Hikes with Tykes

Interview with the Author

Q: Why did you decide to write these books?
A: I was at Placerita Canyon Park in the San Gabriel Mountains, putting my three-year-old son Kieran in a baby carrier when this bus driver who’d just dropped off a load of kids at the nature center there runs up to me and says, “What is that thing?” He’s pointing at my baby carrier, walking all around it, and asking questions. He told me how much he liked hiking but couldn’t do it anymore because his youngest child was only a toddler and couldn’t walk the trails. Then he exclaimed, “I’ve got to get one of those for my kid!”

We started talking about hiking with kids, and I must have impressed him for he told me I should write a book about it. At first, I just kind of shrugged it off; I’d been a long-time writer and editor but I figured there had to be a lot of books about hiking with kids already out there. When I went to look for them, I found there weren’t. There were books for kids about how to hike, and some of the backcountry books addressed hiking with kids in a cursory manner. The couple of books I did find on the subject were incomplete, never answering the questions I had when I started hiking with my son when he was an infant. As I tried to find those answers, I discovered a lot of other parents had the same questions or would give contradictory advice when providing answers. So I decided I would write the book, after all. That was the first book in the series, Hikes with Tykes: A Practical Guide to Day Hiking with Kids.

As soon as that book came out, parents began emailing me tips and suggestions they had about hiking with kids. I noticed a lot of those suggestions were for great games and activities. I found a number of those ideas really useful, for as my son grew older I had to come up with new ones for the trail and for the drive over to the trailhead! Collecting all of those suggestions and trials and tribulations on my part led to the series' second book, Hikes with Tykes: Games and Activities.

Q: What attracted you to hiking?
Initially it was wanderlust. I grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin. The chores kept my family tied to the homestead. The winters kept us housebound. Until I joined the Army at 17, I’d only been to two states, and the other one was Minnesota. There’s a burning need in me to get out and see everything in the world.

Having said that, hiking is a lot more to me than just seeing what’s around the next bend. Reaching a difficult goal, like a summit that’s nearly two miles in the sky or traversing a difficult canyon, is incredibly self-rewarding. It’s also great exercise, and I always feel invigorated afterward.

Most importantly now that I hike with my son is that it’s a time for us to bond. It’s great to see him explore, to watch him listen so intently as I try to explain how fallen trees are okay because they provide a new home for animals, and then hear him later repeat it back to me when we see another fallen tree or to ask more questions about it. It’s a powerful feeling when he urges you on to make that summit because he wants to get there just like you.

Q: The book focuses exclusively on day hiking. What exactly is a “day hike”?
A day hike is when you start the walk sometime after the sun has come up and return home sometime before the sun has gone down. It usually only lasts a few hours. Some serious hikers like to take their children with them into the backcountry, staying out overnight in the deep wilds as they hike for several days. That’s not viable for a number of parents, but day hiking is. Any stay-at-home parent can plan an afternoon day hike with their children. Any working parent can go on a Saturday day hike with their kids.

Q: Do you actually follow all of the advice given in the book?
Oh yes. Almost of the advice comes out of my personal experiences. At a number of spots, other parents – all hiking friends of mine who live across the country – also offer tips. All of what they said I thought useful, though some of it doesn’t necessarily apply to me, like when they talk about teens. And I do admit in one section of the book that on occasion I have broken my own advice!

Q: What mistake do novice hikers most frequently made?
They don’t bring something that is absolutely necessary, usually water, a map, or a first aid kit. They think that since their day hike won’t go very far or take very long, that they can dispense with carrying some of that stuff. What many novice hikers don’t grasp is that they’re going out into the wilds; unlike a city street, there’s no running water anywhere, no street signs to provide directions, and paramedics often are an hour or more away. You need to carry the most basic comforts of civilization with you.

Q: What’s the scariest thing that’s ever happened to you on a hike?
I learned the hard way that I always need to carry a map. It was probably the second or third hike I took with my son. We went to Vasquez Rocks, where a lot of movies, TV shows and commercials are filmed. The main attraction is these two sets of incredibly large, sharply angled rocks that trails loop around. Just make the loops, and you’ll be okay. I foolishly went off the loop then to save myself time decided to cut cross country to another section of the trial. I got lost. When I reached some high ground, I found there were a lot of incredibly large, sharply angled rocks, and I became totally disoriented. There was only an hour or two of sunlight left. I got us out by following a ridgeline that I knew from my compass would lead to a road on one of the park’s edge. Now I only will hike a trail if I have a map, even if I’ve been on it a dozen times.

Q: What are some of the places you’ve hiked?
Kieran and I have been through Redwood National Park, we’ve crossed sections of the Mojave Desert, we’ve hiked Pacific Ocean beaches, we’ve scaled mountain summits in the San Gabriel Mountains, we’ve gone into the crater of an extinct volcano. Mostly because of his age, we’ve limited ourselves to California, where we live; it’s simply too far to drive anywhere else for a day hike. As for myself in pre-Kieran days, I’ve hiked trails in more than 30 states, everything from the backwoods of my boyhood home in Wisconsin to remote Georgia swamps and ancient Native American ruins in New Mexico.

Q: What’s the best place you’ve hiked that no one else knows about?
I really don’t want to say or everyone will go there! It’s kind of like giving up the location of your secret fishing hole. All right … the spot almost no one knows about is Nightmare Gulch, a canyon in California’s Red Rock State Park. Red and beige walls rise 15 stories above you as you wind along this intermittent stream that’s cut a deep gash into the Mojave Desert floor. There’s barely a sound there.

Q: Where would you recommend that people hike?
National and state parks by far offer the best scenery. Don’t forget national forests or national natural landmarks, though. Natural landmarks are particularly impressive and little known, so you’ll be able to get away from it all for a while and still be awed. But really any place that your children enjoy hiking is worth going back to over and over.

Q: Where do you want to hike that you haven’t gone before?
Down to the bottom of Valles Marineris on Mars. Unfortunately, that’s probably not going to be possible during my lifetime. In all seriousness, any place I haven’t gone before is fair game, so long as my son is with me.

Q: I’m impressed that the book doesn’t urge parents to make kids “tough it out.” How did you come to have that philosophy?
You have to know your kids’ limits. It’s simply unreasonable to ask them to walk as far as you can and to maintain your pace – unless they’re teenagers, of course, in which case they’ll probably be able to walk farther and faster than you. Yes, it’s okay to urge your child to walk a little longer and to have him test his or her limits. There’s just no need to turn the hike into a death march for them.

Q: What’s your next book going to be about?
I'm writing descriptions of great day hiking trails that moms, dads, grandparents and club leaders can take their kids on. Most hiking books focus on backcountry trails that take a few days to complete. Others that list short trails give no consideration to a child’s hiking needs, providing names of seemingly short trails that simply are too steep for most kids to handle or too dull to enjoy.

Rob Bignell, series author

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(c) 2015 Rob Bignell