When my husband and I were newlyweds, I remember going on a hike and seeing a family hiking with kids, and being overcome with longing for that to be our future. Passing on a love of the outdoors has long been high on my list of things I looked forward to about parenting. Of course the reality has a lot more meltdowns, spilled lunches, and dirty clothes than I imagined, but hiking with kids–even babies and toddlers–is still an incredibly rewarding experience. And according to science, our kids need it.
Here are some of my tips and tricks for getting out on the trail with your kids.
Don’t forget the snacks!
This is on any list you’ll ever read about kids and the outdoors, and it’s there for good reason. My five year old gets hangry, and having enough food on hand is often the difference between her running ahead and taking point, or asking if we can go back to the car. Plus, snacks are my kids’ favorite part of hiking, so the promise of them serves as good motivation for tougher trails.
I used to think a hike only constituted a hike if it was at least two miles, and done in a place where I couldn’t hear vehicle traffic beyond the trailhead. And if you live in a place where that is easy to come by–that’s awesome! But to kids, the world is still a huge place with so much to explore. If the lakeside trail at your local park is a quick and easy drive, a toddler isn’t going to care that you aren’t bagging a summit–for someone that size, it’s still a magical new world, and they won’t realize how close you are to civilization.
Babywearing to the rescue!
Space for food, water, and diapers, and a comfy seat for your child!
Before my son was born, we would take our daughter on hikes using carriers like the ones from Ergo or Moby. I would carry her, my husband would carry a daypack, and off we went. Once our son was born, we invested in a Deuter Kid Comfort II carrier–lots of cargo space, and left the other adult’s shoulders free for when our older child still wanted a lift. Check out this article for some other good hiking carrier options broken down by age group.
Babywearing allows you to not only take your kids out before they can walk, but allows you to do longer trails than your child would be able to do on their own two feet, greatly expanding your options for hiking with kids.
Pack enough water
General guidelines recommend two cups of water for every hour of hiking for adults, and 1-2 cups per every hour for children. Camelbak makes several hydration packs for children (we have the Scout), which I find gives kids a sense of independence, and is less likely to get left behind than a water bottle–or dumped out by mischievous toddlers. I also always keep at least one full water bottle in the car for post-hike, even when we won’t be out long.
Carrying her own water…in true preschooler fashion
Use the Buddy System
If there is one tip I recommend above any others for keeping kids happy on the trail…it’s having friends around! They can race, compete, play make-believe, or anything they would come up with at home or on a playground…only on the trail. And it helps mom and dad to have the support of other adults, especially if you are new to hiking with kids. If you don’t already have a network of other parent-hikers, look for organizations in your area like Hike It Baby, or your local Girl and Boy Scouts.
Let the Games Begin!
This is more for younger kids, but sometimes they need extra motivation to keep putting one foot in front of the other. I see scavenger hunts mentioned all the time, but I like to add a twist to our scavenger hunts by including an item or two that is unlikely–but not impossible–to find. We have included snakes, bears, even purple mushrooms. The easy things give them a sense of “I can do it!”, and the less likely items keep the game going longer.
Watch the Weather
I’ve taken kids out with a wind chill in the single digits, and my whole family has huffed and puffed our way through southern heat and humidity on numerous occasions. But sometimes kids just aren’t going to handle the extremes, and if you don’t have the right clothing/gear, bad weather can be downright dangerous with young hikers.
Embrace the Mud
My daughter’s Oaki suit. Believe it or not, only her socks got wet after this jump!
Speaking of weather–invest in good raingear. I’ll admit, after having kids rain kept me off the trail far more than it should have. I didn’t really want to chase them down when I was wet, and I worried about them getting sick during cooler weather. I finally bought both kids an Oakiwear Rain Suit, and we have never looked back. Combined with a good pair of puddle boots, they can run through streams, puddles, and downpours while keeping their clothes–and their bodies–warm and dry. Kids LOVE muddy puddles, and their joy is contagious.
