Bushwalking is a fun and fulfilling way to engage your kids in physical exercise and connect them to nature. These escapes can be as simple as an afternoon trip through a park in the city, or a daylong excursion to a nearby river, lake, or beach. If your family falls in love with bushwalking and aspires to make it a regular occurrence, taking several day trips will give you all the experience you’ll need to take a more ambitious overnight or multi-day trip to a national park.
Bushwalking with your kids is one of the best ways to get them to exercise because it doesn’t feel like exercise at all; to them, it is a grand adventure! It is common knowledge that regular exercise provides an array of physical and mental benefits, but did you know that simply being in nature also provides its own unique set of perks? The American Society of Landscape Architects provides a list of scientific studies with evidence showing that when kids are exposed to green outdoor environments, they show improvements in attention, cognition, stress levels, mood, and general well-being. It isn’t far off to say that by combining the positive benefits of exercise with those of interacting with mother nature, bushwalking is one of the healthiest activities your whole family can enjoy.
We know the safety of your children is your top priority. Australia’s natural environment can be dangerous if not approached with care, which is why we have provided this guide filled with safety tips for your entire family. Happy trails!
General safety tips for the bushwalking beginner
Before you head out, make sure you and your kids are dressed for trail success! Although you should research the area your family will be bushwalking for any specific gear requirements, we have listed basic necessities here for you. Sneakers with a flexible sole are appropriate for day treks, but overnight hikes and those in unpredictable terrain might require boots. Bushwalking Victoria recommends wearing a lot of light layers with a thin base layer next to the skin and a waterproof layer on top so that you can dress or undress as the weather changes. They also provide a list of things to pack:
- Water (1-2 litres per person in summer, 1 litre per person in winter)
- A first aid kit
- Food (snacks such as trail mix and granola bars keep well and kids love them)
- A torch
- A map and compass
- A GPS and a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) with GPS in case of emergencies
- A whistle for each person (to use when someone is separated from the group)
- Sunscreen and mosquito repellant (both should also be applied before starting your walk)
- Waterproof matches
- Extra clothes and a rain jacket for each person
- A watch for each person
- Sunglasses with UVA and UVB protection for each person
- Duct tape (in case of a broken sole or other quick repair)
- A plastic bag for trash
- Toilet paper and a trowel to bury waste
With everything all packed and ready, be sure to inform someone staying in civilization where you are going and how long you will be gone. When you arrive at your hiking destination, fill out the log books at the beginning and end of the hike. Both of these tips will help immensely if your family gets lost. Equip each of your kids with a watch, a whistle, and a mirror and teach them how to use their gear to signal for help if they get separated from you. Remind them to drink water often, even if they claim they don’t feel particularly thirsty. Lastly, how far your kids can walk depends on their age and level of physical fitness. Bushwalking NSW explains that preschoolers can walk 500-750 metres, 5-7 year olds can walk 1-3 kilometres, and children older than 7 can walk as far as they are willing, depending on their level of physical fitness.
Exploring out in the bush
Your family is equipped, knowledgeable on safety issues, and ready to go! Exploring the local terrain with your kids is fun for everyone, and provides ample opportunities for teachable moments on nature and responsibility. But before you delve into your surroundings, practice these safety habits with your family.
First, establish the expectation that your kids should never walk off alone, and that this is a rule that can never be broken. You can decide based on age and competence how far they can be from you at any time (such as ten feet, twenty feet, visual distance, etc.). Assign your kids walking buddies with their siblings or friends and tell them they are to stay together at all times. Pressing this important lesson early on makes a walking buddy second nature to them so that when they are older and more knowledgeable on bushwalking, they will already be in the habit of taking a buddy with them wherever they go.
Second, know the types of dangers your family faces while hiking and teach these to your children; our guide goes over these dangers in detail in the next two sections. Before you head out, go over preventative safety measures as well as what steps to take in case they ever find themselves facing a dangerous situation. Make sure you practice these as a family several times before leaving home so that they become second nature to your children.
Finally, ask your kids for constant communication with you and other adults on the bushwalk. Effective communication allows for a quick response in a dangerous situation, but it can also remedy milder situations, such as hunger, thirst, fatigue, or discomfort. As your kids grow and go on more bushwalks, constant communication can help them realize when they need food, water, or rest, and give them the agency to take responsibility for their needs.
Spotting a wild dingo or listening to the Australian magpie sing their complex songs for just a moment can be one of the most gratifying moments you can have while bushwalking, especially if you are experiencing it for the first time with your family. Excitement is a natural reaction, but respect for mother nature does not come as naturally and needs to be taught. Although Australia is known for having some of the most dangerous wildlife in the world, the average amount of people killed per year by deadly animals can be counted on one hand, according to the Australian Museum. The risk of a nasty encounter with a wild animal is relatively low if your family follows a few simple rules and stays on the lookout for species that can hurt them.
