My friend Mel Kotur took his 12-year-old son, Danny, elk hunting on a weekend when it was so cold that their water bottles froze in their backpacks. Danny, Mel says, was “a good trouper” and didn’t say much as they plodded through mountain snows. It was only when he overheard his son talking to friends later that he realized how miserable the boy had been. Mel considers himself lucky, because Danny had already been on enough enjoyable hunts that the experience didn’t sour him. He knows another man whose son quit hunting after a grueling weekend.
In last month’s column, I explained how children are not just small versions of adults. However, one problem we caretakers face is that sometimes they act as if they are. Perhaps through fear of disapproval, an inability to communicate, or even unfamiliarity with the sensations of their own bodies, kids are often wilderness stoics-mutes in an environment where it would be healthier to be honest about discomfort than to bury it under a skin of courage.
The keys to their enjoyment outdoors are vigilance and communication. For example, kids seldom mention that their feet hurt until blisters have bubbled and broken. You must remember to ask them how they feel: Do your feet hurt? Are your hands too cold on the rod? Would you like to stop and take a break? Do you want to call it a day?
Comfort and happiness aren’t the only commodities at stake when we introduce our children to the outdoors. Safety is the first concern, and you must look out for different things as they pass from infancy through adolescence.
Babies and toddlers are the easiest children to shepherd safely outdoors, because they are incapable of moving fast enough to get into too much trouble on their own. However, because tears are their only way of communicating discomfort, it’s important to keep a watchful eye out for the maladies to which they are most susceptible: hypothermia, heat illness, altitude sickness, and especially infection. Children suffer approximately twice the number of infections as adults (earaches are common), and because they may not have built up antibodies, their reactions tend to be more severe. Also, their narrow respiratory passages prolong and exacerbate infections. Know what antibiotics your child may be allergic to and bring precautionary medications with you if you will be far from medical help.
Keep babies warm in tents by keeping their heads covered and insulating them from the cold ground with a closed-cell foam pad under their bodies. Alternately, when my kids were this age, we simply doubled over a normal sleeping bag and placed the child in the upper half.
Front carriers with head supports are recommended for infants. When a baby’s neck muscles are strong enough to support his head (at about 9 months), switch to a back carrier. In camp, keep toddlers under strict supervision. Bells on their clothing will help you find the reins when they stray.
Terrible 2s (and 3s and 4s)
Too heavy to carry, too weak to hike far, and not completely in control when nature calls, children from 2 to 4 are the most challenging group to take on fishing or camping trips. Parents whose children fall into this so-called grazing age, when they will pick up most anything that catches their fancy and put it in their mouths, should pack syrup of ipecac to induce vomiting in case children eat questionable mushrooms. (Because ipecac can produce unwanted side effects, forgo the treatment and simply get to a hospital if you can do so in a couple of hours.)
A curious nature leads kids to overturn stones and reach before they look; as a result, a significant percentage of snakebite and spider-bite victims are young. Once bitten, their smaller bodies put them at greater risk for succumbing to the toxic effects. Try to establish a safe play area for them, preferably in an open space. Most immportant, camp well back from lakes or rivers where they could accidentally drown if you dropped your guard for a minute.
The Early School Years
Kids come into their own as they approach school age, with both concentration and body strength advancing apace. This is a good age to start their outdoor education by teaching safety rules, such as Never put hands where eyes can’t see. Six- and 7-year-olds can keep up on day hikes of several miles, as long as they are permitted to rest frequently. Keep them between adults where trails pass through brushy areas where predators may lurk, or where if they strayed off the path a few yards they might have difficulty finding it again. Hedge your bets by teaching them the importance of staying put if they feel lost (see sidebar). Kids in this age group gulp food, and their small air passages can easily become blocked. Smooth, round pieces of food are slippery and can be difficult to dislodge even by someone trained in the Heimlich maneuver. Always cut hot dogs into small pieces, not round sections, and avoid offering kids small, round foods, like peanuts and grapes.
**Eight- to 12-Year-Olds **
Strong hikers, but still lacking the stamina of adults, this active age group will get its feet wet at every opportunity. To minimize blistering and keep them moving, you will have to pack an extra pair of shoes and many changes of socks. Older children can start backpacking, but keep the weight they carry to no more than 20 percent of their body weight. Teach them the basics of map-and-compass navigation and how to build a natural shelter, but don’t let them stray far enough away to need to use it.
As children pass through adolescence, their bodies become proportionally more like adults. But keep in mind that although your young athlete may be able to turn a double play that you can now perform only in your dreams, his body is still more prone to illnesses from exposure. Also, during growth spurts, early teens who may have proved themselves to be hardy companions may inexplicably tire during hikes they once took in stride.
The importance of communication and of not pushing your children-no matter what their ages-too hard in the pursuits you most enjoy cannot be overstated. Your kids will be the most cherished hunting and fishing partners you will ever have. How long they remain so is largely up to you.