Be reasonable about your child’s abilities…but don’t be afraid to push them
As mentioned above, we kept the option of carrying our older child for awhile. She does her own walking 99% of the time now, but when we hiked the Bright Angel Trail at the Grand Canyon this past spring, we knew she couldn’t hike all the way back to the rim. Nobody knows your kids better than you do. If they are hurt, hungry, just plain tired, or the trail is too strenuous, don’t shame them for wanting extra breaks or needing a ride–they need good memories of hiking if they’re going to keep doing it. That being said, hiking isn’t meant to be easy all the time, and learning to push through will benefit them as well.
Have a stocked first-aid kit
Kids fall. A lot. We have come home from countless hikes with scraped elbows and skinned knees. If you hike a lot, you probably already carry a first aid kit, but throw in a couple of kid-friendly items as well if you are taking your littles out with you. Extra bandaids (in fun colors!), antibiotic cream, and any specific allergy treatments, and a lollipop or two. I have found there is very little hurt that can’t be cured with a lollipop.
Don’t Be Afraid to Bail
Bad weather, fussy toddlers, and crowded trails might mean that your hike needs to be cut short or postponed. I have sat in my car at a trailhead while rain poured down around us and eventually decided not to hike, and I’ve gotten less than half a mile onto a trail and had to turn around because my baby was wailing so loudly that it just wasn’t enjoyable for anyone. There is absolutely no reason to keep going when your kids’ health, safety, or your own sanity are all at stake–the trail will be there another day.
It’s about the journey…
Who needs a playground with a slide like this?
As an adult, I can hike on a long stretch of wooded trail for hours, just appreciating the quiet of nature. My kids…not so much. They want things to do. Rocks to climb. Moss to touch. Water to splash in. When I think of what constitutes a “kid-friendly” hike, I am thinking of what there is on the trail itself to hold their attention, as much as I am thinking of length and difficulty. And with very young kids, even if you don’t make it as far as you’d hoped, your kids are still getting so much out of being out in nature with their families.
…and the destination
That said, having the promise of waterfall, or views at the summit, serve as great motivators. My toddlers LOVES waterfalls. He asks regularly to “hike waterfall?”. And on a particularly steep ascent one time, my then-four-year-old kept rushing the rest of us along she was so eager to see the views from the top. I have pictures of my kids glowing with pride because they made it to a summit. They might be young, but they aren’t immune to the majesty.
Take Their Advice
My kids have favorite trails, and we frequent those a lot. When I’m looking for a new trail however, I let my daughter weigh in–do you want to do a mountains hike or go to a lake? A waterfall, or lots of rocks? Do you want to go on a long hike today? As your kids get older, including them in the planning process is going to help ensure they are out on the trail by choice–and therefore will keep walking, instead of hanging back and complaining about being tired and bored.
Let them dress themselves
This one is hard for me. I always want my kids to look Instagram-ready, since chances are, the pictures I take of our hike will end up on my Instagram. But most of the time, my daughter just wants to wear a mismatched skirt and top with jelly sandals, and I give in on this a lot. If our hike starts with a fight about clothing, it’s not going to be a fun hike. The only thing I stand firm on is making sure both kids stay warm, and wear sturdy shoes–Merrell has a pair of affordable kids’ sneakers, and since we let our daughter pick out the color she’s happy to wear them. Keen is another great choice, especially for sandals during the warmer months.
Take pictures–and include yourself!
As a photographer, I always have my camera on the trail with me. I even purchased a Peak Design Capture Clip to make it easier to bring my DSLR while chasing after my kids. There is an immeasurable amount of joy in watching children experience nature, and you’ll want to capture those memories, even if it’s just with your cell phone. And don’t forget to ask the occasional passer-by to grab a shot with you in it. When you look back on these moments with your kids, they will want to see that you were there too.
Leave No Trace, but Keep It Fun
Kids are never too young to learn to “leave a place better than you found it.” We always bring a plastic bag not just for our own trash, but to pick up trash we find on the trail. My kids know to never feed wild animals, and not to pick wildflowers. Some things I relax on however–like going off-trail.
