Spending time outdoors has been proven to boost physical and mental health for people of all ages. However, enjoying outdoor activities with kids can pose some risks for children and families if they aren’t properly prepared. Whether your child is swimming in open water or tackling their first fourteener, taking the right precautions can keep kids safe and help them develop a healthy, respectful relationship with nature.
Children’s Hospital Colorado experts offer important information about how to safely participate in outdoor activities with kids — and how to ensure fun at every age and skill level.
Hiking with kids
When taking your kids hiking for the first time, pacing is everything. Young children often get excited and want to run, but an exhausted kid will not enjoy themselves later in the hike. Instead, encourage slow walking and let them dawdle, rest and stop to look at interesting stuff.
Most importantly, be sure the hike is something you and your kids can safely accomplish, suggests KellyAnne Bultemeier, clinical athletic trainer in sports medicine and orthopedics at Children’s Colorado’s Sports Medicine Center.
That means choosing a location, hiking distance and difficulty level that makes sense for your family, as well as considering possible emergency scenarios.
"If you were to hurt yourself and hit your head and become unconscious, is your child old enough to know what to do? If the answer is no, then you maybe need to hike in a more highly trafficked area." Bultemeier says.
Hiking fourteeners with kids
It’s difficult to recommend a specific age at which young hikers are ready to attempt their first fourteener (mountains that are 14,000 feet or taller) because parental education and exposure play a major role in the knowledge and maturity of young hikers. However, you can help your child safely work up to a fourteener if they are interested in the challenge.
Your child should begin with easy, low-elevation hikes and progress to higher elevations. After that, they can begin with Colorado's lower-difficulty fourteeners, such as Grays Peak, Torreys Peak, Mount Sherman, Quandary Peak and Mount Bierstadt.
Children and teenagers attempting fourteeners should be knowledgeable about proper nutrition, hydration, appropriate start times, weather, overexertion, pacing, equipment, clothing and appropriate turnaround times. Summiting by noon helps hikers avoid getting caught in lightning storms, which tend to pick up in the afternoon. When hiking at high altitude, always turn around between noon and 1 p.m., even if you don’t reach the summit.
Every great hiking adventure requires a thorough packing list. Parents should carry a pack with these items, but for kids or teens old enough to carry their own pack, it’s also good for them to carry most of these items as well.
Packing list for hiking with kids:
- Sunscreen (cover scrapes and wounds, and reapply often)
- Insect repellant
- Lots of water (consider adding fruit or other tricks to help kids drink more water)
- Snacks: You’ll want enough to last the entire journey, plus an extra meal in case of emergency. Kids should refuel hourly throughout the hike, not just when they feel hungry.
- First-aid kit that includes small bandages and elastic bandage wrap (consider bringing a moldable splint for longer, tougher excursions in the backcountry)
- Extra clothing layers (avoid material that retains moisture, such as cotton)
- Gloves, hats and a waterproof jacket
- Map or GPS device
- Cell phone
- Fire starter
At higher altitudes, parents should be aware of acute mountain sickness (AMS) — also known as altitude sickness — and its symptoms in young hikers.
Symptoms of altitude sickness:
- Refusal to eat
- Trouble sleeping
- Nausea or vomiting
How to prevent altitude sickness in kids:
- Start with a slow ascent. Children traveling to Colorado should spend a night in Denver or at an intermediate altitude to significantly reduce their chance of getting AMS.
- Restrict activity on the first day or two upon arrival to a higher altitude.
- Use ibuprofen or Tylenol to prevent headaches.
Exercising in the heat raises the risk of dehydration and heat-related illness. Fortunately, knowing the signs and symptoms (and how to avoid such illnesses) can prevent heat exhaustion and heatstroke.
Tips to avoid heat-related illness in kids
- Children with medical conditions like sickle cell trait, diabetes and obesity, as well as kids who take stimulants or anti-depressants, are at an increased risk of developing a heat-related illness.
- Muscle cramps, triggered during heavy exercise in heat, are often the first sign of trouble.
