When you picture a day of hiking with children, you probably imagine a magical place. A place where every corner uncovers something new that delights your child. You see a relaxing day meandering down a trail with green trees and scenic views while everyone is laughing and singing. Yes, you are the Von Trapp Family traipsing through the valley singing Climb Every Mountain in perfect harmony.
Except, the reality is that hiking with children is not always all sunshine and roses. With kids hiking, there can be a fine line between an adventure they talk about for weeks and a meltdown of epic proportions. No worries though, hiking with kids can be a trip they will remember forever with just a little extra planning. We are here to help with some helpful tips for hiking with kids!
Know Your Child’s Hiking Limits (And Yours too)
1) Start small: Hiking is fun but it can be hard work for small bodies. Just as you wouldn’t run a marathon without training, you can’t expect your child to hike a long trail the first time out. Start your kids hiking with a small nature trail, then each trip adds a little more distance. If you are planning for a vacation that will involve hiking, start with walks in local parks months before you go.
2.) Be Flexible: There is no rule that you MUST get to that waterfall. When hiking with kids it’s about the journey, not the destination. As adults, we tend to be destination-motivated hikers, and that’s exactly what can ruin the hike for your child who wants to explore as they go.
Embrace the moment when you see ground squirrels chasing each other or found that baby rabbit crossing the trail. It’s ok to discuss the most extraordinary rock sitting by the trail or the creepy bug hiding under a rock. And most important don’t be annoyed if you need to turn around early because everyone is getting tired. Taking home good memories means there will be many more hikes with your kids.
3.) Choose a kid-friendly destination: Your children might enjoy climbing over boulders more than sitting to admire a calm lake. Or running in a big open field or splashing in a creek might be more appealing than staring at a distant mountain when hiking with kids. Children hikers are doers so plan your destination accordingly. If they get there and choose to chill, that OK too. Kid-friendly hikes will encourage more future hiking from your children.
4.) Make a chart at home to track your hiking miles: Set a family goal with a reward for miles hiked over a period of time. You can make it over a vacation, or over the whole summer. Your hiking kids should help set the goal and then update the chart after each hike. Children love seeing their progress in full color.
Get Your Kids Involved Before Your Hike
Get your children excited about the coming hike by getting them involved in planning. Children love being given tasks where they’re able to be creative and get hands-on experience. Involving them in the decision-making process so it becomes something fun – not just another boring chore one has no choice but to obey.
5.) Share a map of your trail before you go: Get your children involved in the hike by showing them the trail on a map before leaving home. Raise their excitement about the adventure ahead by showing them what they will see on the hike, where they will cross streams, see waterfalls or view valleys. Get them engaged early so they know what part of nature is waiting around every bend.
6.) Talk about the animals you will see: To have truly memorable family outings, it’s important for parents to learn about their child’s favorite animal before heading out on the hike. While hiking with kids through different terrains and habitats in search of these animals can be exciting enough, children are sure to enjoy encountering one during a walk more if they know what sort of creature is typically found there!
7.) Read books together about what you might see before you go. Most kids excel at anticipating things to come, so knowing about animals that live in the woods or bugs that hide under rocks will make them more excited about their coming hike. Take advantage of this great opportunity to get kids interested in their world.
Make Hiking with Children Fun
8.) Play Hiking Games: Encourage your children to be aware of the world around them by playing hiking games that focus on exploration. Common children’s games like “I Spy” and a family scavenger hunt can be so much fun on the hiking trail. Games are a great way to get the whole family involved, no matter what age!
9.) Sing Songs: Do you struggle to remember the words to kids’ songs? Take a few minutes to print out the lyrics to a few before you go. Even better, create a playlist. Kids love repetition so playing hiking songs around the house before your trip sets them up to embrace a song or two on the hiking trail.
10.) Bring a Travel Buddy: Bring along the cutest stuffed animal friend to keep them company! Clip-on animals that can be attached to their backpack are perfect. Along with being able to pose in pictures to create adorable photos, it may provide comfort when they are tired. Caution, don’t bring along a stuffed animal that they can’t live without. I’ve seen too many panic-filled parents discover their child’s favorite bear decided to stay on the mountain top and now no one is going to sleep. Amazon has a huge selection of inexpensive stuffed animals that can clip onto their backpack.
