Introducing a new member to your family is a wonderful experience and each new experience encountered brings a mixture of joy and pride to both parent and child: their first smile, first word, first step. If you are already an avid hiker, then you may also be looking forward to the day when you can enjoy their first hike together too.
How soon you get out on the trail, should be entirely based on how comfortable you are with the concept, although many people will advise you to get them out as early as possible. Certainly getting out into the fresh air and beauty of nature can do wondrous things for sleep deprived, stressed new parents. You just need to know how to prepare correctly.
Family hiking can be a tad intimidating at first, even if you are an experienced hiker yourself who has spent years preparing yourself. We’ve pulled together as much wisdom as possible and packed this page with a bounty of tips to help you get your little ones on the right trail, with as little stress (and as few tantrums) as possible. Whether you are new to hiking yourself or have reached the summit of every peak in your state, we have got you covered.
Choosing a Trail
When selecting a hike, our recommendation is that you consider these two things first and foremost;
- How easy a hike it is.
- How engaging it’ll be for your little ones.
When starting your little ones out, pick something easy with little, if any, incline. Essentially, nothing too long or strenuous for little legs. Hikes close to home with properly paved paths are a good starting point.
You never know at what point a meltdown may occur due to tiredness, injuries from falling over or just being plain uninterested in hiking (these things can also befall your kids). As such, do not expect to make it to your trail goal every time, so traveling for several hours may end up being a waste of time if you end up being back in the car faster than you can say “Billy stole my stick – I’m bored. I want to go home”.
Once your kids become more accustomed and capable, you can begin to venture further from home, or up the difficulty a little bit (but remember to go slow).
Hiking for kids is all about the experience, so choose a trail that has some impressive features along the way like a waterfall, lake or kids play park that will keep them occupied. It’s also a good idea to have an ultimate destination in mind that will give them some motivation to keep their little legs moving (although it may not necessarily reduce the occurrences of “are we there yet?”).
Destinations can be as simple as a beautiful view of a waterfall or arriving at a picnic area with fire pits for grilling. Alternatively, check to see if there are any restaurants, rope courses or play parks that you can finish the trek at.
Whenever hiking with kids, remember to work with time and not against it, so plan for lots of it. Kids are mini-scientists, adventurers and super-heroes rolled into one. They’ll want to get down on their hands and knees and explore, to chase that butterfly or skip stones across the lake. Let them explore the natural world and remember that the goal is not so much the destination but the experiences along the journey.
Finally, when it comes to planning, get your child involved and let them help plan your trip. Involving them in the decision making will make them more engaged and invested in the hike. Plus, am sure you can remember as well as I do those proud moments helping mom or dad to decide.
Plan Ahead & Be Prepared for Anything
In our view, successful parenting lives on the maxim – be prepared for anything. While preparation is essential for any hike (child involvement or not), when kids are involved be prepared to expect the unexpected.
There is a Norwegian saying “Ikke dårlig vær. Baer dårlig klær” – “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.” Check the forecast, and dress yourself, and your kids appropriately for the weather conditions ( learn how with our hiking clothing guide). Learn how to layer clothes for maximum protection from the elements, and bring rain gear, gloves & hats for out on the trail even if the weather forecast is saying it’s going to be a beautiful day. It can be super chilly early in the morning, and the local geography may create micro climates.
Rain attire also help to keep out the wind which is a much greater contributor to hypothermia than just being wet alone. Remember your kids get cold much more quickly than adults! Another life saver (hopefully, not literally), is bringing an extra set of warm clothes for each member of your brood and leave them in the car for your return from their adventure. I would wager that at least one will be wet or muddy (or both)!
Proper clothing for protection from elements is one part of the equation, protection for you kids feet is another. Depending on the terrain you will be walking on ensuring your children have adequate hiking shoes – if the path is paved, short and flat then let them wear what is comfortable be it sandals or wellington boots, for more “rugged” terrain you may want to invest in some hiking boots for kids.
What to Pack
It is a universally acknowledged law of physics that whatever is needed at that precise moment in time will be sitting at home, probably sitting out in plain view so that you wouldn’t forget it, be it the fruit boxes or your kid’s favorite hiking stick. Meanwhile, the five peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (sans crusts) make it home after a day out hiking. Your six-year-old coming to a unilateral (and unbinding) resolution that they’re “icky” (at least for today).
