Happy Trails: Tips for Hiking with Kids

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My sister is a total badass. In 2002—way before it became hip—she hiked all 2,650 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. She crossed mountains with blistered heels, slept alone under the stars, and braved the elements on Hike Naked Day. When she began the adventure of motherhood the following summer, it didn’t occur to her to stop adventuring in the outdoors. Backpacking became “Zacpacking,” as she carried not only her gear but also my nephew Zac for more than five hundred miles of the Appalachian Trail in 2004. At fifteen, Zac has an impressive list of day hikes, backpacking trips, and mountain summits under his belt. By comparison, my boys and I are amateurs in the world of hiking. But the hundreds of miles that we have logged on day hikes together have taught me a few things. If you are new to hiking with kids or have had less than fabulous family hiking experiences thus far, read on!

First and most important, remember that the goal of hiking together is to have fun. Sure, you may also be in it for the exercise, the views, or the end-of-hike selfie, but none of these takes precedence over having a good time with your littles. And guess what, if your kids aren’t having fun, the fun factor goes way down—like, below zero. This is not a put-your-own-oxygen-mask-on-before-helping-others situation. If your kids are young or new to hiking, you will need to create conditions in which fun is not only possible but probable! How?

First off, slow your roll. If you have done a lot of hiking without kids or are a fitness buff, you will need to slow your pace to match your kids’. More challenging still, if your kids are like mine, get comfortable with the idea of alternating between dead sprints and a sloth-like crawl. With multiple kids moving at different paces, having a second adult along and being willing to split up can be helpful. My seven-year-old is like the energizer bunny on uphill hikes, but he slows to a crawl on the downhills. My nine-year-old is the exact opposite. When we are all hiking together, I often hang behind with the slower hiker while hubby ploughs ahead with whoever is moving fastest. Time spent hiking solo with just one of my three boys is a treat; we have different conversations one-on-one than we would have altogether, and I’m surprisingly convincing at pretending to listen to Minecraft monologues when my attention is undivided. We still take all of our play breaks and snack stops together as a family, but the divide-and-conquer hiking approach allows us to tackle longer and more difficult trails with relative ease.

That said, go easy! If you are new to hiking with kids, start with short, mellow trails. Opt for a day with reasonably good weather (though sweaty, rainy, and snowy hikes can be incredibly fun if your kids are on board). It’s better to end the experience wanting more than to end it never wanting to go back again! As your kids get older and as you gain more experience hiking as a family, you can set your sights on more challenging hikes. But even then, remember that the point is to have a good time together!

Allow time—more than you think you need—to stop and smell the roses, climb the boulders, splash in the creek, and build a fort from fallen tree limbs. Think of the trail as a progressive playground—walk a little, stop to play, walk a little more, stop to play again. If you do, your kids will associate hiking with exploration, discovery, and adventure. If you don’t? Drudgery is the word that comes to mind. For very young kids, I like to allow a full hour for each mile that we intend to walk. We don’t always need quite that much time, but mentally making space for it means that I’m able to move at my boys’ pace and enjoy the play stops almost as much as they do.

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Keep in mind that taking your time on a hike means you also need to take lots of food and water! Running out of fuel when you have an exhausted four-year-old and are several miles from your car is not fun. (And fun is the whole point of this, remember?) Hiking makes everyone hungry and thirsty, so pack significantly more than you think you need. We almost always bring special treats of some sort when we hike. M&M’s are miracle-workers in our family. The promise of an M&M every ¼ or ½ mile has seen us to the end of steep and scrambly seven and eight-mile hikes and up to the top of several 13,000 and 14,000 foot peaks. I don’t bust out bribery for easy hikes, but it’s great to have a surprise like that on hand for the moments when you need your kids to dig deep and work through a bit of fatigue. (Because even though you want to move at their pace, you do still need to make it back to the car before dark.)

In addition to having plenty of water and your child’s favorite foods, make sure you pack the essentials. For me this means bringing a photo or screenshot of the trail map, sunscreen, bug repellant, wet wipes, hand sanitizer, a small first aid kit, plastic grocery bags for trash, trekking poles, and weather-appropriate outerwear. If I expect to encounter water or snow, then I pack a change of socks for my kids; hiking with wet feet is miserable. If you have young children who can’t be bothered to remove clothing before sitting down in a creek, then pack a change of shorts and underwear, too. (We have had a few tearful, chafing hikes to the car over the years when I didn’t come prepared for water.)  

In those tearful moments (they happen), it will be especially important that you bring your sense of playfulness and humor. Pretend to be racecars or trains to keep your little hikers moving happily (can you tell I’m a boy mom?), make up silly songs about the things you encounter on your hike, day dream together about the delicious ice cream cone you will make when you get home, or—assuming you are far from dangerous drop-offs—let your kids run ahead a bit and then act ridiculously startled when they pop out at you from behind a tree. If you approach the hike with playfulness and humor, your kids probably will too!

A final note of caution: know your kids and know the trail. Hike in new and exciting places! And when you do, be sure to educate yourself about the dangers. In particular, are there significant drop-offs that you need to be concerned about? There are times for letting your kids charge ahead and times for keeping them close. Some kids can almost always charge safely ahead—they are mature, responsible, have a good sense of direction, are naturally cautious, and never stray too far from your sight anyway. That said, losing a kid on the trail is a scary experience, and you don’t want to have it. Be sure that your kids know to stop, wait for you, and call to you if they worry that they might be lost. Talk about trail safety with your kids, and outline rules or expectations before you leave the parking lot!

Once you’ve done the stern mommy thing and laid out the rules, the fun begins. So get out there to hike, play, laugh, and explore! Do you have any other tips for families new to hiking? Questions about getting started? Recommendations for the best family-friendly hikes in Kentucky? If so, please share below!



Lisa Thomas is the nature-lovin' mama of three nature-lovin' boys. In her free time, you'll most likely find her reading, writing, running (it's more of a waddle, really), or rock climbing.