Getting kids hooked on outdoor recreation helps them grow to be physically active. Hiking and canoeing are sports they can start as preschoolers and enjoy for a lifetime.
For small children, don't set lofty goals like climbing to the top of a mountain. Begin gradually with a short hike to collect different kinds of leaves or a canoe ride to spot turtles and other aquatic life. Be flexible about your plans, and let your child's curiosity and tolerance be your guide.
Children can begin hiking adventures as soon as they can walk or earlier if carried in a baby backpack. Hiking strengthens the legs, the heart, and the lungs. It provides a fun form of fitness for the whole family.
For short legs, take short hikes in parks or on nature trails with relatively flat terrain. With older kids or teens, you can head to the hills and count up the miles.
Plan hikes with exciting destinations—a panoramic view, a waterfall, or a lake for swimming. Pre-teens and teens can take part in planning the trip. Let them choose a destination, map out a safe route, and help pack the necessary supplies.
- Never walk alone.
- Let someone at home know your hike plans in advance.
- Stay together as a group, hike at the pace of slower walkers. If older children want to walk faster than younger ones, designate an easy-to-find meeting spot.
- Know your route. Follow a map or ask a forest ranger about the trail.
- Don't run on rocky or steep trails.
- Step around or over rocks and roots whenever possible.
- Stay on the trail to limit damage to nature and avoid poison ivy, poison oak, and ticks.
- Bring plenty of snacks and fluids, and don't wait until you feel thirsty to drink.
- Don't drink from mountain streams, which may be contaminated with infectious organisms.
- Take frequent rests—at least 5 minutes every half hour for novices.
- Be prepared for bad weather, temperature changes, or a longer trip than expected. Bring extra clothes, food, and water.
- Remember the sunscreen
Younger children can enjoy the ride in the canoe. As children get older, they can start paddling, which builds upper body strength. Be sure to select paddles that are the appropriate length and weight.
For stability and room, pick a long, flat-bottomed boat. Children can sit in the center or, if small, in the bow in front of an adult. When they start to paddle, they can rotate between the bow and stern to learn how to propel and steer the boat.
In an open canoe, you will want to protect your belongings. Use a dry bag for food, a first-aid kit, and extra layers of clothes. Waterproof packs that float are also available.
Start with short outings on quiet water—small lakes, ponds, or slow-moving rivers. Older, more experienced children, can try rivers with stronger currents or even white water.
Plan to stop to picnic and give everyone a chance to stretch their legs. Choose a spot where you can safely climb in and out of the boat.
- Wear a personal flotation device (PFD) of the proper size—infant, child-small, child-medium, or adult. Avoid orange horse collar styles, which can be hot and uncomfortable.
- Learn how to swim or have experience floating in a PFD.
- Learn how to paddle and do water rescues.
- Stay low and hold onto the upper edges of the boat's sides when getting in or out of the canoe.
- Children in the middle should sit on the bottom of the boat using seat cushions that double as back-up flotation devices.
- Don't suddenly shift from one side of the canoe to the other.
- Know your route—the direction of the current, places to put in and park, dams, rapids, and other hazards. Let someone at home know of your plans in advance.
- If wind or waves are strong, kneel instead of sitting on the seats when paddling.
- Check weather forecasts before heading out. If caught in a storm, get to shore as quickly as possible.
- Bring extra rope for tying up on shore or rescues.
- Begin river excursions heading upstream, so the return trip—when you're more tired—will be easier. For other types of excursion begin by heading into the wind, if possible, for the same reason.
- Anyone canoeing should not consume alcohol or any other substance that could impair alertness or function.
What to Wear
For any outdoor activity, wear multiple layers like short-sleeved shirts, sweaters, and jackets, which can easily be peeled off or added. Avoid pure cotton, which can make you cold and miserable when wet. Cotton blends, wool, and fleece provide better insulation.
Hot and Cold
Keep in mind that children overheat and cool down faster than adults. Also remember a child carried in a backpack or sitting on the bottom of a canoe is likely to be colder than hikers or paddlers.
Bring along rain gear just in case, and wear a hat with a brim to protect against sun and bugs. Sunglasses with UV protection are also a good idea around water and at high altitudes.
For hiking, wear walking shoes or lightweight hiking boots that have plenty of room for the toes. Break in new boots at home before venturing out on a hike. Wear 2 pairs of socks to help prevent blisters.
For canoeing, wear sport sandals or water shoes to protect against sharp rocks or broken glass.
What to Bring Along
- Plenty of water—Bring at least a quart per person for a four-hour trip, and more on a hot day. Let each child carry their own water. Fanny packs with water bottles are convenient.
- Snacks/lunch—Choose compact food like fruit, cheese, and granola bars. Granola, oats, raisins, and peanuts alone or mixed together are a nutritious option.
- Magnifying glass, bug box, binoculars, and guidebooks for nature watching
- Tissues or toilet paper
- Sunscreen (at least SPF 30)
- Insect repellent—For children, use repellents with DEET concentrations no greater than 30%. Do not use in children younger than 2 months old.
- First-aid kit with moleskin, bandages, gauze dressing, adhesive tape, compression bandages, safety pins, tweezers, non-aspirin pain relievers, anti-diarrheal tablets, and allergy medication, if appropriate
- Camping knife, flashlight, and matches
- Extra clothes if your child gets wet or was sweating
Choosing an insect repellent for your child. Healthy Children—American Academy of Pediatrics website. Available at http://www.healthychildren.org/English/safety-prevention/at-play/pages/Insect-Repellents.aspx. Updated March 1, 2017. Accessed October 2, 2017.
Swimming safely in lakes, rivers, and streams. American Red Cross website. Available at http://www.redcross.org/images/MEDIA_CustomProductCatalog/m4240225_LakesRivers.pdf. Published 2010. Accessed October 2, 2017.
Sunscreen FAQs. American Academy of Dermatology website. Available at: https://www.aad.org/media-resources/stats-and-facts/prevention-and-care/sunscreen-faqs. Accessed October 2, 2017.
Top 10 safety tips. American Canoe Association website. Available at http://www.americancanoe.org/?page=Top_10. Accessed October 2, 2017.
Last reviewed September 2017 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Michael Woods, MD