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Nov 25 2014

Hiking with Kids

In spite of her own Midwestern childhood, an MWA volunteer masters (and shares) art of making hikes fun for kids

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Guest blog by Elena Ulev

My family in Chicago thinks I’m a weirdo.

Not only did I choose to live in one of the least populated states in the U.S. but I love to do strange things like hike, camp and ski. And I’m teaching my kids to do the same things. I don’t tell my dad that I hike alone because he seriously thinks that I’m going to get mauled by a bear. If he knew that I take my kids on hikes without my husband, I’d really be dead meat.

I’ve always had an affinity for the outdoors, despite growing up a few miles from O’Hare Airport in Chicago, where jumbo jets flew over our house every three minutes day and night. Growing up, we never spent time in the woods or drove our station wagon Clark Griswold-style out West to see national parks. Our summer vacations consisted of visiting relatives in Detroit, where my mom was born and raised.

One time my dad did decide to take us on an outdoor adventure. We went fishing for bluegill at a pond in front of a bank on a busy four-lane road. We caught a couple of fish using Kraft American Cheese as bait before a bank employee told us to get lost or he’d called the cops. Another introduction to wildlife included my dad capturing two mallards from a park to be our pets. He put the ducks in our Buick and when he got home he tied a “leash”around their necks and tied the other end to our plum tree. They were our pets for one day.

I was introduced to the outdoors by a high school teacher who figured I cared about the environment since I started a recycling program at the school. He encouraged me to apply for a scholarship to spend a week at the American Wilderness Leadership School in Jackson, Wyoming. Upon seeing mountains for the first time at 16 years-old, I decided then and there that I was going to move to the Rockies as soon as I could and work as a wildlife biologist. That was 23 years ago, and I did move to the Rockies and became a wildlife biologist, for a while at least.

My husband and I have two girls and we’ve decided to raise them in Missoula instead of moving back to the Midwest. We took them to southern California a couple of weeks ago and driving through Los Angeles was horrifying. We couldn’t wait to get back home where white-tailed deer nap in our front yard and arrowleaf balsamroots grow in our backyard. I think that the girls are so lucky to have a childhood in Montana exploring the outdoors, although I have a feeling that they’ll want to go to college in Chicago or Los Angeles one day.

The girls are six and nine years-old and have finally reached the age where we can now go on hikes longer than a mile or two. We are planning our first backpack trip in the Great Burn next summer. I’ve been a volunteer for the Montana Wilderness Association for a year now and have led a few Wilderness Walks targeted towards families with young children. I wanted to share some tips for hiking with kids so that everyone, adults and kids alike, can have an enjoyable time.

1. Make sure that the kids are wearing proper shoes. We have discovered getting out of the car at the trailhead that they’re wearing their princess slippers or flip flops. A pair of tennis shoes or comfortable river shoes are great.

2. Have them carry their own small backpack with a water bottle and snacks. A sunhat and sunscreen are important, too. I guarantee that you’ll feel guilty if they look like lobsters that evening when you’re sitting at the dinner table.

3. Hike with a couple of other kids if possible. They seem to have more fun and hike farther when they’re frolicking with their peers.

4. Keep the length of the hike in mind. You don’t want it to be a long military march that scars their brains. And try not to hike too fast. This can be really hard, but you’ll miss a lot if you’re in too big of a hurry.

5.  A loop can be more fun than an out-and-back hike. If you do decide on an out-and-back hike, it’s good to have an enticing destination in mind, such as a lake or old cabin or enormous tree.

6. Take breaks often and don’t forget yummy snacks like trail mix with M&M’s, dried mango, or jerky.

7. Stop and smell the ponderosa pine bark, listen for birds, or compare pinecones from different trees. For our Wilderness Walks we have a treasure hunt, which the kids love. I make a list of 10 things to find such as lichen, deer scat, or an animal track.

8. Have fun and be grateful. After all, you live in Montana!