Turning 40

This Fall, I officially entered my forties.
What did I do to celebrate?
I hit the rails.

About this time last year, my husband and I began discussing what we’d like to do to celebrate my 40th birthday. My first suggestion was to take the whole family on a cross-country train trip, maybe out to Colorado or up to Maine. He wasn’t opposed to the idea but, after doing some digging about options for the trip, he asked–

Wouldn’t you rather just go someplace by yourself? Like maybe go on a writing retreat somewhere? Or rent a cabin in the woods and be alone for a few days?”

Ding! Ding! Ding!
We have a winner!

Let me pause here and say that some of you probably think it’s absolutely bonkers that I would want to celebrate my 40th birthday alone, let alone be alone for days at a time. To be honest, my husband thinks it’s a little bonkers, too. But he knows me well enough to know that one of the things I long for most these days is a quiet moment alone to do my favorite things–rest and read and write and be outdoors.

So, I got to work planning my perfect 40th birthday adventure
80 hours of train travel.
A few days of hiking.
A few days in an idyllic small town.
8 total days alone to rest and read and write and hang out outside.

Then, in September, after months of planning and waiting and waiting and waiting, I put my kids to bed in Cincinnati and hopped on a train for Glacier National Park in Montana.

The trip went off without any major issues except that, 24hrs before I was to head back home, Amtrak cancelled my train due to an impending labor strike (that never actually happened). Because of the weird train schedule in Cincinnati, I couldn’t just reschedule for the next available train because it would have set me back a full two or three days. So, instead of enjoying a 40hr train trip back home, I spent an extra day in Whitefish, Montana and then flew home via Seattle, Washington.

It was a little frustrating to arrive home tired after a sleepless night in an airport, but the whole debacle only set me back 12 hours total and gave me a great story to tell about “that time I was stranded in Montana.”

My trip was honestly the perfect way to celebrate my birthday.

A few notable thoughts and highlights–

  1. I planned the entire trip to be accessible on foot, rail, bike, and shuttle.
    Everything–my hotel and airbnb, the national park, grocery stores, coffee, and restaurants–was in perfect proximity to each other. It was a pedestrian dream and now I can’t imagine traveling any other way.
  2. My family did just fine without me.
    This is huge because, leading up to my trip, I struggled with a lot of anxiety about how my husband and kids would make it through a whole week without me. I’d never been away from my kids for more than 48 hours, and have not traveled alone in 15 years. I wasn’t afraid of being alone, but it was a real stretch for me to extract myself from our home life and trust that everything would be fine. As it turns out, the world doesn’t revolve around me like I thought it did and my husband is a great dad and a perfectly capable grownup man. This was a good lesson to learn.
  3. I had so. much. time.
    My life at home with four kids and a family business and all the other things we do is really chaotic. I feel like there’s rarely a moment when someone doesn’t need something from me. It has been years since I had the time and space to enjoy extended moments of mental quiet and physical space. Talking with my husband after I returned, I marveled at the fact that there were moments I was actually “thinking about nothing.” Friends, this never happens in my daily life. It was a real blessing and exactly what I needed.
  4. I have a lot of unprocessed thoughts and feelings.
    One of my goals for my trip was to do a lot of writing and get down on paper some of the thoughts and ideas that have been swirling through my head the past few years. “Maybe I’ll start writing a book, or finish my new album,” I thought. But I didn’t quite get to the point of producing any sort of finished product during my trip. In the time I had to be alone with my thoughts, I realized I have a lot of unresolved things swirling around inside me that I might be getting closer to understanding, but not expressing in a meaningful way. This was a surprise to me because I consider myself a pretty introspective and self-aware person.
  5. Health is a great blessing.
    I traveled a week after Labor Day, which I’ve now affectionately dubbed “retiree season,” because most of the other people I met and saw traveling were Boomers enjoying their retirement. While chatting with strangers about their travels, I had a recurrent thought that it is a great blessing to be in good enough health to be able to travel in older age, let alone to be able to climb a mountain into your 60s and 70s. I pray for the blessing of good health into my empty-nest years. And, while I am happy to say that I am healthier now at 40 than I was at 30, I know that I have a lot of work to do if I want to be as healthy at 60 as I am now.
  6. I miss being in the woods.
    There’s something exhilarating about being at the mercy of the outdoors. I think it’s the same thing I love so much about living in the city–that feeling of vulnerability, of being a small part of something so much bigger than yourself. But, in natural spaces, the feeling is magnified by all the unknown and all the uncertainty of wild things. I love that feeling. I’ve never been a hardcore wilderness woman or anything like that, but the second I stepped out of my hotel that first day and started walking into an unknown, outdoor space, a missing part of me came alive again. And it felt amazing.

