Archived Outdoors

Take a Hike: Author encourages parents to get their kids outside

out altBy Wil Shelton • SMN Intern

For Jeff Alt and his family, hiking is more a lifestyle than a hobby.

“After experiencing all the great positive physical and mental benefits gained from hiking, I wanted to share it with my family,” he said.

And that is exactly what he’s done. 

Alt, 48, is a seasoned outdoorsman who has hiked the entire Appalachian Trail and the John Muir Trail. He grew up in Northwest Ohio, where his family went on frequent camping and hiking trips.

“As a child, my parents took us on many camping adventures,” he said. “On a childhood trip to the Great Smoky Mountains, my brothers and I hiked from Elkmont Campground up to the Double Spring Gap shelter on the Appalachian Trail.” 

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“We were ill-equipped and not in trail shape,” he recalls. “It was the hardest thing I had ever done, but the seed was planted.”

Alt, his wife Beth and their two kids, Madison and William, ages 10 and 8, travel the United States giving lectures on the importance of getting kids outdoors and promoting his book, Get Your Kids Hiking: How to Start Them Young and Keep It Fun, a complete guide that explains all the ins and outs of hiking with kids. 

Alt has been hiking with his children since they were infants, he said. 

“William was on the Appalachian Trail at 6 weeks of age,” he said, “and Madison went on her first hike with us at 8 weeks of age.”

On June 20, Alt was at the Sugarlands Visitor Center on the Tennessee side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. 

His lecture began with a song he had written titled “Take a Hike.” His family joined him in front of the crowd and performed the song and dance routine, whose lyrics promoted the mental and physical benefits of hiking as well as warning against dangers such as poison ivy and bears.

After the introduction, Alt invited the families to hit the Old Sugarlands Trail for what he called not a hike but an “adventure.” 

“An outdoor adventure with your kids can be more fun than anything that requires electricity and batteries,” he said. “Hiking is easy and inexpensive and will provide your kids with a fun, healthy outdoor pursuit that they will relish and utilize their entire lives.”

Alt practiced what he preached as he showed participating kids and parents activities to engage in while hiking. Alt is a proponent of what he refers to as “child-directed hiking,” the idea that the destination is not the most important goal but rather allowing the child to take the lead, exploring at their own pace. Kids took turns playing “I Spy,” spotting plants, critters and rocks. At one point, Alt asked each child and parent to close their eyes and count how many sounds, smells and sensations they heard, smelled and felt. 

Jennifer Hughes, who was there with her 7-year-old son Henry, said that it was a fun, educational experience. 

“We usually try to spend an hour a day outside, but it doesn’t always work,” she said. “(The most important thing I learned) is to let him lead.”

After about a half mile, the group turned around, but not before stopping by the river for a snack and a quick lesson on the importance of packing out your trash. Alt was able to give a first-hand demonstration, packing out undergarments that were left by a previous visitor.

The hike concluded with a talk on edible plants provided by ranger Caitlin Worth, one of the park staff accompanying Alt’s group on the hike.  

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