Many parents hang up their boots when kids come along, but as Ricky French explains, children of all ages can enjoy being outdoors with mum and dad
There’s something moving in the dank undergrowth. An almost imperceptible shifting of weight dislodges a mossy branch. Was that a cough? The glimpse of a Pokemon hoodie? Unbeknownst to its intended victim, an ambush awaits.
“Gotcha…you’re dead!” screams a maniacal figure, leaping out brandishing a deadly stick-rifle. The victim panics and gasps, freezes, then composes himself and gives chase. ‘Get out, Brandon you egg, I knew you were there! I’m telling mum!’
Mum is Nicky Andrews who lives in Porirua and has been taking her five children tramping since Brandon – the eldest at 13 – could first hold a weapon. His brothers Paloma, 12, Taylor, 11 and Shalin, 10, as well as sister Havana, 5, regularly tramp in the Tararuas or Orongorongo Ranges near Wellington.
Andrews has the cool, organised look of a mum who knows where everything is. It’s a skill that would come in handy in a hut.
While some new parents are apprehensive about taking their children tramping, Andrews couldn’t imagine leaving them behind. Well, most of the time.
“It’s good to get away without the kids, just the two of us,” she admits, “but what are the chances of that?”
It’s a point most parents will recognise. While nicking off to the movies and depositing the brats to a babysitter for a couple hours is occasionally doable, the sight of tramping packs being stuffed with days’ worth of provisions may leave even the most loyal babysitter looking decidedly concerned, or even have
them running screaming for the hills themselves.
But as well as the logistical hurdle of temporarily re-housing the kids, there could also be a hidden stigma blocking the track.
Tramping has always had a very ‘grown up’ or serious aura. It’s the mark of tough, resilient adults to be able to look after themselves in the outdoors. To laugh danger in its muddy face, conquer long-drops, hack through bracken and dodge Spaniards, cook up hearty slop on a blackened potbelly and talk calibers with grunting hunters. Your packs are meant to be full of scroggin, oats and a spare flannel shirt, not nappies, dummies and Little Miss Daisy Doll.
But perhaps most importantly, most of our apprehensions may be linked to the practical realities of tramping. Namely, it can be dangerous.
My grandmother holds complete disdain for the mere concept of tramping. Irresponsible, she says. Lacking in common sense. She fears we may be descended from gypsies. Why would anyone volunteer to walk around outside for hours in the wind and rain? And you want to take your children out there? What would the neighbours say?
It’s natural for parents to fear the judgment of others when their brood is on public display. And no fear is greater than the thought that someone believes you’re endangering your child. It’s even worse than when your child swears in public, or asks loudly, ‘Daddy, why is that man so fat?’
So, when faced with impending parenthood, many previously keen trampers feel the only option is to hang up the boots and seek timeshare accommodation in seaside motels. But it need not be so. I ask Andrews about the perceived dangers of tramping with kids.
“You just have to be sensible,” she says. “Pack warm clothes, a first aid kit, that sort of thing. But that’s obvious stuff. More importantly you need to choose your routes carefully. I’ve got five kids and they’ve all got different abilities and attitudes to walking. Trial the child, I say! With Shalin, we tested him walking up Colonial Knob (near Wellington) when he was 15 months old. He got to within 300m of the top. He’s a great walker, but not all kids are. One of the dangers comes from when kids are tired, whining, not concentrating. Falls can happen and tempers can fray. Actually, my biggest fear is that my kids will light the bush on fire.”
She also says that home comforts are important.
“The child should be involved in packing their own pack, even if it’s very small. Let them carry their favourite teddy, or some special treats.”
Children walking up mountains? Carrying packs? Am I missing something? I tell Andrews I know five-year-olds who have to be pushed in a buggy round the zoo.
“Well, yes. At first you’ll need a decent mountain buggy – if the track allows – or a comfortable backpack, especially for the younger kids. But you’d be surprised what some kids can do. Havana walked all the way to Powell Hut in the Tararuas when she was four – in winter, through snow.” I tell her I am very surprised.
But we all know the real joy in tramping lies not in busting your gut through the snow and mud, but wallowing in the comforts of the hut. How do parents go about entertaining kids in huts?
“Watch this,” Andrews says, as she puts on a video.
She shows me footage of the kids at Powell Hut. There’s snow everywhere. It’s gorgeous and the kids are goofing around like, well, kids. A make-shift ping-pong table is set up – the net is constructed by balancing a staff atop two cans of Speights. Andrews gives me a wink. Bats and balls are light and easy to carry and the kids go at it, whooping up a storm. For the punch line, a cricket bat is then produced.
“You can just tie it to your pack,” says Andrews, “it’s not that hard. Especially when you make your partner tie it to his pack.”
A feisty game of hut cricket ensues. The shrieks of delight can probably be heard on the summit of Mt Holdsworth. The camera then takes us outside into the snow around the hut. The kids use improvised toboggans to slide down nearby slopes, then start digging snow caves. It’s a perfect winter’s day and these kids have the greatest backyard in the world.
As the sun sets new games rise. The kids use the mattresses on the sleeping platforms to build forts, and are then judged on their efforts. Only the most luxurious abode will win.
“Kids have the ability to make games out of whatever they have around them,” Andrews says.
Matthias Thies lives in Christchurch and runs Trailbabies.net an online forum for tramping families around the world to share their experiences, know-how, tips, tricks and stories.
Thies has been taking his two-year-old son Loki tramping since he was two months old. It began with a short trip up Valley Track in the Port Hills.
“Loki was happy as Larry – hours of cuddling and being swayed by our walking rhythm, and close to mum and dad, perfect day out!” recalls Thies. “It gave us confidence, and we started to think that maybe our idea that we could have a great tramping life together with Loki might not be so far-fetched after all.”
