Any die-hard hunter with a newborn cannot wait until they grow old enough to accompany them in the field. I am a firm believer that it is never too early to introduce children to hunting, given that it is well planned, with proper expectations and in small doses. Seasoned hunters can easily handle a multi-day excursion in the bush chasing big game, but for newcomers, that duration might be too much. I started taking my kids hunting when they were two and three years old, albeit not for long and only with ideal weather but I had them out there spotting animals, asking about tracks, and hunting techniques. I have taken my kids hunting every year since then and we both enjoy the outings. I always ensured they were safe, warm, comfortable, fed and interested in our adventure. I found that safe, warm, and comfortable were all up to me, but keeping their interest was much more interactive based on how they perceived things. They helped me see things differently or perhaps missed or forgot all together. It was like hunting through the eyes of a two-year-old.
It is your responsibility as parent or guardian of children to keep them safe, no matter where you are – hunting is no different. Obviously, weapon safety is most important, and should be taught at the range well before heading into the field. When I take my children hunting for small game, it’s either myself or them doing the shooting. I prefer to either help them or have them observe, but not both as it is too much responsibility. They need good hands on one-on-one mentoring at an early age from someone without distractions.
In addition to weapon safety, make sure they understand the duration of the trip and rules. Letting them know how long and far we will be hunting gives them a sense of the remaining time left in the excursion. When I started out with my children, it was no more than evening hunts (three hours maximum). I would talk to them beforehand ensuring they would know we would be hunting until near dark after walking a few hundread metres into position. Have them repeat the plan back to you so you know they understand.
Rules need to be set, communicated, and understood before heading afield. First rule of big game hunting, whisper to talk or do not talk at all. Kids are generally loud and have no idea about the acute hearing capabilities of big game animals, they need coaching on what volume to speak at. Practice beforehand in a quiet place so they know what to expect.
Finally, as the sun sets and things begin to darken, they may get scared. Reassurance from you that we are safe is utmost important. You may even have to cut a hunting trip short and not stay until the bitter end of shooting light to keep the experience positive. I avoided morning hunts in the early years because walking into somewhere in the dark can be difficult for them to grasp. I always give my kids a whistle and flashlight to use to help them feel safe and engaged, telling them to blow the whistle if we get separated. The flashlight gave them something in their control and I instructed them to light up the trail for both of us.
Warm, Dry, And Comfortable
No sport is fun when you are wet and cold, especially hunting. Dress appropriately in correctly sized clothing. Do not break the bank in head-to-toe camouflage for an outfit they will wear once or twice before growing out of it. Instead, get them some Icebreaker merino wool base layers to wear underneath their outer layers they wear every day to school. Cabela’s offers a vast assortment of camouflage hoodies that are perfect for kids. If you buy one a little large for them, it will fit right over their base layers and warm winter jacket Mom bought them for school. A camouflage toque and hoodie is the only hunting specific clothing item I have ever bought my kids.
Extremities are the first to get cold, which include toes. Neoprene boots are great all-season footwear for kids to wear out hunting. Kids love the mystery behind hand and toe warmers in their mitts, pockets and boots and it shows them you are taking care of them.
I check the weather before I decide to take my kids hunting. As good as their Cabela’s hoodie are, cotton fabric will not stand up to the task in wet weather. I pick fair weather days to hunt, sunny and warm for the season. That is not to say I have not hunted with them in snow and cold temperatures, I just ensure the layers they have will keep them warm but days with precipitation are usually a no-go. Often in the winter we bowhunt from a blind together and I will bring my Mr. Buddy propane heater to keep us all warm for the evening. Ambushing big game requires staying still for the hunt so seats are a must. Kids, like me, need to be comfortable if you expect them to stay still for a few hours. My kids have never wanted to leave early because I have kept them warm, dry and comfortable for the short fair weather hunts I have taken them on.
Fun And Fed
Without knowing how fast things change when hunting, kids have little patience for watching the same scene of trees or field for hours. They get bored. More often than not, bored kids tend to say, “I’m hungry”. Bring plenty of snacks to get through a hunt. A thermos of hot chocolate is a life saver – no matter what temperature it is. Popcorn is also great – it is light enough for them to carry themselves. However, the ideal snack for kids is lollipops or chewing gum. They last for a long time and they cannot talk, keeping them quiet and detained.
