Most parents never forget the first time they go hiking with their kids, but usually it’s unforgettable for all the wrong reasons.
Instead of building happy memories, the event brings disappointment, difficulty, hunger, thirst, injuries, and unfulfilled expectations. Sometimes the experience is so bad that parents decide that they just must not be an “outdoor family” and swear off hiking with kids for several years, at least.
So, you want to take your kids hiking?
My own first experience as a young parent on the trail with my new family was a little atypical because we started before our first son was old enough to walk. We threw him in a pack and started up the trail. There were a couple of extra stops for diapers and nursing, but for the most part, we found that hiking with a baby was pretty much the same as hiking as a couple.
As our family grew, however, and our children became active participants, our trekking downgraded from brisk hikes to lazy strolls. Some days, I think we’d get more exercise climbing the stairs at the movie theater than hitting the trail, but what’s most important is that we’ve kept at it and learned how to have a great time.
Know your family – don’t bite off more than you can chew
Successful hikes with kids begin long before you get to the trailhead. In our family, we like to leave our preparations for the last minute, but we’ve learned that there are a few critical things we have to consider before heading out the door.
How long is too long?
A common mistake when panning family hikes is choosing too long of a trail. If you have small children, it’s time for a reality check.
Start with short adventures, work up to the big ones
In our experience, and the experience of other active families we know, the space-time continuum shifts dramatically when hiking with kids. What would take a group of adults one hour will take a family at least four.
My wife and I can knock out a 5-mile hike in around two hours before lunch, but with the kids in tow, we’re lucky to make it home in time for dinner.
Why, you might ask, would it take four times as long to go on a hike with kids? It’s simple really:
- Your legs are twice as long as theirs. It takes them twice as long to walk anywhere.
- They are twice as interested in nature as you are. You’ve seen plenty of trees, streams, butterflies, and bugs before. They haven’t. Plan on pausing every 30 seconds or so to take in the world around you.
Part of hiking with kids is learning to take your time. Of course, you can always force your children to hurry along the trail … you’ll need to yell a lot and none of you will have a good time.
If your children are VERY small, you’ll also need to consider their actual level of physical endurance. For small kids, plan on ½ mile of trail for each year of age. A 2-year old can go a mile, just remember that it’ll take much longer than you might expect. Somewhere around age 8, this guideline starts to become less-relevant. Our 8 year old can go for 5 miles … it’s a long hike for him, but not too much.
Is easy, easy?
A final word of advice when choosing hikes: trail guidebooks and Web sites often assign a difficulty rating to various trails. The difficulty rating varies with each resource. Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to know if “easy” really means “treacherous,” so plan on the occasional surprise.
Where to hike with kids
Our family has come a long way since we started, and we’re crazy enough to drive clear across the state to explore some lava fields, or head to California to discover a redwood forest; but in the beginning, you won’t do yourself any favors by taking on a grand adventure for your first hike.
Start off close to home
There are probably decent hikes within an hour or so from where you live. When you’re just getting started, choose something nearby – you can always go farther next time. This is one time where you would much rather underestimate your family’s tolerance for adventure, because biting off more you can chew in this sort of situation is a recipe for disaster.
Consider hikes with a destination
Your kids will approach hikes as an adventure. Having something cool at the end gives the journey purpose. It can also give everyone a reason to move along the trail – “hey everyone, we’re almost at the waterfall.”
Make sure the hike matches the season
Going to see a nice waterfall or a pretty mountain meadow is lots of fun … in the summer or fall. In the winter, though, the meadow might be covered in snow and getting to the waterfall could require special climbing gear.
What about the spring, you ask? Well, that depends … if you’re hiking in a place with snowy winters, spring melt-off can turn mountain trails to mud. Just use a little common sense and you should be okay.
You can hike anywhere
Even though mountains and trees make for great hikes, heading out for an adventure with your family doesn’t have to take you into the woods.
There are plenty of great urban hikes that you can go on if nature is too far away. Consider hiking on jogging trails or even walking through a fun neighborhood. You are only limited by your imagination.
Resources to help you find hiking trails
In addition to purchasing hiking guidebooks for the area you want to hike, here are a couple of Web sites I like to use to find hikes for our family:
- www.trails.com — They want you to pay, but I just use their site to find where trails are located and get basic info. Once I know the name of the hike, I search for it online and then typically find all the information I need for free.
There are also usually a number of online trail guides local to your area. A little online sleuthing should turn something up for you.
Preparing for your hiking adventure
Now that you have an idea of where you’re going to take your family to hike, it’s time to pull everything together and get ready to go.
When to prepare for your hike
When you’re planning a hike with kids, it’s best to organize things long before the adventure begins. Preparing in advance helps build anticipation and also gives your kids a chance to participate. The more they help plan, the more they’ll feel part of the experience once it’s underway.