Which leads me to my most vivid memory of the trip–

I arrived at the train station in West Glacier, Montana, around 10pm at night and had a room booked at the historic chalet across the street. I had a seat booked on a shuttle at 7:30am the next morning to take me into the national park for a day of hiking, but the shuttle never showed up. (It was a private hotel shuttle from the train station to a hotel inside the park and, because the train was delayed, the shuttle was delayed to accommodate.)

I checked my map and decided that I’d just grab a coffee at the camp store and walk the 3 miles into the park to the nearest visitor center where I could hop on a public shuttle up to my planned hike. So, I started walking.

Once I entered the park, most of the walk was on a mixed use bike/hiking path straight into the woods.
It was cold.
I was alone.
I was surrounded by tall, looming trees.
It was almost completely silent.

And it was amazing.

I cried like a baby for that first 30 minutes.
It was so beautiful and I was just so damn happy to be there.

It feels really weird to admit that the happiest moment of my 40th birthday celebration was spent alone, in the cold, 2,000 miles from my husband and children. But I am willing to admit the profound tension I feel between loving the amazing, beautiful life I’ve been given and mourning the amazing, beautiful things I gave up to have this life.

I think it’s okay to be honest about those complicated feelings.
I think it’s more dangerous to pretend they don’t exist.

I really, truly love my normal, chaotic life, even if I’m often overwhelmed by the need and noise of it all.
And I am really, truly thankful for the five amazing people who were waiting for me when I got home.

(And I’m also really, truly excited to take another trip someday…)

Camping With Kids: Advice From The Semi-Experienced

Back in May, after we survived our first camping trip after the addition of a fourth child, a few friends asked if I’d share some tips for camping with kids.

Well, first of all, it feels a little silly to even write this. I am not an expert. I am not a “professional.” I’m not even super experienced. Since our oldest child was born, we’ve only been camping about 15 or 20 nights. (That’s not many.) And we’ve still never done any legit backcountry camping (hike in / hike out) with the kids.

But, though I’m not an expert, I’m a fairly confident and competent outdoors(wo)man. The outdoors bug was planted in me at a family summer cottage on a small lake in southwestern Michigan. Then, between summers at summer camp in Northern Wisconsin, volunteering at summer camp every year in high school, working in youth ministry in college, teaching environmental education post-college, and now having four kids of my own, getting kids outside and into the woods is now second nature for me. And since I did a bit of camping before we had kids, camping with kids doesn’t intimidate me.

A lot of my peers say they’re afraid to try camping with their kids, especially the really little ones. And I’m sympathetic. If I’m honest, getting my kids out and into the woods isn’t always comfortable for me, especially with my ongoing battles with anxiety (poisonous snakes, surprise bee allergies, falling limbs, creepy strangers in the tent nextdoor, etc.). But I’ve discovered that the right kind of physical and mental preparation can make a big difference for me. And I have found that the pay off is always worth the time and energy it takes to make it happen.


