Getting kids hooked on outdoor recreation helps them grow to be physically active. Hiking and canoeing are sports they can start as preschoolers and enjoy for a lifetime.

"I think it's important to teach kids to be active in a way they can maintain as a lifestyle," says Andrea Muller, who oversees youth outdoor education programs for the Appalachian Mountain Club in Pinkham Notch, New Hampshire. Participation in team sports, she notes, often stops when schooling does.

For small children, don't set lofty goals like climbing to the top of a mountain. Begin gradually with a short hike to collect different kinds of leaves or a canoe ride to spot turtles and other aquatic life. Be flexible about your plans, and let your child's curiosity be your guide.

Hiking

Children can begin hiking adventures as soon as they can walk (or earlier if carried in a baby backpack). Hiking strengthens the legs, the heart, and the lungs. It provides a fun form of fitness for the whole family.

Starting Out

For short legs, take short hikes in parks or on nature trails with relatively flat terrain. With older kids or teens, head to the hills and count up the miles.

Planning

Plan hikes with exciting destinations—a panoramic view, a waterfall, or a lake for swimming. Pre-teens and teens can take part in planning the trip. Let them choose a destination, map out a safe route, and help pack the necessary supplies.

Safety Tips

  • Never walk alone. (Let someone at home know your hike plans in advance.)
  • Stay together as a group, hiking at the pace of slower walkers. If older children want to walk faster than younger ones, designate an easy-to-find rendezvous spot.
  • Know your route. Follow a map or ask a forest ranger about the trail.
  • Don't run on rocky or steep trails.
  • Step around or over rocks and roots whenever possible.
  • Stay on the trail to limit damage to nature and avoid poison ivy, poison oak, and ticks.
  • Don't wait until you feel thirsty to drink.
  • Don't drink from mountain streams, which may be contaminated with infectious organisms.
  • Take frequent rests (at least five minutes every half hour for novices).
  • Be prepared for bad weather or a longer trip than expected. Bring extra clothes, food, and water.

Canoeing

Younger children can enjoy the ride in the canoe. As children get older, they can start paddling, which builds upper body strength. Be sure to select paddles that are the appropriate length and weight.

The Boat

For stability and room, pick a long, flat-bottomed boat. Children can sit in the center or, if small, in the bow in front of an adult. Once they start to paddle, they can rotate between the bow and stern to learn how to propel and steer the boat.

In an open canoe, you will want to protect your belongings. "You'll need a dry bag for food, a first-aid kit, and extra layers of clothes," says Muller. "Nice waterproof packs that float are available."

Starting Out

Start with short outings on quiet water—small lakes, ponds, or slow-moving rivers. Older, more experienced children, can try rivers with stronger currents or even white water.

Planning

Plan to stop to picnic and give everyone a chance to stretch their legs. Choose a spot where you can safely climb in and out of the boat.

Safety Tips

  • Wear a personal flotation device (PFD) of the proper size—infant, child-small, child-medium, or adult. Avoid orange horse collar styles, which can be hot and uncomfortable.
  • Learn how to swim or have experience floating in a PFD.
  • Learn how to paddle and do water rescues.
  • Stay low and hold onto both gunwales (upper edges of the boat's sides) when getting in or out of the canoe.
  • Children in the middle should sit on the bottom of the boat using seat cushions that double as back-up flotation devices.
  • Don't suddenly shift from one side of the canoe to the other.
  • Know your route—the direction of the current, places to put in and park, dams, rapids, and other hazards. Let someone at home know of your plans in advance.
  • If wind or waves are strong, kneel instead of sitting on the seats when paddling.
  • Check weather forecasts before heading out. If caught in a storm, get to shore as quickly as possible.
  • Bring extra rope for tying up on shore or rescues.
  • Begin river excursions heading upstream, so the return trip—when you're more tired—will be easier.
  • Anyone canoeing should not consume alcohol or any other substance that could impair alertness or function.

What to Wear

Layers

For any outdoor activity, dress using the "onion principle"—wear multiple layers like T-shirts, sweaters, and jackets, which can easily be peeled off or added. Avoid pure cotton, which can make you cold and miserable when wet. Cotton blends, wool, and pile (like Polartec) provide better insulation.

Hot and Cold

Keep in mind that children overheat and cool down faster than adults. Also remember a child carried in a backpack or sitting on the bottom of a canoe is likely to be colder than hikers or paddlers.

Rain

Bring along rain gear just in case, and wear a hat with a brim to protect against sun and bugs. Sunglasses with UV protection are also a good idea around water and at high altitudes.

Hiking

For hiking, wear walking shoes or lightweight hiking boots that have plenty of room for the toes. Break in your new boots at home before you venture out on a hike. Wear two pairs of socks to help prevent blisters.

Canoeing

For canoeing, wear sport sandals or water shoes to protect against sharp rocks or broken glass.

What to Bring Along

  • Plenty of water—Bring at least a quart per person for a four-hour trip, and more on a hot day. (Let each child carry his own water. Fanny packs with water bottles are convenient.)
  • Snacks/lunch—Choose compact food like fruit,cheese, and granola bars. GORP (granola, oats, raisins, and peanuts) is a nutritious option.
  • Magnifying glass, bug box, binoculars, and guidebooks for nature watching
  • Tissues or toilet paper
  • Sunscreen (at least SPF 15+)
  • Insect repellent—For children under age six, use repellents with DEET concentrations no greater than 10%.
  • First-aid kit with moleskin, Band-Aids, gauze dressing, adhesive tape, ace bandage, safety pins, tweezers, non-aspirin painkillers, anti-diarrheal tablets, and allergy medicine, if appropriate
  • Camping knife, flashlight, and matches