Cross-Country Hiking with Children – Conquering the Geography of the Unknown
Typical Davy Crockett stuff – discovering new territories. We conquered the hills and dales of a Scottish island without so much as a trail on the ground – just a compass, a map and a solid appetite for adventure. John Muir would have been proud, he the Scottish-born naturalist who hunted for bird nests as a wild boy. While we didn’t hunt anything at all, we were definitely looking forward to a new backcountry type of experience. Cross-country hiking.
Except cross-country hiking (or walking) comes with its own set of challenges that we rarely encounter in places where trail-walking is the norm. Think about it. Finding your way in the wild ain’t for the faint-hearted. Stream crossings, uneven terrain, dense vegetation, watery holes – it’s all good fun! More seriously, what makes you decide which route’s the best, or the shortest or the easiest? How do you guesstimate distances and travel time?
All these questions matter for any off-trail hike but they matter even more when you have children in the mix. Obviously, you want them to have an enjoyable experience. What’s the point of taking kids outdoors if it’s not to inspire them to come back for more? Therefore your goal is simple – no unnecessary hardships, no inadequate gear, no wrong compass readings. No fudging. Just be ready.
The good news is, common sense and a short list of essentials go a long way in making the experience a success. On a recent trip to Scotland we crossed an almost-desert island with my girls, ages 7 and 9, and navigated 8 miles across moors and hills to a Viking village on the other side of the island. Though we did get slightly sidetracked, my girls learned a lot in terms of where to put their feet, gauging how wet a terrain is by its color and texture, or where to cross a stream. I’d go as far as saying the experience was educational in the sense that we met new challenges and learned to overcome them.
Here is what I learned along the way and what can help you pull off your own Davy Crockett trip.
What You Need to Navigate:
- Topo map: the first navigational tool you need is a detailed topo map of the area you’re planning on exploring. We had a 1/25,000 laminated topo map of the island with us and benefited from a read-through of the map by locals before the hike. Now, hiking maps are usually drawn on a 1/50,000 scale and that’s good enough on trails but for cross-country hiking in remote areas, a 1/25,000 scale is recommended. You want to see the contours and waterways as precisely as possible. Since you’ll need to compare landscape features with the map regularly, a large paper map will be a lot easier to use than the small screen of a GPS. However if you can laminate the map, this will prove very useful in case it gets wet. As we all know, rain happens! To get started on maps, you can browse this list of free map resources across the world and see if you find the area you’re looking for. Otherwise head to your local rangers or park office and ask them for advice.
- Compass: an old-fashioned compass and the ability to use it are the perfect additions to a good topo map. My father is the compass expert in the family for having years of bushwhacking experience in the South Pacific so we had him be Master of the Compass. About compass readings, I recently read something useful in Outside magazine. To avoid anything metallic or magnetic interfering with the needle, get used to reading the compass away from cell phones, digital cameras or under-wired bras. They could throw off the reading.
- GPS: a GPS can’t be used as a single navigational tool in remote areas but you can totally use it as a back-up to double-check your bearings in case of doubts. We didn’t use one during our trip but we did use the GPS feature of my husband’s cell phone to check our bearings once or twice.
Now that you have your basic tools for navigation, don’t forget enough food and drink for everybody (with extras for the kids), a change of socks should the kids’ shoes get wet (my girls hate hiking with wet feet), warm layers for everyone (including a waterproof layer) and good hiking boots with ankle support if you’re going to tackle uneven terrain.
During our own cross-country hike, we were planning to walk on Scottish moorland and dressed for winter hiking with solid hiking boots or rainboots.
Now, moving on to the actual outdoors.
Choose Child-Friendly Terrain for Starters
With children, the best possible scenario is to hike across open terrain in good visibility conditions and where the vegetation isn’t higher than mid-thigh for the children. Poor visibility, densely wooded areas or tall vegetation add real challenges that I’m not ready to tackle with children just yet. For low vegetation, I’d recommend hiking in the winter or spring – as opposed to summer or autumn – and for child-friendly terrain I’d recommend grassy hills, open moorland, coastal bluffs, high meadows or rocky mountains. As long as you can features of the landscape with the naked eye, you’re good to hike.