So, here are my top 12 (+1) tips for camping with kids:

Go with friends. My kids get along really well, but they get tired of each other. The past few times we’ve camped, we’ve gone with another family. It gives the adults some quality time together (while the kids occupy themselves with friends). And it means there are more adults to trade things like bathroom breaks and tending the fire.

Stay two nights because waking up and immediately packing up camp sucks. Give yourself a day between arriving and leaving to enjoy yourselves, take a hike, explore the woods, go fishing, etc. If things go really badly the first night, you can always call it a loss and go home early.

Do your research about campgrounds and, unless you’re desperate, steer clear of sparse, open field-style places. We like campgrounds with woods between rows of sites (bonus points for creeks). The trees provide shade and privacy. And the woods will give your kids a place to play within earshot of the campsite. My only caveat is that, at campgrounds with public bathrooms, try to camp near (but not next to) the bathroom. With children (especially girls), camping too far from the facilities means lots and lots of walking back and forth to the toilet. Pro tip: with toddlers and other little ones, consider bringing a travel potty to keep at the campsite to save yourself the walk in the middle of the night.

Cold isn’t fun, but wet is worse. Learn how to keep your tent dry. Trust me.

“Two is one and one is none.” This is a basic survival concept. Don’t rely on only one of anything you can’t do without: one pair of socks, one cutting tool, one fire-starter, etc. For example: I find cooking over an open fire tedious and frustrating. For the past few years, I have packed a simple cooking stove along with the rest of our supplies so that if the fire is taking too long and our bellies are starting to rumble, I can fire up the stove and get dinner (or morning coffee!) started in the meantime. I follow the same rule for headlamps and lanterns. I always have one more than we need, just in case.

Keep it simple, especially cooking. If campfire cooking is new to you, start small. Pre-cook things so you’ll only need to reheat them in the fire. Or eat primarily foods that require minimal or no cooking (summer sausage, peanut butter and jelly, etc.) and supplement simple “add water”-only hot items like soup or noodle mixes, oatmeal, etc. Don’t be ashamed to admit you need coffee (and beer). And bring a waterproof table cloth because it’s so much easier to clean and sweep off than an old campsite picnic table (I learned this trick from a friend!).

Skip the sleeping bags (especially with babies). Sleeping bags are impossible for really young kids. I even find my 3 year old struggles to get comfortable. Consider building a family bed with blankets instead. And, as always, bring a jacket, socks and a hat for every member in the family. Sleeping outdoors can be surprisingly cold, even during the summer. A pair of socks under the blankets can work wonders for conserving body heat. Use a basic camping mattress (you can use a yoga/exercise mat instead if you have one) for insulating the space between you and the ground.

Introduce gear (especially tents) beforehand and practice at home. A few days before the trip, take them outside and each kids the proper way to pitch the tent. Older kids will love testing their skills at helping set up camp, so give them jobs. This will limit the novelty of new gear and make it easier to get down to business once you’re at the campsite.

Bring headlamps or lights, and a safety whistle to keep track of the kids. During the day, we let our kids wander (together) a bit away from the campsite. They stay within earshot, but not always within eyesight. If you’re uneasy about it, teach your kids to carry and how to use a safety whistle if they get lost. At dusk, I make my kids stay nearer to camp and wear their headlamps so I can keep an eye on them. For really little kids, headlamps and flashlights can be cumbersome. Try glowsticks on a lanyard or those cheap neon necklaces instead.

Keep it low-tech. When camping or hiking, our phones are with us but not in our hands. Taking an occasional photo or video is cool, but we keep it minimal. The only other electronics we bring camping are a set of walkie-talkies (with weather radio!). These came in handy the last time we went camping since we had no service on our phones and there was a storm rolling in. I know some friends who bring bluetooth speakers to play music at the campsite, which is kind of nice sometimes. We bring low-tech toys, games, and books for rainy days or nap/quiet time (if the kids need it).

