The great outdoors is hard to beat, and what better way to share it with your family than hiking with kids. But hiking with your kids often isn’t as idyllic an adventure as social media would lead you to believe.
Our three boys were still relatively young when we moved to a mountain town. Our eldest boy was still in kindergarten, and our youngest was not even one. But with the mountains at our back door, we felt compelled to take our boys out to experience the natural beauty around us.
For years I carried kids in a backpack carrier up the mountains. With some effort and lots of patience, our kids have become competent hikers. Our boys, who are all now in grade school, hike with me every summer. We do at least one multi-day boys trip a year and spend the night at a mountain lodge.
But hiking with kids hasn’t always been the smiles and happiness that the camera shows. Hiking, especially in the mountains, is not easy. There have been tear-stained cheeks to go along with those beaming smiles. It takes a lot of work to hike up a 3,000m peak and even more when you are motivating your kids at the same time. Despite all the challenges, hiking has been a great way to connect with my kids and teach them about nature and perseverance.
After years of hiking with little ones, I have put together a list of my top 7 tips for hiking with kids.
My Top 7 Tips For Hiking With Kids
- Keep it Fun
- Start Slow
- Take it Easy
- Kids Hiking Gear
- Hydration and Snacks
- Make it a Learning Experience
- Hike with Friends
1) Keep it fun
It must be fun if you want your kids to enjoy hiking. My goal whenever taking my kids into the mountains was to share my passion for hiking with them. I made sure to take the time to point out small animals and plants to keep the kids interested. When hiking, stop at exciting lookouts and let the kids take pictures. Playing games like eye spy or singing songs will help keep them entertained and motivated. When we do overnight hikes, I like to bring a pack of cards in my bag so we can play at night. It’s terrific father-son time, and I really connect with the kids. Here are a few hiking games that kids love.
Hiking Games to Play
- Hiking Scavenger Hunt – Make a list of items everyone has to find. The first one to see them all wins.
- 20 Questions
- Roving Hide and Seek (Good for older kids)
The list of hiking games is limitless if you use your imagination.
2) Start With Easier Hikes and Work Your Way Up
Hiking is a challenging activity, especially for little legs. Kids won’t be ready to walk 5-10km in a day right off the bat. Introduce kids to hiking with shorter family hikes. Starting out easy will give your kids time to adjust to walking long distances.
For young kids consider using a carrier. I did this with my own kids. All three of our boys started hiking in a backpack. As they got older, we slowly phased out the backpack carrier. They would walk short distances independently and then hop into the backpack carrier as needed. Our initial hikes were mainly on flat ground. As the boys grew up, we introduced longer, more technical hikes.
I also use the “start easy” philosophy on an annual basis. Every summer, as the hiking season opens up, we always start with more accessible lower-elevation hikes. It helps to get the kids ready without taxing their legs too much. The ski resort near our house offers a shorter half-day hike that we typically do a couple of times at the beginning of the season. We do more full and multi-day hikes as the boys get their hiking legs under them.
3) Hike at Their Pace And Plan Around It
Hiking with kids in tow is not like heading out with your friends. Kids just don’t have the same stamina and need more breaks. Their legs get tired faster, and they can’t stay motivated as long. When planning your hike, make sure to add extra time. If you must reach your destination before a specific time, add a contingency to your travel time. I usually add 20% – 30% to the expected time of any hiking trail.
Take frequent breaks for water and snacks. Your kids will be happier, and so will you. Hike at a slower pace, but try to keep them moving. On steeper hikes with my boys, we will set mini goals of how far we will go before we stop. We may pick a landmark or choose a length of time that we have to reach before taking a break. This lets them know how far they have to go and helps to keep them motivated.
4) Kids Hiking Gear
Nothing is worse than being soaking wet and cold with sore feet. If you don’t want to hike this way, why would your kids? Proper hiking gear is essential if you want to take hiking seriously. That’s not to say kids can’t go for a hike with running shoes and a school backpack. (I recommend starting out this way until you know you want to continue). But if you intend to start taking your kids into the wilderness, you should need the right hiking gear. Good gear is essential for safety. Below is my recommended minimum gear for hiking with your kids
A good hiking backpack should fit your child comfortably with room to grow. I recommend an internal frame backpack that is 20-35L in size. My philosophy when hiking with older kids is that they need to carry their own gear. This teaches independence and responsibility and is also safer. If you get separated from your kids, they need to have food, water, and their own safety equipment.