When hiking with kids, there is no getting around the fact that even if they have their own backpacks, you will at some point likely be carrying 99% of your kids hiking gear. After loading up with the essentials, you’ll just need to pack smart to find the balance between what is good to have versus how much you can physically (and comfortably) bring with you. We’ve come up with a list of essential and good to have packing items below.
- The ten essentials, I would argue if you are walking around a city trail you can probably forgo the emergency shelter.
- An extra set of clothes for each child. Children have been known to fall into mud, puddles, streams, etc. spontaneously that had nothing to do with their grinning sibling standing over them. Rather than continuing the family hike in wet socks or pants get them into something dry. Also, if the weather takes a turn for the worse, layering clothes should help keep the little ones warm.
- Bring plenty of snacks and water.
- Safety whistles for the kids (just make sure and teach them when and how to use them).
Good to Have
- Wet wipes are a godsend for parents in any situation, out on the trail is no different. They are great for calls of nature, mud removal and for cleaning up after meal times.
- Binoculars, magnifying glasses and kids outdoors or field books. Set off their inner botanist or zoologist by allowing them to examine and understand nature.
- A camera to capture those special moments.
Going on an Adventure: Hitting the trail with your tots
So you have everything in hand, and you are on your way for your first hike. At this point, you need to get into the “hiking with kids” mindset. Three key things should help;
- Let your goals be fluid, adjust to the situation and let your children enjoyment and comfort be the ultimate decider.
- Pack patience, be prepared to answer a lot of questions or sit and wait for that woodpecker to return to his nest. Remember these may be your children’s first experiences of these things.
- Have Fun!!!
What Makes a Hike Magical for Kids?
Any hike that can bring out a child’s sense of exploration and adventure is guaranteed to be magical. The beauty of hiking is that any old trail can be wondrous if you encourage them to explore and use their imagination.
Assigning roles to your kids is a great way to empower your children further. Start by assigning one of the kid’s as the group’s hiking leader, as kid’s love to feel in charge and with children’s sense of imagination you could end up with some pretty magical experiences. If you are hiking with more than one child, make sure and rotate the leadership role often to prevent arguments or your four year old may try and stage a coup. Include yourself in the leadership rotation from time to time and make sure the leader always has a compass and map for “navigation”.
If you are hiking with multiple children, then assign them other roles when they are not in charge. Roles, such as Park Ranger (in charge of spotting birds and wildlife) will help to give them a sense of purpose and reduce arguments.
Lastly, kids love spending time and interacting with their parents, so take this time in nature to be involved by participating in their games, answering their questions and telling them stories.
Things to Keep them Entertained
Hiking must be fun! If you can keep the little ones entertained and having fun, you will already have won 90% of the battle to keep them motivated and pushing on down the trail.
Games a great way of doing this! Print out a nature scavenger hunt list or create your own by asking them to find something furry, or brown, or slimy…Ewwww. Pretend you are on a safari and you are tracking exotic wild animals, and you want them to be on the look-out for any wildlife. Then, of course, there is the classic road trip game ‘I spy,’ which will forever work well to focus little minds away from whatever it was that they were whining about.
Use your imagination and am sure you and your kids can come up with plenty more games to play. Each trail marker is a powerup that gives the first one to touch it superhero powers or my favorite growing up was playing “Pooh Sticks” whenever we came across a bridge. As soon as we rounded a corner and saw the bridge there was a mad dash amongst my siblings and myself to find the best stick to win (find out how to play “Pooh Sticks” here)!
Kids love singing, so start belting out one of these suggestions from FamilyCanTravel with your little ones!
Kids love to learn, and being in the great outdoors there can be an infinite number of fun ways that will appeal to their sense of curiosity and adventure. It’s an excellent idea to bring along things like magnifying glasses, or binoculars especially if they are accompanied by a kid friendly outdoors workbook. Teach them which plants and berries to avoid, why do squirrels store their nuts or anything else they ask (or you can think of).