There is a time for being quiet while hunting, but there is also a time to let loose. For example, I once towed my kids in the sled behind the quad down an unmaintained road before getting out to walk – fun for them and no harm done to jeopardize the hunting opportunity. They had huge smiles before we even started hunting. Another time, they rode in the pickup truck box bed as we crossed some cut crop fields to get into position – a little different view then their car seat they have been accustom too since birth. Quad rides are fun, but a quad ride in search of grouse is like a treasure hunt for a kid, plus being quiet is not required like with big game hunting. Riding on ATV’s along old unmaintained roads is like being on a new planet for first time youth hunters.
The hunter safety course teaches students everything they need to know to hunt and that is too much for young kids to learn in a few outings but give them a different taste each time. There are lots of things kids can help with besides shooting and lots of interesting questions you will need to be prepared to answer. Introducing kids to hunting does not even need to start in the field with an excursion. I remember as a kid, just hanging out in the garage skinning a moose that my dad had shot that morning. A massive wild animal hanging can spark a lot of interest to those who have never seen it. Learning where food comes from is an important lesson that can never be taught too early, including the historical aspect of when there were no grocery stores. Show them the hooves of a big game animal and the antlers. Let them inspect up close the nose, eyes and ears of a deer and I guarantee you will hear some interesting questions and observations.
Kids learn from harvested animals and it helps them understand what we are hunting for. Instead of pointing out an animal track, let them discover it. Let them ask about the piles of scat. Whisper the answers to them, explain why the bucks rub trees and why they use game trails year after year. Explaining animal sign piques their interest and should help later on when you are waiting for a live animal to appear.
When it comes to the actual hunt, lower your expectations, and get your kids involved. Your goal should be to see some animals and get home safe. There is lots to do when hunting big game: glassing, ranging, calling and extraction of downed game. It is not rocket science to use a big game call, so teach and let your kids try. It gives them something to do, especially if they are not doing the shooting. For any kid that loves math, a laser range finder is a magical ruler that will have them ranging every object in sight – fun, quiet and keeps them engaged. Binoculars can be challenging to use for little faces, but well worth the effort of teaching them to see things up close.
However, the ultimate hunting tool for children are rattling antlers for deer. Here is a chance to let your kids let loose and be a loud as possible stomping their feet and smashing bone together in hopes of attracting a buck. Of course, you will need to explain why this type of noise is allowed. My kids were tentative at first to rattle, however with a little coaching I had them rattling as hard and as loud as they could. They loved it.
After you pull the trigger on a big game animal, the hunt stops, and the work begins but do not let the lessons stop there. Tracking a big game animal is exciting. Show them what to look for and have them follow the tracks and find the next drop of blood. Stay be there side as you track cautiously and comfort them as they take the lead. If you see the downed animal, do not spoil it for them, let their eyes find it. Let them enjoy the anticipation.
If you are lucky enough to kill something with your kids alongside you, take the time for a quality picture to help preserve the memory. Let them help with the work afterwards: kids can easily hold legs out of way while you gut a big animal. Operating a winch is as simple as pressing a button, so have them do it. Most of all, answer any questions they have with as much detail as possible, slow down and take the time to give them the information they seek – their brains will be like little sponges soaking it all up.
Small Game Success
Small game hunting does not require the same stealth and quietness as big game hunting, making it the perfect introductory hunt. Besides the ability to talk at a normal level, it can be done in the spring, summer, and early fall so the weather is not usually a factor. Like I mentioned earlier, I would rather have my kids observe me do the shooting or I mentor them. Gopher hunting was no different. I taught them what to look for and patience. My son had such persistence that day, wanting more than anything to hit a gopher with an arrow. 30 or 40 arrows later, he finally connected with one. He was so proud and went through many emotional highs and lows, but he kept at it and made it happen in the end. Shortly after, his sister followed on her 6th shot. A sunny afternoon (warm & comfortable) with lots of action (interested) and instruction from me (safe) was the perfect recipe for success hunting gophers.
For seasoned hunters watching their kids be born, it does not take long to dream of passing along the tradition of hunting to them. Although, you will need to slow down and set your expectations, accordingly, mentoring your kids while hunting is worth the effort even if it does take away from your personal hunting goals. Keep them safe, warm, dry, fed and interested and soon they will be asking you, “When can we go hunting again?”
Here Is A List Of Additional Gear Required For Hunting With Children
- Wool base layer (top / bottom)
- Wool socks
- Hunting outer layer (camouflage or whatever the regulations state)
- Hat / toque
- Hot chocolate
- Small binoculars
- First-aid kit
By Gord Nuttall