when there might be an emergency and you find yourself in need of a phone. Granted, a signal may be hard to come by in some rural areas, but we’ve been stunned before to be out in the middle of nowhere and still find ourselves with cell service!
*Incidentally, a few years ago I was out hiking alone with my four kids when the short “loop” I thought we were travelling seemed to be taking us further and further into the woods. My sense of direction told me something wasn’t right. I finally sat down and between my GPS and the park’s website, I discovered we had accidentally crossed onto a strenuous 8-mile trail! Obviously we turned around and went back, but my kids were small and wearing out quickly and I can’t imagine what I would have done if we had gone much further. Especially if you don’t have a good sense of direction, a smartphone could be a God-send while hiking!
But what about the weather?
Being able to exercise in a temperature-controlled environment is a big reason so many people opt for gym memberships rather than regular hiking. In torrential rain, excessive heat, or snow, that exercise venue is still available, which can be of particular benefit to those living in areas of the country that get a lot of rain or have long winters.
But the weather doesn’t have to be sunny and cloud-free with a perfect temperature of 77 degrees for you to get out and enjoy a great hike! While I understand we have to be careful, particularly with smaller kids who may be more prone to heat exhaustion or illness, we also should never use less-than-ideal weather as an excuse for not getting out and enjoying nature.
In excessive heat, (something we’ve dealt with a lot this summer,) try to do your hiking early in the morning or late in the evening when temperatures are cooler. Go on shorter hikes if necessary, stop for breaks more often, and of course take plenty of water along.
While I don’t recommend hiking in a downpour, a slight drizzle or a chance of showers doesn’t mean your hiking trip should be cancelled, especially if it’s a comfortably warm day! Keep rain ponchos in your vehicle and stay tuned to weather reports if things are looking questionable.
I don’t recommend hiking with children in ice and snow or extreme cold either, but cool or even cold weather shouldn’t be a deterrent for an outdoor trek either. Warm jackets and coats, clothes, and hats can keep the cold at bay for a brisk walk. Just beware of over-heating! As in hot weather, keep your hikes short and remember to keep kids well-hydrated, though they’re not likely to feel as thirsty in cold weather as in hot. Remember cold air alone doesn’t make kids sick. Also, the warm air inside our homes during the winter is often far more likely to make us sick than the cold air outside.
So need more suggestions for great hiking trails for you and your family?
Here’s a list of the Top 10 Family-Friendly Hikes in the U.S. Parks. Kentucky’s own Mammoth Cave National Park made this list, and if you’ve never been there, it is amazing. While there are plenty of hiking trails there above ground, the most fascinating ones are below it. Mammoth Cave boasts the longest known cave system in the world, offering you the opportunity to explore nature underground, which can’t be done just anywhere.
Here you’ll find 10 Great Hikes for Families in National Parks. I would love to take EVERY. ONE. And here are Great American Hikes: 20 Top Trails Across the USA. There may be one close to you!