Taking the family into the hills – even toddlers – is possible with the right know-how
Heading into the outdoors with your children might seem a formidable proposition, but it needn’t be. Whether you enjoy short walks in the front country, overnight tramps or longer trips into more rugged areas, it is possible to have successful, fun and safe journeys as a family.
My husband David and I have been tramping with our children for 15 years. There has been the odd disaster, a family blow-up or two, but mostly there has been fun, friendship and invaluable time spent together as we have experienced the outdoor world with our kids. Here are a few tips we have found to be useful.
It’s more fun with friends
Always. If you are able to tramp with other families or have the ways and means of taking extra kids with you, then do it. Adding one extra child can change the dynamics of a family tramp remarkably and kids will walk much further and more happily if they are with their friends. Depending on what kind of trip you are doing, it pays to know the extra child well – it won’t work taking someone else’s child on a weekend trip that is beyond their capability.
Don’t be the food police
Don’t use your time in the hills to teach kids about the food pyramid, healthy eating or portion sizes. This is no time to insist on ‘5 plus a day’ – it just won’t happen, especially on longer trips.
Being able to prepare the evening meal efficiently and with ease is important when tramping with kids. Chopping veges before you leave home is often a good idea, especially if you have young children to attend to, know you will be arriving at your destination close to dark, or if you are tenting and the weather forecast is a bit dodgy. Dried fruit and dehydrated vegetables provide nutrition and variety on longer trips.
Be flexible. One of our children went through a stage of finding tramping breakfasts really difficult to get down. Even though the porridge was usually dressed up with condensed milk, apricots and almonds, she just couldn’t eat more than a mouthful or two. However, present a child with half a muesli bar, three brazil nuts, four pieces of chocolate, a slice of cheese and a warm milo with a gingernut to dunk and they will have no trouble consuming a nutritious breakfast which will easily get them through until first lunch.
Variety is the spice of life. Adults might find porridge for 10 days a bit boring, but will tolerate it for the convenience. We can eat cheese, salami and crackers every day if we have to, but kids just find it hard work. So on longer trips try to take a variety of foods for different meal times. If you take hummus, cream cheese and bagels for the first few lunches, then the cheddar, salami and crackers don’t need to appear until day three. During colder months pulling the cooker out at lunch time means hot soup, or grilled burritos with molten cheese are possible.
Kids can make the scoggin. Put a variety of goodies on the kitchen bench, provide small bags and kitchen scales, tell them how much you want in each bag and let them do it. The result will be a pleasant surprise for you all. One day you might be eating jetplanes, raisins, pebbles and cashews, and the next a mix of dried pineapple, white chocolate buttons and almonds. It sure beats peanuts and raisins day after day. Beware of scroggin miners though – kids are especially good at picking out the best bits while your back is turned.
Dessert is a winner. Simple desserts like milo sucked through a Tim Tam are easy to prepare even if you’re holed up in a tent in a nor’west storm. In pleasant weather and at huts, making custard, instant pudding, cheesecakes and spongy puds will put a smile on any tired child’s face. Always get the kids to dish up dessert – they have this inbuilt ability to evenly distribute dessert within one gram of accuracy.
Tramping can be dangerous
No matter how careful you are, things don’t always go to plan. Rivers rise, tussock is slippery and rocks sometimes appear from nowhere to trip up unsuspecting little feet. A scar above the eye of one of our girls reminds us of the time she was running happily down a track at speed when she fell and hit her head on a rock. On another occasion we had an early evening dash from Craigieburn into Christchurch A&E with a two-year-old with a dislocated elbow. A quick flick by the doctor saw the elbow back in place and by 10pm we were back at our campsite cooking sausages over the open fire for a rather late dinner.
We take safety seriously in the hills especially when we are with the kids (we always carry an emergency locator beacon), but we are also realistic – accidents happen, but not necessarily any more than they would at home.
Sometimes our kids have been scared, but we never ask them to do anything that we don’t believe they are capable of. A few years ago, we needed to cross a three-wire bridge in torrential rain and over a swollen river. Our girls were 10 and 12 years at the time and even though they were apprehensive they made it across safely. They had been in some tricky situations before when we had instilled in them the necessity of using their heads, trusting what David and I were saying and building in them a sense of confidence and a ‘willing to try anything’ attitude.
