It's easy for parents of young children to get diverted by playdates, soccer games, Wii. Here's the antidote: Turn your kids into hiking allies. Jessica Hauk, a 29-year-old mother from Cassville, Wisconsin, has done just that. Hauk, a graphic designer with three kids (the youngest in diapers), moonlights as a Sierra Designs gear tester–and her family sees the backcountry as an irresistible playground. "It's to the point where we can't spend a weekend in the house," says Hauk. "The kids go stir-crazy." Here's what she's learned–and how she applies it to a typical trip.
Stage One: 9 PM to 11 PM
While Hauk's three children (ages 2, 10, and 11) sleep, she preps everything for a morning departure. Food Peanut-butter sandwiches, granola bars, and trail mix with chocolate are all kid-pleasers that pack lots of high-energy nutrition.
Drink Hauk's kids carry their own hydration packs. They love the autonomy, and they're more likely to stay hydrated–and happy.
Clothes To keep her kids comfortable in changing weather, Hauk invested in technical apparel: wicking, waterproof/breathable, lightweight. Kids can be particular about clothes, so let them pick their own styles and colors.
Stage Two: 6 AM to 3 PM
Start hiking early and knock off before kids melt down. You'll beat the heat or thunderstorms (in summer), and make the most of your kids' energy.
Go short Plan routes for what the kids–not you–can do. Hauk generally limits hikes to four to six miles total, with rest breaks every half hour.
Climb gradually Avoid steep ascents, which can quickly sap kids' enthusiasm. Hauk uses topo maps to carefully research routes. She also avoids trails with loose footing that could cause an accident, or require extra effort with each stride. "Ask a park ranger or check guidebooks to learn what kind of ground you'll be walking on," Hauk says.
Plan a payoff Family hikes don't need to be goal-oriented, and sometimes Hauk simply turns everyone around in the middle of a trail. "But if I can tell them that we're headed somewhere where there's a waterfall or elk herd, all the better," she says. "The prospect of finding a patch of snow in August keeps kids going for hours."
Stage Three: 3 PM to 9 PM
Shocker! Hauk's kids usually get a second wind soon after they reach a campsite. They're relatively free to roam their immediate surroundings, and turn sticks into swords and boulders into climbing structures. But when they hit a lull, Hauk's ready.
Give them challenges Hauk turns chores into a race or test. Who can find the most kindling? "Even washing dishes in the woods is somehow more fun," says Hauk.
Bring binoculars When they tire of the up-close scenery, kids will scan landscapes looking for snow, wildlife, cool rocks. "Occasionally, I catch them snooping on other campers," she confesses.
Hide the time Hauk doesn't want her kids to stay awake much after sunset, so she bans wristwatches. "It's a trick to get them to bed earlier," she says.
Let your kids bring friends: It's not hiking it's playing!
Hide and seek: Kids run ahead and hide along the trail. Object: get parents to walk by, then surprise them from behind.
Scavenger hunt: Challenge kids to find treasures along the trail: a rock shaped like a heart, a branch like a V, a piece of quartz, a purple flower, fresh animal scat, a feather...
Get your kid a real pack. Osprey's 2009 Editors' Choice Award-winning Sprint series packs deliver grown-up performance for hikers as young as 8. Read the review at backpacker.com/ospreysprint.