The other big bonus with preparing in advance is that you get everything ready beforehand and the adults are able to get out of the door in a good mood instead of scrambling to pull preparations together at the last minute.
Spend time learning about the area where you’ll be hiking
A great assignment you can give your children is to research your destination. Have them learn about:
- Relevant history of the location
- Wildlife you might see, including dangerous creatures you might encounter
- Plants that grow there
- The weather forecast
This information gives you something to talk about during the drive to your hike and can also help you prepare for the hike itself.
If your kids aren’t old enough to conduct online research, you can probably dig up some quick facts with a couple of easy searches.
What to wear on a hike with kids
Here’s a list of clothing items you should consider taking on your hike. This list assumes that you’re just going on a day hike, not an overnight trip:
- Layered clothing
- Closed-toe shoes
- Wool socks – cotton socks work fine, but they are slow to dry, so consider bringing an extra pair if there’s any chance of stepping in streams, ponds, lakes, rivers, waterfalls, oceans, or puddles.
- Walking stick (optional, but fun).
What to pack for your family hike
If you’ll be gone for more than half an hour or so, you need to plan to carry some things along with you. Don’t expect that your little ones will be able to carry much, and remember that you’ll probably be carrying them at some point … so get ready for some exercise!
- Lots of snacks (let kids help choose and pack)
- Fruit leather
- Nuts (salty)
- String cheese
- Small camp stove for hot chocolate on cold days
- Secret treats (sugar boosters for a near-the-top pick-me-up)
- Breakfast burritos – I’m sure you could take something else for lunch, but our family stopped at a taco shop for breakfast burritos on our way to one of our first hikes and ate them as we went up the trail and we’ve never taken anything else for lunch, ever.
- Water (a lot)
- Spray bottle
- Daypack for parents and for each kid (everyone gets to carry something and be an important part of the trip – but they might not carry it the whole way, and that’s okay). Put less than 10% of their body weight in the pack. Many of these items are optional, plan according to what you think is best:
- Emergency whistle – this is not a toy. Teach your children that three blows = “I’m lost.” If they do get lost, they should stay put and blow three times over and over.
- Rain jacket
- Magnifying glass
- Guide book or identification cards
- First aid kit
- Diapers and wipes
- Toilet paper (because someone will always need to use the bathroom)
- Notebook and markers/crayons/pencils – document the experience
Extras to keep in the car, just in case
- Dry clothes and shoes for everyone
- More snacks
- More water
- Consider leaving electronics in the car
Who to pack
If you have toddlers, they might want to go for more of a wander than a hike. It may happen that, in order to get anywhere, you’ve got to pick them up and carry them.
Let them wander for a bit at the trailhead, then put them in a carrier as you cruise along. Take plenty of breaks so they can stretch their legs between naps.
In fact, even if your children aren’t toddlers anymore, you might end up carrying one or more of your kids. I always remind the older ones who ask to be carried that “we came to go for a hike, not to go for a carry.” They thought it was funny the first time. I think I’m the only one who laughs at it any more.
The key to keeping kids fresh is to stop and rest often. The more breaks you take, the less you have to carry.
Let the hike begin
It’s time. You’re here. You’ve prepared, planned, warned, and worried. All your stress has brought you to this moment. Now, it’s time to have fun.
Safety on the trail when hiking with kids
At the trailhead, stop to review a couple of health and safety-related items:
- Hydration: while you’re talking at the trailhead, pass around a water bottle. I tell the kids to drink as much as they want, then ask them if they can drink a little more. If they can, great. If not, that’s okay, too. Every time you stop, offer everyone water. If they don’t want it, suggest that they have just a little. My secret is to over pack the water that I’m carrying. That way, it’s heavy and I want it to be gone. I always carry a water bottle in my hand and drink from it regularly. Each time I have a drink, I ask everyone else if they’d like one, too.
- Critters: Snakes, spiders, scorpions, wasps, bears, cougars, and other creatures can pose a serious hazard as you hike. Make sure you learned what to watch for as you researched the area during your preparation phase. Take a minute to remind your family of what you might encounter and what to do if danger is present.
- Poison ivy / oak / sumac: Show everyone a picture of what these plants look like. If you see it on the trail, call everyone close so they can learn what to watch for.
- Berries: We always tell our younger kids that “we don’t eat nature” before starting the hike. Then we talk about the kinds of things we shouldn’t put in our mouths … berries being at the top of the list. The reality is that children DO eat nature, but talking about it this not only helps keep berries out of their mouths, but it also reduces the amount of dirt they ingest and the number of sticks they munch. Who am I kidding … kids don’t actually listen when you tell them not to eat the nature … but we still tell them because we want to keep them safe.
- Bathroom needs: If there’s a bathroom at the trailhead, ask everyone if they need to use it.
- Review emergency plan: Review any other problems you anticipate could arise. Talk about what to do if someone gets hurt. While it’s probably NOT going to happen, there’s a chance that Mom will be eaten by a bear and Dad will break his leg. Teach the kids how to go for help.