Embrace the mud and dirt. Be okay with your kids getting their clothes dirty (almost immediately). I kind of like a “dirty clothes to play in; clean clothes at bedtime” philosophy. Choose easy on/off shoes for you and for your kids, preferably waterproof ones. It will make getting in and out of the tent easier (and cleaner), but don’t expect to keep a perfectly tidy tent. And since you can expect to get dirty, just take some extra time when you get home to wipe down, clean, and air out your gear before you pack it up for next time.

Store your gear so it’s easier to use next time. Getting serious about camping means curating your gear like you would the gear for any other beloved hobby (fishing, running, birdwatching, cooking, etc.). Our family has a lot of gear, but it is not expensive, high end stuff. We’ve been collecting it for upwards of 15-20 years and it hasn’t cost us a lot of money when you prorate the cost over time. I like to keep things organized (rather than just tossing it all in a single bin) because if I know what I already have, I’ll know what I still need and I can pick it up when I see it (and can afford it). We keep all of our outdoor gear together on one single industrial-grade rack. Things are organized and stacked and packed in a way that makes anything easy to grab and use when needed. (This also keeps things accessible in an emergency situation at home when we may need our sleeping bags, flashlights, etc.)



And, lastly, as with all parenting:

Attitude is everything.

Your kids will take cues from you. If they are already uncomfortable outside or in the rain or away from their iPad, you will need to encourage a good attitude about camping. If you cannot keep your cool when the fire won’t start or when you can’t read the trailmap, your kids will mirror your frustration. Laugh a little. Have reasonable expectations. Look for opportunities to learn and explore and be okay with things taking longer than you’d hoped. Part of the joy of camping is having the time and space to stop and, literally, smell the flowers.

Enjoy it and they will, too.



Hiking With Kids: Our Trail Map

Hiking with Kids Pro Tip: Keep a List; Make a Map

Because we’ve been hiking together as a family for so long, and because we go so frequently, it was getting really hard for me to keep track of our hiking spots and to remember the names of the places we’ve heard of but never been. So, I created a Google map of all of the hiking spots I’m aware of in the region (roughly within I-275 but with a handful beyond) and notated at which spots we’ve been hiking and those we have yet to visit.

This map has been really helpful for me at times when we’re ready to go on a hike but I can’t wrap my head around “the perfect spot” for that day or for that group of friends who are coming along. So much of it depends on how far we’re willing to travel and what we’re hoping for (sun, shade, water, etc.).

Hiking Cincinnati- The McEwans

Eventually, I’ll be adding information about the locations–favorite trails, things to see, amenities, etc., as well as hiking places elsewhere in the country. For now, it’s just plots on a map and links to online information. I can access it on the go and can forward it to friends when we’re trying to decide what to hit up next.


I won’t share the actual interactive map with you (unless you ask nicely), but I do want to share the list of spots so my friends and readers can help me add to it!

Our List:

There are 38 spots we’ve been to; 24 we haven’t. We’ve hit almost everything within Cincinnati and Hamilton County, though some of them (Caesar Creek State park, for example) were a long time ago and we’re due for another visit.

I only included parks and greenspace areas I know of that have some sort of “trails,” though some of the spots (Sawyer Point, for example) have only paved sidewalks. I didn’t include general scenic areas and playgrounds with no marked trails (Washington Park, for example), though those may be added later.

(Before you say it: I know, I know, how have we never been to the Cincinnati Nature Center? Well, first of all, I have been there, but not with my kids. Second of all, it’s really far from our home and we usually do half-day trips on weekday mornings rather than taking an entire day. Also, I’m not-so-secretly harboring resentment that it’s called the “Cincinnati” Nature Center but it’s so far outside of the city. Call it city love. Call it suburban hate. Whatever. I make no apologies. We’ll get there eventually and I’m sure we’ll love it.)

