How to make your own trail

By Hap Wilson »Hap Wilson

If you can’t see a trail for the trees at your cottage, cut a private path

October 3rd, 2005

Unmade trail

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We took our son for a hike through Muskoka’s Torrance Barrens the day before he was born. He didn’t complain at all. I think he enjoyed the walk so much, he just had to get a better look at the world from the outside. Today, both of our children (they’re four and six) love hiking at our Temagami cabin, but that can’t be said of a lot of cottage kids, who’d rather hang out on the swim raft with their lake buddies than trudge through the hot, buggy woods with Mom and Dad. If you want to make hiking a family experience, how do you get reluctant young walkers into the spirit of the trail?

Think themes

You might start by encouraging their sense of exploration closer to familiar territory. Behind our cabin, my wife and I built a short “gnome” trail, about 100 metres long, replete with tiny caves, grottos, mystical “forests,” and “fairies,” which Christopher and Alexa investigate frequently. If you’ve got a bit of bush on your cottage property, you can easily create something similar, where kids can wander on their own and get drawn into natural discoveries. Outdoor treasure hunts on the gnome trail and other hiking spots near our place are big with our children, bigger, in fact, than the annual Easter egg hunt around the house. It takes a bit of planning and organization: We write down clues in the form of simple poems – “follow the outhouse trail, stop at the overturned pail”– each stop revealing a cache of goodies (yogurt-covered peanuts, dollar-store toys, etc.) and the next clue. Not only do our youngsters love the hunt for goodies, but the game brings them close to other treasures of the trail, such as nests, burrows, or a clump of wildflowers.

Make learning fun

Most kids are intrigued by nature and love learning the names of new plants and creatures. Playing i.d. games is a great way to keep them engaged, especially when feet begin to flag. Carry a selection of small, easy-to-use field guides so your children can match the flora and fauna along the trail with photos in the books and learn to recognize the “good” from the “bad” (no, don’t eat the blue bead lily berries that look an awful lot like blueberries). Some of the new birding guides come with CDs of actual birdcalls. Kids can imitate birdsongs they hear on their hikes, then pick out the “singers” on the CD in the car or at the cottage.

Be interactive

Challenge your kids to collect bits of “trail trash” – fallen bark, moss, feathers, small colourful stones, and old hornet’s nest material (a wonderful way to explain how nature works) – which can be turned into personalized masks and other crafts on a rainy day.

If the children are old enough to read a compass, topographic map, or even a GPS unit (and believe me, my six-year-old figures out this stuff quickly), cottage hikes can have even greater appeal. Let them pick a destination (a beaver pond, a lookout point) and set the route (but doublecheck it is accurate before you go too far).

Keep snacks and water nearby

Finally, remember that kids need their creature comforts: Snacks like gorp are essential, as are water and juice so they stay hydrated. Take bug jackets when it’s buggy, and foul weather gear just in case. Toddlers won’t walk far before wanting to be hoisted onto Mom’s or Pop’s shoulders; invest in a front or back carrier and you’ll both feel less tired. Older children run out of steam, too, so keep the hikes short – less than two hours; anything longer and they’ll rebel. After all, you’re trying to incite a desire for healthy adventure, not a riot.

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