For mountain lovers with children, there's no need to stop camping, hiking and exploring.
By Melanie Wong
When Helen Olsson and her husband had their first child, they were determined that it wouldn’t mean the end of their outdoor lifestyles.
In fact, the Olssons, who were avid backpackers and campers, wanted their children to love being outdoors and active as much as they did. The couple did just that, and today, their three children – ages 12, 9 and 6 – have literally grown up hiking, camping and backpacking in the mountains of Colorado.
“It’s an endeavor, camping with younger kids. It’s no small task,” Olsson admits. “But I’m passionate about camping with the kids, and it’s worth the effort. Once we are out and away with the family, it’s so rewarding, and we do our best bonding.”
Do you balk at the thought of toting your screaming toddler on a camping trip, or dragging your six-year-old along on a hike? You don’t have to. With a little know-how, preemptive planning and some creativity, the task isn’t as daunting as it seems, and according to those who have figured it out, it’s well worth the effort.
Olsson, author of the book “The Down and Dirty Guide to Camping with Kids,” recently visited The Bookworm in Edwards to talk about getting the family outdoors.
The way she sees it, years of camping, traveling and hiking with her children have left her well-equipped to show other parents the way. Olsson family trips have included an outing to Rocky Mountain National Park with her one-year-old son, a hike-and-camp trip in Steamboat, a llama-pack trip in Silverton and a camping excursion to an island off of Maine, with all three children.
The thought of the work involved can be daunting for even the most seasoned outdoor junkies. Olsson remembers a conversation with a world-class mountaineer who had climbed some of the toughest peaks in the world. When the subject of camping with kids came up, he looked appalled.
“He said, ‘I would never do that!’” Olsson says.
Truth is, you can start camping with kids, even when they are just babies.
“I think camping with babies is great,” Olsson says. “They’re still really portable, and they’re happy sitting in the car seat or sleeping while you set up camp, and you can put them in the front carrier when hiking.”
Toddlers can be a different story, and probably the toughest age to handle in the outdoors. Olsson suggests a portable playpen for campground to keep them safe, as well as a portable seat or high chair. Car camping and shorter trips are more realistic for families with children ages 6 and younger, but older kids are capable of shorter backpacking trips.
Olsson swears by check lists, of which she has many in her book. They help parents make sure they’ve packed all the important things, such as s’mores ingredients or diapers.
“If you go with your college buddies, you can wing it, forget things and still survive – not so with families,” Olsson says.
Another idea: Camp with another family. That way, the children have playmates and the parents can share meals and supplies, taking some of the stress out of planning. For kids of all ages, time spent on outdoor excursions gets them away from video games, movies, television shows and computers.
“I believe in the importance of getting kids away from the screen and doing imaginative play. Screens are so pervasive and camping is the best way to get them unplugged,” Olsson says. “In the woods they invent things, stuff they wouldn’t do while in front of a TV.”
While your child might not be ready for a full-blown backpacking excursion (although that can be a great idea for kids in their teens and pre-teens), hikes are an ideal way to start them out, and the county doesn’t lack options.
Mary Ellen Gilliland, author of “The Vail Hiker,” says she started out her kids on short hikes as young as 4 years old. Today, all her children are outdoor lovers, and have passed on a passion for the mountains to their children.
“They learned to just crave the outdoors and love to be out there,” Gilliland says. “We did hikes all the time in the summer. We had so much fun hiking that I had to wean them off hiking 10 days before school. They didn’t want to stop.”
For kids age 9 and younger, Gilliland says to stick with shorter hikes – no more than an hour – that are rolling or relatively flat. Older kids can hike for up to three or four hours. And while adults might be motivated by the idea of reaching a destination or bagging that 14er, kids are not. Gilliland says that it’s important to keep kids occupied during the hike by incorporating lessons about the outdoors, teaching them to identify wildflowers, animal tracks, and including sensory experiences. Or, come up with a scavenger hunt or photo safari.
“Adults are very goal-oriented, whereas with children, to follow every line of distraction is fun,” Gilliland says.
Don’t forget to bring plenty of sunscreen, healthy snacks and water, along with warm clothing. Kids get cold faster and more easily than adults, so make sure to bring a lightly lined jacket, mittens and a hat.
Here are some hikes suitable for different ages:
Sylvan Lake – Located in Sylvan Lake State Park, the flat trek to the lake from the parking lot is 1.5 miles one way. This one, coming in at under an hour, is doable for kids as young as 4 or 5.
Two Elk – The abbreviated version of this hike is about three hours long and 2.8 miles one way. The kid-friendly version off of Vail Pass affords great views of the Gore Range. The hike goes to the third bridge of the trail.
“Kids love water,” Gilliland says. “Hikes like going to the Two Elk Bridge, where they can play by the bridge and throw stones, are perfect. Every little boy has a distant gene for throwing stones into the water. That’s the first thing they want to do.”
Martin Creek – Located outside of Minturn, this hike has great thrills for older children who can stay on the trail and not run around (part of the trail goes along a cliffside). The complete hike is 6.9 miles, but at 1.4 miles in, there is a side trail that leads to a perfect picnic spot and stunning mountain vistas.