Hiking the Driftless… With Kids

By Lydia Jones – 

Hiking the Driftless … With Kids

When I was pregnant with my first child, I had the sinking feeling that my days of hiking, adventure and outdoorsy living, were coming to a rapid and premature end. I couldn’t really wrap my head around the idea of doing much outdoors with a baby in tow, but I had the good luck to see two friends blow my concerns out of the water. They had two young children, and while pregnant with their third they sold everything and biked over 600 miles from Pennsylvania to North Carolina. Well, if they can do that surely I can venture on a two-mile hike with my kids! Sure enough, adventuring with youngsters is nothing to be scared of, but it is a lot more fun if you keep some basic things in mind. With flexibility and some practical preparation hiking with your kids at any age can be one of the most rewarding and bonding experiences in a family.

Here are some tips to make your hikes in the Driftless more enjoyable for everyone, big and small alike: 

1. Adjust your expectations
Maybe before kids you could jet out for a ten-miler at the state park before lunch, hit all your target vistas and have your picnic on the bluff right where you planned to. With kids, don’t set any lofty goals except to enjoy the time outside with your people. Don’t bite off more than you can chew or your hike will be memorable for all the wrong reasons!

2. Let them take the lead

Kids love the freedom to explore with the reassuring safety of your participation in the background. Let them set the pace, explore a side trail, or pick the picnic spot. As you allow them to take initiative you might be amazed by their enthusiasm, creativity and focus. I never noticed the tiny bubbles raindrops make in puddles until my toddler stopped and marveled at them. To me, these unplanned discoveries are one of the most rewarding parts of being in nature with my kids. 

3. Learn some ID

Children and adults alike can learn so much through observation and time in nature, but doing a little research as you go is always helpful. Brushing up on basic ID for trees, flowers, tracks or birds you might come across on your hike lets you share information with your kids that might last for a lifetime, and helps you be prepared for the endless barrage of questions (“Ooo, what’s that?”). If you aren’t sure where to start, many parks and facilities have hosted free nature walks for kids and adults alike and it can be a great way to learn from experienced naturalists. When these aren’t available, many places (the UW Arboretum in Madison for one) also have a visitors center or signage on and 
around trails sharing helpful information if you can take the time to stop and learn. It’s worth it.

4. Hydrate and Fuel up

This might seem obvious, but remember that all this exploration and excitement takes a lot of energy for little bodies. They will probably need a couple hearty snacks depending on the length of hike (sometimes for bribery if nothing else, let’s be honest…). I like to save special treats like packaged granola bars, candy or a sweetened electrolyte drink for times like this. It is certainly a pick-me-up if hangry feelings set in, and if the kids aren’t happy, nobody is. Healthy options can be portable too. Clementines, apples, hard cheese, meat sticks, nuts & seeds, dried fruit, crackers, peanut butter and hard-boiled eggs are all great options for a nutritious start to snack time, with sweet treats saved for later. Don’t forget to keep offering water, too. Sometimes kids get so busy, they don’t realize they’re hungry and thirsty. For that matter, they often forget they have to pee, too… always offer before you leave the house, but be prepared to appropriately take care of business in the woods if necessary!

5. Stay comfortable

Layering with kids is a bit of a learned skill as you experience hiking in a variety of conditions. It is especially important on winter hikes for obvious reasons. When our daughter was just a few months old we bundled her up for a winter hike in a fancy new baby backpack from a friend. We got hot and sweaty carrying her up a big hill, but were startled at the top to realize her little fingers and toes were frigid. We learned! Now on winter hikes we always keep the kids either tucked into our coats in a carrier, or well bundled and moving to generate their own heat. Of course it is just as important not to overheat as it is to keep frostbite at bay. Plan to stick to shaded trails on hot days, and take plenty of water breaks. One great feature of the Driftless is all the lakes. A rousing hike up a bluff at Devil’s Lake State Park, Governor Dodge State Park or many others can be rewarded with a much needed jump in the lake. Don’t forget that, though beautiful, hiking by lakes or wetlands often means it can get buggy. Bring a bug repellant you trust or some light layers you can cover up those exposed little limbs with. I find a gauzy swaddle draped loosely but thoroughly around arms and legs works well for infants you are carrying.

Packing List:

  • Snacks and water – Always pack more than you think you need
  • First aid kit – It doesn’t have to be elaborate. The placebo of a bandaid can work wonders on a disconsolate child (look online for comprehensive kit recommendations)
  • Layers as appropriate – Check the weather and think ahead.
  • Wet wipes and hand sanitizer – Stuff happens
  • Pocket knife – Someone always wants their apple cut up
  • Map – Especially if you are exploring a new area. These are often available at a visitors center or, if that’s not open, take a snapshot of a map at the trailhead or parking lot so you have a reference if necessary.

Local Hikes in the Driftless

I live in Madison, WI and we have been delighted with the great hikes in easy reach, even right in town at the UW Arboretum and local parks like Elvers Park.

Some of our other regional favorites include:

  • Gov. Dodge State Park
  • Wildcat Mountain State Park
  • Kickapoo Valley Reserve
  • Devil’s Lake State Park
  • Wyalusing State Park