Last week my son developed a PowerPoint presentation on Leave No Trace (LNT) principles and presented it to his Webelos den (Cub Scouts). He had a lot of fun adding pictures, sound effects, and motion to the presentation. The result was a presentation that was very busy by any professional standard, with things flying on and off the screen and sometimes spinning around in circles. But it certainly held the boys’ attention.
The presentation and discussion made me think about the LNT principles as they specifically relate to kids in the backcountry. So here they are with tips from my experience hiking, camping, and backpacking with kids.
1. Plan ahead.
Planning ahead generally includes mapping out your route and bringing navigation tools; checking the weather in advance; packing appropriate gear and clothes for the season and terrain; and telling someone where you are going and when you will be back. When backpacking with kids, I would add:
- Bring a friend if possible.
- Make a “Plan B” in case the first route proves to be too long or difficult.
- Bring plenty of foods that the kids love to eat, they might eat twice as much as you expect!
- Bring a small toy or stuffed animal for them to play with at camp.
2. Stick to trails.
Staying on established trails minimizes impact on the environment. Fragile plants in the tundra and other areas can die if you step on them. Staying on trails also makes it easier to get help if there is an emergency, either from other hikers or rescuers.
I know some people prefer to hike off trail, but I think staying on trails is good advice for the majority of hikers—especially if you are navigationally challenged (like me) or if you are hiking with kids. Here are some suggestions for hiking with kids on trails:
- All kids want to lead. You will probably need to make them take turns.
- They often want to hike side by side with their friends. If the trail is narrow and you are in a fragile environment, you will need to remind them to walk single file and stay on the trail.
- Kids love to take shortcuts, you will have to watch for cross-cutting when there are switchbacks.
- Younger kids often like to pretend they are animals, fairies, or something else as they walk, run, or fly down the trail. Encouraging them by playing along can help them go farther without complaints.
3. Leave what you find.
This one can be a real challenge with kids—especially toddlers. When hiking in national parks I tend to be more strict about this than when we are in less restricted areas. My son recently found a hummingbird nest on the ground by the side of a trail in Rocky Mountain National Park. It would have been nice to bring it home and let him share it with his sister, but instead we took a short video of him holding it, and he put it back where he found it. Perhaps others walking by will spot it and enjoy it too.
Here are some strategies for convincing kids to leave what they find:
- Take a picture or video of the child with their find (antlers, bird nests, special rocks, etc.)
- Remind kids that other people will walk down the trail and they will want to see the special item too. You can call this “sharing” the find with others.
- If kids start to break off tree branches or otherwise damage the environment, ask them how they would feel if someone broke into their home and started wrecking it with a sledgehammer. Remind them that the forest is the animals’ home.
4. Respect other visitors.
Kids are often unaware of others around them on the trail or in camping areas. You will need to remind them that most people come into the backcountry to get away from noise, pollution and stress. Here are some ways you can encourage kids to be respectful of others:
- Camp away from other groups whenever possible.
- When you must camp in close proximity to other groups, point out the other sites to the kids while you are setting up your camp. Remind them that they are not to disturb the others by running through their camp space or playing near their site.
- If possible, identify a good area near your campsite that is away from others where the kids can play. Give them some boundaries. An open meadow works great for all kinds of games.
- When hiking, remind the kids to step aside when faster hikers come up behind them, or when others come from the opposite direction on narrow trails.
- Kids often want to ask questions of others they meet on the trail. Most people are open to this and will gladly answer. But some people will be listening to their iPods or will just ignore the kids. Help the kids to be polite in their questions, and to understand that not all people will respond and that is OK.
- Kids are drawn to wildlife. But you must teach them that animals that might not seem dangerous, such as deer and elk, should still be given a wide berth. As my son likes to say, “Respect wildlife and it will respect you.”
5. Manage your pet.
OK, I have to admit that I sometimes hike and trail run with my dogs off-leash. However, I try hard to follow the rules of the specific area. I do not take my dogs on trails in Rocky Mountain National Park. But there are several trails around my home that allow dogs off leash if they answer to voice control. From the standpoint of hiking with kids, here are some extra considerations for keeping your dog on leash in the backcountry:
- Dogs are more likely to attract wildlife to you if they are off leash. If an elk begins to chase them, they are going to return to you looking for safety with that angry bull elk on their heels. This could be dangerous or at least frightening to the kids.
- An off-leash dog could get injured and be unable to walk. This could cause you to stay out overnight unexpectedly or force you and your kids to make a difficult decision about whether to try to carry the dog home or leave it behind.
- 6. Trash your trash.
This one is pretty easy for kids to understand. However, they are often careless with wrappers on their various snacks while on the trail. Here are some strategies to help them:
- Take durable snacks out of wrappers before setting out on the trail and put them in kids’ pockets or snack pouches.
- When kids ask to stop for a snack, remind them to put their trash back in their backpack. With younger kids it is often best to just unwrap the snack for them and stow the trash yourself.
- Model good habits by picking up any trash you find on the trail or at your campsite even if it is not yours.
- Each night before bed, make sure the kids have emptied all of their food trash into your bear canister or bear bag before going into the tent.
- Before you leave your campsite, have the kids help make a sweep to pick up any trash in the area. You can even offer a small prize for the person who finds the most trash.