Having children doesn’t have to stop you from hitting the trail. However, there are a lot more factors to consider when you’re planning a hike with kids involved. Where can you go? How long can you stay? What can the children handle, and what will they enjoy? These questions, and many more, can’t be answered in a one-size-fits-all manner. Every parent, every child, and even every day is different. In any case, you’ll have to adapt your plans to your children, rather than expect them to adapt to yours. You’ll have to accept that things will be different when you bring the little ones along. But different doesn’t have to mean worse. Watching kids interact with the natural world in their own way — and even grow to love it — is a special experience. Their fresh perspective and sense of wonder could be beneficial to you, too! You never know what you’ll discover about your surroundings with a tot in tow. This guide will help you think about the ins and outs of hiking with children, from planning the trip to packing the food and gear. For backpacking trips, check out our separate guide: Backpacking with Kids: How to Plan Your Family Adventure. And if you're new to backpacking, you may enjoy our backpacking guide for beginners.
Planning a hike with kids
I’m sure you’ve often heard the saying, “It’s about the journey, not the destination.” Although it may be trite, it’s truly a good quote to keep in mind when hiking as a family. You might not reach the end of a trail, but you can still have a positive experience in the outdoors. Check out the following tips for planning a fun and safe hike with the kids.
Work your way up
Your children might not love the outdoors right away. Don’t get discouraged: sometimes that love takes time blossom and grow. That’s why it’s good to begin with baby steps. When the young ’uns are just getting started in their nature-fueled adventures, seek out short hikes that include exciting features along the way, such as creeks, lakes, or rock formations. Water features are a big hit for any age all year long — especially when it’s hot. Go when leaves are changing color or when spring flowers are blooming. The kids will stay motivated when there’s constantly something interesting to observe. Megan Tracy, mother of boys ages 6 and 7, recommends keeping hikes fun and easy. “I think the goal is to be out, not to push for a destination in our family,” she said. “If they are having fun and getting exercise, it is a success in my book.” The older your kids get, the farther they’ll want to and be able to go, but they might never learn to love hiking and being outdoors if they’re pushed too hard at the beginning. Therefore, make sure to gauge their capabilities. There’s a fine line between pushing them a little bit so that they’re learning and expanding their abilities, and pushing them so much that they’re not happy and no longer want to be there at all. “If they’ve melted down, they’ve passed the point that’s fun,” said Shira James, mother of a toddler. “It’s important to make them feel like they can be successful while not overdoing it.”
Slow down and give up your agenda
Unless your kids are older, don’t expect them to keep pace with you. Let them set the pace. Abandon any agenda you normally have for hikes (like making it to the end of a trail, or making it to the end and back in a certain time frame), because you’ll likely have to adjust. “I think it's hard for avid adventurers to slow down,” said Kelly Vaughn, mother of an 8-year-old boy and a 6-year-old girl. “But when you're dealing with tiny humans with short legs and even shorter attention spans, slowing down is essential. It enables them to experience the wonder of the natural world without feeling hurried and allows you to experience that wonder through their eyes.” Your hikes might not feel like hikes at all some days, because you’ll spend more time roaming around looking at interesting things than actually hiking. But that’s OK. “Sometimes we may only go half a mile into a hike because we are looking at cool rocks and plants, or playing in a cool tree we find,” Tracy said. Other times, she explained, they get caught up playing games, like pretending there are portals to pass through or fairies to find. This can be tough to adjust to at first if you’re used to going the distance. In those instances, try to focus on how great it is that you’re all outside spending time together. Practice patience, as it might be their first time seeing something that you’ve seen countless times before. How far you’ll be able to go will depend on not only the children involved, but also the day. “Every day is different for a kid, so sometimes my 7-year-old can do four or five miles, and sometime it is just a mile,” Tracy noted.
Take lots of breaks
Use breaks to rest and refuel, and take them often. Kids might seem like endless balls of energy, but don’t let that fool you — they can get tired more easily than adults. Their legs are much smaller, so for every step you take, they’ll need three or four. Stop as much as it’s needed. Let the kids know when to expect the next break by making landmarks in the distance — such as a bridge or a unique tree — an “energy stop”. Vaughn recommends letting children pack a few of their own small items that they can take out during a break. “Often, they'll include a few snacks of their own, along with a ball, coloring supplies or a small book,” she said. “That way, when we stop to rest, they can engage their brains in a different way.”
