Some advice for children's first mountain days.
I was walking down from Stac Pollaidh with my daughter Aili and said "I wish I got to do stuff like this when I was a kid"
"Everyone says that!" Was the huffed response.
The only people who don't seem to say it are the people who got 'dragged out' on family walks, rain or shine. They're also the people who always seem to say that as soon as they were old enough, they ditched the hill walking, only to rediscover it years later! I've had that conversation so many times, so I've always tried to strike a middle ground with Aili - to take her out and give her those experiences and a love for the outdoors without her feeling dragged. It's not always easy but I think we're doing alright. I suppose the next few years will reveal the truth.
I've written this 5 minute blog, offering some advice for other people in a similar position. Not all the advice will be right for your children and you might hear things from other people who take a different approach. You know best what works for your little ones. But they do too. Sometimes more than us...
My first piece of advice is:
Don't push - or drag - them into achieving your goals.
Going into the mountains is supposed to be a freeing, empowering experience and what is empowering about being dragged up a mountain that you don't want to be on any more? If you want to get to the top of a certain mountain at all costs, do it in your own time. If there are little ones are with you, let this time be their time.
Set realistic goals.
Choosing the right route on the right mountain for them can make the difference between a sense of achievement in getting to the summit of a smaller mountain and feeling defeated and fed up half way through something like the Snowdon Horseshoe. Of course, your child might be up for days like that and if they are, brilliant - but I'd wager the vast majority aren't. If yours was, you probably wouldn't be reading this. What might seem like a small day for us could be quite an epic one for little legs. Shorter routes give more time for rest.
Don't rush them.
Give them plenty of time to rest and be curious. This obviously comes against the opposite issue of not getting anywhere at all! But the sole aim of the day shouldn't ever just be about getting to the summit at all costs. An early start will give some extra wiggle room for breaks.
Give them encouragement.
Let them know how well they are doing. We all appreciate a well done when we are trying hard at something and walking up mountains is as hard as it gets. Support and encouragement gives better results than a headlock.
Let them set their boundaries.
If they get half way up and say that they've had enough - respect it. If I was working as a mountain leader and a client said they were done, I wouldn't dream of trying to force them to finish the route. They're in charge. It's their day. The same goes for my daughter. Obviously there's a balance to be struck between encouragement to achieve something attainable and getting them in a headlock and making them do it, but respect it when they say "enough"
Acknowledge it when they're scared.
After the wild camp pictured below, we got up early to get to the summit of Y Garn. Just near the top, Aili sat down and sad "I've had enough and I'm scared" I probably could have persuaded her to get through it and maybe she'd have been happy at the top but maybe it would have pushed her in the other direction. As it was, it ended up being a trust exercise. She knows now she can always say "enough".
Know your own limits.
Plan walks that are well within your own abilities. If it's a test for you, imagine what it would be like for them. Children need to feel safe on the mountain and if you're having a bit of an epic, they'll feel it too. If you're stressed and they are upset, it's a slippery slope to panic and bad decisions. Taking anyone into the mountains is a big responsibility, not least a child. You want them to trust you to keep them safe. If they do, they'll be happier to come out again in the future.
Give them responsibilities.
I definitely recommend encouraging them to carry their own bag. You can choose some lightweight items for them to carry inside it, even if it's just a coat and some snacks. And let them choose something they feel is important to them or the walk. Why not get them to carry a spare map or a compass? Having ownership of some aspect of the day is so good for their confidence and ultimately, aren't we doing it for them to learn from and grow and gain confidence and self reliance? Children learn through adventure and I think that in the current age of digitally dominated childhoods, they risk losing some important life lessons that come with being outside and doing 'risky' things.
Fuel them up properly.
Enjoy a good breakfast. Drink and carry plenty of water. Carry a decent lunch. Eating the right food before and during the walk will make a huge difference to both success and enjoyment. Nuts, flapjacks, bananas are perfect mountain food. Never let them throw any food waste on the ground. Even fruit peel. Carry it up - carry it down. Reward hard work with their favourite treat but don't just let them only eat sweets and chocolate or they could crash and lose all their energy and enthusiasm. I see this with lots of adults when out in the mountains so kids will be no different.
Remember that their kit is often not as good as ours.
It is notoriously hard to get decent quality outdoor kit for young children. It would also be pretty expensive to constantly upgrade the same kit as they grow. Imagine having to buy a full set of outdoor clothing every year or two! I don't think many people would be able to afford it. So the trade off usually comes at the cost of quality. A walk for us, in our well fitting, well broken in boots and comfy clothes with quality waterproofs might feel very different to a child with boots that are too big/too small and trousers that are flying at half mast somewhere around the shin bone and waterproofs that are not very waterproof. If they're complaining that their feet hurt, there might well be a good reason! Help them succeed by:
Getting them a decent fleece that will be ok if it's a bit big.
Letting them pick a nice, warm hat.
Making sure they have gloves that fit.
Checking their shoes fit before you go walking!
Washing their waterproofs with Nikwax to keep them as effective as possible.
Help others by passing on kit your children have grown out of to friends or anyone else who is in the same situation and don't be afraid to accept stuff in return.
This is good for the environment and is a nice way to reduce the costs of growing children. It also helps people who may not be in a position to buy new kit of any quality every time their little one grows out of it. It's not just our own we want to empower.
Plan your walks according to the weather forecast.
If it's going to be raining all day and you know their kit isn't the best, maybe just do something else. If it's going to be blowing a hooley, can you choose a route that is sheltered from the wind? Again, if it's going to be scorching, pack extra suncream,sun hats and water. Maybe a route that has some woodland for shelter? Or a stream where you could use a filter. You should never really just have one option anyway. It's always helpful to have a plan B and even C for the best chance of having a great day
There are loads of apps that you could download such as plant/bird/animal ID and try to get the young ones to find one or two things throughout the day and reward them. Let them carry a camera of some kind to take photographs or maybe they could edit a video of the trip when they get home to keep a record of the adventure. How about even letting them check out the route on viewranger or another mapping app and trying to lead the way?
Perhaps the most important piece of advice I could give you is to simply:
Make it fun!
Otherwise, what is the point? You can do everything right by them with all that we've read about here but if it's not fun, they simply won't be interested. Why would they be?Remember when we were kids, and we would disappear all day, indulging in all kinds of play and adventure? That's what a mountain day should feel like to them. Magical. Going into the mountains is about having fun and adventure. Drama and laughs. Excitement and fear. Play with them. Use your imagination. Make a story out of it or even do truth or dare. I go with Aili onto Moel Tryfan and we play hide and seek among the rocks. Have races. Be a bit of a child yourself again, if only for a few hours. You never know, you might enjoy it!