The first rule of teaching trail etiquette to kids might be obvious, but it’s worth repeating: Be sure to follow the rules yourself. Whether you’re prepping your child to trot around at the Lair O’ the Bear or trek the 486-mile Colorado Trail, we have the chance to build the foundation of how youngsters behave on our favorite dirt walkways. Betsy Blakeslee, the facilities manager and education coordinator at The Nature Conservancy’s Carpenter Ranch in Hayden, coached us up on directing our kids to becoming stewards of the trail.
Rules of the Trail: At most trailheads, there is a posted set of rules and guidelines. Get used to stopping with your young companions to read through the information, check the maps, and answer any questions they might have.
Stop, Look, Listen, and Sniff: Encourage your children to stop and take in the sights, sounds, and smells of a mountain scene. As they become more mindful of the surroundings, they’ll also note how other people and animals are using the area.
Follow the Leader: No, really. If your kid is on a guided hike (or even just hiking with you), teach them to mind the directions of the adults on the trail. There is an obvious difference between safe adventuring and unruly kiddos.
Understand the Buffer Zone: Most people are out on the trails for the same reason: We love the outdoors. But not everyone has the same experience or objectives in mind. Point out instances where your child can help others to enjoy their trail time, like letting speedy hikers pass, staying quiet if they notice a hiker bird-watching, or saying “excuse me” if they’d like get by a meandering group.
Practice for the Future: One day, your child will be old enough to hike with friends, or another group, sans parental presence. When that day comes, you’ll need to know where and how to track them down if they’re not home by dinner. Set an example by leaving a note or sending a text with all the details of your plan (who you’re with, where you’re going, when you think you’ll be back), in case someone needs to get in touch with you. Explain to your kiddo it’s important to have a hiking buddy. These little lessons will give you a huge piece of mind in a few years.
The Manners of a Visitor: It may be common sense, but we are guests in nature. It’s up to us to teach kids the basic courtesies. Pack out food and trash. Don’t take anything except photos—yes, even a stick is a habitat for a bug. Don’t kick an ant hill. Dig a hole if you have to go number two. Stay on the trail (unless you are going number two). Give wildlife space. Don’t think a young animal is in grave danger because they are alone as mama is probably watching nearby. And last but not least: smile at other hikers.