Bring Pocket Guidebooks
Kids love hearing about cool facts so why not indulge them by being a walking encyclopaedia! Unless you are already well-versed in all things nature, bring along a few pocket guidebooks that relate to the items on your childrens list.
You can use this time to teach them to be observant, how they can spot signs of wildlife (animal tracks, a feather on the ground, the remains of a birds egg shell or nest). Kids will become super focussed on finding the next animal discovery if you show them that there are cool things to find all around you!
Let your kids bring their friends, sometimes hanging with your parents can be a bit of a drag and who doesn’t love having fun with their buddies!
Why not tell a story to keep them entertained? Tell them an old classic or use your imagination to tell them a new one based on what you see around you. Once you get the story rolling, you can get them to pitch in with their own details or create a dramatic twist to the storyline!If it doesn’t disturb the wildlife too much, consider having your own little marching songs for you all to sing and keep those little legs swinging forward.
How to Avoid (or Deal with) a Meltdown
The kids are having a great time, the hike is going super well, and then all of a sudden one of the kids has a breakdown mid-trail. Sometimes these tantrums can be avoided, sometimes not so much and it can take some creative solutions to get your child back on track (literally) and happily (or less sullenly) moving again.
It is often a good idea to hit the trail head early, everyone’s energy will be much better, plus you may beat the crowds. To prevent grouchy tired kids, make sure and take frequent planned energy stops where you can dole out the water and snacks. By planned, we mean to get them to rest before they start acting up and indirectly telling you they need a rest. These can also be a great motivational tool to keep them moving if they know that they’ll be stopping at that waterfall just up ahead for their favorite snack!
Use these rest opportunities as more than just feeding time, give them praise and use positive reinforcement to let them know how well they are doing or how strong and fast a hiker they are (even if they are not). Kids need encouragement (especially if it’s their first hike) and it’ll make them all the more motivated to keep pushing on.
The elements are the most surefire way for a lovely trip to turn into a fraternal civil war. If it’s a bit cold and wet, make sure to keep them dry, warm and well fed. If it’s hot make sure to keep them hydrated and cool: hats, lots of water/juice and how about a spray bottle filled with water or make a sponge necklace to help keep them fresh. Your wee ones just aren’t as resilient as adults, and even a child who doesn’t usually whine may become grouchy if their basic needs aren’t met.
Distraction, distraction, distraction. Tell a story, make a joke or break out the snacks and treats if it looks like it’s away to go south. However, ultimately, know when to call it a day – they may be screaming blue murder that they’re not tired, but you know better. If the little ones are beginning to get more irritable then don’t frog march them onwards to the intended destination – give them praise on their hiking skills and get them home for some food and rest, before the real tantrums begin. You can always reach the top of the mountain another day.
General Tips for Hiking with Kids
In addition to the advice above on planning, entertainment and how to deal with a stroppy toddler, you can find a few more general tips for backpacking with kids.
- While I may have said, make time your friend, you should still keep track of it. Knowing how far the hike is meant to be, and how much progress you have made so far, can help you estimate if you are still likely to make it to the destination before your little one runs out of stamina. Be prepared to alter your plans.
- Get your kids used to hiking by starting them out young, and make it a regular thing. Before you know it hiking becomes a regular weekend activity that they love.
- Always triple check your gear list – your kids are dependent on you till they are old enough to pack for themselves (and probably could still use a hand at this point). Make sure you don’t forget anything important.
- Unless your child is still an infant, let them walk part of the way. Start them out small and let them walk a bit further each time. It can become pretty exhausting if your child expects you to carry them everywhere all the time, so let them learn to love to walk.
- Always try to be one step ahead of the weather, and get them covered up before that rainstorm or have them slathered in sun block before the sun reaches its zenith.
- Teach them to respect the wilderness through the central tenents of Leave No Trace. Always take your trash home with you and dispose of it correctly. You can go one further and get your kids to collect any litter they see on the way. As much fun as it is to try and pull that half broken branch off the tree, teach them to leave it be and only pick up sticks that are lying on the ground. Our children are the future stewards of this planet – if we teach them all to respect it, it may one day be a much better place.
