Hiking is more than a physical path for kids, author claims

It used to be an expression of disgust: "Take a hike."

But times have changed. Now that phrase can mean you care about someone's health and want to treat them to an adventure in the great outdoors.

Author and hiker extraordinaire Jeff Alt takes every opportunity to preach the gospel of hiking. Alt sees a good walk outdoors as an elixir for much of what ails folks and a means to connect with nature while maximizing family time away from the distractions of modern life.

"The benefits are many, the cost is low, and the adventures are endless," Alt said.

While clearly walking the walk himself -- Alt has hiked the full 2,160-mile Appalachian Trail -- his latest book, "Get Your Kids Hiking: How to Start Them Young and Keep It Fun!," focuses on young sets of feet.

Alt said he hopes his book will give parents an easy path to accompany their children outdoors.

"I think a lot of parents realize that we have a whole generation that is growing up indoors, on the computer, and they are legitimately concerned about that," Alt said.

"They want to have an alternative, so they are looking for a route to get kids away from all of the electronics and outside in the fresh air. Hiking is a terrific way for parents and their kids to break away from all of the hustle and bustle and do something healthy and fun."

Alt, a speech pathologist in Cincinnati, said, "with the rise in obesity and other health issues, exercise of any kind is essential, and what makes hiking so appealing is that it is a lifelong sport. The littlest kids can do it, and so can folks in their 80s and 90s, along with everyone in between."

Alt said hiking can be "especially important for kids that are not athletically involved. If they get introduced to hiking at an early age and in a positive way, it's something they can enjoy for a lifetime."

Alt recommends parents keep it simple at the start -- short walks, relatively level terrain and something close to home.

"That's one thing with kids -- you don't have to try and impress them by taking them someplace where there is a great view. Everything is new to them," said Alt.

Alt introduced his children to hiking as infants, carrying daughter Madison, now 9, on a 50-mile family trek across Ireland when she was just 21 months and taking son William, now 6, on his first hike at 8 weeks old.

"When I speak to people, I tell them what I've learned and what I've experienced. This book is a 'how-to' that is both instructional and entertaining," he said. "One of the keys is to help kids enjoy the hike every step of the journey. After they are old enough to walk on their own, you can let them lead so the pace is comfortable for them. Let them detour to anything they find interesting. Make each stop a lesson, play 'I Spy' or take what they've learned in school and apply it outdoors."

Alt's book also covers the best footwear choices for children, suitable clothing for hiking, and the appropriate backpacks for every age. He stresses the need for carrying sunscreen, insect repellent and sufficient water and snacks, plus he recommends frequent breaks.

Alt also urges parents to allow youngsters explore every rock, tree, bug or bird they find interesting.

"Kids really like it when you get down to their level, see what they see, and what they are interested in," he said.

(Contact Toledo Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at mmarkey@theblade.com.)

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.shns.com.)

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