Getting kids outside is one of my biggest passions and I believe that every kid – no matter their ability – should have the opportunity to get on the trail. This is not only possible, but fun! It just requires a little extra planning and preparation. Always discuss with your child’s medical provider before exposing them to any new activity that may impact their health. With help from some inspiring Hike It Baby parents I’ve put together this list of tips for getting children with special needs hiking!
1. Always, always, always pay attention to your child and know their limits. When you’re just starting out is not the time to push yourself.
2. Choose your trail wisely! Even if you’re anxious to get your child out, start small. Go somewhere familiar. Do you have a favorite place that you used to go before you had kiddos? Go there. The more comfortable you are the more comfortable they’ll be.
If you have a child who uses a wheelchair (leg braces, something to help their mobility) you will want to go somewhere that has ADA accessibility, paved trails, and few hills. If you don’t know anywhere ask around in your local HIB group for places that are good for children with limited mobility. Once you get the hang of taking your child out you can work your way up to more challenging hikes. It’s always ok to drive by the trail and check it out before you actually go hiking there.
If you’re going somewhere with limited accessibility and your child is younger (or your feeling strong) get a good carrier. This will greatly increase the distance you can cover and will give your kid great view.
3. Don’t worry too much about distance – just give yourself time to get used to hiking, work out any issues that may come up, and physically get stronger.
One mom suggested starting with the zoo “and call it a ‘zoo hike.’ Allow the family a year or two of really easy ‘hikes’ (and make sure to call them ‘hikes’ and celebrate what great hikers they are) so that everyone in the hiking party feels successful, accomplished, and that they *are* capable of being a great hiker. As they master the short and easy expeditions, explore more difficult situations. “Without a foundation of confidence and love of the outdoors, they may agree to go on hikes because others want them to rather than going because they genuinely want to.” – Jennifer Dotson
4. In your local HIB group look for a hike that’s geared towards parents of children with special needs! It takes the pressure of finding a trail off and it gives you an awesome support group! Of course, every branch may not have a hike like this so feel free to keep an eye open for hikes you want to go on and email the leads to see if it would be good for you and your kiddo.
5. Go slowly – it’s not a race. I always used to tell my students that the slower they go the more they’ll see so you might see some pretty cool stuff when you’re moving slowly and really paying attention.
6. Be prepared. Even if you’re planning a short hike, bring plenty of water, snacks, and appropriate clothing. Nothing ruins a hike like being thirsty, hungry, or cold! Snacks are always helpful when managing kids on the trail so pack plenty of their favorites.
Think through the day and everything you could need – One mom said that the welcoming circle is especially hard for her child so she makes sure to have her phone handy with a favorite app or calming song. Her child is unable to eat so she has a book for snack time…little things like that will go a long way in making the whole experience more pleasant.
Of course, what you need will depend on your child and their needs. I heard from one mom whose son is on oxygen and she has to be sure to anticipate how much he will need (adjusting for higher elevations and different respiratory rates). Another is to be sure to bring the case for her sons hearing aids so she has somewhere safe to store them when he gets sweaty.
7. Be patient & flexible. Being prepared will go a long way in making the day smooth and fun, but things don’t always go as planned and that’s ok. The important thing is that you don’t let a bad experience prevent you from trying again. Just like anything the more you do it the more you learn and the better you’ll be. One mama pointed out that even if the hike is short and slow you’re still getting your child outside and helping to educate your community about children with special needs and that will lead to more accepting individuals.
8. Celebrate small successes! Did you leave the house on a day when you otherwise may have been tempted to stay inside all day? Great! Even if you didn’t log a big hike just getting out there is important. There will be challenges that come with hiking with a child with special needs, but the rewards are plenty! Everyone said that HIB moms and dads were inclusive and accommodating of their needs. Many mentioned that taking their child hiking gave them increased confidence to go out other places and do more with their child.
9. Just get out there. It’s easy to get so bogged down with thoughts (what you’ll need, what might go wrong, what people might be like) that you don’t get out, but you don’t have to figure everything out. You’ll learn as you go and the more you hike the easier it will be. Brandi, a branch lead for Portland who leads hikes for children with special needs, has this parting advice. “Don’t hesitate…get outside and on the trail because you and your family will be so glad you did! I so wish I would have joined HIB 4 years ago when I was isolated and lonely with my special needs infant!”
Get inspired! Check out Lindsay’s story about hiking in Colorado with her son.
Rosie is an environmental educator turned stay-at-home mama. She and her family call Oregon home where they enjoy hiking, camping, making stuff, and fixing up their house – all with a toddler in tow. Rosie blogs about all these adventures and more at www.peonyandpine.com.