Have you ever set off hiking with kids only to turn back half way? Do your kids moan at the suggestion of a hike but are happy exploring once they get started?
We have experienced this and more many times, but we still persist and explore new trails as much as we can. Why? Hiking with kids offers a unique opportunity to bond as a family and to share the natural beauty of the outdoors with your kids.
We did a lot of hiking pre-kids. Short trails, full day hikes and multi-day hikes, we loved to get outdoors and explore new trails. The good news is hiking doesn’t need to stop when you have kids. It does mean some changes to accommodate smaller legs.
So how do you foster a love of hiking in your kids? We believe that a little planning before you set off goes a long way to ensure everyone has a great time. We hope that by exploring new places and discovering natural wonders along the way they will grow to love hiking as much as we do.
Based on our experience hiking with the kids on 4 continents, here are our top tips for hiking with kids so that everyone has a great time.
1. Find interesting hikes
Keep your kids engaged by choosing hikes with interesting sights along the way. It could be a creek, waterfall, large boulders to scramble over or a spectacular view at the end. Choose a hike that will reward the kids for their persistence. When you reach the summit, celebrate the achievement with the kids.
The local tourism centre is always a great place to find information on hikes in the area. Always check what is available when you arrive.
If you want to plan ahead, there are many good hiking books available. In the US we found this guide to the National Parks a great resource to help us plan our hiking with kids in advance. Lonely Planet also has a great range of hiking books available. Click on the images below for the latest prices.
2. Consider the distance and difficulty level
The hikes you choose will depend on your kids’ age and your (and their) hiking experience. If you have not done much hiking, start with shorter walks. You can then build up to longer and more difficult trails.
We find intermediate trails are achievable for our primary school age kids. For difficult trails we research what makes it so before making a decision. It could be things such as distance, steepness of the trail, technical sections or elevation.
Our kids have completed many trails classified as difficult without too much trouble. They are often scampering ahead, scrambling over rocks while we try and keep up with them!
3. Be prepared
It is useful not only when you are hiking in bear country but as a precaution in the event you become lost.
4. Check the weather
It is important to check the weather before you set off, especially when hiking with kids. Before kids it wouldn’t be a big deal if it started to rain or the wind picked up while hiking. With kids it can be a much bigger problem.
5. Wear appropriate clothing
Wearing appropriate clothing is one of the most important considerations to ensure kids stay happy on the trail. If they get cold, wet or have sore feet it is not going to be much fun for anyone.
Layering your clothes is the best way to ensure everyone stays warm and dry. This means:
- Base layer (long or short sleeve lightweight top)
- Mid-layer (fleece or merino jacket)
- Outer layer (rain jacket)
- Shorts or long sleeve pants
- Don’t forget a hat and sunglasses too.
6. Wear the right shoes
Sore feet are a sure way to stop hiking with kids in its tracks. Wearing appropriate footwear is important to ensure success when hiking with kids.
This doesn’t mean you have to buy expensive hiking boots. We have found our kids can do many basic walks in good quality runners. If you are on a longer trip and don’t want to carry hiking boots, trail-runners are a great compromise. They make a great travel gift for kids too.
Trail-runners are good as an everyday walking/running shoe. They also have a more sturdy sole and often come in Gore-Tex to keep feet dry when hiking. We all own Salomon trail-runners and they are our go-to shoe for travelling and hiking. Click here for the latest prices on kids Salomon trail runners.
If you find yourselves outdoors a lot, it would be worthwhile investing in some hiking boots. Always go to a specialist outdoor retailer to ensure the best fit.
7. Pack plenty of water
There is nothing worse than being thirsty and out of water when hiking with kids. Depending on the length of the trail and the season we are hiking, we usually carry 1 litre per person. Put some ice in your bottle or reservoir to keep it cool for longer on hot days.
We have recently changed from carrying water bottles to carrying water reservoirs. They come in different sizes, from 1-3L and sit inside the backpack. They have a tube to drink through and can be placed in any backpack.
We are able to carry much more water and it also means the kids can share the load by carrying a small backpack too. We like the Camelbak reservoirs as they have proven to be very robust (no leaks yet!). Click here to check the best water reservoir prices.
8. Pack plenty of varied snacks
We tend to over pack food, but I would prefer to come home with food left over than have two hungry kids on the trail.