Navigation Step 1 : Terrain Association by Checking your Bearings Regularly
A quick analogy with water here, as swimming is my other passion. I’ve come to realize that open water swimming is to swimming what cross-country hiking is to walking – moving forward without the black line at the bottom of the pool or a trail under your feet. It’s navigating in an uncontrolled environment. Therefore when I started open water swimming, I learned all about sighting – lifting your head at regular intervals so you can swim in a straight line. Similarly when walking off-trail, the best way to hike in a straight line from A to B is to check your bearings regularly.
For this, you need to head for higher ground regularly to find your bearings using the map and compass, and reconcile terrain features with your reading of the map (steep inclines, water courses, open valleys, etc.). Each time we needed to confirm our direction during our hike, we oriented the map pointing north (click here if you want to teach children how to read a map) and looked around. Lucky for us, our planned route included following the contour of a loch and crossing the island following a canyon to a point on the craggy coastline – all visible geographical features from higher up. Following a body of water in open landscapes is not rocket science – you just follow the edges and to make sure of your bearings, you climb a small hill (6 feet high or more), double-check the shape of the edges against the shape on your map and reconcile the two.
Navigation Step 2 : Triangulating to Correct Your Course
Now as I said, a straight line is what you’re aiming for when cross-country hiking but it’s much easier said than done. In our case, we decided to deviate from our planned course and shoot straight for the coast at an angle. Obviously, we didn’t want to land too far off the mark on the coast and walking on unmarked terrain in a straight line is impossible. Rocks, hills, bogs, drops – many items made us deviate from our course at every step. We didn’t even walk single file! Since there was no trail to follow or soil erosion to consider, we walked like birds in a V formation with a leader with the map in front and the others behind. Our overall itinerary probably resembled a somewhat straight zigzag pattern.
To avoid unnecessary backtracking, we stopped on higher rocky outcrops three or four times to look at the shoreline and reconsider our route. Once we could clearly see the coastline and coves by the water, we discussed amongst us three adults to identify which point we were aiming for (A). Then we found another easily-identifiable point (B) and triangulated to guess where we were (C). It turned out we only needed to alter our course slightly and found the Viking village without problems.
Navigation Step 3 : Following Legs
We used that technique on the way back from the Viking village as many terrain features were hidden from view by the ascending slopes of the hills. On the map, we knew where we wanted to get (A). We also knew where we were on the coast (B) since we reached a certain point without any doubts. To get from A to B, we plotted a few intermediate way points that we could use as a relay line to get us safely to our destination. It went something like this: here we should reach a hill. Then a steep incline would lead us to a ridge from which we’d see three lochs to the west. Keeping the lochs west we’d cross a strip of land between two lochs to reach a higher loch and the edge of the high plateau that marked the beginning of our descent. And so forth.
I would lie if I said that worked as planned. Unfortunately we got our second leg wrong and ended up doing an extra mile or two of scenic heather moorland to find our destination. We drifted off our bearings going upslope because we misjudged the higher point we saw with our naked eyes with a lesser hill than the one we were aiming for. Not that the effort was any less intense – my girls earned their ice-cream – but we got sidetracked.
The upside is, we enjoyed some spectacular views on other areas of the island and loops are always more fun than out-and-back routes. In the end we found our way so no harm was done. However if you’re going to do this, I suggest you practice memorizing notable features of the landscape and check the map frequently.
The Key to Success Is…
Practice, practice, practice – and bring lots of rewards for the kids. Soon they’ll ask you to fly to Denali National Park in Alaska, one of the few trailess national parks in the US. Or go to Scotland and hike the Highlands:)
Now off you boldly go where no trail has been marked before!