- Treat cramps by stretching, resting in a cool area and replacing lost fluids and salts with a sports drink that includes a proper balance of sugar and electrolytes.
- Avoid energy drinks, which contain caffeine and may make the problem worse.
Symptoms of heatstroke include:
- Rapid heartbeat
- Body temperatures over 104 degrees
- Skin that is hot and dry to the touch
If your child displays any of the symptoms of heatstroke or becomes unresponsive, seek immediate emergency medical help. If possible, place the child in a tub of cold or icy water. If that is not possible, placing ice packs on the neck, armpits and groin is the next-best option.
Although heat illness can be scary, it is preventable. Trust your instinct and don’t be afraid to end an excursion early if you feel unsafe.
Children’s water safety tips
Staying smart while swimming can keep your kids safe all summer long. For example, when swimming in lakes, check children for open wounds before allowing them to jump in.
“Anytime kids are in open water with cuts or scrapes, I worry about an increased risk of infection,” Bultemeier says.
Bacteria from the water can get into wounds and cause painful infections, making it harder for the wound to heal. That’s also true for kids who are recovering from surgery and still have stitches or incisions that haven’t fully closed. Additionally, parents and caregivers should be aware that kids with head injuries or concussions shouldn’t be swimming until they’ve fully healed and been cleared by a doctor.
Parents and caregivers should be sure to protect their kids with sunscreen during all outdoor activities, applying it at least 15 to 30 minutes before going into the sun. When spending time in the water, though, it’s best to reapply sunscreen after every swim.
Parents can do their part to prevent drowning and other water-related accidents. For example, they can ensure kids use the buddy system, an important safety precaution, when swimming in open water.
“No one should ever swim alone. That's a big thing,” Bultemeier adds. “If siblings are swimming together, they never go off without the other.”
Additionally, one adult should also be designated to watch kids at all times. “For parents, it's always good to identify who is in charge of eyes on the water, especially with groups,” Bultemeier says.
She suggests establishing a physical reminder, such as a safety vest, that the designated watcher can hold or wear. That way, they remember their duty and don’t get distracted while keeping their eyes on the water. This is especially important for younger kids who can’t swim, because relying on a noodle or float alone isn’t enough.
"Floaties can get stuck in different places, and kids can then become trapped under them,” Bultemeier explains.
Lastly, anytime kids are swimming in the pool or out on the lake, it’s important that at least one adult in the vicinity is trained in CPR. To get certified, visit the American Red Cross website and search for a course near you.
Kayaking, rafting and boating with kids
The single most important item for rafting and boating water is a Coast Guard-rated life jacket that fits well and is appropriate for your child’s weight and height. Your child needs to be comfortable wearing it, even on a guided trip. If children are too small to wear a life jacket, it might be better to wait until they’re older before taking them out on the water. When boating in Colorado, all children under age 13 are required to wear a Coast Guard-approved life jacket. See your state guidelines for additional information.
Additionally, no matter where you live, it’s a good idea to always have a life preserver on board to throw to someone who might fall into the water.
The American Whitewater Association classifies rivers based on difficulty (which may vary based on time of year, as changes in water level affect difficulty level). Until kids are fairly strong swimmers with experience on the water, it’s probably best to stick to class 1 or 2 rapids. Mountain rivers and rapids can be unpredictable, and since the water comes primarily from snowmelt, it’s very cold. Although 65-degree water may not sound that cold or dangerous, water at this temperature can cause muscles to seize up, and seized muscles can render even the best swimmers unable to get out of a potentially dangerous situation. If you’re on a whitewater rafting tour, be sure you and your children wear helmets, too.
Ideally, you’ll want at least one adult per child on your river trip. It’s also a good idea to talk to your kids about rafting safety beforehand, emphasizing focus and awareness of surroundings.
If you do decide to take kids rafting, make sure they’re solid swimmers and that they wear proper gear. Also, do some research and pick a reputable rafting company and a relatively easy trip.