Pack a range of high energy food such as apples, muesli bars, muffins, trail mix (a mix of nuts, dried fruit, seeds) that will last the day. We also carry some lollies (candy) to encourage the kids through the final kilometres.
Try to avoid foods that will break up if down the bottom of your pack such as bananas, biscuits and stone fruit. When on a longer hike pack bread rolls and some fillings for lunch. We carry cured meat, cheese and vegetables such as carrots, radish and cucumber.
9. Take a friend
Hiking with kids can be more fun when they take a friend along. On a recent short walk my son and a friend spent most of their time hiding, scaring their sisters and pretending to be howling wolves in the forest! The time whizzed by and they had so much fun too.
10. Start your hike early
Start the hike early in the day when everyone has the most energy. We find hikes are more successful if we get up and head out early.
For something even more adventurous, start a hike in the dark. We recently hiked Mt Warning, in Northern NSW, Australia, to catch the sunrise from the summit. The kids reached the top with barely a complaint as it was such a novelty to hike in the dark!
11. Read trail information
Take the time to read any boards located at the start of the trail. Not only do they have useful information about the trail they often list animals or plants you may see on the way. Seeking out animals is always a favourite activity when hiking with kids.
When hiking in the US National Parks, join the Junior Ranger Program and pick up an activity book before setting out on the trail. They are full of great activities for kids. These books transformed our experience roadtripping the national parks in the USA. The kids learned so much about the local area and were eager to stop and complete activities along the way.
12. Put the kids in charge of the map
Hand the map to the kids and put them in charge of leading you on the trail (make sure you have a copy too!). It gives them a sense of responsibility, helps improve their map reading abilities and distracts them from the (sometimes) mundane act of walking.
13. Note the time you set off
Take note of the time you set off and the estimated hike time. This will help you gauge how you are tracking as you hike. It makes it easy to recalculate your likely return time if you are hiking slower than average.
We have found hike times are usually generous. With our primary school age kids we usually complete hikes within the estimated time.
14. Plan for a lot of breaks
This can be frustrating when you are used to pushing on and getting to your destination in the shortest possible time. But when hiking with kids it is important to take regular breaks.
Take the lead from the kids. When they are slowing up or starting to complain it is often a good idea to take a break and recharge. Find a nice spot to sit down, have a drink and a snack and enjoy the view. Let the kids explore, play games and relax. We used this strategy a lot when hiking in Yosemite National Park.
It may extend the hike time, but it will also increase your chances of a successful hike.
15. Enjoy the conversations
We have the most interesting conversations with our kids when we are hiking. We have talked about all sorts of things when hiking with kids. My son will often talk non-stop for hours on a particular topic (usually animals or football).
Hiking encourages conversation. There are no distractions. It is perfect one-on-one time. The kids may chat about what is happening at school or with friends. It may be a program they have watched on TV or questions about the animals or people they see along the way. Hiking offers parents a great opportunity to listen, learn and bond with your kids.
I also find this to be helpful strategy if the kids are moaning. Ask them about their favourite sport team or a book they are reading. It distracts them and gets them chatting away again.
16. Play games and sing songs
Playing games is a great way to engage kids while hiking. Ideas include giving them a list of things to find along the trail, composing a poem out loud as they walk, playing eye spy or making up stories that each person adds to as you walk. Another idea is to take them geocaching as it gives them a focus for the walk. Singing songs is also fun for a lot of kids.
17. Have treats on hand
We always have treats on hand to encourage tired legs through the final kilometres of a hot or long walk. Lollies (candy/sweets) work well for us. Set small goals (such as getting to the next corner or over the next hill) before having each treat. These small goals work wonders for motivation to keep going.
Offering a reward at the end of the hike is also a good idea, particularly if it has been a challenging hike. It might be an ice-cream, a cold drink or a swim at the beach – something the kids can look forward to at the end of the hike.
18. Finally, don’t underestimate your kids
We often find that our kids are physically and mentally capable of much more than we expected. Don’t underestimate them! While there will be probably be a degree of complaining, sometimes it just takes a little encouragement to get them out doing things they haven’t done before. Who knows, you might find they love it!
With the right planning, we think hiking with kids can be a rewarding experience for the whole family.
Did we miss anything? What are your hot tips for hiking with kids? Leave a comment!
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