Most animals do not bother humans unless they feel threatened or their territory has been impinged upon. The first and most important rule concerning all wildlife is to never approach wild animals for any reason. Unless you are caught off guard by an animal, stay as far away from it as you can. Another general rule to follow is to always carry your torch when there is low light or visibility. Most animal attacks that have occurred at night could have been easily prevented had the person bitten been carrying a torch and avoided the animal before they unknowingly approached it. However, even with these basic rules, it is still good to familiarize yourself and your children with the most dangerous animals in Australia and how to avoid them.
The Australian Museum lists the Estuarine Crocodile as a predator to watch out for. If your family finds themselves near any body of water while bushwalking, pay close attention to any signs warning of crocodile presence and do not go near the water. Estuarine Crocodiles hunt mostly at night, but are also known to occasionally hunt during the day. The smaller ones sit and wait underwater for attractive prey, while the larger ones actively hunt. Do not assume that smaller bodies of water such as shallow pools, drainage canals, or even ditches are safe, even if it’s not apparent there are crocodiles near, and especially if the water is muddy.
Insects listed as potentially dangerous on the Australian Museum’s website are mosquitoes, honey bees, and bull ants. Mosquitoes are almost impossible to avoid, but they can carry deadly diseases, so spraying your kids with a mosquito repellant containing DEET before you leave the house and reapplying regularly while out on the trail is necessary. One honey bee sting may hurt, but unless your child is allergic to them, will not leave any lasting damage. However, if you come across a honey bee hive, know that this species defends their nest aggressively and multiple stings can cause immediate and severe symptoms, regardless of allergies. Bull ants are another species that defend their home aggressively and the entrances to their underground nests are either hidden or small, so watch out! They are found in a variety of habitats and will chase an intruder a good distance away from the nest.
Australia contains twenty of the twenty-five most venomous snakes in the world, and it is worth your time to research venomous snakes found in the area you intend to bushwalk. Unlike some of the other species listed in this guide, snakes do not typically go after humans; a snake bites purely in defense. Wildlife Tourism Australia says that the best way to react if you or your children find themselves in the presence of a snake is simply to freeze. Sudden movements will cause the snake to panic and it will be more likely to bite you. If your family is walking through dense brush or long grass, make a game out of stomping your feet; the vibrations will cause the snakes to slither off long before you reach them.
There are three species of spiders to watch out for and take immediate action should you or your child get bitten: the Sydney Funnel-web spider, the Redback spider, and the Sydney Brown Trapdoor spider. The first two species are highly venomous and cause severe symptoms which can be fatal. The Sydney Brown Trapdoor spider bite is painful but persisting symptoms are unlikely.
Although they don’t fit in the other categories of dangerous animals listed here, they are still worth mentioning: the Australian Paralysis Tick, the Cane Toad, and the Giant Centipede. The giant centipede’s bite is painful, but there are no lasting symptoms. The Cane Toad is highly poisonous and has not been known to kill Australians, but has been responsible for deaths of people in other areas of the world as well as numerous deaths of pets and wild animals. The Australian Paralysis Tick can easily hitch a ride on you or your kids’ bodies, introducing itself with a hard bump and accompanying itchiness. If the tick is not caught and pulled out with tweezers, symptoms can escalate within days. These can range from flu-like symptoms to rashes, an unsteady gait, weak limbs, and partial face paralysis.
Poisonous and prickly plants to avoid
One of the ways in which kids learn, especially younger ones, is through touch. Although this is a great way to learn with toys, it can be incredibly dangerous for children via touch when out in the bush. A good rule of thumb is not to come into contact with any plant unless you are one hundred percent certain of what that plant is. It is also important to know which plants to simply avoid. There are over one thousand species of plants in Australia known to be toxic to humans and animals, according to Australian Geographic, and plenty more that cause irritation and discomfort when interacted with. It would be impossible for you to learn all of them in one sitting, so once you pick your hiking destination, familiarize yourself and your children with the harmful plants native to that area. Below we have listed several of the most common dangerous plants to watch out for.
For information on additional poisonous plants, see this bibliography of poisonous plant resources from the Australian National Botanic Gardens.
According to the Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network, some signs and symptoms of plant poisoning to watch for in your children include vomiting, stomach cramps, irregular heartbeat, convulsions, and burning or rash of the part of the body that was exposed directly to the plant. Washing the affected area with cold water is the immediate first aid solution. If you are unsure of what type of plant your child was exposed to or if their symptoms are more than absolutely mild, head back to civilization right away and see a doctor. Be sure to grab a sample of the plant with some tweezers or gloves to help your doctor assess the appropriate treatment.
Bushwalking can seem dangerous for many reasons at first glance, but most of the danger can be negated when your family is armed with knowledge, preventative measures, and the preparation for any potential situation. It’s a fun and healthy activity your family can enjoy together all year long!