Hiking with kids can be an extremely rewarding activity for the whole family. Not only does a hike through nature keep kids physically active, but it has been proven to improve mental health and a sense of well-being as well. Taking a family hike gets the whole family outdoors together, away from common distractions such as computers and phone screens. Kids who grow up hiking have an appreciation for wilderness and grow up to have a greater desire to protect outdoor spaces for future generations. And of course, hiking with kids is economical: families can get outdoors and explore hiking trails with minimal gear and very little investment.
What to Consider Before Hiking
Parents will want to take their children’s ages into consideration before planning a hiking trip. Babies and toddlers can absolutely partake, but will most likely ride instead of walk: parents will need a child carrier such as a backpack designed for hiking and a plan for who will carry the load. The good news: parents of babies and toddlers can set their own pace and go farther than parents of young children, who hike under their own steam. The most important considerations when hiking with babies are the weather and trail conditions: plan to hike only in fair weather, remaining within reasonable distance of your car (or other means of support).
If hiking with young children, you won’t have to carry your kids (at least, not much!) but you’ll need to plan to go a shorter distance on mostly level terrain. The weather and trail conditions will still be important, as well as new safety considerations: are there any drop-offs along the trail dangerous to young children? How about creek crossings or steep grades? Steer clear of risky trails until kids are more experienced and able to follow safety commands.
When kids of any age are in the outdoors, they will be content as long as they’re comfortable. Keep kids well-fed, bringing more snacks and water than they usually require at home; warm or cool, depending on the season and weather; and bug-free, using mosquito-repellent clothing or lotion to keep pesky insects at bay.
How to Prepare for Your Hike:
First, gear up: Make sure you and your kids have the right gear. It doesn’t take much: sturdy walking or hiking shoes are a must for young children, as well as weather-appropriate hiking clothes. Always carry an extra layer, even if the weather is beautiful, including a lightweight rain jacket and wool layer. Kids will want their own backpack to carry; make sure it fits their body by buying at an outdoor store specializing in packs.
Parents will also need to carry a first aid kit and reliable means of navigation. Never rely solely on an app or phone; bring a paper topographical map or guidebook page as well. Teach older kids how to navigate.
Next, set expectations: Before hiking, make sure young children understand your family’s hiking rules, which should include:
- A plan for the trail: are kids required to stay in sight of Mom and Dad, or, if they’re more experienced, do they need to stop at any and all trail junctures and signage?
- A plan for separation: all kids old enough to hike need to know what to do if they get separated from Mom and Dad. Stop where they are, stand still, and blow on their whistle in bursts of three.
- A plan for distance and destination: set clear expectations for the goal of the hike. Kids like to know how far they are going, and what the “reward” will be: a picnic lunch, a swimmable lake, a stream for trout fishing, etc.
Lastly, stock your first aid kit: It’s possible to buy a family-size first aid kit designed for hiking trips for about $30. This is a good investment as it not only ensures you have what you need, but also provides you with a travel-ready container or bag you can restock yourself for future trips.
Tips for Hiking Success:
It may be impossible to avoid all whining or tears if you hike often, but it can be reduced to a rare occurrence! While parents may appreciate the Zen of the trail or simply the escape of spending time in the wilderness, kids need a fun destination to hold their attention. Plan to hike to somewhere exciting: a lake or other body of water is a good bet, but other favorites can include fire lookout towers, caves (never enter unused mineshafts, however), or shelters.
How to Keep Kids Hiking to the Destination:
- Put them in charge of the map: learning to navigate in the outdoors is a useful and empowering skill, and being the map-holder is fun for kids.
- Try a scavenger hunt or I Spy game: make a list of landmarks or wildlife kids could see on the trail and encourage them to check them off.
- Bring a phone to geocache en route or at the destination: kids love the treasure-hunting fun of geocaching, and there are a surprising number of caches in remote wilderness areas.
- Put kids on camera duty: designate a kid to be the wildlife photographer on the hike, and have patience when he or she wants to stop often to take photos.
- Plan to stop as often as every half or quarter mile with young kids. Allow them to explore creeks, climb (small) trees, and otherwise explore.
- Dole out fun snacks at intervals. Special candies or treats not routinely offered at home will usually suffice.