Many people tell us that hiking with kids is too hard, or they are too afraid to take their kids on hikes that are more difficult than a simple walk through a campground. So we are here to tell you that hiking with kids is not only doable, but it’s FUN! We are sharing 10 tips for hiking with kids that will help you have success out on the trail.
We have put together some tips that have helped us find success while hiking with our children. Kids have a natural love for the outdoors and for exercise, so hiking comes pretty naturally for them. We have taken children ages 0-14 hiking and our kids still love to hike! We hope these tips will help you have fun while hiking, or at least inspire you to give it a try!
1. Make it a Destination hike.
Kids can do any hike that is reasonable for their age and ability, but they really like arriving at something. Our boys especially love waterfalls and lakes, mostly because they can throw rocks into the water. You will notice that our website has more waterfall hikes than anything! They also do okay if we climb to the top of a mountain that has a view, if we do a hike that is guaranteed to see wildlife, or arrive at an amazing rock feature like an arch or tower.
Choosing a hike that has a great destination is especially motivating for kids, so choose hikes that have waterfalls, arches, lakes, or caves.
2. Pick the right length.
Sometimes as parents we want to go on this amazing hike, but it’s 5 steep miles. This isn’t the best hike to start kids hiking on. Choosing the right length of hike for your family is so important. Young kids will tire quickly, especially if the trail climbs. Make sure to think about your smallest hiker (not child riding in the backpack) and cater the hike to them. This keeps everyone happy.
Also, start early. We took our kids on their first hike when they were a few weeks old. We obviously carried them, but then as they got older we let them get down and walk until they were tired. This has helped our kids love hiking from a young age.
These are our recommendations for length of hikes.
- Ages 0-2: You are usually packing them, so you will have to decide how long you can carry your child.
- Ages 3-6: 1-2.5 mile hikes (round trip). Usually if you pick a flatter hike, they can last a little longer. We foolishly took our 5-year-old on a 5 mile hike…we thought it was 2.5, but that was one-way distanxe. Luckily, it was flat as a pancake, and it ended at a waterfall. We used all the tricks in Tip #6, and he made it. We also hike a lot, so he was more prepared than some children who don’t get out as often. This range is really for the first few times you hike, though.
- Ages 7-10: 3-5 mile hikes (round trip). I think our 9 year-old can hike longer and farther than me now. He has boundless energy and loves to hike. Our 6 year-old hasn’t quite got the endurance yet. He loves to hike, but can’t go on endlessly. So right now, we keep our hikes around 3 miles max so that our 6 year-old doesn’t wear out.
- Ages 11 and up: Depending on how many hikes you have done while this age child has grown up, they can probably tackle pretty long trails based on difficulty.
3. Be prepared with snacks & water
Make sure that you have enough water for everyone who is hiking. No one wants to be thirsty, especially not dad! If it’s hotter, you will need more water than on a cooler day. We carry a backpack full of water bottles, but kids can pack their own, too. The recommendation is one liter per person per mile. That seems like a lot, but on a scorching day on a bare mountainside, you’ll need it.
We bought MiniMule Camelbaks for our kids for Christmas about 10 years ago, and it has been wonderful. We don’t have to stop and unpack water bottles, and they feel like they are responsible carrying their own water. And the Mini Mule has pockets, so they can carry their own snacks, too! Here’s the Amazon link if you want to check them out. They have lasted forever and we have only had to change mouth pieces a few times.
We always carry snacks: pretzels, granola bars, trail mix, etc. The amount of snacks depends on the length of the hike.
4. Have treats when needed
We also always bring a reward for the end of the hike. My kids favorites are Fruit by the Foot. It’s small and easy to carry, but it is something to look forward to when we plop down at our destination. I have also taken fruit snacks, licorice, or popcorn.
Now that my boys are a little older, I take Jolly Ranchers or Lifesavers. When they start dragging, I give them something to suck on and all of a sudden they have a little more spring in their step. We used Dum Dum suckers when our boys were younger. Find what treat/snack works for to motivate your kids!
5. Set a good pace.
We use the following hiking order: Our 6 year-old sets the pace. This is because he has the least stamina and speed. It motivates him to be the leader, and he won’t get walked to death. Mom usually stays near him, and his older brother is a half step behind. Dad brings up the rear with the baby on his back. This works for awhile. When the 6 year-old gets tired and starts dragging, we reverse order, with Dad setting the pace and Mom coaxing the foot-dragger along.
Keep reminding yourselves that it’s okay if the kids want to stop and look at bugs, flowers, or other objects. This is like a little break for them. There are times that you will have to tell your child that it’s time to get moving again, but enjoy your time on the trail!
6. Keep their minds off hiking.
This might seem counterintuitive–don’t you want your children to know their hiking? But this is for times when your children start to really drag and you’re not sure they are going to make it. You have to take their minds off the fact that their legs and feet are tired, but that they still have to walk.
We have done tons of long hikes, and we always make it through by talking about other things. Tell stories. My husband is a master story teller so he tells fairy tales, greek myths, family stories, or stories he makes up on the spot. We have also recited poems or scriptures, named off all the people in our families (aunts, uncles, cousins, etc.), and sung songs. Our children’s absolute favorite is to hear their birth stories, and each has something unique to their own birth. (Dad has jazzed them up a bit, too.)
The trick to this distraction method is that when you stop for a rest or for a drink of water, the story stops, too. Then the kids want to keep walking to hear the rest of the story. I’m telling you, it works like a charm. So brush up on those storytelling skills!
7. Do your research
We strive really hard here at Utah’s Adventure Family to help you know everything you need to know about the trail. Instead of a “this looks fun” websites that focus on pictures, we strive to to give important information in our posts. When you research a hike, note mileage, shade, best time of year, trail conditions and other important factors before you hit the trail. This takes a lot of the worry and missteps out of hiking. If a trail has limited shade, you’ll want to hike in morning or evenings to avoid the hot part of the day. Doing lots of research so you are well prepared helps the hike run smoothly.
You can also let the kids help in this area. We’ve even had our kids help choose the hikes. We like to make a list of hikes with a little bit of information and then let them help choose from the list. Sometimes we give them two options and we vote on the one we want to do. This has helped our kids have more of a desire to hit the trail.
8. Be flexible
There have been many times when we had to turn around from crying kids, or we took twice as long to do a hike which affected other plans for the day. We have learned to be flexible. And just because it didn’t go as planned, didn’t mean that it was a failure. You took your kids out into nature and gave it your best shot. It’s okay if you had to sit on the side of the trail for 30 minutes taking a rest. Next time will be better. So be flexible about your expectations.
9. Enjoy the nature around you
Don’t get so absorbed in making it to the end that you miss the butterflies and flowers along the trail. Let your kids explore the world they are hiking through, even if it means stopping for a few minutes. We love to look at the birds, plants, and animals on the trail. This often leads to great science discussions, too. The kids will naturally notice more than you, so make sure to stop and look at the things they point out.
10. Have Fun!
This one is for mom! Sometimes I get so worried about snacks and water, and is everyone wearing shoes, that I forget to enjoy what we are doing. And when mom is in a bad mood, then the hike is no fun. So I have had to work on just relaxing and realizing that even if they kids get dirty or it takes twice as long as we planned, it’s all worth it in the end because we were together as a family, and we were outside exploring nature. Remember to have fun and enjoy the time hiking.
Do you have any great tips you would add to this list? Let us know in the comments section.
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