What parents need to know

So your son or daughter has decided to take up hill walking but you don’t have a clue how to go about getting them ready. Here are some things you can do to help them.

  • Get them to a proper club or investigate how the school will do it
  • Kit them out
  • Help them get fit
  • Be supportive and understanding
  • Volunteer to help

Get them to a proper club or investigate how the school will do it

There are a great number of clubs and schools that do a wonderful job but there are just a few that don’t. The prime concern for any parent is that their children will be safe. It is helpful to know how the club/school will ensure that your children will be safe and so you should look out for how experienced or qualified the leaders are. The Duke of Edinburgh scheme will train its supervisors and so you would know that this happens if the club/school are running the scheme. A great deal of this stuff is just common sense but not everyone seems to have it. There should be plenty of supervision whilst on the hills. Quoting a ratio would be silly because the tougher the environment and the more groups the greater about of supervision you will need. You need more supervisors than you might think and most of the time it will sound excessive but when the weather closes in one of the groups goes missing you might be surprised how many you need to ensure the rest are safe while the lost group is tracked down.

Don’t panic if your child is missing on the hills. It is fairly common for groups to get a little lost from time to time but a good leader will have trained the children in what to do if they are. Give plenty of time for finding them and trust that the leaders will do all they can to help. There is a degree of managed risk involved but it is extremely rare for children to get seriously lost. In my own experience of helping leaders you would be surprised how hard they work when a group goes missing and the concern and commitment of supervisors will do the job of getting the children back to safety.

However, make sure there are plenty of helpers and an emergency procedure should things go wrong.

There are various qualifications that leaders can take and too many to list here but leaders should be able to explain what ones they have.

Kit them out

It is always difficult to know what to buy and some of the kit can seem very expensive. If funds are very limited then it is better to spend money on things that will benefit the experience. Here is my list of priority order:

Boots – I have seen many young feet shredded by cheap boots. One of the biggest causes of blisters seems to be badly fitting boots. I have also seen new boots that have started to fall apart after just a few miles on the hills. The best advice is to go to a good shop with a proper fitting service. A good shop (I can’t advise on this I’m afraid but the group leaders ought to be able to advise you on local options) will help you. Happy feet are vital to the experience and skimping on footwear is a bad thing. You wouldn’t want to watch six hours of TV sitting on a bad sofa would you? – so why would you want to walk for six hours in ill fitting boots?

Socks – Proper purpose made walking socks are essential. I always advise wearing 2 pairs although some people seem to have a thing about getting hot feet and will insist on only one pair. Young feet that are not used to walking often suffer with the friction – two pairs of socks will reduce the friction. Watching the wincing and hobbling of young people is not easy, especially as I always want them to enjoy the experience. You are walking and so your feet are the most important part of your body to keep you comfortable. Please, please, please don’t make your children walk in your old socks. I have seen hobbling children on hundreds of walks who are suffering because they had to wear their Dad’s or brothers old army socks.

Waterproofs – the kind of waterproof you can use on a trip to the shops or the family Sunday walk is not going to cope with the kind of weather you get in wilderness areas. Coats all have a point at which they will let in water. Obviously if you are outside all day in pouring rain you need something that is going to continue to keep you dry. Wet and windy weather is life threatening in a wilderness environment and you should do everything you can to protect yourself.

Rucksack – the important bit is that it fits. A cheap rucksack that fits will beat an expensive rucksack that doesn’t every time for comfort. You need a good fitting waist belt and an adjustable back. There are some good cheap options but test things like zips and buckles because this is often an area that is skimped on. It is very hard to deal with a broken zip out on the hills.

Sleeping bag – being cold at night is horrible. You can wear your extra clothes but better to get a good sleeping bag. You also need one that is not too heavy or bulky if you have to carry it on your back. The kind you buy for a family camping holiday may not be good enough on a hill side when it is blowing a gale.

Clothes – learn all about the layering system to know what to buy and get stuff that is dries quickly. Lots of sports clothing is excellent for walking so you may already have some items in the cupboard. You need to be prepared for cold even during the summer. Living outside is very different from being outside for a few hours.

Other essentials – too numerous to list but includes safety kit e.g. torch, whistle, first aid kit, emergency shelter, etc.

Navigation equipment – it may seem odd to list this so low down but nearly every school group or outside club I have come across provides its young people with navigational tools. This makes owning some a matter of personal choice but not essential. However, you should check this with the groups leaders.

What do I need to include in a personal first aid kit?
Everyone needs to carry a few small items to keep them comfortable on the hills. I think as a minimum you should have: blister plasters (various sizes and lots of them because over an extended walk they may need replacing); pain killers, tummy pills (all those beans can take a toll and you don’t want to be uncomfortable), ordinary plasters (it is surprising sometimes how many small cuts you can get from tins or tent pegs or even a map), cleaning wipes, etc.

Help them get fit

Walking itself is an easy enough thing to do but walking over hills on rough ground carrying a pack for a whole day is very physically demanding. Anything you can do to improve fitness will pay off on the hills. One of the best exercises for walking is of course walking.

Be supportive and understanding

If you have exhausted yourself on the hills it can be soul destroying to return to a parent who gets angry over how wet or dirty you are. I’ve watched parents insisting their children remove wet clothing and boots before getting in to cars, for instance. Get the car ready with protection and let them pile in when you see them.

It is also very hard to be accurate with timing for when children need picking up. Mobile phones have helped a lot but when groups get lost it can take a lot of time to retrieve them. Most school groups are run by volunteers – teachers don’t get paid for weekend expeditions – and a great deal of effort goes in to making sure participants are safe and looked after. Please don’t complain if they turn up a little late – even jokingly. On that note try to remember to thank the teachers for giving up their time to support your children.

Volunteer to help

Of course you could always volunteer to help. Not everyone can cope with the rough living involved but if you do enjoy the hills then why not volunteer to help? It can be fantastically rewarding to help young people have a good experience of being on the hills. I have witnessed children blossom through the experience and if you like young people you will be greatly encouraged.