11.) Take a Lot of Discovery Breaks: Hiking with kids is a lot of fun. Kids hiking learn more and want to go again if you stop often for exploration. Hiking is full of a child’s adventure opportunities, so don’t expect a marathon! Take breaks on your hikes by going off-trail or investigating interesting objects along the way. Kids love leaving footprints in the sand or exploring an old-growth forest with huge trees towering over them!
12.) Let your hiking children take lots of pictures: You don’t have to hand your child your expensive camera, Children’s cameras are fairly inexpensive and create great photos. Or a recycled old phone is perfect for your kid to capture pictures while hiking! Talk with older kids about creating an album when you get home or see who can take the most interesting picture of the day.
What to Pack for Kids When Hiking
In addition to all the things you would pack for yourself, here are a few extras you should tuck into your bag when hiking with kids. If you are looking for a complete packing list, check out our post on What to Pack For Day Hikes which includes a free downloadable packing checklist.
13) Bring snacks: This might seem obvious when hiking with kids, but bring plenty of snacks and water! Kids get thirsty and hungry much faster than adults, so don’t forget this key component for any hike. Bring along something new like boiled peanuts or apple slices as well- it’s always nice when everyone has something different to snack on while hiking!
14.) Pack extra clothing: Most kids are attracted to water and dirt like bees to honey. And there’s no one grouchier than a child hiking in wet shoes or shorts that are rubbing blisters on their skin. You’ll both enjoy hiking more if your child is comfortable.
15.) Prepare for all types of weather: Keep sunscreen on hand for when you’re hiking, as well as hats and sunglasses. Use sunscreen to avoid sunburns, especially on children’s delicate skin. And conversely, pack inexpensive rain ponchos in case the sky breaks loose so everyone stays dry. Hiking in the Rain can be fun for kids if you don’t mind a lot of mud and wet clothes.
While hiking in hot weather can be very risky for small children, you can still have great short hikes with a little more planning. When it’s hot hike early in the day before the temperatures get too high. Here are some great additional tips to keep kids safe in the sun.
16.) Pack “Exploration Tools”: Including binoculars, a compass and a magnifying glass in your pack will entertain kids along the trail. Here’s our Guide to the Best Compact Binoculars for Hiking that are perfect for family hikes. Teach kids how to use these tools and they will have a blast on the trail.
17.) Add Kid Friendly Extras to Your First Aid Kit: Kids will get scrapped, bit and bruised when hiking so plan for it. Adding colorful bandages, child-safe bug spray, bug bite antihistamine cream, and tweezers for splinters will help you dust him off and keep going. To help them feel more grown-up, pack a mini first aid kit for their personal backpacks. Kids love superhero band-aids, moleskin for blisters and bug-away wipes.
Dress Properly When Hiking with Kids
18.) Be Prepared with Comfortable Hiking Shoes. If you don’t want them complaining about their feet hurting during your hike, it’s important that your kids get some good-quality footwear. Younger kids can hike in a well-fitted sneaker. You don’t need to invest in expensive hiking shoes for their early short hikes. However, as they get older and hike longer you’ll want to start looking for hiking shoes meant to handle a long day. Insider Tip: take along a pair of water shoes for when they want to jump into the creek… because you know it will happen.
19) Dress in Layers: As you trek through and around obstacles, your environment changes drastically which can lead to uncomfortable situations for both you and your child. Dress in layers when hiking with kids! If it’s hot out, keep cooler clothes on hand or stop at a shaded spot along the trail; if its cold outside, don’t forget to pack warmer clothing like gloves or hats that will not only protect against harsh winds but also help regulate body temperature before things start getting too chilly. Don’t forget you are carrying a heavier pack than normal once you add your child’s gear so you will likely be warmer.
💡 While on your adventure, bring along a few “treats” for the kids to enjoy when you get back to camp. They’ll appreciate the reward after a day of hiking. You’ll find a lot of ideas in our Gift Guide for Kids who Love to Camp.
20.) Investing in Quality Gear doesn’t have to break the bank: Children grow so fast that they rarely wear out their hiking gear. And that makes it hard to justify spending a lot of money on clothes and gear for hiking kids. However, if you plan more than casual walks your kids will be healthier and happier if they have good gear – just like you.
If you have friends with kids who hike, organize an annual hiking gear swap meet. Your friends will love you for it. You can purchase used kid’s gear at very reasonable prices through REI’s Used Gear website. We also really like the quality of used gear and clothes from GearTrade.com.
