Just because your kids are little, doesn’t mean you can’t go big—on mountains, that is. Conquering a high rising peak might take a little more planning and flexibility when you have little ones in tow, but getting to the summit is even more rewarding.
“Before my daughter could walk, we had a child-carrier backpack and we’d put her in there—right away, she hated that thing and would end up out, walking around,” says Joshua Friesema, a Colorado father of six who started climbing 14ers when he was around ten years old. “We took a snack break, and soon enough, she was taking up off the trail on her own.”
Friesema’s daughter, now 11, climbed her first 14er, Handies Peak in the San Juan Mountains, when she was just five years old. She has since upped her total to 11 high-altitude peaks. The next two sons in line also conquered their first 14ers at age five.
“You need to make kids part of what you do as a family, not an inconvenience to what you do,” says Friesema. We spoke to him and Dr. Tracy Cushing, director of the Wilderness Medicine Fellowship and assistant professor of emergency medicine at the University of Colorado, to get the top advice on taking kids to new heights.
Know the signs of Acute Mountain Sickness—In verbal toddlers, children, and teenagers, AMS looks a lot like it does in an adult: headache, nausea, anorexia, vomiting, dizziness/lightheadedness, and fatigue or weakness. In infants or pre-verbal toddlers, though, it can be a little more tricky.
“Parents can use 'fussiness' as an indicator of altitude sickness—both the amount of unexplained fussiness, as well as its intensity,” says Cushing, who notes to check how well the kids have eaten (a good appetite is a good sign), how playful their child is, and how well their child has slept in the last 24 hours (sleep difficulties are common at altitude.) If you notice signs of AMS, don’t continue up until signs have stopped, and consider kid’s pain medicine for headaches. If you do head down, do so slowly.
Plan ahead—Start with smaller, shorter hikes at lower altitude, says Cushing, then move on to short hikes at a higher altitude. If you are coming from sea level, spend one to two nights at the higher elevation before trekking up the mountain.
No matter how well you plan, be prepared to turn back. There are times when kids just hit a wall, and you may end up carrying them down. “We haven’t always made it where we wanted to go,” says Friesema, “but as long as the kids are willing to turn back and have that freedom, they are more likely to push on. If you push them, though, they’ll just push back. You have to make it their thing, their accomplishment, and they’ll have much more of a drive to want to do it.”
Get the gear—Set up your kids with their own hydration packs. They’ll think it’s cool, and the water will be right there when they need it. Also, don’t skimp on footwear: tough hikes need tough, durable shoes. Try to stay disconnected on the trail, but bring along an old phone or a sturdy camera to let the kids take pictures. The time will pass quickly, and they’ll have some awesome photos to show their friends.
Special snacks—Kids need extra water and fuel, and that might mean letting them have a few more sugary snacks than normal. Candied orange slices are a favorite of Friesema’s. Aim for a snack break every 45 minutes or so; that way, the kids won’t tire out too quickly. Play a game of “I Spy” or bring some bird-watching books while you wait. Friesema always packs a super special treat for the summit—perhaps a beer for you, candy bar for them.
Don’t misjudge—“Younger than six months is probably too young to reliably identify AMS; above that, considerations become more about how far a toddler can physically climb rather than the altitude itself,” Cushing says. Most tough hikes are a good number of miles with difficult passes and other obstacles along the way, and little legs can’t always do that. But when they make that decision to push on themselves, they are learning to overcome their own fears. Friesema’s biggest tip? “Don’t limit your children by what you think they can’t do.”