When Hiking with Little Kids Goes Very Wrong

If you know our family and have been following us for a while, you know we love a good hiking trail. I hike three to four times a week with my twin four-year-olds and my three-year-old. Usually, we hit the trail, splash through a creek and find a few cool bugs. Other times, there are meltdowns, skinned knees and mom gets lost. So, what do you do when it all goes wrong?

Recently, we hiked Burden Falls in Southern Illinois and it was a disaster. First fail, the falls were dry. The second fail, it was listed on the Alltrails app as easy, so my mom (bum knee and all) decided to go with us. Third, the only exit if you want to make a full loop is a super steep rocky cliff.   

Picture this! We hike 1.4 miles through rocky and uneven terrain while making our way down a steep elevation to get to the trail’s end. Upon arrival at the foot of the (non-existent) waterfall, we realize the only way to complete the loop would be to hoist all three kids and my mom up a massive pile of rocks to the top of the (non-existent) waterfall. In other words, consider us screwed. To top it all off, my husband had to get back to our RV for a conference call that he couldn’t blow off or attend from his phone.

At first, I wanted to sit down and cry. I knew the hike back out the way we came was long (for the kids and my mom) and straight up. I didn’t have a carrier for my littlest, and my mom’s knee was in bad shape at that point. Unfortunately, that was our only option. 

My husband hiked out through the rock wall, and we decided to trek back the way we came. He’d be back to get us in TWO hours. Yep. I can’t make this stuff up. 

Here’s what we learned and how we made it work.

Give your kids a job, something that makes them feel important.

My mom was a beast the entire time, but she did need help getting up the incline on the way back. The kids helped steady her. My oldest daughter found her the perfect walking stick. And they all held hands to help pull her up the hill. I know it sounds funny since they’re so young, but my mom said she wouldn’t have made it back without them. They were so proud of themselves. And it gave them something to focus on besides the long walk ahead of us all.    

Always hike prepared

When you head out for the day, never assume things will go as planned. Pack extra snacks, water and clothes regardless of the plan. You won’t regret it if you get stuck like we did. I threw in an extra water bottle and three apples that day, and those were the provisions that got us through the last half mile. As moms, we joke that snacks fix just about everything, but it is true! Also, download your trail map from the Alltrails app before you leave. It is a good thing to have, just in case.

Focus on the journey, not the end goal, and try to make it fun

We follow this motto on every trail because hiking with little kids is unpredictable. But it is especially important when things go wrong. As a mom, I want to push through and get where we need to be as fast as possible (or selfishly, get to that overlook!). But my kids never have that goal in mind. There are frogs to catch and rocks to throw in the stream. And that’s OK. They’ll remember that cool speckled toad more than they’ll remember the view. 

Much to my surprise, we made it safely back to the start of the trail together. We played in the pools that should have fed the waterfall. And we have a fun story to tell. Well, it is fun now, anyway. My kids still have no idea that we were in a difficult situation. They know we took a fun family hike together, and their dad had to go work in the middle of it. They remember the side-of-the-road barbecue place we found on the way home that served awesome chocolate cake. They still feel the pride of helping their grandmother hike up a “ginormous mountain.”

For most adults, this wouldn’t have been a challenging trail. We watched multiple people climb up the rock wall without issue, and of course, I wanted to try it, but I’m so glad I got to experience this with my kids. Bonus, I’m more aware of what they’re truly capable of when we work together.   

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