Over the past four months of travelling we’ve done plenty of short hikes with the whole family. Some hikes work out well, some don’t. We usually call our hikes “adventures” or “expeditions”, could be anything from a 1 hour climb up the closest hill, to a whole day expedition to Machu Picchu. No overnighting and tent stuff though.
Yesterday we had a really nice hike up to Saqsaywaman (pronounced “Sexy Woman” – I’m not kidding!), the remains of a massive fort/temple complex above the north side of Cusco, Peru. Really cool place, some of the walls have rocks the size of cars! Almost impossible to imagine how the heck they managed to put such impossibly huge rocks together, with perfect fit, more than 600 years ago, with no electricity or powered machines.
Since this was one of our best hikes so far we took a moment today to think about what made it successful and, in general, what we’ve learned about making hikes work with 4 small kids.
- Set the right expectations. We told the kids that Saqsaywaman is a fairly streneous hike up from central Cusco – plenty of stairs and steep walks, and we’ll get more tired than usual because of the high altitude (3400 meters). We told them this and turned it into a challenge – “the fort is right up there, do you see it? Let’s see if we can make it!”.
- Don’t hire a guide. Guides are boring for kids (at least most of the guides we’ve tried). I mean the type of guide who tries to tell you the history and significance of everything on the site. Instead, get maps and study the rough lay of the site beforehand. In this case I studied up on Saqsaywaman, knew the rough history of the place and the most interesting things to see, and told the kids only the most interesting stuff. “Here, right here, is where the conquistadors stormed the gate!” And small challenges such as “Guess which part of this wall was built by the Incas, and which part was built by the Spaniards later?”. Or “How do you think they moved these massive rocks?”.
- Make it a treasure hunt. “I’ve heard that there is a natural slide on the rocks somewhere around here, near a stone quarry. Can you find it?”. That turns the hike into an adventure!
- Let the kids lead. Once the “essential” parts of the site have been visited, let the kids lead the way. This often turns into a roleplaying game, where one of the kids (usually Dave) take on a full-fledged guide role, showing the way, keeping the family together, deciding when to take breaks, etc. Kids love taking on challenges such as “Looks like it is going to rain soon, let’s find a shelter!”
- Take turns leading the way. Usually it is best to let the slowest, most tired, or must grumpy kid (or adult…) lead the way. That not only makes it more fun for that person, it also automatically slows down the whole group to match the pace of the most tired person. Also, for some reason, being in front of a group is less tiring than trailing behind.
- Play games. “OK, we’re on a school field trip, who wants to be the teacher?” Someone takes on the role as teacher and tells everyone else to hold hands and walk in pairs. Fun! Of course, kids will naturally tend to play games anyway, but the trick is to encourage that, rather than hinder it. The most effective way to ruin a game is to be in a hurry, or to control the game too much, or to be stuck with a guide who has a fixed agenda and is just running his “standard program”.
- Take many short breaks. As soon as someone starts looking tired, start looking for a nice place to take a break. Especially when moving uphill. When climbing up to Saqsaywaman we stopped every 10 minutes or so for a 2 minute break. At lower altitudes we’d probably stop every 20 minutes or so.
- Bring plenty of snacks! Both good-for-you snacks like bread and fruit, and bribe-the-kids snacks like candy and cookies. This keeps them going, and makes them look forward to the next hike.
- Give the kids responsibility for their own stuff. In Cusco on the way to Saqsaywaman we stopped at a store and let Emma, Jenny, and David each choose one snack to buy and bring on the hike. They carried their own snack and decided how much to eat and when. We told them that if they eat it all now they won’t have any left on the way back. They all came up with different strategies for how to conserve (or not conserve) their snacks. Whether or not they succeed with that, they learn something. And there is less whining, since they are responsible for their own snacks. It’s fun to see trading and negotiation start happening between the kids when the snacks start running out :o)
- Have some kind of reward for reaching the destiniation. On Saqsaywaman, in addition to the snacks the kids bought themselves, we brought a pack of chocolate chip cookies and said that these are for when we reach the fort itself. While hiking, the kids pepped each other “look, there’s the fort, once we get up there we’ll open the pack of cookies!”. Cheap trick, I know, but it works like a charm :)
- Leave room for play. There are playgrounds all over the place, especially in nature, if you keep your eyes open. Kids will find them. Be observant, and when kids find something fun to play with make sure that the schedule has enough slack to be able to stop right here and now and let the kids play around for a while. At Saqsaywaman we found an awesome natural playground consisting of tunnels and natural slides eroded from the rocks (check out the pics below).
