As a dad of two adventurous children who started hiking when they were babies and toddlers, Dan Human offers tips on getting on the trail.
It's Zero Degrees, and You Want to Take the Kids Out Hiking?
Don't keep the kids cooped up in winter when there is a world to explore out there. In winter, landscapes are transformed and that same park you went to all summer now offers new discoveries for growing hikers.
How to Take Kids on a Winter Hike Safely When There's Snow or Ice
However, there is a bit more to winter hiking with kids than wrestling them into an oversized puffy coat and mittens. As a dad who has his mini-hikers out in all sorts of weather, here are a few of my best tips.
1. Set Realistic Goals
Even for an adult, winter hiking is hard. The days are shorter and every step feels like swimming through wet cement. With kids in tow, it can be insanely hard for them and more difficult for you. Set your goals realistically!
Don't go too far. In winter, I plan on going half the distance in the same amount of time as I cover in summer. This seems to be a good formula to accommodate tough conditions, layer changes and extra snack breaks.
Start easy. Of course with kids, you can always build up their strength and resiliency but this takes time and multiple hikes. I suggest starting with easier winter hikes and progressing to more difficult ones. Remember, you want your kids to have a fun experience exploring winter with you— don't torture them.
2. Take Frequent Snack Breaks
As a parent, I've learned that most problems can be solved with a snack. Whether they're crabby, bored, or tired, a snack will revitalize their hiking stamina. In the warmer months, kids can demolish that bag of Swedish fish trail mix, but in winter, you might need a couple of bags. Plus, those delicious gummy fish may be frozen solid now.
We tend to eat more in the cold because our body demands more energy to keep warm through the process of thermogenesis. As kids' stomachs resemble the Pit of Sarlacc anyway, they will drain your food bag dry. I like to prepare snacks that don't freeze easily and have long-burn energy. My top snacks are:
- GORP (trail mix): peanuts, raisins, M&Ms
- Meat sticks (jerky)
- Dried banana chips
- Peanut butter or cheese and crackers
- Cereal bars
3. Use a Clothing Layering System
While hiking in winter, it seems like you are constantly changing and adjusting your clothing. The trick is to stay warm and dry without sweating. When you sweat, your clothing becomes soaked from the inside and that wet clothing creates conductive heat loss. Though it may be tempting to throw the kids in an I-can't-put-my-arms-down snowsuit, they will probably end up cold and uncomfortable.
Layers are better. Our main layers are a wicking layer, an insulating layer, weather layers. and sitting layers.
- The wicking layer is your basic long underwear. It is worn snugly on the body and its main job is to move moisture away from the skin. Ideal materials for this layer are merino wool, polypropylene, and cocona.
- The insulating layer maintains warmth in the body by trapping heat in air pockets. Fleece is great and insulates even when it becomes wet. Synthetic and down lightweight puffy layers are great here too. Adding or subtracting a fleece shirt is a great way to thermoregulate.
- The weather layer shields the body from wetness and wind. Here, look for materials that are waterproof and breathable. We wear rain jackets most of the time in winter, though the kids really like to wear softshells in calmer weather. Rain pants work great here too over a pair of fleece pants.
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Remember how we were taking lots of snack breaks? That's where the sitting layer comes in. Carry an extra warm puffy jacket in your pack and throw that on your kids when you stop for breaks. It will keep them warm while hooking up their feedbag.
As always, carry extra layers and extra hats and mittens with you. Weather can change in an instant and things like falling into a creek can happen.
4. Have Kids Wear Ice Traction or Snowshoes
A fall on the ice can quickly end a family hike and sometimes lead to a dangerous situation. Likewise, post-holing through knee-deep snow is no fun for anyone. Choose the correct boot accessory for your hike. If you are sinking into the snow, you need snowshoes. If you are on hardpacked icy trails, throw some microspikes on your kiddo's boots.
When buying snowshoes, look for something that is sized for your child's weight, is easy to attach, and has ice crampons or grips. My family has used a lot of snowshoes from Tubbs and Yukon Charlies with great results. My kids started on snowshoes at age three; if you can walk, you can snowshoe.
We use our ice-traction devices in more places than our snowshoes. Often called microspikes, these slide over a boot and bite into the ice. When my son was eight, we tried Snowline's Chainsen Light and those were fantastic. In their second year, they show no wear and my daughter is wearing the extra-small version.
5. Bring a Thermos of Hot Cocoa
The thing my kids and my Scouts get excited about during winter hiking is stopping and having cocoa. Their little faces light up as their mitten-clad hands firmly grasp that steaming cup of chocolate goodness. The cold and crankiness melt away as they suck down the Swiss Miss.
Sometimes, I'll bring along my MSR Reactor stove, melt snow, and make cocoa on the trail, but most times I bring a thermos with me. I'll make cocoa in the comfort of my kitchen and the sealed thermos keeps it warm for hours. We fill their collapsible camp cups with our magical happy potion.
Maintain proper hydration. Make sure kids don't try to solely hydrate themselves on cocoa, though, as dry winter air is just as dehydrating as summer. Take frequent water breaks! Keep your water from freezing by keeping it in an insulated container or even an old wool sock that has lost its mate.
6. Bring a Sled or Pulk for the Kids
Want to give yourself a workout? Pull a kid or two (preferably in a sled) behind you on a wilderness trail. As a winter backpacker, I've used a pulk for years for toting my heavier gear behind me. As a dad, I figured out that my backpacking pulk was perfect for little-legged kids who barely started walking. My sled is a simple design of a jet sled junior ice fishing sled with a DIY harness that I cobbled together.
My kids rode in the sled for years and they would get out and hobble around for a bit. Soon their jaunts out of the sled became longer and I got a bit of a break. Eventually, the sled stopped coming with us on most winter hikes. That said, I still take my nine and five year old out for a spin in the sled now and then.
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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Dan Human