Places We’ve Been:

Alms Park
Ault Park
Bicentennial Park
Big Bone Lick State Park
Brookville Lake Dam
Burnet Woods
Buttercup Valley Preserve/Parker Woods
Caesar Creek State Park
Caldwell Preserve
California Woods Nature Center
Civic Garden Center of Greater Cincinnati
Devou Park
East Fork State Park
Eden Park
Embshoff Woods
Fernbank Park
Florence Nature Park
French Park
Glenwood Gardens
Gunpowder Creek Nature Park
Imago Nature Center
Laboiteaux Woods
Lindner Park (McCullough Nature Preserve)
Miami Whitewater Forest  
Mt. Airy Forest
Mt. Echo Park
Mount Storm Park
Sawyer Point Park
Sharon Woods
Shawnee Lookout
Smale Riverfront Park
Spring Grove Cemetery and Arboretum
Rapid Run Park
Red River Gorge  
Stanbury Park
Theodore M Berry International Friendship Park  
Tower Park
Winton Woods

Places We’d Like to Go:

Boone County Cliffs
Boone County Arboretum
Cincinnati Nature Center
Clifton Gorge State Nature Preserve
Clifty Falls State Park
Dinsmore Homestead
Doe Run Lake Park
Farbach-Werner Nature Preserve
Giles Conrad Park
Highland Hills Park
Hueston Woods State Park
Kroger Hills State Reserve
Lincoln Ridge Park
Magrish Recreation Center
Middle Creek Park 
Middleton-Mills Park
Mitchell Memorial Forest
Newberry Wildlife Sanctuary
Pyramid Hill Sculpture Park & Museum
Shawnee State Forest
Waller Stephenson Mill Park
Withrow Nature Preserve
Woodland Mound 

Now tell me, my hiking friends, what have I missed!?
What’s on your list?

Why You Should Take Your Kids On A Hike

Did you hear that Cincinnati was ranked #7 in ParkScore’s Top 10 list of municipal park systems in the country? Yes, it’s true. Read for yourself.

So, if you weren’t already aware, you can now rest assured that Cincinnati (and the Tri-State region, as a whole) has a great park system. And that doesn’t just include public greenspace like the wonderful new riverfront developments or Washington Park. We have forest preserves and trail systems galore.

This region is rich with wild places and your kids need to see them.


Hiking is good exercise–for you, for me, for your kids. You’ve heard it said that “kids these days” spend too much time indoors and far too much time in front of a screen. Even if your kids aren’t the average couch potato, we can always use a little more exercise.

Wild places are always changing. Backyards are great, but they are familiar. In the woods, there are always new things to see. Every new season brings new plants, new flowers, berries to pick, birds to see, and animal tracks to discover. You can take the same hiking trail over and over again until it’s memorized and still experience something new every hike.

Hiking is almost free. Aside from the occasional park pass (Hamilton County Parks and the Cincinnati Nature Center both require them), entry is free to many parks in our region. And although it’s possible to spend a good deal of money on hiking gear, it’s almost completely unnecessary for the fair-weather hiker. Strap on a decent pair of shoes and weather-appropriate clothing, pack a few snacks, and you’re good to go.

You can invite friends. Hiking is a great activity to share with friends, whether they have kids or not. Not only is it free, which means it’s accessible to everyone, but it’s great for all ages. As long as other moms are comfortable carrying small children in a comfortable carrier and other adults are willing to let the kids set the pace, everyone can enjoy the hike together. There aren’t very many indoor activites that a 3 year-old and a 10 year-old can truly enjoy together, but there are a million of them outside.

The woods provide a living education. You can teach your kids a million things while you hike. Whether you focus on life skills and problem solving or science and natural history, it’s all there if you have an eye to see it. And if you don’t think you know enough to teach them anything, buy a decent nature guide for trees or bugs or wildflowers and you can learn alongside them.

Fresh air and outdoor play are good for the soul. I know I can’t speak for every family, but my kids are high-energy and require a lot of physical activity to maintain a good attitude and behavior. Especially when our week has been a rough one, when I’m stressed out, or when my patience is waning, hiking is a perfect way to improve everyone’s mood. Whether it’s the extra oxygen, the sound of the birds, or the physical exertion, I’m not sure. I just know that it really works.