It’s important to let kids get dirty — the dirtier, the better. Let them play with sand, leaves, and pinecones. Let them splash in water and feel the wind on their face. Unless they are in danger, don’t hinder their natural inclination to explore and play. “The outdoors is such a rich, important sensory experience,” James said. “As an occupational therapist, I work with a lot of kids who have issues with sensory processing. Spending time in nature is a great way to help a child develop senses normally.” To encourage further exploration, give each child a role at the beginning of the hike, whether that be spotting birds or helping identify flowers. Delegate roles that will inspire them to look high and low. Not only will this help them learn, an “important” position will also give them a sense of pride and accomplishment. For a change of pace, add botanical arts and crafts into the experience. Encourage them to make a certain shape or a pattern with pinecones, leaves, shells, or rocks: the more creative, the better. The kids might ask lots of questions about what they see. When you don’t know the answer, let them know you will look it up together once you’re back home — and actually do so.
Know the trail before you head out
Do your research before hopping in the car, and let the kids get involved with the planning process, too! Study the route and make sure that the trail is not only fun, but is also safe. Read trail descriptions to make sure it’s appropriate for the whole family. “A nice flowing stream is great, but a raging river is not,” advised Tracy. “Be sure there are places to stop in the shade and cover in case it rains.” When you’re hiking with very young kids, make sure the terrain is easy and climbs are gradual. Avoid steep drop-offs or slippery surfaces. This’ll benefit you, too, if you’re carrying a baby or might end up having to carry a tuckered toddler. Regardless of what trail you choose, start early and keep track of time so you’re not hiking back in the dark. (And just in case, pack headlamps.)
Before the hike, talk with your kids about trail safety and set ground rules. Here are a few rules to start with:
- Always stay on the trail.
- Don’t run.
- Don’t throw rocks or other objects.
- Stay within arm’s length/eyesight/earshot of the adults in the group. (This rule depends on the kids’ ages.)
- Stop at forks in the trail and wait for the rest of the group. This is especially important to tell pre-teens who might be tempted to get a bit ahead.
Teach children about trail etiquette as well, because it often relates to safety. For instance, on a wide trail, let them know to pass hikers going in the opposite direction on the right, or stop to let them pass on a narrower trail. Be courteous when passing hikers going in the same direction. Lead by example, and don’t do anything you don’t want to see your kids doing. The Washington Trails Association recommends equipping children with their own emergency whistle and teaching them how to use it in case they get lost. Attach the whistle to their backpack, or let them wear it around their neck. “Three quick blows on a whistle means ‘I need help’ or ‘I am lost,’” the WTA advises. “If a kid is lost, he should stay in one place and blow his whistle, counting to three between each toot. Then be quiet and listen for someone calling to them. This should be repeated every few minutes until he is found.” Practice this drill, but remind the kids that the whistle is not a toy and is only to be used in an emergency.
What to bring on a hike with children
Packing appropriate hiking gear and food is essential to a great outing. If the kids get too cold, too hot, or too hungry, they’ll exhaust easily and won’t want to hike any longer. Avoid a meltdown and check out these 10 suggestions for items to bring on a hike with children. 1. Pack plenty of food and water. Kids get hungry quickly, so it’s important to pack healthy snacks that they can munch on while they’re hiking. The less trail preparation required, the better.
- For toddlers, squeeze packets work well because they can feed themselves.
- High-protein or energy-rich (yet tasty) snacks are great choices for any child — think dried fruits, protein bars, rice cakes, snack crackers, cheese sticks, peanut butter with apples, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
- Sugary foods or candy won’t stay fulfilling for long, but a treat could be a good motivator for a tired child, especially toward the end of a hike.
- Carry more water than you think you’ll need. You don’t want a lack of water to force you to turn back or put you in a dangerous situation.