- You arrive, and the trail is closed due to a mudslide, or it’s a lot steeper and more challenging than you expected. Learn to roll with the punches and have a plan B, plan A may be out the window, but you are still having fun with your family!
Age Related Hiking Tips
Hiking with Babies & Infants (0-12 Months)
Hiking with babies is possibly more accurately described as how best to ‘pack’ your child for a hike, as you’ll have to decide on the best/right way to carry your infant. The choice here is largely a front sling versus a backpack-style baby carrier which should be adjusted for the perfect parent/baby fit. Although, for infants less than six months you will have to swaddle them in front until they are big enough to be able to ride comfortably in a backpack-style carrier. You can check out REIs guide on how to best select a child carrier. For both of your comfort make sure and let both of you get used to the baby hiking gear before you hit the trail (I must admit to spending most evenings with my son strapped to my chest while prepping dinner).
Of course, in addition to carrying your child, you are also going to have to find room for all the other bits and bobs you’ll need. Make sure and pack plenty of diapers and waste bags for packing all the used ones out where you can dispose of them properly. Pack plenty of milk or formula (powdered formula will help to save on weight) and a separate clean bottle to use only for water.
Don’t do too much soon, ease into things by limiting the first couple of hikes to no more than a couple of hours.
Watch out for the elements, as babies are not yet developed enough to be able to regulate their body temperature well, so be wary of the cold, wind and rain and always plop a wide brim hat on their head to protect them from the sun.
You’ll quickly notice that the rolling hiking motion will put most kids to sleep, so plan your baby hikes for their typical nap time to avoid messing up their regular sleep cycle
Hiking with Toddlers (1-4ish Years)
So the little one has begun to walk! Great, you are now entering the phase where they can do some real hiking of their own! However, they are still going to be heavily reliant on yourself to carry them for extended periods, so you’ll need to be flexible. Here depending on the type of trail and your personal preference, you could go for a sturdy off-road stroller or continue with a hiking pack for toddler.
As your toddler is still not going to do much in the way of walking, I wouldn’t worry about needing boots just yet, a pair of sneakers are just fine. As you are hiking along, keep a look out for relatively flat and easy going sections of the trail where you can let them wander on their own. The average toddler is magnetically attracted to dirt, so don’t expect your child to stay clean for long and just embrace it. Although, be sure to pack plenty of extra clothes, particularly pants and socks for when they get wet.
Hiking with grade schoolers (4ish-12 years)
On approaching preschool age (around 4 years), you will now have yourself a fully-fledged hiker, and can finally retire the child carrier. At this age though, they are also capable of running off – no matter how much of a super-parent that you are, you can’t keep your eyes on the 100% of the time. So it’s a good idea to lay down the rules before you hit the trail.
At this point give them a whistle (attach it to their backpack or attach it to a lanyard around their neck) and make sure they understand that they are only to use it in emergencies. If they become separated from you, they are to STOP, stay put and blow the whistle in a burst of three until someone finds them.
To try and prevent such an ordeal it’s best to teach your kids to always stay within sight of mom or dad, at least when they are starting out. As they become older, and more experienced hikers, they are allowed to disappear out of sight of mom and dad for short periods but never go too far without stopping to wait for their dawdling parents and of course, if they reach a trail marker or fork in the road. STOP and wait.
It’s around this age that you can begin teaching them how to read maps, start out with simple cartoon trail maps, and advance to their own topographic maps as they mature. Learning about Leave No Trace principles will help them respect the wilderness they are walking in.
Kids First Aid
While you should always come prepared with a hiking first aid kit, as per the 10 essentials, check to make sure that it has some child-friendly features and create your own DIY first aid kit by supplementing with the following:
- Children’s sunscreen
- Children’s Tylenol and/or ibuprofen
- Liquid antihistamine
- Compeed pads for blisters
- Adhesive bandages
- Calamine lotion for bug bites
- Tweezers to remove splinters, ticks, and needles
- Plenty of Anti-bacterial wipes
- Epipen if your child has allergies
We hope you have enjoyed our article, and have taken away many of the tips as useful for your next adventure into the wilds with your kids. If there are any other tips you know of that we missed, then please be sure to mention them in the comments section below!