Teach Your Children Hiking Responsibility
21.) Have Your Child Carry their Own Backpack: Starting your little hiker off young with their own backpack definitely makes them feel grown-up and responsible. More importantly, it also sets the stage to slowly increase their load over the next few years until they are fully responsible for their own hiking gear. The first year – start out with: a small bottle of water, a light jacket, a few of their favorite snacks, a kid’s flashlight or headlamp and their travel buddy. As children grow older add in a few new things each year. By their pre-teen years, children should be carrying their own full load.
22.) Talk about and Demonstrate No Trace Left Behind: Young kids understand a lot more than you think about keeping nature healthy. The Leave No Trace: Center for Outdoor Ethics has some activities that are helpful in explaining the concept to kids. I particularly like their “Who’s Hoo” game for younger children. Most important is to remember that small children will emulate your behavior. If you respect nature when hiking with kids, they will embrace it themselves.
23.) Teach your child to use mapping tools: Older kids are amazing when it comes to learning how to use a real compass, how to read a paper map and of course, how to use electronic GPS tools. Start with the manual tools like an old-fashioned map and compass since there is always the risk later in life that they will be on a trail where electronics fail. And once you get them using GPS tools, they will teach you a trick or two!
Our preschoolers get a kick out of using the compass to determine what direction we are going. So you can start this education early.
How to Keep Kids Safe When Hiking
No one wants to ever imagine that their child gets out of their sight for one minute while hiking, but it happens every day. Usually, it’s not a big deal as your child is found just around the next bend. But… what if they aren’t? For young kids keep the safety lessons simple.
24.) Dress Your Kids in Bright Colors: It will be easier to see them if they stop to explore or rush ahead if they are in florescent green than in camo. I especially love it if a whole family dresses in the same shirts. It’s really easy then to match up a group if they start stretching apart on the trail.
25.) Talk About What to Do if Separated: It’s critical to be prepared for separation when hiking with kids. Pin a hiking whistle to your child’s clothes or attach it to a lanyard. Don’t hook it to their jacket or backpack which they are likely to take off, but to their shirt or shorts.
- Let them know that if they can’t see you for more than a count to 10 they should blow the whistle 3 times. Then stop and listen. Then repeat.
- They should stay where they are and in an open place so they can be found. They should not start down the trail since they don’t know which way you went.
It’s something that is easy to practice at home. Help them understand that the whistle is ONLY to be used if they don’t see you. It is not a toy on the trail.
26.) Tattoo Young Kids: Our middle daughter remembers getting lost on a hiking trail when she was young because she and her brother ran ahead and took the wrong fork. So now she “tattoos” her phone number on her preschooler’s arm when heading out. She uses temporary tattoos like these printed with her contact info. It’s also easy to write your name and phone number on your child’s arm with a marker.
27.) Set meeting points using your map: As older kids get more independent they will want to hike ahead. Set clear rules on far they can go such as never going past a trail sign or a fork in the trail. Use your map to look ahead together for good meeting spots.
More Tips for Hiking with Kids
28.) Positive Reinforcement Goes Far: Praise your kids often, especially when the hiking trail gets tough. Break times are the perfect time to share how proud you are that they are staying together, climbed that big hill, found the special rock, etc.
29.) Give your Children Some Control: When hiking with kids, let them take turns being the leader or deciding where to stop for the next break. Let them pick out the next treat.
29.) Watch for “Teachable Moments”: Being a science teacher, Brad always jumps on an opportunity to explain something to the grandkids. And they eat it up. You don’t have to be a science teacher to do the same thing. Young kids are generally interested in the simplest explanation. As they get older, you can ask them questions like “why do you think it looks like that?” And if you don’t know, then you can agree to look it up when you get back.
30.) Respect Their Silence: You don’t need to entertain your child every moment of your hike. Just like the sounds of nature take you to your peaceful place, the same can happen for your child. Many children will hike quietly for periods of time, don’t feel like you need to fill that quiet. And conversely, if your child struggles with finding silent moments on the hiking trail help them appreciate silence by making listening stops. You can make a short game of it… “if we sit quietly for 2 minutes what can we hear (or see or smell)”. When the silent period is up, take turns sharing what each of you heard. Over time you can slowly extend the clock on the game.
One of the greatest gifts a parent can give their child is love and respect for nature. Those early hikes you take as a family set the stage for a lifetime of exploration and joy. So get out and start hiking with children as early as possible. And know it’s never too late!