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How Hard Is That Hike?

Hiking the Highline Trail in Glacier National Park. A teenager and young boy hold onto a rope on the trail. If you can't do an entire trail, try walking 30 minutes down the trail and 30 minutes back. (Photo by Nushin Huq)

By Nushin Huq

Between 2 Pines Magazine

When you're hiking with your family, it's important to pick trails that are the right level of difficulty for everyone, but often, determining which trails will work for your family isn't always easy.

Guidebooks and brochures usually divide hiking trails into three categories, easy, moderate and difficult. Those terms are subjective and it’s often difficult to determine whether a trail is doable or if you should pick another option.

Why does this matter? Because, sometimes the payoff of doing a more difficult trail is immense. For example, my favorite National Park guidebook lists Highline Trail in Glacier National Park as difficult (strenuous). It doesn’t matter how much of this 20 mile trail you walk, it is the most breathtaking scenery I have ever seen. Everyone should try and walk at least some of this trail for a truly spiritual experience.

On the other hand, if you go on a hike, especially one that is guided, and it’s too difficult for you and/or your children, you’ll end up disappointed and frustrated. It is especially true if you are signing up for a paid guided tour, like a cave tour in Wind Cave or a cliff dwelling tour at Mesa Verde National Park. You can’t just leave the tours (unlike a ranger-led hike). You might have to cajole a preschooler through a tour that’s too long and difficult for them.​

Our family includes everyone from teenagers to a tenacious, young elementary school child, plus two almost middle-aged parents. I’m not an elite athlete, but I’ve hiked enough and I have the endurance to go on pretty long hikes, though I’m slow. My teenager is a lot faster than us, but he also likes to take photos. If it’s a busy trail, I’ll let him go on ahead of us (as long as he stays on the trail). He usually stops along the way to take nature photos and we’ll catch up.

Our youngest is the most challenging. He gets tired and/or bored. Sometimes, a trail that is easy for me, is just plain boring for him and he won’t want to go any further. A difficult  trail, like the one at Lost Maples State Park in Texas, is easier to take him on because he enjoys scrambling up the rocks.

So before you decide which trail to hike, here are five tips to help you decide if a hike is right for you: 

  1. Talk to a ranger about the trail
    What makes the trail strenuous? Sometimes, a trail isn’t too long but requires you to climb stairs or a ladder. If that’s the case, how many steps is it? An uphill trail might have a lot of switchbacks or be steep. That might be a problem if you have knee issues. Also ask if it’s rocky or flat. An uphill climb can be even more difficult if the path is rocky instead of smooth. You know what your issues are, so the more info you get, the better decision you can make.

  2. Watch a video
    I dreamed of doing the Grinnell Glacier trail. It was listed in my guidebook as moderate, so I wasn’t sure if I could do it with my kids. There are Youtube videos of the hike. Seeing it helped me decide. I ended up taking my two older kids, while my husband took the younger one on a shorter hike. It was definitely more challenging than I would have thought, but I also knew what was coming up and new there wouldn’t be anything too crazy.

  3. Go on message boards, blogs, guidebooks
    Just like talking to a ranger, these resources will give you added information. Message boards and blogs also give you other people’s experiences, especially hiking on trails with kids. But remember, every child is different. Your child might not have the same tolerance as someone else’s child.

  4. Don’t hike the entire trail
    Remember, you can always turn around. If you get to a part that seems too difficult, then don’t go any further. Sometimes, you think you can do a 6 mile hike, but then realize, you can’t. We didn’t do all of the Highline Trail, but we loved the parts we did do.

  5. Take the proper tools
    If you carry too much, you’ll get really tired. These tips are for “short” hikes, not overnight hikes. I would take a light pack to carry water, a snack and poncho. Hats are good. Walking sticks for the entire family can really be a lifesaver (and a knee-saver). Finally, please invest in proper footwear. 

Hiking is all about enjoying the scenery and company during the journey as well as an interesting/ spectacular destination! Sometimes, you have to push yourself a little to achieve that. You also don’t want to risk injury or a full blown tantrum five miles away from your car (been there). Hopefully, these tips will help you decide your next hiking trip.

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