Studies have shown us that conservationist-minded adults have wild outdoor experiences as children in common. Letting kids see the salamander under a rock, or find their own secret hideaways just off trail shows them that those spaces are there. Once we are off the trail, I talk about human impact on ecosystems, and why we need to protect our forests.
Our conversation is so much more meaningful when they can visualize what I’m telling them about, and they still got an enjoyable hike without constantly being told they couldn’t explore.
Play is such an important part of childhood learning. And play usually includes climbing on rocks, digging in dirt, or squelching toes in the mud. My daughter has ripped out the back of more than one pair of pants by using large rocks like a slide, and both kids have dirt stains on almost every pair of bottoms they own. Embrace it–they are busy developing a lifelong relationship with their world, and a few mud and grass stains are a small price to pay.
Be Prepared…and Then Some
Most hikers are familiar with the list of 10 hiking essentials. With kids, you have even more to add to that list: diapers and wipes for babies and toddlers, a change of clothes, and bug spray should all be in your pack as well. I don’t know a single hiking mama who hasn’t found herself on the trail at least once and realized she left the extra diapers in the car. It happens–but usually only once. Going out with kids is not the time for skipping out on something just because you might not need it. You might not–but they will.
Our attitudes probably play the biggest part in ensuring our kids have a fun hike. If we are constantly scolding, rushing, or worrying them, hiking is going to start to feel like a chore. And likewise, when things go wrong, remember that your kids are going to look to you for how to respond.
I attempted a sunset hike once without my husband, and we got caught in the dark on our return trip. We had headlamps, but it was the first time I had been night hiking without another adult, and I was pretty spooked. But my daughter was ready to panic, so I had to swallow my fear and come up with goofy songs to sing and other ways to keep her calm.
When we choose to take our kids into the woods, we are taking responsibility for their safety, but also for building the foundation of how they will view hiking over their entire lives. They should look at hiking as something they enjoy, and they will only do that if they see that we enjoy it too.
When Is My Child Old Enough to Hike?
A child is old enough to go on a hike as soon as you as the parent feel ready to have your baby on the trail. With my firstborn, I stuck to county parks and short trails for most of her early hiking experiences. I was not very confident in babywearing then, and didn’t trust my footing around rocks and roots. With my second child, his first hike was at two weeks old. He has practically grown up on a trail–because I had the confidence to take him with me.
Don’t feel pressured to take your kids out before you are ready. If you would rather wait until they are walking–that’s fine! As I mentioned above, your attitude is one of the most important parts of hiking with your kids, and your confidence plays a huge part in that.
Future Hiker right here
Hiking With Babies and Toddlers Under 2
Babies are extremely portable, and their trail needs are usually less than that of older kids, particularly if you are breastfeeding and don’t have to worry about bringing bottles. Invest in a good carrier–one that is comfortable for you to wear, and that baby likes, and they will likely sleep through much of the trail.
Other items to remember with babies: a pacifier (if they still use one), a hat to protect from the sun, and a blanket for them to lay on when you stop for breaks. Of course there’s nothing wrong with laying them directly on the ground either, and even the youngest babies will enjoy the different textures found in nature.
At this age, environment and temperature are the biggest challenges, so if there is a time to be a “fair weather hiker,” this is probably it.
Resting against daddy on the way down Bell Rock, in Sedona, AZ
Hiking With Toddlers, Aged 2-4
Toddlers LOVE to do their own walking on the trail, and it is such a rewarding age to watch them. Like babies, they will love all the sensory experiences found on the trail. The softness of moss, the crunch of leaves under their feet, all the brightly colored flowers and mushrooms. With nothing but the natural world around them, toddlers’ imaginations really get a chance to shine. When my daughter was two and a half we took her on a section of the Appalachian Trail, and she probably spent twenty minutes “feeding” leaves to a hole in a tree stump that she thought looked like a mouth. It didn’t do any favors for the amount of distance we covered, but she had so much fun, and we loved watching it.
