Think back to your earliest outdoor memories — those images that have stuck with you and encouraged you to keep heading out in the rain, snow or shine. They likely involve parents, grandparents, siblings or cousins. They introduced you to nature, educated you about the land and took you to far off places.
It’s time to pass on the gesture.
Gregory Miller, president of the American Hiking Society, talks about the group’s new Families on Foot Initiative, an effort to direct a bright spotlight on the importance families play in getting younger people outdoors.
What do the numbers look like for American families getting out for hikes? Are we seeing higher, lower, steady figures?
One point I’d like to really highlight is our expanded concept of ‘family’ on the trail. At American Hiking Society, we support the broadest possible interpretation of ‘family’ in our Families on Foot program. Youth (under 18 years) caregivers of all types — husband and wife, grandparents, same-sex couples, single parents and more should feel included, inspired and welcome to get out on the trail. The Outdoor Foundation reports that more than half of all married couples and those living with domestic partners are outdoor participants. The youngest generation got out to enjoy an outdoor recreation activity almost five billion times with an annual average of 99 outings. Introducing outdoor recreation early in life has a lasting effect and youth are mostly motivated to get outside by spending time with family and friends. Outdoor participation by children ages 6-12 increased, but participation among adolescents ages 13-17 has been flat since 2006. While the outdoor participation rate among adolescent boys ages 13-17 continues to rise, there is a reverse and disturbing trend for adolescent girls with the lowest participation rate since the Outdoor Foundation began in 2006. Hiking is one of the most popular and important gateway outdoor recreation activities and the Outdoor Foundation reports that participation in day hiking by all Americans ages 6-plus has increased by more than 15 percent since 2006.
Has the activity of family hiking changed in the past decade?
Eighty-five percent of all American families live in cities, and we must recognize the value of neighborhood parks and community trails to today’s hiking family. American Hiking Society is an active member of the Outdoors Alliance for Kids (OAK), and we are seeing more family hiking close to home, of shorter duration, and often linked as part of another family outing or activity like picnicking, a family vacation, etc. We’re also seeing many people gather in large multi-generational groups and then set out on the trail. It may not be the quiet, introspective saunter that many of us seek, but it is no less pleasurable or relevant for these intrepid new hikers. Finally, technology on the trail and the outdoor “selfie” is now a fact of life.
When it comes to smartphones, should families have their kids leave them at home, or encourage them to bring them along?
Technology in the outdoors is here to stay and I see that it serves us in four important ways: connectivity with others; navigation in the outdoors; safety; and knowledge about our surroundings. Smartphones offer a host of welcome knowledge-enhancing programs to navigate outdoors, geocache, identify plants and animals, and to bring the cultural history alive. Kids can also take photos on the trail and immediately share them through social media or texting with friends — how cool is that? Hiking is an avenue to a fun, meaningful adventure.
What are some other tips for families to help get kids outdoors?
While some people think their days of hiking and more active outdoor activities are on hold once they become parents (I know, as I have raised three kids), that is simply not the case. There are plenty of outdoor adventures ahead for both parents and children. If you are a parent or caregiver with young children or are new to hiking, spending time on the trail offers a world of opportunity. Your family will grow closer, get healthier, have fun outdoor experiences and make life-long family memories.
• Choose the right trail. Start with close-to-home options to maximize time outdoors and your ability to return to a fun outdoor spot again. The hike should best match the developmental age and ability of the children to ensure that they are smiling at the end of the hike.
• Have fun and be flexible. A rigid, hard-timed agenda does not make for a fun family hike generally. Kids are highly impulsive and react to stimuli, so prepare to go with the flow and adjust.
• Give the kids some control. Let them set the pace and make choices for exploratory stops (which should be frequent) as unexpected adventures are often the most fun and memorable.
• Bring snacks and plenty of fluids and take breaks. Kids lose energy and get thirsty more quickly than adults. Remember that.
• Dress yourself and children in layers — Small children get cold more quickly. Bright clothing is a good safety measure.
• Safety first. Hiking is one of the safest and most enjoyable recreational pursuits. The two most important factors I recommend to any parent are to know the trail conditions/challenge and understand and plan for the weather forecast. Also, every young hiker should have a whistle so that if they get separated they can find their parent or caregiver.
What can outdoor retailers and brands do to better encourage more families to get outdoors?
I’d say that the most important priority for outdoor retailers and brands is to redefine the outdoors as close to home, affordable and accessible as well as culturally relevant to all Americans. Let’s consider that for a moment, as it represents a fundamental shift in how the outdoor industry still looks at things. We know that by 2050, people of color in our nation will more than double, growing to 220 million or more, and we know that diversifying the outdoor community is critical to the future of America and our robust outdoor industry.
We all need to make the ‘nearby nature’ that families will find on their local trails and parks valued and important, and their best gateway to build those all-important human-nature connections. I’d also like to see every outdoor retailer post in their stores American Hiking’s Ten Essentials of Hiking (www.AmericanHiking.org/Resources/) to help them educate parents and kids and also to demystify the complexities of hiking — helping parents realize that with a bit of preparation any family can have a fun, affordable day in the great outdoors. That fun was made possible by good gear and knowledge — just what the outdoor retailer offers.