A Mother’s Insights From Hiking 1,000+ Miles With Kids
By: Jennifer Stoneking-Stewart
Flowers. Family. Food. Sun.
Those are my wishes for Mother’s Day every year, relatively simple ones. While Mother Nature is responsible for granting at least one of those, my family helps fulfill the other three by gifting me a day with them on the trail.
This tradition of Mother’s Day hikes began when my son, Landon, was 18 months old and my daughter, Elizabeth Claire, was just over three years old. We ventured to Max Patch, North Carolina, about an hour from our home in Jefferson County, Tennessee. The hike itself was short, a little over a mile in all, but we were there for the adventure and for the day together, enjoying those items on my list: flowers, family, food, sun.
This was not our kids’ first trail encounter. They began “hiking” as soon as they could go in a stroller or pack carrier. We found ourselves on the dirt paths of Panther Creek State Park almost weekly, as it's just a few miles from our home.
Once our kids figured out that the freedom to explore and investigate the natural world surrounding them was not only allowed but encouraged, they no longer asked to be carried or pushed, as their feet itched for the trail as much as mine. That love of hiking and the outdoors has only grown as they’ve gotten older, fostered by our family’s deep appreciation for ecological conservation, education, and stewardship.
Little Joys and Big Goals Hiking With Children
Landon, who is now eight, and Elizabeth Claire, who just turned ten in April, have easily hiked over 1,000 trail miles in their lives so far, the majority here in the southeastern Appalachian Mountains, but also as far away as California’s Sierra Nevada in Yosemite National Park.
As of May 2, 2023, these two kids have logged 813.7 miles in Great Smoky Mountains National Park alone. They are strong, driven, and on a mission with me. Together, we are completing all the trails in the Smokies. With that, these two determined kids aspire to be the youngest members of the “900 Miler Club.” With our pursuit of this goal, I am gifted my Mother’s Day requests of flowers, family, food, and sun quite often.
When hiking, it is an undivided time for us: we talk, share, and catch up after a busy week of work, school, and activities. We slow down and our minds wander as we pass the miles. This is bonding time with our kids, every mother’s desire, but also play time. Hikes turn into scavenger hunts as we see who can find the first snail, centipede, and salamander. Kids spy things most adults overlook, as they are curious by nature and closer to the ground. We like “Seeking” unknown flowers, plants, and insects using the iNaturalist offline app called Seek.
Also, by hiking together, I am able to teach my kids how to persevere, mentally and physically, through the challenges encountered along the way. As adults, we know obstacles will arise in our lives that we have to navigate, often alone. I love knowing that I can offer my children a supportive hand when the going is tough, cheer them on, and celebrate their accomplishments.
The “Ten Essentials” for Kids on Trail
Before you think all hikes are sunshine and rainbows, I’ll note that hiking with children is not for the faint of heart. There has been a lot of trial and error along with the trips and falls on the way. Entering the backcountry with kids is daunting, and you must prepare for the what-ifs not just for yourself, but also for your children. These scenarios could be scary, but because we’ve educated our kids along these many miles of what to do if-ever, we venture out with confidence.
Considering all these miles under my belt with our kids, I’ve gathered a few tips and tricks along the way. Here are my “10 Essentials for Kids” so you can be prepared and have a safe, fun adventure of your own this Mother’s Day.
1. Start with the standard Ten Essentials of Hiking.
Always bring the 10 Essentials of Hiking, as well as a healthy dose of “PMA”, or positive mental attitude. As noted by Nancy East, a local hiker and search and rescue team member (and Gossamer Gear brand ambassador!), a positive mental attitude, “doesn’t cost or weigh a thing…[but] is just as important as any gear you’re carrying.”
2. Beef up your first aid kit.
Be sure to carry extra wound and blister care items. Take children’s Tylenol or ibuprofen (I carry the chewable tablets), along with Benadryl and sting relief wipes or gel. When you have kids, cutting ounces by stripping down your first aid kit is not the way to go.
3. Bring special snacks and treats for the day.
I take my kids grocery shopping with me the week of a big hike and let them pick out something they want, which is usually something we don’t have normally. I also find something that’s a surprise treat and pack it in my bag for a snack break when our PMAs need a boost. Of course, post-hike meals and ice cream are always a must too. Here’s a list of some of our favorite snacks.
4. Hike with another adult and never “alone.”
True, you are not alone in that your kids are with you, but if that worst case scenario were to happen, I would not want my kids to be responsible for me and securing my rescue, or have to decide whether a child or the only adult goes for help if a kid was injured. Better yet, have at least one adult carry a personal locator beacon.
5. Do your research beforehand.
Check the weather the night before any hike and cancel plans if the conditions are not favorable. We are fair weather hikers because wet kids are miserable. Know what you’ll encounter on any trail you plan to hike. For the Smokies, I read trail summaries in Hiking Trails of the Smokies. I note any potential unbridged water crossings; if there are some, I monitor water levels through the USGS water level dashboard. I also rely on a community of hikers for first-hand accounts and current trail conditions, be it friends or through Facebook groups.
6. Educate your kids before you go and have a plan of action.
What do you do if you encounter wildlife? A bear? What are distinguishing characteristics of venomous snakes found in the area? Can you identify poison ivy, sumac, and oak? What do you do if you get lost? What does it mean to “Leave No Trace?” When kids know what is expected, they are more comfortable and confident.
7. Friends are fun for all!
Invite other children to join you on your adventure. Our kids love having others close to their age to talk to, as it makes miles pass quickly and they bond over mutual interests. This goes for adults too. I cherish the friendships I’ve made through hiking. They are bonds that extend beyond the trail.
8. Make your kiddos responsible for their things.
Our kids have had their own packs since they started walking the trails. We set the expectation early that they carry it from start to finish. In their first bags, they carried water, snacks, and a raincoat only. My husband and I would carry lunch and any other items they needed. Now, however, they carry all their gear. The only thing I carry still for them is our robust first aid kit.
9. Know your kids’ limitations, but also challenge them.
Do not expect your child to hike ten miles with 3,000 feet elevation gain if they have only walked two miles before at a park. Start small, two to three miles max, and build up. When Landon was three years old, he could hike five miles; two years later, he could hike ten miles. Give them the time needed to increase their strength, agility, and confidence in their bodies so that when you say, “Today is a 15-mile hike,” they know they can do it and still have energy in reserve.
10. Explore and play games along the way.
Have fun while you are out there. We tell jokes and stories, play “I-Spy,” do spelling and mental math games, and more. We make little detours to explore Smokies history through old homesites, cemeteries, and interesting artifacts along the way. We stop and take lots of pictures, too, and I plan our hikes to have that flexibility.
Find Mother’s Day Often on the Trail
Remember, hiking with your kids is all about the journey and that time together. Enjoy it! I’m very lucky in that my annual Mother’s Day request for flowers, family, food, and sun happens a couple of times each month as we venture out to explore a trail… together.
Happy Mother’s Day!
Jennifer Stoneking-Stewart is an active artist and educator born, raised, and currently residing in East Tennessee. The rural landscape surrounding her and the backdrop of Great Smoky Mountains National Park are driving influences of her work. She has been an educator since graduating from Clemson University in 2007 with a Master of Fine Arts, emphasis in Printmaking. She currently teaches at Morristown–East High School in Hamblen County and for local universities as an adjunct professor. She lives with her husband and two children in Jefferson County, Tennessee.