I took my daughter backpacking for the first time when she was three years old. Since then, we’ve gone on a lot of hikes — including some very intense ones. So, I can tell you that…
Hiking with a kid isn’t all good times.
There are tantrums. Kids like stopping to look at everything. Kids go slow and you don’t always get to the destination.
But hiking with kids is also a really wonderful experience.
I love hiking with my kid because she asks me great questions (“Why are the rocks different colors?”), points out fascinating things I might not have noticed, and we genuinely have fun together.
So don’t let the fear that it will be too “tough” stop you from going hiking with your kids. Instead, here are some tips I’ve picked up along the way to make hiking with kids easier and fun.
Tip 1: Know Your Kid’s Physical Limits
Each kid is different, and you’ve got to respect that before taking your kid into the wild on a hiking trip. Just because your friend Jane has a 5-year old who can hike 5 miles without getting tired or bored, it doesn’t mean that your kid is going to be able to.
How do you figure out your kid’s hiking limits?
- Think about how far your kid is able to walk in everyday situations. Does he/she get tired walking the ½ mile to the local park?
- Does your kid get distracted easily? If your kid gets easily distracted by everything in the neighborhood, then your kid is going to get even more distracted by all the cool things you see when hiking.
How far your kid can travel in the neighborhood isn’t an exact indicator of how far he/she will be able to hike in the woods, but it is a good starting point.
Tip 2: Don’t Forget to Factor in Emotional Limits
Just because your kid is physically capable of going on a hike, it doesn’t mean that he/she is emotionally capable. I made this mistake with my daughter on one of our first backpacking trips…
We were camping up in the mountains of Albania. The first day was great. Isabel was eager to go hiking exploring, I let her “read” the map, and we really covered a lot of ground during the hike. So, I planned to do another hike the next morning.
When we woke up, Isabel was completely unmotivated to go hiking. She just wanted to sit around the campsite and play. But I had already gotten my hopes set on hiking that day. What ensued was a near shouting match where I basically forced her to go hiking. Surprise, surprise – she was not at all motivated to hike that day! After a couple of hours, her mood got better (when we saw a bunch of mountain goats). But it definitely wasn’t the best hiking experience.
Tip 3: Know Your Limits
On the topic of limits, you’ve also got to know your own limits too! For example, when I first took my daughter backpacking when she was 3, I knew that she would lose energy suddenly and expect to be carried. At the time, I was able to easily put her on my shoulders and carry her for a mile or so. I definitely couldn’t do that now that she is 5 and a lot heavier. So, I plan the hiking distances accordingly.
Likewise, know your emotional limits…
Is it going to drive you crazy if your kid stops every 10 feet to examine a rock? Then maybe you should learn a bit about geology before you go so it doesn’t become so boring and irritating for you.
Are you going to be freaked out about the thought of your kid plunging to death if you hike near a steep slope? Then maybe you should choose a hike with easier terrain.
Are you going to be disappointed if you don’t make it to a destination like a waterfall? Then you better plan your hike so it starts really early in the morning, allowing you time to make it there.
Tip 4: You’ve Got to Be Okay with Not Completing the Hike
Kids are finicky. One day, they might be enthusiastic hikers who gallop through the trails like mountain goats. Other days, they might trudge slower than the salamanders you which you were seeing along the way.
Let your kids set the pace, and that means you’ve got to be okay with the idea that you might not complete the hike. If you push your kids too hard, you risk turning them off from hiking altogether.
Of course, there are ways to motivate your kids to hike. Sometimes the destination is enough to motivate them. But don’t expect kids to be motivated by the same things you are.
Tip 5: Find Something to Motivate Them to Hike Further
You’ve really got to put some positive spin on the destination. Most kids aren’t going to care about a “good view from the top of the mountain” or “making it to a waterfall.” They will, however, be motivated by things like:
Do you think you’ll be able to touch the clouds from the top of the mountain?
You’ll be able to swim in the stream under the waterfall.
I heard there are turtles in the pond at the end of the hike…
Tip 6: Wear the Right Clothes
You should always dress in layers when hiking because it allows you to easily adjust your body temperature. But layers are particularly important when hiking with kids because they get hot and cold faster than adults.
Ideally, your kids will wear good boots when hiking. Sneakers can pass, but NO OPEN-TOED SHOES. Have fun dealing with all of the bloody toes and picking thorns out of your kids’ feet!
I usually don’t let my daughter wear shorts on hikes, even if it is really hot. The reason shorts are out for hiking is because her legs are much smaller than mine, and more likely to get scratched up by branches or thorns. Plus, if her legs do get scratched or stung by nettles, she’s going to bitch about it much more than I would.
Tip 7: Have the Right Gear for Hiking with Kids
Safety first! The gear you need to hike with kids isn’t that different than the hiking gear adults need. This includes good boots, enough water and snacks, comfortable clothes, a map, a compass, a flashlight, and a waterproof jacket.
Even if the gear isn’t absolutely necessary, you might want to bring it along anyway.
- Headlamp or Flashlight: Having a flashlight of their own can make the kids feel special (and they’ll love using it to peer into holes).
- Binoculars: My daughter loves hiking with her binoculars – never mind that they are a cheap $10 pair and you can’t really see much with them.
- Whistle: It is really important that your kids have a WHISTLE when hiking in case they get lost. But you’ll need to explain why they need it before you go. Explain that the whistle isn’t a toy – they should only blow it if they get lost. If you don’t establish this rule, the whistle is going to drive you crazy. Telling your kid that whistling is annoying probably won’t motivate them not to blow into it though. Instead, remind them that whistling will scare away the animals. 😉
You can get a list of gear for hiking with kids here.
Tip 8: Use the Hike as an Educational Opportunity
My favorite thing about being a mom is all of the questions my daughter asks me. Yes, I realize that this might irritate a lot of other parents but I actually love being asked things like, “Why does time change?”
I find it a fun challenge to answer these questions. “Time changes because the earth spins as it moves around the sun.” Which is then followed by some diagrams using an orange, rocks, or whatever is nearby. Many times, I don’t know the answers to the questions or would never have thought to ask them, like “Why do our eyeballs move?” Now I know what the muscles in our eye sockets look like 😉 .
When hiking, you can expect a lot of questions from your kids. I really hope you won’t get annoyed by them, because this inquisitiveness of children is a beautiful thing.
Examples of Hiking “Lesson Plans”:
- Leafs: As they pick up a leaf for examination, show them the veins and explain how the plant uses them to suck water from the ground.
- Tree Roots: As they trek (or trip) over a tree root, take the time to explain how trees have deep roots which go into the ground to anchor them and suck nutrients and water up, channeling them right through to the veins in the leaf you just saw.
- Animal Holes: As they peek into holes, explain that animals live in them. Ask them why they think some animals live in holes in the ground or in holes in trees.
If you are able to appreciate this inquisitiveness and enjoy answering (and asking!) questions about everything you see in nature, then hiking with your kids won’t just be an activity. It will become an educational experience.
Do you go hiking with your kids? What advice and tips can you share?