A few challenges of hiking with toddlers:
- They tire easily, and often without warning. This can result in sudden tantrums, and, in my experience, just laying down on the trail and refusing to move. Even if you plan on letting them walk the whole time, it’s a good idea to bring a carrier, or you may find yourself carrying 30lbs of toddler in your arms the whole way back to the car.
- They are fast, and have no sense of self-preservation. As with at home, they can get into trouble without warning, and the same is true on the trail. Be aware of all potential hazards as you walk. Risky play is beneficial to kids of all ages, but it’s our job as parents to identify the differences in risks and hazards, and act accordingly.
- Let them be picky about food. At home, I try and keep my kids on a pretty healthy diet. On the trail–I want to make sure they get calories, in whatever form they come. There is no sense adding pack weight with food your kids aren’t going to eat, and they need the energy to keep going.
This age group is when you really have the chance to shape future hikers. Letting them walk on their own can be extremely frustrating–they are slow, easily distracted, and fall down a lot. But everything is new to them, and by stepping back and letting them take the lead, you are gifting them the opportunity to develop their own love for nature. Toddlers are naturally curious. They want to touch everything, see everything, and (usually) taste everything. Plan your trails around exploration, not destination, and be ready to stay in the same place for longer than your patience would normally last. Just remind yourself that toddlers should associate hiking with Play. Because if they do, they will love it, and you’ll find them constantly asking to hike.
Everything is more fun with a friend.
Hiking With Kids Ages 5+
By this age, your destinations start to have meaning for your children. Their attention spans are longer, their bodies are stronger, and they are better at managing their emotions. To a two year old, the idea of “let’s keep going so we can get to the top of the mountain!” is meaningless–there’s just so much stuff to look at now! But a five, seven, ten year old–they can remember seeing the tops of mountains before. They have the memory to compare this trail to trails you’ve done together before, and are internally motivated to want to see where you are going.
I love how invested my daughter gets in helping us plan–from choosing her outfit, to picking out snacks, to telling me what type of hike she wants to go on. And she loves to take the lead. She tells stories, sings songs, and plays make-believe the whole way down the trail, and when we are out with other kids her age, I can really see childhood magic happening.
That said, here are the challenges I’ve found in hiking with school-age kids:
- In spite of all of the magic…they get bored. A toddler can entertain himself with the same thing for half an hour, but older kids usually require more stimulation. And the older they get, the less scavenger hunts and bribery work. That said, hiking is a great way to help them develop more patience, particularly in our current times when disconnecting with screens and learning to take it slow is so important.
- They don’t always want to carry their own weight. Literally. If your kids are anything like my daughter, they want to pack everything from books, to their favorite toy. By this age, kids should be starting to carry their own day pack, and they need to learn that they can’t pass it off because they brought too much weight. The general rule of thumb is kids shouldn’t carry more than 10% of their own body weight, and things like water are so boring compared to toys. It’s a good teaching moment, but not a fun one for parent or child.
- As they develop socially, hiking with mom and day may not be enough. Finding a good network of other hiking families is important for moms and dads when the kids are very little, but as your children get older, they will likely want friends their age on the trail.
Scavenger hunts and sensory exploration start to give way to academic learning the older your children get. There are trail guides for kids for identifying plants, bird calls, or animal tracks. Also, the environment itself is a great jumping off point for topics like photosynthesis and the water cycle. If you hike the same trail regularly, have your kids identify the way it changes with the seasons. Or let them start a “trail journal,” where they write down notes before and after their hikes.
Hiking with kids of any age can be stressful, whether you are setting out with them for the first time, or the one hundred and first. Extra gear, extra noise, a slower pace, and the vigilance required to keep them safe definitely makes it a different hike than one with only adults.
But there are so, so many benefits to hiking with kids. The chance they have to engage in risky play, the learning opportunities, and instilling a love for the outdoors that will last their entire lives are only a few of the reasons. But most of all–it’s fun. And if you need extra motivation, look no further than childhood educator Erin Kenny’s advice: “Children cannot bounce off the walls, if we take away the walls.”