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Tips for Connecting With Your Kid — and Your Imagination — on Trail

By Craig Romano

You’ll never see so much wildlife in your life until you take a hike with my 6-year-old son, Giovanni, and me. On a typical hike we’ll see red wolves, sea turtles, grizzly bears, jaguars, chimpanzees, snow leopards, black mambas, crocodiles, boa constrictors and caracals. And we’ll see them engaging in highly extraordinary behavior — doing things such as playing the bongos, banjo, mandolin and flute — or wrestling, kayaking, flying overhead and driving smart cars in circles.

Yep, on every hike you just never know what the two of us are going to spy. I really try hard to hone in on some native fauna — a great blue heron, Douglas squirrel, western toad, bald eagle or alligator lizard. But to my son, they are usually just not as exciting to see as the megafauna and exotics that he (and I) concoct in our minds as we make our way through the woods, up a ridge or along a shoreline. My son’s imagination, it appears, runs longer than the Pacific Crest and Appalachian trails combined.

Giovanni reading a map at Kalamalka Lake Provincial Park.
Giovanni reading a trail map. Photo by Craig Romano.

But, hallelujah, my son loves to hike, and I have taken him hiking (starting shortly after his birth) to some exciting places like Acadia National Park, Cape Hatteras National Seashore, Joshua Tree National Park, Manning Provincial Park, and our own Mount Rainier, Olympic and North Cascades national parks. But Giovanni is not the least bit interested in epic views, undeveloped coastlines and untrammeled wilderness areas. He’s interested in having fun and entertaining his wild imagination.

That imagination, when left to roam and stoked a little by Dad — along with treats, rewards and bribes (more on that later) — is the key, however, to getting him on the trail. To us older hikers, the motivation to go hiking is being outdoors, living healthy lifestyles, communing with nature and seeking breathtaking vistas. But for the younger set, much of that doesn’t matter — especially the part about pushing yourself to a viewpoint to stare out at a bunch of mountains and valleys. That may put you in a dilemma because you really want to take your kiddo on what’s ranked as one of the best darn hikes on the planet — but you might actually have more fun on that overlooked trail down the road.

To your budding hiker, the act of just hiking is more important than the destination. And with that premise, you’re almost guaranteed to enjoy the journey regardless of any scenic payoffs. Some of Giovanni’s and my best hiking times together have been on nearby wooded trails and quiet beaches. We get our exercise, all the benefits of being outside in nature and, most importantly, quality time together. I’m not distracted by having to reach a scenic goal, and more times than not, neither of us are distracted by loads of other people around —they’re over on the popular scenic trails.

Giovanni dressed up as a superhero while hiking.
Costumes area always a welcome addition to the trail. Photo by Craig Romano.

We’re out to have fun and spend time together — and being outside anywhere beats being inside or at some commercial venue anytime! And for a kid, it’s all about fun. So make that hike fun. With a little play, you’d be surprised how many miles I can dupe (I mean willingly get) my son to do. This February, at the ripe ol’ age of just turning 6, he did his first 10-mile hike — and it included 2,500 feet of elevation gain. We had to do a lot of “I spying” and there was the promise that there might be snow at trail’s end. We live in a north Sound community that sees only a couple of annual snow events, which makes playing in the snow a real treat to Giovanni. So go for the snow to get your kid on the go!

I’ve have gotten my young hiking companion to embrace hitting the trail — even looking forward to it — by utilizing some of the following tried-and-true methods as well. 

Superheroes to the rescue! My son loves superheroes, and he has quite a collection of costumes. He has hit the trail as Batman, Spiderman, Iron Man, Yoda and various other heroes and a few of his own making, too, by being creative with the costumes. He’s also a Pokémon fan and likes making up his own Pokémon to take on whatever challenge comes his way on the trail. 

When we are off fighting evil forces, the trail and the territory we are traversing instantly transform into a myriad of magical places. Years ago, my son came up with the concept of evil monkey monsters. They’re ubiquitous, from hiding in our house to being on every trail we hike. We often have to call in for reinforcements from Ninja Kitty (AKA our beloved Giuseppe kitty who now resides in kitty heaven) to send his army of cats to defeat the monsters. We have beaten them no matter the odds. There are no limits here to what your little hiker wants to imagine. Just let it flow and go. Although at times my constructed scenarios are reined in by my son, his seem to have no limit. 

Giovanni prepared to fight any oncoming monkey monsters on trail.
Photo courtesy Craig Romano.

We adapt our hikes to the seasons. During the winter holidays, we’ll hike through the Land of the Winter Warlock (from the old “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” Christmas special) and hope he grants us passage. We frequently play rounds of tag, including a particularly dark variety called Corona Tag. We have some other twisted takes on this time-honored game as well — but every round leads to the same insidious results. I get my son running on the trail, which leads to getting him to move faster, farther — or both.

While my son isn’t much for scenic views, he can be motived by other destination goals. He loves beaches — so hikes that end at a beach are always good choices. We allot time for some play once we get there. And if we are hiking a long stretch of beach, the promise of play after going for a while is what keeps him going. Playgrounds are good motivators too, and many state and county parks have great ones. A promise of some time on the playground after our hike keeps him focused.

Trails that incorporate intriguing things like old forts work well for keeping your little hiker chugging along. In all my times hiking the excellent trail system at Fort Flagler State Park, it wasn’t  until I took my son hiking there this past February that I finally explored every single — and I mean every single — bunker and ward in the sprawling complex. 

And finally there is the promise of a cup of hot chocolate (I’ll bring my camp stove and fire it up at the trailhead upon completion), cheeseburger, chocolate shake, enchilada or big chocolate chip cookie for a hike well done. Not only does my son look forward to these treats, he equates them with the special occasion of spending a long day being physically active. 

Of course, I hope that at some point my son will want to go hiking for the views and the other benefits that I get out of it. And hopefully that day will come soon. But when it does, I sure will miss fighting monkey monsters and seeing grizzly bears playing mandolins.

Giovanni prepares for a snowball fight on Table Mountain.
Snowball fight! Photo by Craig Romano.

Tips to get your kids stoked for the trail

Every child is different, of course, and some may surprise you and enjoy hiking for the same reasons you like to hit the trail. But if that is not the case, try some of these trail tricks.

  • Make it a game. Play tag, I spy, role play or numerous other games while hiking, and your child will become oblivious to all the walking you are doing. Make the hike fun, and they won’t want to quit.
  • Fuel their imagination. To a child, the local city park can become a whole other universe. Create alternative universes while on trail, and let your child’s imagination run free and wild.
  • Take time to play. Look for destinations along the way that will help motivate your kid to move on — a beach, a place to do a little scrambling, old (make them haunted) structures and relics to explore.
  • Take along a favorite toy. Allow your child to pack some favorite stuffed animals or other cherished charms. And then integrate the stuffed animal’s experience into the hike. Or use the water pistol to fight swamp creatures.
  • Pack or promise treats. Pack some special foods for along the way and break them out after certain milestones or when a destination is reached. Likewise, a promise for a stop at your kid’s favorite restaurant post-hike is a great incentive as well.

Craig Romano is a guidebook author,

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of Washington Trails Magazine. Support trails as a member of WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.