Hook em' YoungI have heard from many people - if you want your children to enjoy hiking then you better introduce them to it at a very early age - waiting until they are teenagers will reduce your chance of success. In my experience it seems that most teenagers that enjoy hiking were introduced to it at a very early age – either by their parents, or through the Scouts, or some other type of “outdoors” organization.
I am not sure that hiking fits well into the psyche of children. Climbing, yes! Hiking, no! Kids climb things! At least that’s how I remember my childhood. We climbed a lot of trees! It was fun. But hiking? The idea of walking, exerting a lot of energy, for many hours in a single day? This doesn’t interest a lot of adults I know, let alone kids. It is no wonder that so often it can be a challenge to get our children interested in hiking. (Recommended Trip Reports, on scrambling with kids, by Sbrande, Part I and Part II)
As a parent, when hiking is one of our passions, more often than not, we so badly want our children to grow up enjoying and sharing this passion with us. If we haven’t been successful getting them interested before the teenage years, the challenge usually only gets tougher. It can be tough to compete with cell phones, cable TV, the internet and IPods, let alone their social calendars.
This is not a “How To” article. I was successful at getting my teenage son interested in hiking. I’m not claiming that my approach was the best, but it worked. Some of this was just good fortune. He could have easily hated the experience. But he didn’t. He now enjoys the mountains and hiking, and continues to return on his own, with or without Dad.
Blame it on DadThe fact that I didn’t hook my son Andrew at an early age was not his fault. Andrew was almost a teenager by the time I even rekindled my own interest in hiking. In his pre-teen years, spring, summer and fall were tied up with baseball and soccer – the latter of which Dad thoroughly enjoyed coaching. This kept both of us busy enough, and family vacations usually involved a warm, sunny destination, near or on the beach. Hiking trips didn’t happen.
In 1997, when I rekindled my interest in hiking with a trip to the Smokies, Andrew was already 11 years old. I continued to return to the Smokies on my own each year and while Andrew had always shown a little interest in my pictures and my stories, there wasn’t enough interest to convince him to come along, or for him to ask “Dad, will you take me next time.”
Finally, in July, 2002, during the summer before his junior year in high school, I convinced him to go for a short three day hiking trip with me to the Smokies. While I desperately hoped he would fall in love with hiking, I decided that the best chance for success was to do this more on his terms than mine. It would have been great to have the “Hollywood script” where father/son go on long weekend hiking adventure together and have a wonderful bonding experience. But I told him that he could bring his best friend Andy, if he wanted to. Hey, I’m a realist. I figured he stood a better chance of enjoying the experience with his best friend around, than having to tolerate Dad the entire trip. I also tried to focus more on the camping aspect of the trip than the hiking. While we had never been camping as a family, I knew that my son had done a little camping with his friends, and that he would enjoy that part of the trip. Big campfires and big meals! A winning combination!
Again, doing this more on his terms than mine, I didn’t sweat equipment details. The only thing I demanded was that they carry rain gear in their packs. Hiking in basketball shorts and shoes would be fine. (I was by no means an expert on equipment anyway. The first time I climbed Mt. LeConte I did it in a pair of Adidas Sambas - indoor soccer shoes!)
As for the hiking, I went in with low expectations. This comes from my first experience hiking with my son. In 1996 we took a family vacation to RMNP. My wife and I couldn’t even get Andrew and his friend DJ to complete the five mile round trip hike to Ouzel Falls. The whining and the arguments were just not worth it! With this one previous experience deeply engrained in the back of my mind, I figured the short four mile round trip hike to the Chimney Tops was the best option. While pretty steep, it was at least short, offered a little rock climbing at the top, and if he didn’t love the view from the top, I knew my chances of getting my son interested in hiking would be slim!
While I can’t say that he loved the steep climb up, once we reached the final approach that requires some scrambling, the kid came out in him. And once on the summit, he was caught up in the awesome view. Fortunately exposure didn’t seem to bother him, as he grabbed my favorite spot on the rock, legs dangling over the edge. I more than once had to convince him that trying to climb along the ledge to the second “chimney” wasn’t safe.
On the way down I let them stop and play around in the stream near the trailhead. I was successful at getting my son up his first mountain so I was more than content to let Andrew and Andy act like normal kids. Besides, that cold mountain stream always feels good on a hot summer afternoon.
Mt. LeConteWith one victory under my belt it was time to up the difficulty for the next day. The hike up to Mt. LeConte via Alum Cave is in my opinion the most beautiful hike in the park. But at 10 miles roundtrip and around 3,000 feet of elevation gain, it is a difficult day.
Again I kept the expectations low. While I desperately wanted to make it all the way to the top, I played down making it all the way to LeConte. I could tell that Andrew wasn’t all that interested in a 10 mile day and I knew if I was too demanding from the get go, the arguments would come and the odds for success would decrease. So I told him we would make it to the Bluffs, a little over two miles up the trail, stop for some lunch, and decide then on whether or not to continue on to LeConte.
After our break, Andrew fortunately decided he wanted to continue on, but not at Dad’s slow pace! I reluctantly let Andrew and Andy hike on ahead of me. Being very familiar with the trail, I knew they wouldn’t get lost beyond this point, and they never seemed to get too far in front of me, which made me feel better. Andy happened to be a little acrophobic, and farther up, the trail can get pretty narrow with some steep drop offs, so he decided he’d rather hike with me. Andrew felt comfortable so I let him continue up the trail on his own. My only request was that he wait for us at the trail sign for the final climb up to Cliff Top.
We finished the climb up to Cliff Top together. And again, Andrew loved the summit. Both Andrew and Andy were pretty exhausted by the time we made it to the top. I don’t know that he loved the difficulty of the climb, but he did love the mountain.
I wanted to be on the road heading for home by noon on the last day, which meant if we were going to do any hiking it needed to be short. Since things went so well on the two previous hikes I decided to reward Andrew and Andy with the short hike to Laurel Falls. I told them to wear their bathing suits.
It was a quick, easy hike to the falls. It was a good choice as it allowed us to do a little scrambling and to get wet on this hot summer day. This wasn’t about hiking. But about allowing Andrew and Andy to act like kids, and to have some fun in the water. And they loved it!
SuccessI consider myself fortunate. My son and his friend enjoyed the trip - including the hiking. It could have gone badly, but it didn’t. They both enjoyed it enough that we returned for a slightly longer trip in the summer of 2003. Unfortunately that is the last time I have been hiking with my son. Once college started, between his summer internships and my trips to Colorado, our schedules didn’t seem to work out. Besides, he was more interested in returning with his friends. And this is when I knew I had em’ hooked. He has made two trips to the Smokies on his own with his friends, which has made me very happy. But going with his college buddies wasn’t a trip for Dad to be on. (It’s not the only Cats in the Cradle moment I experienced during his four years at Indiana University.) And he has climbed LeConte on both of these trips, and he is always proud to tell Dad about that accomplishment.
Fortunately this drought should end this year. Now that the Disneyland adventure of college is over and he has a real job in Indianapolis, vacation schedules have changed for him. So Andrew, Andy and I will be he heading back to the Smokies to spend a weekend in Cosby this April. And Andrew is planning on joining me for my week long trip to Colorado this August. All parents that enjoy hiking should be so lucky. Life is good!