Reality check for adults
You are going on this adventure to have fun. You, and you alone are hereby charged with being the keeper and guardian of fun. Now, hiking is more physical activity than most kids are used to, so sometimes the kids will start to think they aren’t having fun. When that happens, your job is to get them back on track. Redirection is your friend:
- “Mom, I’m not having fun.” “Wow, look, that tree has the funniest branches I’ve ever seen.”
- “Mom, I’m tired.” “Awesome, let’s stop at that rock up there, I’ve got a secret treat in my pack I didn’t tell you about.”
- “Dad, you’re walking too fast.” “That’s funny. Look, I can sit fast, too … (plop down in the middle of the trail, have a break, then slow down when you get started again).
- “I hate hiking.” “It’s a good thing we aren’t hiking … we’re hunting for treasure.”
Sometimes, your spouse will think they’re not having fun. Your job is to cheer them up as well. You are the guardian of fun. Do your job. It’ll be fun, right?
Remember that the kids will go slower than you. Accept and embrace the fact that you might not get to the destination. You need to be flexible and adaptable to impromptu changes. Let the kids set the pace.
Pushing kids will make everyone miserable. Don’t do it. This is their time to bond with you, not your time to force them to meet some arbitrary goal you’ve set for the trip. Engage them, and keep them interested, and remember … dirty is the new clean.
Take a picture of your family at the trailhead before the hike
The last thing to do before you start is to take a picture. This hike will be extra memorable if you have a picture to go with it. Take another picture at your destination. Print out the pictures when you get home. Post them to your social media accounts. Share it with the grandparents. That way, people will ask your kids about the hike and they’ll remember how much fun it was.
And, they’re off …
Start down the trail. Immediately, reach into your bag for snacks and pass them around. After the snacks, offer everyone a drink of water. Fed, hydrated children are happy children.
Stop to marvel at nature
In the beginning, your kids may want to stop every few steps. That’s okay. A caterpillar is worth at least 15 minutes of curiosity.
Always keep your eye open for signs of wildlife. Kids are close to the ground, so they’ll be able to find all the bugs. You’re taller … watch for the birds and make sure everyone sees them. Point out the rabbits, squirrels, and whatever else you see.
Take breaks whether you need them or not
If you see a spot that would make for a nice break, take it. Sit for a minute, pass around snacks and water and listen to your kids. They’ll give you plenty of clues regarding how the hike is going. Learn from them and make sure everyone has fun.
When you leave each break, suggest that someone else be the leader. Changing things up keeps a hike exciting and something as simple as line order can make for a welcome change.
Engage their senses
If you want the hike to be memorable, help your children engage their senses. Stop and listen. Stop and touch. Stop and smell. Here is a list of activities our family sometimes enjoys as we hike:
- I Spy
- Skip stones
- Look for treasure
- Look for birds, flowers, poison ivy
- Scavenger hunt (don’t take the stuff with you, just find it)
- Color hunt
- Ugly bug contest
- Walkie talkies (kids automatically feel like adventurers the moment you hand them a walkie talkie).
- Embrace the age. If your kids like to make up songs about poop, this is the appropriate time for it. Play tricks on the kids (Raisinettes make great deer poop).
- Eliminate “I can’t keep going” with distractions and conversation about kids’ interests’
- Tell a chain story together – don’t let it end
- Twenty questions
- Practice emergency preparedness (what happens if you get lost?)
- Praise, praise, praise
- Maintain a good attitude
- Trash hunt (watch for bits of trash on the trail … whoever packs out the most at the end wins)
Leave no trace
We have a responsibility to promote a wilderness ethic in our families. I’m not saying you’ve got to adopt new political views or hug trees or anything in order to go for a hike, but you need to decide what your family believes about respecting nature.
I’ve been back to places where my parents used to take me hiking when I was a kid and they’ve been well-preserved. It makes me happy to share those same places with my children.
In our family, we LOVE nature. Our favorite place to be is “mountains and trees.” We considered naming our third son Scout because of how much time he spent in nature while Katie was pregnant. So we’ve decided that the only thing we take with us from our nature hikes are memories and pictures. If we find a cool rock, we look at it, we talk about it, and we sometimes give it a name, but we don’t put it in our backpack. We leave it there, so if you ever visit the same place, you can see the same rock and love it as much as we did.
We stay on the trail. We’re quiet around animals – as quiet as we can be with all our kids. We always carry our trash out and dispose of it properly. We are responsible with fire and don’t gather wood from where we’re hiking – we buy it locally if we’re planning to have a fire.
Your family’s wilderness ethic will be different than ours, and that’s okay – hopefully, you’ll be even more respectful of nature than we are – but teach your kids to be respectful and love nature. It’s your job. Do it. Have fun. To learn more about the Leave no Trace movement, visit lnt.org.