Things really took off after that. The family did a two-week tramp in the Routeburn area, sleeping only under tarps, when Loki was just 10 months. Since that rugged introduction to tramping Thies has eased it back a bit. A bit.
“We now do tramps of about 10 days, with about 30 per cent of that over difficult terrain and altitude differences.” Thies anticipates my next question.
“It’s really not dangerous if you know what you’re doing. I think people should focus more on ‘how to do it’, rather than assuming you’re being reckless. Unfortunately not many people even try to do what we do, so they have no experience with the subject. I would invite anyone to come along and see our high safety standards.”
But children are also a fickle bunch. I ask Thies how to manage the changing moods and demands of a two year old.
“You need to embrace changes of plan. Things won’t always go well. Sometimes Loki will want to blast along the trail to see what’s around the next bend, other times he’ll want to turn over every pebble on the path. Sometimes he may sleep in his carrier, or use it to take cover from really serious weather. We’ll use that opportunity to make up some time. A lot of it is about how you structure your day to make the most of your child’s shifting focus and moods. The more flexible you are, the better it will work.”
Thies highlights the need to see the tramp from the child’s perspective, and to “put fun and learning before miles on the trail”.
Anne Dowden is the convener of the Tararua Tramping Club’s Family Group. The group comprises about 20 families with kids aged 1-13 years. A keen tramper before having children, Dowden says there was no way she was going to forgo a great passion when she became a mum.
“Kids get so much out of these trips. They learn self-confidence, they learn to make fun out of anything, they learn they can trust their own bodies to get them places, whether over rocky ground or tricky slopes. They get to do things most kids aren’t allowed to do, like light fires and cook with a naked flame, skinny dip, or eat lollies for breakfast (in their porridge, of course). Funnily enough, they learn they have a reason to respect their parents.”
Dowden has seen many examples of apprehensive parents in her time. Often she says, one parent will be a keen tramper but will have a hard time convincing their other half to try a tramp with the kids.
“A lot of parents are worried the trip will be too hard, that the kids will get hurt, and of course that one of the kids will have a meltdown on the track in front of everybody. Ironically, what I, as an experienced tramper, worry about most are the biggies: hypothermia, drownings or losing a kid. That’s why being part of a club that appoints experienced leaders is such a good idea. We know what to look out for.”
Everybody I spoke to agreed that any age is a good age to start kids tramping.
Babies aged 12 months and under have the advantage that they’re portable and won’t crawl or walk into mischief in the hut. Plus it’s much easier to breastfeed in the middle of the night than to heat up a bottle or prepare food. On the down-side, Dowden warns that babies and public huts don’t really mix, due to their need for an early night and middle of the night feeds. She suggests age two to three is a good time to start introducing overnight trips for the “less extreme”.
Children aged six and over should be able to walk as far and as fast as most adults, given their will. Andrews says her boys often spend most of the day running down the track and then back to her, finding games and distractions along the way.
From the ages of eight to 10 children should be able to carry all their clothes in their pack, as well as some light group items. (Dowden says this is a good way to get the girls to cut down on the amount of clothes they “think” they need.) All of which leads to ‘what to pack’.
You’ll need to be strict, Dowden warns. Ditch the t-shirts and the playing cards, and get ultra-light tents, torches and cookers (I wonder what she makes of the Andrews’ kids cricket bat?). A six-day tramp that
Dowden organised to Kahurangi National Park required six months of menu planning, due to one child’s allergies and another’s intolerance of fruit and veg.
But even the toughest cookie can crack: “We did make room for a little whisky, Kahlua and even champagne.” Bless her.
Most will agree that tramping in summer is best with children, both for safety and enjoyment. Whining may reach epic proportions if a child is wet or cold, and you’ll probably catch a severe case of the guilts yourself. So don’t skimp on the spare socks, and be prepared for inexplicable plunges into streams at any time of the day.
But the last word perhaps belongs to the children themselves. Andrews marshals her happy trampers for a quick Q and A.
So how great is tramping then, kids?
“I got lost once,” says Taylor, “because it was dark and Paloma burnt my face.”
“Yeah,” Brandon continues. “And once an ice axe fell out of a tree and landed on my head.”
Oh dear. So what else don’t the kids like about tramping? A fair bit, it seems.
“Carrying a heavy pack. Walking too long. Walking uphill. Snow. Walking….”
I see. So what are the best things about tramping? Are there any?
“Fresh air! The huts. Swimming in the rivers! Playing crazy games. Scaring each other. Snow! Eating nice food. Eating snow.”
“Oh, and I love getting to light stuff on fire,” says Brandon.
Things to remember
- All children are different – some will take to tramping, others won’t. Trial children on local bush walks
- Choose easy tramps to begin with and be prepared to carry or push children who find the going difficult
- Involve children in the planning. Show them the map, ask them questions about where they are going
- Get children used to carrying a pack from a young age, however small
- Don’t bring too many toys. Children will find plenty of games and distractions along the way and in the huts
- Be prepared to change your plans if things don’t go smoothly. Accept that you may travel slower than usual
- Ensure children eat well, especially carbohydrates. Take plenty of snack food as well – children will be burning a lot of calories and will always be hungry
- Go with other families. Children crave the company of other children on tramps
- There’s nothing wrong with judicious use of bribery
- Don’t stress. If you have good outdoor skills you will find taking children much easier than you thought
What to bring
- Plenty of polypropylene, a hat, gloves and a raincoat
- A first aid kit. Remember the liquid paracetamol. Consider taking an emergency beacon
- A few home comforts such as a special blanket or a teddy
- Insect repellent and sunblock
- A book, to calm children down before bedtime
- Hard lollies for incentive
- Swimming shorts for kids too bashful for skinny-dipping
- A positive, relaxed attitude