Hiking is a great summer activity. Have you ever been in the woods on a hot day? It can easily feel ten or more degrees cooler than in it does in the sun. If taking your kids to a playground in the heat sounds like torture come July and August, consider a trail instead. Look for one with a creek bed, wear waterproof shoes, and treat yourself to a dip in the creek!

If you’d like to start the habit of hiking with your kids, but don’t know how to start, browse your local park system’s websites for tips and trail maps. (To get you started: Cincinnati Parks, Hamilton County Parks, and Kenton County Parks.) Don’t be afraid to explore on your own (especially if it’s a well-traveled, popular trail), or grab a friend and a trail map and give it a shot.

I’ve written before about tips for hiking with kids, and I’ve reviewed a few local parks like Burnet Woods if you want more specific help. A quick Google search of “hiking with kids” will yield a million results to help you, as well.

As an aside, I once-upon-a-time tried to start a family hiking club. That first summer was so-so as far as participation, but it was a lot of fun. Our family schedule right now only allows us one or two hikes a week and it’s nice to keep them to ourselves sometimes, but we are usually up for planning hikes with friends every other week or so. Let us know if you want to come along!

Go Play Outside: 10 Tips for Hiking With Kids

Hiking with my kids is perhaps my favorite family activity. I’d take it over a walk downtown, over a romp at a playground, and easily over a trip to Disneyworld. Not only is hiking a fantastic way to exercise, it’s a fun way for me and my kids to burn steam. Living in the city, we need time away from the concrete jungle to beat our bodies against the earth and breathe in some fresh air. It’s good for the soul. Lately, my oldest kids (who share a bedroom and are homeschooled so they rarely spend time apart) have had a hard time getting along while we’re at home. But, the second we are outdoors–the moment there is a tree to climb or a trail to hike–they are best friends again.

For all these reasons, I try to get a hike in at least once a week for me and the kids, even in cold weather. Some of these hikes are in easy, paved areas, but I try to find more rugged, difficult trails if possible. And even though we have a few favorite spots, we’re always trying new areas to keep it exciting.

Even though we hike often, we still have a lot to learn and I still need to seriously amp up my personal fitness before I can consider myself a real hiker. (As a sidenote: for a serious hiking family check these guys out.) But, even if I can’t count myself among the real hiking fanatics, I have learned a few things along the way that I’d like to share. Specifically, ten quick tips for hiking with kids, especially when they’re very young.

So, here you go:

Hike often and hike year-round.

Consistency is key. Because we hike often, we have developed a bit of a rhythm and our kids know what to expect. There is no “But, Mom! It’s cold outside!” conversation at the start of the day. We do our morning at home as usual, then pack up our gear, a snack, and a picnic lunch and then head out the door. We might actually hike for only about an hour, but we leave time for exploring other areas and (usually) a picnic. Because we do this often and in all kinds of weather, it’s now as normal to my kids as a trip to the grocery store. It’s a part of our family culture and something familiar and consistent.

Dress for the weather.

With a few obvious exceptions, I think the adage is true that there is no truly bad weather, just a lack of proper preparation. Think smart–not just “warm.” Dress your kids in layers, not just bulky items. In even moderately cold weather, protect extremities–fingers, toes, and ears. A nice, warm head can easily make up for a few degrees of chill. Consider investing in waterproof hiking boots for the kids and a pair of nice wool socks, rather than expecting them to hike in rain boots when the ground is wet. Look for deals on fleece and wool (its natural counterpart) and quick-dry synthetic materials rather than jeans and cotton. (Why not cotton? Read here.) Keeping your kids comfortable in less-than-perfect hiking weather is key to a successful day out in the woods.

Wear the right shoes.

