10 Tips for Mixing Hiking and the Special Needs Child

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{our hike to Virgin Falls on the Cumberland Plateau, TN}

If you know our family at all, you are probably fully aware that we love the great outdoors. Hubby and I spent many of our pre-kid years hiking and camping in the wild blue yonder. We vowed that once we had children, we would also include them in our outdoor adventures. Why let parenthood slow us down? we frequently mused to ourselves. Once Little Man came along, we kept good on our promise and swept him away with us into the wild. He loved every moment of it. When Big Brother came along, we knew our entire world was about to change, including our outdoor activities. Still, we wanted to do the best we could in helping Big Brother fall in love with the natural world. And guess what? It’s been a great and wonderful adventure in and of itself–different, but great.

I’ve come up with some practical tips to share about hiking with a special needs child. Obviously, this list is geared towards our experience with Autism. Each child is unique with varied needs, but hopefully you will find some sort of inspiration within the list. The most important goal is to just have fun and to be creative in finding a way to bring a love of nature to your child.

1. Practice makes perfect

When Big Brother came home, we immediately started spending as much time as possible outside. He was used to a life within the orphanage, so we had much work to do! We started with exploration of textures in the backyard and then moved to short, easy walks at nearby parks. Big Brother was not used to walking any amount of distance, so it took time to build his leg muscles (and motivation) to want to walk for any length of time. We built our way up slowly and made it fun. By 6 months home, we were doing short easy hikes/walks at a nearby park. Gradually, he came to love the time outdoors. The peace and quiet of the woods turned out to be the best environment for him! Now he asks to go hiking all the time and can even be heard saying “fun hikng.”

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{exploring the back yard}

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{Big Brother jumping for joy on his first real hike in the Smoky Mountains}

2. Define and adjust your expectations

Once Big Brother joined our crew, we redefined what a “good hike” meant. Did it mean making it to a summit or a far-away waterfall? Or did it mean completing 30 minutes of a leisurely walk in the woods? The goal was to ensure everyone had a good time, not to find victory in the final destination.

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{almost to the top of Mount LeConte, before Big Brother came home}

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{a low-key stroll by a creek on Fiery Gizzard Trail,with Big Brother}

3. Location, location, location.

When in doubt, keep it short, simple and safe. Start out on trails that are flat and non-treacherous. Your child will be more enticed to roam free and you won’t be a nervous wreck. Make sure the weather will be pleasant to your child. Big Brother is unable to tolerate cold weather, so we try to only take very short strolls when the temperature dips down (which luckily for us in the south is not too often).

4. Be prepared.

Big Brother is obsessed with three things: balloons, swinging and food. You can imagine then, what we pack along for our hikes! Lots of balloons, a camping hammock and of course his favorite snacks.  Our Little Man has yet to complain about his brother’s special accommodations, and in fact, has taken full advantage of them as well.

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5. Be flexible.

This is obviously a no-brainer. Go with no expectations.

6. Bring your sense of humor.

You know the old saying, if we didn’t laugh, we’d cry! Sometimes you may just have to realize that your typical hike may look different to those who do not have special needs children. It’s not a time to worry about outsiders, it’s your time to have fun. If something doesn’t go as planned, laugh and let it go.

7. Know that the few first times may prove to be challenging.

On our first real hike, the temperature unexpectedly dropped and it began to snow. Don’t let the photo below fool you, we only made it half a mile before turning back. Big Brother was not happy, but it certainly didn’t damper his love for the outdoors. One (or two or three…) bad hike doesn’t mean failure. It merely means it’s time to brainstorm ideas about how the outdoors can be made fun for your little one. You will find a way.

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8. Take it slow and follow your child’s lead.

We started showing Big Brother pictures of places we could hike to in order to get his input. He really enjoyed looking at pictures and although he is limited verbally, he could still express interest or disinterest. Turns out he loves waterfalls and streams. We make sure to incorporate one in each hike.

9. Take advantage of the sensory-rich environment.

Let your kiddos get muddy and wet. Let them stuff their pockets full of dirt and rocks. Our little guys have started collecting items from each hike to make memory boxes. It makes the trip much more fun!

10. Relax, enjoy and take some pictures.

Remember, this is your time away from it all. Take a deep breath and enjoy the scenery and the time with your family. It doesn’t have to be perfect to be great.  Over time we have managed to help foster an appreciation and love for nature in our children, but we did it on their terms, not ours.

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To see more photos and details from our hikes, please visit our Take a Hike page. You can also visit Nature Rocks to find some inspiration for your next outdoor adventure. Now go take a hike!

22 thoughts on “10 Tips for Mixing Hiking and the Special Needs Child

  1. Patricia Ellis Herr

    What a great post! I wrote something similar that’ll be posted on Crown’s Better Books for Living website on April 3. Your tips are spot-on. I feel particularly strongly about number 8, following your child’s lead. If the kid feels like he/she’s in charge, then the hike is an empowering experience.

    So nice to see a blog about kids and hiking! Love your photos!

    Reply
  2. Cliffmama

    Nice post! Sometimes parents forget that hiking and outdoor adventures are supposed to be FUN! If it’s all about goals and pushing yourself, little people may get too intimidated. As I mentioned when I tweeted you, as the boys get a little older, they might enjoy geocaching. There are caches hidden EVERYWHERE around the world. Whenever we do a new hike or travel to new places, we look up some caches to find and our walks become treasure hunts.

    Reply
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  4. sjskill

    Due to bad knees, ankles, etc. I carefully plan out hikes. And I let my hubby take side trails and wait if it’s somewhere he wants to see and I can’t get there. I love your list. I also love loop hikes versus in and out on the same trail. Enjoy your SITS day.

    Reply
    1. Hiking Mama

      Thanks! When they were a bit younger, the hubby would carry one and I would carry the other. Now, both boys hike a lot on their own, but may ride in the backpacks from time to time. It definitely takes some time to build up the endurance to carry a large toddler/preschooler on your back if you are not used to it, but it’s not quite as hard as it looks!

      Reply
  5. Ranch Mama

    This is a great list! I love that your sweet boys get to be in a family that will help the heal through nature. It’s so important! I love your blog and am going to keep in touch. Congrats on your SITS feature!

    Reply

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