2. Make sure their hiking boots or shoes are comfortable and broken in before they hike in them for the first time. For waterproof and breathable hiking boot options, check out GORE-TEX footwear for kids. 3. Bring extra layers of clothing and avoid cotton to help with temperature regulation. Even if it’s a warm day, the shade can be chilly and the weather can quickly turn. 4. Pack a change of clothes to leave in the car. Kids will often end up wet, muddy, or otherwise dirty at the end of a hike. A fresh outfit will help keep everyone happy on the way home. 5. Bring rain gear if there’s a chance of a storm. Though adults usually aren’t thrilled about rain, kids love playing in it and splashing around in puddles. Outfit the kiddos in a rain jacket and rain boots — even rain pants if it’s coming down hard — so they can have fun without getting soaked to the bone. Cabela's GORE-TEX Rainy River Parka is a good option for a waterproof and breathable yet warm layer. Even if it’s a cloudless day, rain gear is good to have along to block unwelcome wind. 6. Teach your children to wear a hat and sunglasses as early as possible, and lather on the sunscreen when necessary. A hot, sunburned kid will quickly become exhausted and irritable. (Plus, we all know how important it is to protect our skin from sun damage!) Help your kids practice wearing a hat and sunglasses periodically, when not hiking, so they are used to it by the time your family heads out on an adventure. 7. Invest in a comfortable yet practical carrier is key when hiking with a baby or toddler. An added benefit of having a carrier is that children often fall asleep in them, allowing you to extend your trip. If you get one that’s adjustable, both parents (or other adults on the outing) can take turns wearing it.
- For a baby, consider a soft-structured carrier by a company such as Ergobaby or LÍLLÉbaby. With this kind of carrier, you won’t be able to carry much more than your child, but hopefully a hiking buddy can tote the rest of the gear.
- Backpack carriers are also nice, because you can hold more on your back, but they are heavier and not usually as comfortable. There are plenty of carrier styles on the market, so do your research and find one that fits your needs and your budget.
- Get your child used to the carrier before you go hiking with it. Carry him or her around the house, around the block, or while running errands, so that when you use it on the trail, it’ll be business as usual.
8. Hiking poles are beneficial for added stability if you’re carrying your baby or toddler. 9. You should always have a first-aid kit on hand when hiking, but make sure to bring extra bandages and disinfectant wipes for those boo-boos and scraped knees that will inevitably arise from exploration. Tweezers are also important to pack in your kit for splinters, cactus needles, or ticks. 10. For an interactive or educational hike, bring along one or more of these extra items. (these are especially great for hiking with pre-teens):
- Identification books/cards
- Magnifying glass
- Journal to write/draw observations
- Brief history of the area/local stories to read aloud
Remember, young kids won’t be able to or won’t want to carry much. Most of what you bring, you’ll likely have to carry yourself — so don’t overdo it. If possible, it’s good to let children feel involved and give them a sense of responsibility by encouraging them to carry a couple of small items, maybe even a lightweight backpack. The older they get, the more they’ll feel comfortable carrying.
5 more tips for a fun experience
Here are five final hiking tips for a great hike with the family:
- Leave (most) electronics at home. It’ll help your children truly connect to their surroundings and enjoy nature without distractions. Adults can benefit from this, too!
- One exception to that guideline is a camera. It’s fun to snap photos throughout your hike, but don’t be a camera hog — let your children take photos, too. After the hike, look at the pictures together. Remind your kids about all the fun times they had in nature by pointing out particular moments in which they were having a great time and telling positive stories. Hopefully, they’ll be asking you about the next time you can go out!
- If you have only one child, ask if he or she wants to bring a friend along. Sometimes, adults can be boring to kids. Plus, a friend will take some of the pressure off of you to provide conversation and entertainment.
- Organize a scavenger hunt for the children. Encourage them to look for wildlife, specific things in nature, or certain textures or shapes. It’s a great way to keep them energized, entertained, and curious. You could even plan a prize for the kid who finishes the hunt first or finds the most of what they’re looking for (whatever the goal may be).
- Use positive reinforcement to help your kids stay motivated and proud of their accomplishments, however big or small. Even saying something like, “You did a great job climbing that hill!” can be encouraging to a little one.
Hopefully, the best-case scenario happens and your children quickly grow to love the outdoors as you do. But if they refuse to fall in love, despite your best efforts, take solace in the possibility that it may simply take more time or they may come to love it on their own. When I was a little kid, I was a cranky hiker and didn’t like spending much time outside, but look at me now: I can’t get enough of the wild. Either way, these tips will help start you on the right path for a family-friendly adventure. Now get out and explore!