Your kids might not notice the difference between a $10 gently-used pair of hiking boots and a $80 new pair from REI, but you will. Eventually, cheap footwear takes a toll, so take care of your feet. Especially if you intend to carry one of your children for even part of the hike, don’t skimp on your footwear (or socks!). I have had a few awesome pairs of outdoor shoes in the past. These days, I gravitate toward either a) a pair of light-hiking, waterproof mid-ankle boots (like this) b) a breathable shoe like this, or c) a pair of strap-on Teva waterproof sandals, depending on the weather and where we’ll be hiking.

Invest in a good baby carrier.

If you want to include the littlest members of your family in the hike, invest in a decent baby carrier. Yes, most really great baby carriers will cost you a little money–between $40-150–so I really do mean “invest.” You probably won’t find a good one for $10 at the thrift store, but you can pick one up used on Craigslist or borrow from a friend until you find one you can afford. I bought a Beco Butterfly carrier (most similar to their new Soleil) when my son was just about two and I chose it for three main reasons: a) it was made in the US (not sure if this is still true), b) there were not extra infant pieces to buy like the Ergo and c) it can be used up to 45lbs. I have had the carrier for about 3.5 years now. I am now on the third child using it, and it is still in perfect condition. I use this carrier to carry my one year-old when I hike–usually on my front when she is napping and on my back while she’s awake. When she is a bit older, I will let her hike and use the carrier as a backup when she gets tired. Just a note: when my third child was a teeny infant, I used a Moby Wrap that a friend gave me and it was perfect, especially for chilly days. Also, I know some people use real “hiking carriers.” I’ve never had the budget for one, but I’ve heard good things about them especially on longer hikes or when you need a backpack on in addition to the carrier.

Learn what to pack (or not pack) in your bag.

Unless my husband is hiking with us to carry it, I don’t bother carrying a backpack since I’ll be carrying a baby. Instead, I let my five year-old carry any of our “gear” for the hike. Unless we’re on vacation away from home, our hikes are under 2 miles and we don’t need much more than the cursory emergency supplies. In his small backpack, my son carries: a water bottle that we can share if we need it, a small snack for emergencies, safety whistles (with built-in compasses) for him and his sister (sometimes they wear them), my car keys, a small first aid kit, a headlamp (mostly just for fun), and a set of binoculars. I carry my phone in my pocket (unless I don’t have a pocket!) and a trail map, if we have one. I’ve been looking for a small fanny-pack that I can wear with my baby carrier if I need it. And it’s almost time for my three year-old to start to carry a backpack, too. But, our car has a pretty substantial emergency kit stocked at all times, so we have things at our disposal if we need them when we arrive at our hiking location or back at the car after the hike (extra diapers, blankets, extra hats and gloves, emergency snacks and water, first-aid, phone charger, etc.).

Learn how to read a map, then teach your kids.

Before planning our hiking location for the day, I look up a trail map online and save it to my phone. This way, even if we don’t have cell phone reception in the woods, the map has been saved to my phone. I have a great sense of direction and am working on teaching my son basic orienteering so he can read the maps himself. Most Cincinnati and Hamilton County parks also have paper copies of their maps, so you can pick one up when you arrive. I usually try to pick a loop trail that will pass us by a ridge or creekbed and then back to our car.

Let your kids take the lead.

Whether they know how to read a map or not, let your kids lead the hike as much as they are inclined. When we hike, my two oldest trade off in the front and I stay last in line. I may remind them of things like poison ivy (when I spot it) or to slow down when the trail goes downhill or “Hey! Look at that!” when I spot something cool. But it’s a lot of fun to let them set the pace and explore on their own. It’s amazing the things they notice and find interest in. As their parent, take note of those things so you can follow-up at home or during your next hike. Don’t make it more “educational” than they can stand, but take moments to teach about edible plants, interesting natural phenomena, or other cool stuff like mushrooms or animal remains. Yesterday, we spotted an in-tact bird skeleton on the trail. Super cool. And, lately, my kids have been “hunting for Big Foot.” (I’ll let you know if we find him.)