Challenges will present themselves, but provided you are experienced and sensible, the pluck and determination of your kids will constantly amaze you.
Always carry tents
If you are heading out overnight, unless the hut you are heading to is huge, it pays to carry a tent, especially if you are joining with other families and your tramping group is large. More often than not other trampers will happily make themselves scarce when they see a group of three families with nine kids snaking their way towards the hut, but having a tent provides much more flexibility.
The type of tent you use will depend on personal preference and when and where you will be tenting. For tops camping we decided on two two-person tents, as we believed it would be easier to find campsites for smaller tents amongst the tussock. At a pinch we can all squash into one for meals in the rain if we need to. If you are camping mainly in valleys then a larger tent which fits you all comfortably might be possible.
Be prepared to turn back and alter plans
Plans will often need to be altered, especially when venturing out with younger children or babies. With nine month old Alice in the backpack, we tried for three consecutive weekends to go along Robert Ridge in Nelson Lakes National Park. Twice we were forced back because it was too cold and windy to continue with a baby. On the third weekend the weather finally obliged and we made it to a campsite at Hinapouri Tarn, just beyond Lake Angelus. The plan was to head over Sunset Saddle into the Hopeless Valley the following day, but it was murky and windy when we woke so we decided on the more sheltered Cascade Stream Track. Fifteen years later, despite having tried again on two separate occasions, Alice still hasn’t crossed Sunset Saddle due to bad weather!
We have also turned around early on day trips for different reasons. Once, in the middle of July after a wicked frost it was just too cold for our three-year-old. Another time we had been too ambitious and the kids were not enjoying the relentless climbing presented to them and everyone was getting grumpy and tempers were frayed.
Realising it was not working, we turned back, drove to Arthurs Pass Village for ice creams and watched the kea play. Sometimes being in the mountains together as a family can be as simple as driving to a special place, pulling out the blanket by a stream and eating egg sandwiches while you swat the sandflies.
Play is important
Kids thrive on play. Three-hour-long lunches among the tussock in summer, swimming in tarns and snowball fights in winter create great memories of family time in the hills. Since having kids we have climbed more trees, paddled in more rivers and turned over more rocks than we ever would have done tramping only with adults. We have also developed the art of story-telling – this is an excellent way to keep kids occupied during long up-hill climbs.
Favourite soft toys always find their way into the kids’ packs, but beware – it’s a long walk back to the campsite when you discover ‘Goldie’ has been left behind.
Buy good gear for the kids
If the walks you choose to do as a family are relatively short and on good formed tracks, then sneakers for the kids will probably be fine. If you want to go a little further afield with your adventures, maybe above the bushline or into the scree and snow, boots with good ankle support are essential, especially as kids get older and start to carry packs with a bit of weight in them.
Don’t shirk on the quality of raincoats – kids don’t enjoy hours in the rain, but if they have to do it, they will endure it more easily with a coat that keeps them dry. Take more layers for the kids than you would for yourself – you will be surprised at how easy it is for youngsters to get wet. Gaiters and leggings are also helpful to keep short legs a little drier and protected from spaniards.
If you can afford it, it is still worth buying good gear that fits well. At times we have compromised on our own gear for the sake of making sure the kids were comfortable. Hopefully you will know other tramping families who you can pass on gear or receive it from.
The reluctant tramper
You might not have a child that fits this category, but we do. Our youngest, Mackenzie, despite being very agile, fit and able in the hills, would prefer to be throwing a hoop above her head in a sparkly leotard on the gym floor. Imagine her joy when her gym training sessions changed to Saturday and she could no longer tramp during the weekends!
Despite her reluctance, we have still done most of our tramping as a complete family unit. When weekend trips became impossible due to the children’s commitments, there were always the school holidays for longer tramps or Sundays for day trips. And when given the choice to not come, tramping usually wins out and our reluctant tramper will choose to join the family when we head for the hills.
David and I also know that despite the protesting, once out there, Mackenzie really does love it and we are confident she will treasure her childhood tramping experiences.