As a general rule, kids can hike a ½ to 1 mile per year of age. At around 10 years old, experienced and fit kids can start to go on longer hikes and might even be able to outhike the adults.
Of course, this is just a general guideline. Kids who are used to being outside all day and go hiking frequently can usually hike more, whereas kids who sit around all day will struggle with even short hikes.
Weather and terrain will also factor in. If the hike is steep, slippery, and/or bad weather conditions, they might only be able to go 0.3 to 0.4 mile per age in year – and they’ll probably be complaining the entire way.
If Your Aren’t Sure, Then the Hike Is Probably Too Long
The fact that you are even wondering if your kids will be able to handle the hike means the answer is probably “no.” Sure, you might get lucky and your kids will prove to be hardy little hikers. But the hike could end up taking 3x longer than you expected so you run out of snacks and water and are exhausted — both physically and mentally.
Plan a too long hike and you risk your kids having a miserable experience and putting them off hiking forever. Or at least having to force them on the next hike and deal with their bad attitudes. Choose a shorter, easy hike. Once the kids prove they can do that, then start on some longer hikes.
Below are some more precise guidelines for how far kids can hike based on their age.
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2-3 Year Olds
It’s unlikely your two year old will hike over a mile without being carried at least part of the way. Even if your toddler does hike the entire way, he/she will probably get distracted (every leaf, rock, stick on the trail is a potential plaything!). So don’t be surprised if it takes hours to go this mile. For that reason, you’ll probably want to use a carrier or stroller for your hike.
Even at three years old, you’ll probably have to carry your child for at least part of the way – and they are HEAVY by this age. Keep the hike short and plan it for when they are at their highest energy levels.
By the time my daughter was an older three, she started to be a good hiker. However, she was still pretty moody. One day she’d be ecstatic about hiking and exploring. Other days she’d complain and just want to hang around base camp all day.
- Consider a harness or a leash for toddlers. It’s a lot easier than holding their hand on a hike for hours. It also allows you to relax and enjoy the view instead of constantly watching to make sure your toddler won’t run off, get lost, or wander off a ledge.
- Actually read the trail reviews. Just because the trail is rated as “easy”, it doesn’t mean that all parts of it will be easy for little kids or stroller-accessible.
- See my picks for best hiking strollers
4-5 Year Olds
Most 4 and 5 year old kids can hike 2-4 miles fairly easy. At this age, they are also generally enthusiastic about exploring nature and will come on the hike willingly. However, 4 and 5 year old kids are easily distracted. Yes, they will want to stop and gather cool rocks, poke sticks into puddles, catch salamanders… Unless you want to constantly argue with them to hurry up, you’ll need to allow for many unplanned breaks along the way.
- Dress your kids wear brightly-colored clothes. This will make it easier to see them if they hike ahead of you.
- Talk about what to do if they get lost. This is crucial since kids at 4 and 5 years old have a tendency to wander off. Read about how to have this talk here.
- Give them whistles. See above!
- Have them carry their own packs. Little kids feel special carrying their own packs, but this is more a safety issue. They should at least have some water, snacks, a jacket, and rain gear in their pack. Yes, it’s likely you might end up carrying this pack for them at some point.
- Stop to snack frequently. Little kids burn fuel very quickly. If you don’t plan many snack breaks — at least every hour – they will crash and burn.
- Candy! If there was ever a time to let your kids have sweets, it’s while burning lots of energy on a hike. M&Ms and other candies are wonderful motivators for hiking.
6-9 Years Old
Children aged 6 to 9 can usually hike 3-5 miles and even up to 10 miles if they have experience. The problem is that kids at this age can start to lose interest in hiking with their parents. In my experience, my daughters pace doubled when I invited friends along – even if they were my friends.
Likewise, I was able to get her to walk faster and further if there was a cool feature on the hike, like a waterfall where we could swim.
- Let your kid see the itinerary before setting off. And let them track progress on the map as you hike. It will stave off whining if they can see for themselves how much further there is to go, not to mention hone orienteering skills.
- Plan fewer but longer breaks. Little kids need lots of small breaks. At 6-9 years old, kids will appreciate being able to stop to play at various cool points on the trail.
Kids 10 years and up are generally able to hike 10+ miles with ease. At this age, the problem isn’t so much physical ability but willingness. Don’t be surprised if tweens and teens are reluctant to go on hikes with just mom and dad.
My 10-year old daughter, for example, is tired of my “nature talks” about insects, plant identification, and erosion. It’s a lot harder to convince her to go on a hike with just me, especially when there isn’t a “reward” at the end like a swimming lake. However, she still gets excited about hiking if we can bring a friend of hers along.
- Consider letting your kid and a friend hike without you or ahead of you. Of course, this is contingent on your kid actually being able to read a map, follow trail markers, knowing in general how to behave in nature, and being reliable enough to meet up with you at a certain point.
- Get the kids involved in trip planning. They can’t whine if they were the ones who decided on that trail!
How far do your kids hike? Let us know in the comments.