As a child, I spent countless weeks over the course of my summers with my grandparents at their cabin in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. Without fail, each trip entailed at least one hike — my grandfather's favorite pastime.
There were moments, of course, when I nearly had to be forced to lace up my boots and come along. At the time, I thought spending a sunny summer afternoon hiking was the end of the world... little did I realize it was the beginning of seeing the world in a new light.
My grandfather passed away the year I graduated college, but our annual trip to hike his favorite pass remains a family tradition. And my husband and I are on a mission to honor his legacy by allowing hiking to mentor our kids the way it did us.
I hope the following life lessons sneak into their psyches.
When someone is being melodramatic, there's a colloquial idiom that describes them as making a mountain out of a molehill. Children are particularly adept at doing so, and that's without ever asking them to get near an actual mountain. Through hiking, we can teach our kids that it's OK to be afraid of new challenges or leaving our comfort zone... but if we never cobble together enough courage to at least try, we won't get anywhere. In facing our fears, we create the kind of forward momentum that carries us to new and exciting places we may never have found otherwise.
I will forever stand by the conviction that few life lessons are more valuable than learning a good work ethic, and hiking makes that lesson applicable in real-time for little ones. It takes sweat and endurance to make your way to your destination. If you're camping, your kids may feel the rub of rough bark on their fingers and the burn of weight on their little biceps as they collect fire wood. Hiking requires hard work, like most things worth doing. When they're standing over the sweeping vista of a scenic overlook or snuggled by a campfire under the stars, they'll know in their bones that good things come to those who work for them.
In the mind of a child, beauty springs from beauty. Flowers pop through the soil in carefully cultivated gardens. Snowflakes fall from ethereal white skies. They are inundated with the notion that darkness only breeds darkness and beauty fails to thrive where darkness does. One hike can shift that narrative in a child's mind, though. Gently overturn a log and let them see the kingdom of insects that inhabits the shadowy earth. Point out the wildflowers that break through cracks in hardened deserts that seemingly lack any other lushness. You can find beauty anywhere if you take the time to look.
More: Top Baby-Friendly Hikes
One thing my husband and I have struggled with often during our parenting journey is teaching our 6-year-old and 4-year-old that they don't always have to be entertained. They don't need a room full of people to be fulfilled. There couldn't be a better illustrator of this point than a quiet hike in a vast expanse of woods. Is it possible to get lonely hiking? Sure. Ask anyone who has tackled a solitary stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail, and I'm sure they'd tell you the lack of companionship is like a phantom pain you simply learn to live with. But therein lies the magic of hiking — loneliness while hiking gives you the room to feel all of the things you're wound up too tightly to set free anywhere else.
While many of us would like to think we were pretty self-sufficient growing up, there's no denying that children today are accustomed to instant gratification. Easy access. Multitasking gadgets galore. In the absence of those things, though, they'll realize that you can do a lot with what you've got... even when what you've got isn't a lot. You don't need a kitchen to make a delicious meal — you can whip up a true culinary treat with little more than a stick and an open fire. Ya dig?
One of the most humbling experiences you can have as a human being is to stand on the top of a mountain and look out over the panoramic vistas. It is there, in those moments, the vastness of the wild (and your relative smallness in it) hits you hard enough to take your breath away. Even if it takes years for your child to work their way up to a pinnacle like that, the mere act of hiking in Mother Nature fosters a reverence for her wildness — from being aware of her dangers to admiring the way she refuses to yield to any force, natural or man-made.
When I was a child, my 6-foot-5-inch grandfather towered over me and could outpace me in mere moments. But with each passing year, his steps became a bit more labored and our hikes would be punctuated by a familiar refrain: "Swale!" A term defined as a low-lying stretch of land, it had been adopted by my grandfather and his hiking buddies to signify when they needed to find a soft spot to sit for a spell. With my own children, it's easy to want them to speed up when they're lumbering along or to slow down when they run ahead with effortless spurts of energy I lack. But when I feel the urge to mandate their progress, I remember hiking with my grandfather and am filled with the comfort of knowing it's OK to pick your own pace. The destination will be there waiting no matter how fast (or slowly) you finish the journey.
This post is sponsored by Land Rover.
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