As you may remember (or maybe not; it’s been a while), my relationship with hiking has been a mixed bag since I had children. While the image of scaling mountains with a toddler strapped on your back seems very wholesome and appealing (to me anyway), in reality it, well. It looks more like this (see 2011).

But good news! Last year, we went hiking. A lot. We signed up for a local hiking challenge that required 12 hikes over the course of the summer and, whether it was the chance to compete for something or whether they were actually big enough to like hiking, we did it. (This one. I recommend it, local folks. It’s fun.) The kids already have started asking about the challenge again this year, AND I’ve taken them on one successful hike this season independently, so I figure this heady level of success makes me an expert on children’s hiking. Please, let me share my knowledge with you. No one else cares.

1) Harder, not longer. The worst, whiniest hikes were the ones that were gentle meanders because those? Were boring. Steps so steep they required stabilizing iron rungs? Yes. Borderline rock climbing? Yes. Vertical descents made of nightmares and maternal heart attacks? Yes. Long slow switchbacks that allow you to breathe while they give you a chance to take in the view and enjoy the day? OH GOD THIS IS SOOO HAAAARD. I’M BOOORRRRED. ARE WE DOOONE YEEEET? I’M HUUUUNGRRRRYY. So my advice is to pick your mountain, find the shortest, most brutal way to the top, and go for it. Your quads may not thank you, but your sanity will.

2) Talk some trash. After you’ve selected your trail of torture, make you mention to your children that you’re pretty sure they can’t handle it. Are they feeling strong enough? Really? This is going to be really hard. Are their muscles big enough? Really? Can you show me? Hmmm….I don’t know. Maybe we should pick another trail, this one might be too hard… and on and on. If your children have even the tiniest bit of the competitive spirit that mine do, they will eat this up with a spoon and throw it back in classic I’LL SHOW YOU style. (We are a completely functional family, I swear.)

3) Don’t make them carry anything. This runs contrary to my usually rock solid parenting rule of Ye Shalt Carry Thine Own Crap. You know those parents carrying their kids’ backpacks into school? Yeah. That’s not me. You want it, you carry it. Momma ain’t no pack mule. But…in this case, it works better to leave them backpack-free. This makes it easier for them to scamper through the woods without getting their backpack caught on trees and also (critical when you are climbing rock walls, see #1) helps keep their center of balance where they expect it to be.  It also prevents them from stopping every 13 seconds to drink from their fun new water bottle. Which reminds me…

4) Each kid gets their own water bottle. Obvious, I know, but something you may ponder skipping once you realize you are going to be carrying all that water. Don’t. To save on weight, sometimes if it’s a short hike I don’t bring a separate bottle for me and just drink alternately from theirs (sidenote: I am not a germaphobe). They don’t at all mind sharing with me or Michael but with each other? Oh ho ho. No.

5) Make a game of finding trail markers. Obviously, if you are taking small children in the woods, staying on the trail is a minor concern. While not getting lost is the number one reason why this is important, we also talk about the lesser reasons: to avoid stepping on plants, so we don’t scare or hurt animals, so we don’t accidentally make a new trail to confuse people, etc. Anyway, we find this easier to do if they think “finding the blue marks” is some great scavenger hunt created just for them. Feel free to use some feigned idiocy around this concept during low points, too. “Oh, you bumped your knee? I’m sorry. Hey, which way are we supposed to go? Do you see a blue mark? I can’t find it. Oh silly me! It was right there. Let’s go.”

6) Keep band-aids in your bag. One hike last year was pretty much at the kids’ maximum ability. Covering 500 or so vertical feet in two miles round trip, it is a trail that most adults consider pretty moderate, but it is challenging for those with shorter legs. By the time we were coming down the mountain both kids were pooped and, as a result, careless. They both had minor spills that resulted in slightly bloody scrapes. Notice my wording there? “Minor,” “slightly,” and “scrapes”? Apparently it didn’t feel that way to the overtired sufferers of these wounds, who howled like they had lost one of their smaller appendages. In the midst of the fracas we discovered that we forgot to bring band-aids. Cue a whole new round of woebegone wailing. Everyone got over their boo-boos within five minutes but the scarring left by our lack of preparedness lives on. From then on both kids checked before every hike to make sure we had band-aids and that was the very first thing Annabel asked this year when I pulled out the pack. “Did you check to see if there are band-aids in there? Make sure you pack band-aids!” So. Band-aids. Bring them. Also, learn to say “It’s just a little blood. You’re fine” in a totally nonchalant way.

7) Bring a friend. Most commonly uttered refrain when hiking with my children: “Keep going, guys! Good job! Not much further now!” Most commonly uttered refrain when hiking with my children and a friend of my children: “Wait up, guys! I said hold up! Fine, if you can’t wait for me than at least make sure your brother doesn’t run off the mountain, okay? Hello? FIND THE BLUE MARKS!”

8) Put chocolate in the trail mix. Trust me.