For light hiking, a pair of running shoes will do the trick. But if you start hiking uneven rocky terrain in inclement weather, you will need kids hiking boots. Hiking boots will protect their feet and ankles and provide good traction. Kids hiking shoes are a lighter version of hiking boots that some kids prefer as they don’t feel clunky.
I always pack a raincoat, whether the forecast is for blue skies or rain. Your kids should be the same. A lightweight shell will keep them dry during showers or help keep them warm if the weather turns windy and cold. This is an essential piece of gear that should be in your kid’s pack.
What can I say, but a hat keeps the sun off your head and neck. A good sun hat should have a wide brim and provide good ventilation.
Don’t go hiking without your hat!
The name of the game is long sleeves and long pants. You might get hot while hiking but the added protection from the sun and pesky bugs is well worth the added warmth. You can always take a layer off if needed. You want clothing to be made out of durable material that dries quickly.
A bear bell or whistle is an important safety device. If your kids ever get into an accident, they can use the safety whistle or bell to signal for help. Whenever hiking, the kids always bring their bear bells. If you don’t have a bear bell, packs will often have a whistle attached to the chest strap. Even if you have to purchase one, the small cost is well worth the added safety.
5) Hydration and Snacks
Hiking with kids is hard work, and they will get thirsty and hungry. Dehydration and low blood sugar are severe medical conditions that can quickly turn dangerous if not treated. Keep those youngsters from getting hangry; bring plenty of snacks and drinks for the journey.
I like to pack high-energy snacks like granola bars, trail mix, or dried fruit; the best part, kids love them. I always make sure to bring more than we need in case of an emergency. As for drinks, water is best. Plan to carry 500ml/hr for yourself and 250ml/hr for a child. Take this guideline with a grain of salt, as many factors affect how much water you need (weather, exertion level, etc.). And speaking of salt, if you are hiking with kids for more than 2 hours, you may want to consider salt candies to replenish electrolytes. Though I find trail mix often has more than enough salt to suffice.
6) Make it a Learning Experience
One of the best things about hiking with kids is the great learning experience. As you walk, talk with your kids about the plants and animals you see along the way. If you are lucky, you might see some incredible wildlife like deer, eagles, or even bears! Hiking with kids is also an excellent opportunity to teach them about “Leave No Trace principles.” Encourage your kids to pick up litter and stick to the hiking trail.
My kids’ biggest hiking life lessons have been persistence and not giving up. I have taken my boys on several gnarly hikes that have pushed them to their physical and mental limits. Teaching them to overcome that mental barrier and persevere even when they want to give up has been a great learning opportunity. I know they will take it with them for the rest of their lives.
7) Hike with Friends
Hiking with kids is more fun when there are more people. Hiking with others is so much fun and provides built-in safety. If one child gets tired or wants to turn back, there is always someone there to pick up the slack. Hiking with friends is a great way to meet other like-minded families and give your kids the chance to make new friends. The kids will motivate and help each other along the way, and you might even get to have an adult conversation!
What should kids carry hiking?
Depending on your child’s age, they should carry their own snacks, drinks, and rain gear. If they are old enough (and willing), they can also bring a first-aid kit and a bear bell.
How long of a hike can my kids do?
This really depends on your kids. Some kids are natural-born hikers who can hike all day, while others get tired after a few kilometers. Start with shorter kid-friendly hikes and gradually increase the distance as your kids get older and more experienced.
What if my kid gets tired?
If your kid gets tired, take a break. Hiking with kids is not a race, be prepared to stop and take in the scenery while having a quick snack. If your child is exhausted, consider carrying them for a bit.
My kid doesn’t want to hike, what should I do?
Hey, hiking isn’t for everyone; maybe they would prefer to go fishing or play in the creek. There are plenty of activities to do in the great outdoors, so don’t force it. Maybe next time they will be more interested.
So there you have it, 7 tips for hiking with kids. With some planning and preparation, hiking with kids can be an excellent experience for everyone involved. Just remember to take your time, enjoy the journey, and soak in all the beautiful scenery.