JUAN MELLI / Johnsonburg Swamp Preserve

My son was seven the summer we took a backpacking trip to the Grand Canyon. After a long day of hiking almost 5,000 vertical feet to the canyon floor, he found a nondescript rock at our campsite and asked if we could bring it home to mom.

Me and my sore shoulders had an immediate thought:  no way were we hauling a dumb rock nearly a mile uphill. I decided to approach my answer as an opportunity to discuss Leave No Trace principles and explained that “we leave only footprints and take only pictures – not even rocks.” This backfired badly; he cried.

As I reflected further, it dawned on me that while I was captivated by the grandeur and scale of this world wonder, my son was experiencing our hike through a completely different lens and appreciating different things. He was impressed by a simple rock and wanted to share it with mom.

Like parenting in general, hiking with kids can be extremely rewarding or frustrating, and it will probably be a bit of both.

Based on years of trial and error I’ve learned a few tricks to make hiking with kids a better experience:

Select an appropriate hike…

Start small and work your way up. Find hikes with a manageable length and elevation gain for their experience and fitness. Get a sense of their level of interest and patience and find hikes to match.

…But don’t be afraid to challenge them

Your kids are probably capable of more than you give them credit for. Like you would in any other part of life, give them the ability to grow by experiencing new challenges and letting them take calculated risks.

JUAN MELLI / Winter hike on Mount Tammany

You don’t have to go far to find the right hike

In New Jersey, we’re fortunate to have so many great options to share nature with our kids. In fact, no other state in the continental U.S. has a higher percentage of land dedicated to parks and wildlife. From sandy strolls in the Pine Barrens to rugged climbs along the Appalachian Trail—and everything in between—our area provides a fantastic variety of options to enjoy nature.

The Nature Conservancy has two great hiking locations in northern New Jersey, with a variety of trail difficulty levels, and I’ve tackled both with my kids:

  • Johnsonburg Swamp Preserve – one of the most species-rich areas of New Jersey with an impressive view from rock outcrops over the glacier-formed Mud Pond.
  • High Mountain Park Preserve – the largest tract of forested land east of the Highlands, with the highest mountain on the east coast (south of Maine) with a view of the ocean.

Think like a kid

The greatest gift I’ve received from hiking with my kids was experiencing nature in a new way by learning to appreciate things through their eyes.

On an overnight backpacking trip with my son on the Appalachian Trail, I feared that our experience would be ruined when it started raining overnight. We were soaked and had several more miles to walk through mud and pouring rain.

To my pleasant surprise, my son had a blast because – of course – kids love playing in the rain. In fact, it was hard to make progress because he kept stopping every few feet to observe and play with the dozens of bright, red-spotted newts that were drawn out by the weather.

Make it fun

Look for hikes with features that interest kids like boulders to climb, bridges to cross or a pond full of turtles. Some hikes to consider are the Pochuck Boardwalk section of the Appalachian Trail, Tripod Rock at Pyramid Mountain Natural Historic Area, Van Slyke Castle at Ramapo Mountain State Forest, the Summit Trail at High Mountain Park Preserve or the Fairy Trail at South Mountain Reservation.

JUAN MELLI / Posing at Tripod Rock

Snacks work

Whether you call it motivation or bribery, every parent knows that snacks work – and hiking is no exception. Make your kids part of the snack-packing process. Ask them what they want to bring. (Pro-tip: if you want to allow only healthy snacks, give the illusion of choice by providing several pre-approved options to choose from).

For my kids, I’ll allow almost anything that gets them off their screens and excited about going outdoors. On our backpacking trips, a promise of s’mores works every time.

Make it educational

With a little bit of research, you can learn to spot the clues that nature provides about history and geology. For example, you could point out how the long parallel cuts in the rock (striations) were carved by glaciers as they receded and carried rocks that scratched the surface. Ask the kids to point in which direction they think the glaciers moved and how that motion might have carved the mountains around them. Have them imagine how where they’re standing may have once been covered in a half-mile-thick sheet of ice and in which ways the world must have looked differently before and after it melted.

JUAN MELLI / Glacial striations in Wawayanda State Park

Wear sunscreen

Also, wear a wide-brimmed hat, long sleeves and pants to protect the skin – with the added benefit of protection from poison ivy, thorns, and ticks (don’t forget to do a tick check after each hike).

Don’t stress about gear

Kids are expensive enough as it is. Don’t let the idea that you need to spend money on hiking gear stop you from getting outside. You don’t need any of that, and specifically, you don’t need boots. Remember that hiking is just walking. Whatever your kids wear for gym class or any sport will work just fine for a walk in the woods.

Give them space and time to grow and appreciate nature at their own pace

It’s obvious to me now, but what has had the greatest impact on how I enjoy time in nature with my kids was once I truly understood that we valued different aspects of our hikes. I enjoy the views, the exercise and solitude; they enjoy the rocks, the s’mores and salamanders. We don’t have to like the same things, and that’s okay.

But over time, it’s been extremely rewarding to see them learn, mature and develop a broader and deeper appreciation for nature.

One weekend last summer, we went backpacking with both of my kids in Harriman State Park. Just after finishing dinner, as the sun was about to set, my younger son pointed at a nearby ridge just above us and asked: “Dad – should we go sit up there and watch the sunset?”

And together, we did.

JUAN MELLI / Sunset in Harriman State Park

Juan Melli is a volunteer trail maintainer and serves on the boards of the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference and Team Wilderness. He is NOLS-certified in Wilderness First Aid, is an amateur nature photographer, and runs the hiking website Take a Hike!

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Top 10 Family-Friendly Nature Adventures in New Jersey

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