Fishing with kids
When it comes to fly fishing in open water, kids need to be tall and strong enough to support themselves against the current. They should also be able to swim — or have a life jacket on — in case they get knocked into the stream.
“If they can balance on a bike and ride their own bike without support, that core strength and coordination could apply to casting a fishing pole by themselves in moving water,” Bultemeier says.
Otherwise, younger kids are better off fishing from the bank instead. Kids and teens who’ve recently recovered from surgery, or anything else that has changed their activity level, may also fare better fishing from the shore until they’ve regained their strength.
Backyard trampoline safety
Jumping on a trampoline can be great exercise for the whole body, but are trampolines safe for kids? The truth is, as with any activity or sport, trampolines pose risks — especially for younger kids and jumpers who aren’t following safety rules.
Dangers of trampolines
Children’s Colorado pediatric orthopedic surgeon Gaia Georgopoulos, MD, and her team have seen a steady increase in the number of trampoline injuries in kids of all ages, but especially in kids between the ages of 5 and 9. “And a lot of those injuries are fractures,” Dr. Georgopoulos says.
A fracture, commonly known as a broken bone, can happen more often in younger kids because their bones are more flexible. Injuries can occur when kids fall off the trampoline, which is why it’s important to have a cage or safety net around it. However, most trampoline injuries are due to jumpers bumping into each other, trying to do stunts or double bouncing (when the rebound energy of the trampoline causes a jumper to go higher but also places excessive force on their legs).
Fortunately, Dr. Georgopoulos says parents can reduce the risk of a trampoline injury by following safety precautions and trampoline age recommendations outlined by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
Trampoline safety tips for kids:
- Parents/caregivers should only allow children 6 and older to jump on a full-sized trampoline.
- Parents/caregivers should closely monitor the activity of kids 10 and under.
- Ideally, there should be an adult spotter at all times.
- Only one person should jump on the trampoline at a time.
- Do not allow jumpers to attempt somersaults.
- Always keep the trampoline springs covered with padding.
- Do not place the trampoline near trees or other structures.
- Supervise all children on trampolines.
- Do not place a ladder near the trampoline; small children can climb the ladder and jump unassisted.
Injuries aren’t limited to backyard trampolines. Dr. Georgopoulos says that her team sees patients with injuries that occur at indoor jumping parks or bounce houses, and she advises parents and caregivers to closely monitor their child’s activity in these settings, too.
Does your insurance company cover trampoline-related injuries?
Another thing for caregivers to consider is whether their homeowners insurance covers injuries sustained from trampolines. Many insurance companies have exclusions for trampoline injuries in their policies.
Parents should know that if they own a trampoline, they could be responsible for medical bills and legal costs if children are injured while playing on their trampoline.
Rock climbing with kids
Since climbing requires a significant amount of technical knowledge and skill, parent and caregiver preparation is probably more important than the age of their kids.
The most important piece of gear is a climbing helmet, which is specifically designed to absorb the impact of falling rock.
Rock climbing is equipment-intensive, so parents and caregivers who don’t own it already might want to test the waters before they invest. Indoor climbing gyms offer a great place for climbers to build skills in a safe, equipped environment, without the threat of a rock fall or changing weather. Climbing walls can help kids with motor skills, muscle development and coordination. And if they’re in a controlled environment such as a recreation center, the experience often includes trained spotters, harnesses and lots of pads.
Mountain biking with kids
The most important thing to consider when mountain biking is whether kids are skilled enough for the difficulty level of the trail. Kids also need a healthy knowledge of and ability to abide by trail etiquette.
The most significant risk in mountain biking is going over the handlebars and sustaining a shoulder injury, clavicle fracture or concussion. Kids need the ability to roll over or jump obstacles, such as rocks and logs, before taking on difficult trails. In addition to always wearing a helmet, caregivers should know the route, elevation gain and difficulty of the trail in advance.
Outdoor activities with kids
If you’re ready to take the kids outdoors, keep in mind that virtually any recreational activity involves some element of risk. However, proper knowledge, expectation and preparation can help mitigate danger in the great outdoors to ensure that a great time is had by all.