Open your eyes; open your ears.

Stop every so often. Maybe stop and sit for a while. Look down; look up. Find something you’ve never seen before. Guess what it might be. Encourage the kids to close their eyes and listen. Our lives are surrounding by so much noise, it’s amazing the subtle sounds you can hear when the noise of life is absent. Birds. Falling acorns. Breeze. Distant city noise. Yesterday, we noticed that fall–Autumn–was literally happening all around us. We could tell by the bustle of the woods. It was busy!

Invite friends.

We hike alone quite a bit, but it’s always fun to invite friends to join us. A few years ago, I started a Family Hiking Club, but it was too hard for me to maintain a Saturday schedule for the hikes. I’m now toying with the idea of starting a new hiking club, specifically for people with babies (older kids and friends would be welcome to join, as well). But, you don’t need a “hiking club” to explore the woods with some friends. My kids love hiking with their friends and it’s nice to have another mom/dad/mom & dad to talk with while the kids keep busy. You can also share hiking tips and snacks and nature trivia as you go. Some of my best hikes have been with people who knew far more than me about wildflowers or bird calls. I still have a lot to learn!

Be a good example.

There have been times when I thought I was going to pass out on the trail (like when I was 8m pregnant with Number 3 and two year-old Number 2 insisted on being carried up that last hill). Your kids will take cues from you. Whine and complain, they will whine and complain; show fear when you spot a nasty, crawly insect, they will be afraid. But, let your sense of adventure and curiosity get the best of you and they will, too. Even if you aren’t sure you’ll make it up that next hill, spend more time encouraging them to “keep going” than worrying about yourself. You’ll all make it together. Practice responsible hiking, be smart, and take care of those hiking with you. Be a good example and your kids will grow into excellent, responsible hikers as they age.


It doesn’t matter if you’re pushing a stroller down a paved walkway or bolstering yourself for that final pass. Pack a bag, grab the kids, and head to the woods.

And then I’d love to hear more tips for hiking with kids, or hiking in general.
Share them if you have them!

Go Play Outside: Red River Gorge

Hiking and camping are two of my favorite outdoor activities and, in my opinion, fall is the best season for both.

If you live in Southern Ohio, both hiking and camping are available at multiple locations within just a few hours’ drive. This summer, our family took a quick three-day trip down to one of our favorite places in the region–the Red River Gorge. It’s technically a “geological area” with an impressive collection of canyons and natural arches located within the Daniel Boone National Forest. It’s only a 2.5 hour drive from Cincinnati, in Central Kentucky, which is the perfect distance to get outta town and go play outside.

On this trip, with our three kids in tow, we rented a cabin inside the Gorge (we used the rental company Red River Gorgeous), so we were only a short drive away from all of the trailheads. We also ended up with a cabin on a creek with bunk beds (!), which was the perfect place for the kids.

Campfire. Creek-dipping. Bunk beds. Perfect.

During our long day of hiking, we took a short hike up to Whistling Arch (which is where I almost had a mild heart attack watching my son climb in the arch with my husband). And then we hiked the 1.5 mile Rock Bridge loop. The kids got a little tired toward the end of the loop, but it was well worth the work and gave me a good idea of how resilient they would be on a longer-distance hike. (And gave me more experience carrying a 20lb baby on a descent/ascent.) We do a lot of rugged hiking locally, but new terrain is always good practice.

If you live in the area or feel like driving down to Kentucky for a new adventure, check out the Red River Gorge. Do it alone, or with kids, or with your favorite hiking buddy. Rent a cabin or bring a tent. (Backcountry camping will cost you a small overnight fee.) Bring a kayak for the river or your climbing gear for the canyons or your bicycle for the scenic roads. However you do it, find some time this fall to do it.

Go play outside!