Almost Fearless

Hiking With Preschoolers: A Little Support Goes A Long Way

One of my favorite vacations was a camping trip on an uninhabited island just south of the Great Barrier Reef. I learned how to protect food from dingos, how to tow out a bogged four-wheel drive vehicle, and how to embrace being far, far away from civilization. As the stars rose over the Pacific night after night, I knew I was hooked on the experience of escaping into nature in solace. Another of my favorite vacations was when I had the opportunity to get a place near the beach and even read the Survival Cooking List of Best Coolers to get one of them, it was definitely a great time.

When I was pregnant I was afraid my days of setting off into the wilderness were done, but once my daughter arrived I realized that carrying her in a backpack or wrap would allow us to keep exploring. We moved to New Hampshire and set about discovering the trails, peaks and riverbeds in our new home. I grew in my confidence to plan and organize my own trips that were more and more exploratory. I had this adventurous parenting thing in the bag.

My daughter and I enjoying the swimming hole just before the torrential rain came.

The trouble started this summer, the summer my child turned three. At thirty pounds and three feet tall, she was getting too big to be comfortably carried for long distances. As an inquisitive toddler she wasn’t interested in being held anyway: She wanted to be close to the ground, finding hidden treasures that I would have hiked right past.

While ambling at a toddler’s pace was excellent practice in mindfulness and patience, I was craving a real adventure, for myself and for my daughter. At the same time, I knew a long hike or mom and tot camping trip would be stressful, if not impossible.

I was finally resigning myself to the fact that we may need to hang up our hiking boots for the moment when I found out about the Appalachian Mountain Club’s (AMC) Wee Wanderers program. The program offers children ages 3-5 a chance to explore the outdoors at the more relaxed pace they need. Families stay in AMC huts, where there are beds, showers, toilets, meals, and guides who organize hikes that are short enough for little legs but also deliver rewards like waterfalls and lakes.

Before the hike our two guides from the AMC showed the kids how to read a trail map and where we would be walking.

Despite my hopes that we would have a great weekend, I went into the program a little ambivalent. I’m an introvert, and I was having visions of name games, tightly-packed schedules and pseudo-adventure. However, my mind was put at ease when I saw the schedule for the weekend. For Saturday it listed merely two items: 7:30 Breakfast; 8:30: a full day of outdoor activities and adventures. That was it — no over scheduling and lots of glorious time outdoors.

On Friday we arrived at Cardigan Lodge, in Alexandria, New Hampshire. My daughter was most excited about the chance to bounce on the bunk beds, but I eventually convinced her to put on a swimsuit and take a dip in the pond on the property. As we waited for the other families to arrive, we caught tadpoles and newts, swam, and found a nearby creek. When all the participants arrived we went on a small one-mile nature hike.I was pleasantly surprised that the guides moved at a quick (but manageable) pace and that we were on an actual mountain trail rather than a kid-safe boardwalk or something similar.

Saturday was our big adventure: A 3-mile out-and-back hike to a waterfall and swimming hole. As we got ready in the morning a woman approached me, praising the trail that we were about to undertake. “That’s a great hike, especially for kids this age” she said with a nod toward my daughter. “They don’t hold back!”

She was right. The hike was the perfect balance of challenging but manageable. We descended into a steep ravine and crossed a wide but shallow river — then came the pouring rain. I like to think I am fairly adventurous but I would’ve never have had the gumption to trek two miles into the woods in the pouring rain with a three-year-old. Having the comfort of the group, however, made it feel completely comfortable for everyone involved.

Working together made this river crossing much easier for kids and parents.

“Katie says hiking in the rain is extra fun,” my daughter told me as we set out, parroting what our guide had told her.

Along the way the guides were fantastic. Whereas I might get annoyed stopping for the fiftieth time to examine a mushroom, the guides would admire whatever natural treasures the kids pointed out, give them a bit of information, and get them moving again. Despite having five kids on the trek we were moving consistently along the whole time.

When we got to the waterfall the rainfall increased from heavy to torrential. Some families opted to stay under the cover of the woods, where they were at least somewhat protected, but no one batted an eye when my daughter and I took off our shoes and splashed in the river despite the weather. Even within the group, each family had a lot of leeway to do what they preferred.

As we turned around reality quickly caught up with my daughter. She was soaking wet, cold and utterly exhausted. She was crying hysterically, demanding to be carried and well past the point of being reasoned with. As I put her in a dry outfit, figuring it would keep her warm for a few minutes as the rain continued, I tried to come up with a plan: I could put my pack on my front and piggyback my daughter, although that would really limit my mobility on the slick upward climb back. Being in a group completely saved me from a miserable slog back to camp. Someone took my pack and many others offered me helping hands  as I piggybacked my sleeping daughter out of the woods.

Parenting has taught me that having help is essential. I hire babysitters and lean on friends when it’s tough. For three years I resisted getting help in taking my daughter outside, fearing that organized trips would somehow make us less adventurous or hearty. After our weekend with the Wee Wanderers, though, I realized that during this chapter of adventurous parenting, a little extra support is exactly what we need.


Kelly Burch

Kelly Burch is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in The Washington Posts, Parents magazine and more. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

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