Take a hike.
That’s the message Jeff Alt wants families to take to heart all year long. The avid hiking expert, author and speaker provides seminars in and around national parks, including a January seminar in Pigeon Forge during Wilderness Wildlife Week, encouraging families to get off the couch and enjoy the wonders of the great outdoors.
His recent publication, “Get Your Kids Hiking! How to Start Them Young and Keep It Fun,” is an information-packed guide for getting started with children. Hiking has many benefits — relaxation, connecting with nature, keeping your body moving — but the most important thing he sees is that it brings families together. “You’re away from all the distractions so you can focus on each other,” Alt said.
Alt, of Cincinnati, Ohio, was inspired to write “Get Your Kids Hiking” as a way to give families a comprehensive guide on how to enjoy the outdoors with even the smallest children. He said via telephone interview, “I realized heading out to the Smokies and various parks that there’s a lot of folks trying to get their families out there but they are ill-equipped or taking them on a forced road march up the mountain, and the kids are not happy. I thought maybe I could help out here.”
Alt said he has been hiking since he was a boy. When he got married, he convinced his wife, Beth, to give hiking a try, and now they take to the trails as often as possible with their children. Their daughter, now 9, accompanied them on a hike across Ireland at 21 months of age, and their son, now 6, was taken on his first hike at 5 weeks.
Alt said, “I started a program with park rangers in Shenandoah National Park where I would take my own kids with me and we would invite families to come. We’d do this walk-and-talk and we’d model how to let children lead you down the trail so they’re not chasing you. We started modeling these techniques. At the same time, we’d try various products out, bug spray, sunscreen. It was about five or six years’ worth of information compiled.”
People don’t want to see thick books. Instead, Alt said, “They want to get the information they need and then go do whatever. So, I tried to simplify my message. The book is laid out just like a pediatrician will tell a mom and dad, ‘at this age you need to do this.’ I tried to lay it out developmentally so you can go right to the chapter that applies to the kid you’re with.”
The book is an excellent resource, well written and presented in a way that is easy for the reader to follow and implement. The author addresses a number of topics, based on the child’s age. One chapter is devoted to hiking with a child with disabilities because, as Alt said, there’s a place for everyone on the trail.
Walk for Sunshine
Alt’s book, “A Walk for Sunshine,” is the story of his journey on the Appalachian Trail, traveling 2,160 miles from Georgia to Maine over 147 days beginning on March 1, 1998. Alt said he decided to hike the AT not only for recreation but also as a fundraiser for Sunshine Inc. of Northwest Ohio, a home for individuals with developmental disabilities.
“My brother lives there, he has cerebral palsy,” Alt said. “They support more than 1,000 people with developmental disabilities. Initially, I was dedicating it to my brother and started raising funds to give back to them for what they do for my family. Then it became an annual event. Some volunteers helped me out and coordinated a walk the first year I was on the trail. Every year since then we’ve had a 5K walk and run that has grown to over 1,000 people coming out and walking and rolling with us. I host that every year.” More than $160,000 has been raised for the Sunshine Home.
Alt tells the stories of his adventures on the trail, the people he met and the insights he gained. He said, “It was the most awesome thing I’ve ever done. I had never been away from civilization for more than a couple of weeks camping, but after about 30 days out there, it hit me as how quiet the world really is. You don’t realize how many sounds you’re exposed to until you’re away from it for awhile. It was just amazing. You shed your schedule ... All you have to is walk, eat, drink and sleep.
“You start to think big. Your mind just starts free-flowing because you have time to think. It was just amazing, the most amazing thing I ever did.”
The book, released in 2009, has won six national awards including a Gold Medal in the Fore Word Book of the Year Awards.