- Make sure everyone visits the bathroom even before going on the hike (whether or not they think they need it). While hiking, make sure you always have some kind of idea of where the next bathroom is. Of course, we could always use a bush or tree, but we try to avoid that whenever possible, to respect the other hikers in the area.
- Don’t be in a hurry. Have plenty of margin, especially when there is a deadline involved, such as a train that leaves at 08:00. Being in a hurry is a Big Fat No-No when moving around with kids. It’s worth the pain of waking everybody up early in the morning to get that extra bit of slack. Suddenly someone has to go to the bathroom, or we can’t find the right train platform, or someone gets lost. Being in a hurry not only increases the risk of making mistakes, it also ruins much of the fun. Most of the points on this list become difficult or impossible if we are in a hurry. The downside of having plenty of margin is that we often end up waiting (since we typically arrive to the train or whatever 15-20 minutes before we need to). But that’s not really a problem, extra time means more time to play around and socialize.
- Stuff to pack: sunscreen, protective clothes (cap, long sleeve shirts, etc), a few diapers, 1-2 bottles of water (depending on length of hike), some emergency-clothes for bathroom disasters, and some kind of rain protection (umbrella or jacket). Actually, that was the only thing we got wrong at Saqsaywaman – we didn’t bring rain gear (a calculated risk) so, inevitable, it started raining badly. Luckily that was after our tour of the site, while hiking home. We found shelter in a small natural cave, and a café on the way home, so we didn’t get all too wet. Once again that illustrates the importance of not being in a hurry.
- One backpack. When travelling (migrating from place A to place B) then the kids carry their own bags. But when hiking (moving from hotel A to cool place X and then back to A again) then we limit our total packing to one medium-sized backpack. One of us parents carries the backpack, the other carries Peter (when necessary). The one-backpack rule keeps us fairly light, and also allows the kids to run around freely without having to keep track of their own backpacks.
- Bring the baby bag for long hikes. Peter is only 1.5 yrs old so he doesn’t walk very far. And when he does walk far it usually isn’t in the direction we had intended. For short hikes we carry Peter on our shoulders. For long hikes (more than an hour) we bring the “baby bag”, perfect for carrying Peter on our backs. With him safe on my back that’s one less kid to keep track of :)
- Let kids carry cameras. We have two compact cameras, one fancy one (Canon S100) and one robust one. The robust one is an Olympus Tough, waterproof and shock proof. Emma in particular loves carrying it around and taking hundreds of pictures (most of them obscured by her own finger…). Not only does the camera keep her happy and observant, we sometimes get some nice pictures too, when she manages to get her finger out of the way :o)
- Have an exit plan. Sometimes things go wrong – someone gets hurt, or sick, or the hike just sucks for some reason. We try to always have an exit plan, such as “all of us get in a cab and go home”. It is important to design the exit plan in advance, because it is hard to think clearly when surrounded by screaming kids.
- Leave the iGadgets (iPhone/iPad) in the hotel room. Many of the “magical moments” happen when the kids have nothing to do, such as while taking a break, or stopping at a scenic viewpoint – that’s when they invent a really fun game, or go off and find the hidden playground, or start inventing stories. If the kids grab the iGadgets every time they aren’t being 100% stimulated then we miss the magical moments. So we save the iGadgets for the hotel room, or for long plane/train rides.
Whew, that was a pretty extensive list.
Well, anyway, this is what we’ve learned so far about exploring the world with small kids!
Oh, wait, most importantly we’ve learned that small children are more travel-compatible than we ever would have thought!