An Introduction to Hiking with Kids

family hiking on trail in Fall

Taking your kids on a hike is a fun and rewarding activity that promotes family bonding as well as a healthy active lifestyle.  With a little prep, you can introduce young children to hiking and avoid whiny hikers.

So you have visions of family treks to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, that’s grand!  Or maybe, you just dream of a time when kids hike 1/2 mile without complaining about sore feet, hunger pains, tired legs, or boredom.

Both are admirable goals!  (And believe me, as a Mom of three – I’m always a fan of any goal that involves less whining).

We are an outdoor family and we love hiking and just being out in the wild.  We’ve done hikes all over the United States and the world.  We do short little hikes as well as epic treks.  Our last huge hike was a 5 day trek of the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal when the kids were 11, 9, and 6 — but it took us a while to work up to that one!   Your family can get outdoors and do this as well!

Read on for the keys to successful hiking with your family.

Teaching your children to appreciate the wonder of the outdoors is one of greatest gifts you can instill.

baby in backpack carrier point to nature

Know your family’s physical limitations.  Its important to realistically assess your family’s actual physical abilities.  Are you hiking with toddlers?  Are your children prone to tiring out after short walks?  Are there any disabilities to be considered (physical or mental)?

Carefully think about your family members and use these limitations to help choose a hike that will work.  Little legs have trouble with steps (up and down) – so avoid hikes with lots of stairs or uneven steps.  Children who haven’t learned to love hiking will NOT enjoy hikes that are mostly uphill.  Children who are impulsive for running ahead should not be on trails with dangerous sections such as bridges or cliff sides.  It seems obvious, but if you think about these limitations ahead of time, you’ll have a much better shot of hiking success by choosing the right hike for your family.

First Hikes: Pick Something Guaranteed (almost) to be Successful. The goal is to ‘teach’ your little trekkers that hiking is fun!  Pick a hike that is shorter and easier than you think they can do (without being boring).  Pick something safe (we’ll move onto cliff sides, rickety rope bridges, and other dangerous stuff for later).  If possible, choose an out-and-back hike with a feature at the trail end like a riverside, waterfall, or view.  Then, pack snacks or a picnic lunch to enjoy while you rest up from the hike.

You may need to plan for shoulder rides for the little ones!

baby riding on father's shoulders

Praise & Encourage.  During your hike make sure you notice whenever your little trailblazers are doing well.  The goal is to build up their self-confidence for their ability to hike.  Praise in a way that brings attention to how strong and capable they are hiking.  For instance:

Wow Adam!  You have hiked all the way from the car so far and I haven’t even heard you complain once!  You must have very strong legs!”

or

 “Elizabeth, I just love how you are showing your little brother how to be a good hiker!”

Even if later on in the hike the whining and complaining begins, redirect attention to how well the child did earlier in the hike. Don’t scold for not enjoying the hike at the moment, either ignore, encourage, or try to divert attention.  For instance:

“Sara, remember when we first started this hike and you climbed over that big rock without any help?  Wow, I was so impressed!  Where did you learn those climbing skills?  Did your teacher show you how?”

Or

“Justin, remember how you hiked all the way up to the big view where we ate lunch?  That was SO HARD!  Mommy’s legs were sore, but you kept hiking so good!  How did you do that?  Was it your super shoes?”*

*Note: please make sure your comments are age appropriate.  Telling your sulky tween that they have ‘Super Shoes’ may not produce desirable results.

Stopping to take funny photos can keep the mood light and enjoyable!

two little kids pretending to hold up a tree in the forest

Remember: the fun is in the journey, allow time for exploration along the way.  I don’t know about you, but for me, sometimes when I hike I want to get to the end as fast as possible – to check of the hike as “I did it!”.  But for kids, its best to remember that slow and steady is a better approach.

Let kids set the pace and if you can, give them choices along the way.   Choosing when to stop for a rest, snack, or water break can help little ones enjoy the whole hiking experience more.  I like to let my kids pick pictures they want to take (we can always delete them later if we don’t want 30 photos of various rocks).  Of course use your best judgement  – otherwise you’ll find that your 1 mile hike takes all day!

Practice an Attitude of Wonder and Gratitude.  This is important for big and little hikers.  Take time to appreciate the beauty of our world, to be thankful that you have the time together as a family to be out in nature.  Be in awe of the strange little bugs and critters you come across.  From start to finish, share an attitude of thankfulness for the Earth.  Instill the sense that getting out and hiking is a privilege and treat.

Pack special hiking-only treats for the trail.  To further the sense that hiking is a special treat, pack a few treats that otherwise aren’t in the house.  Kids will be using calories up and its important to keep them fueled and hydrated.  Bringing out the exciting treats help make hiking even better.  Some snack ideas:

  • Special granola bars
  • Apple slices
  • Homemade trail mix with something fun like mini marshmallows, chocolate chips, or yogurt-covered raisins
  • Fruit leather
  • Or even… a candy bar to share 😊

Kids Can and Should Carry their Own Water.  This is important for several reasons. First, water is heavy, and why should Mom or Dad be carrying 4 or 5 water bottles?  Second, kids are absolutely capable of carrying their own survival gear – water being the most important.  For short hikes our family uses water bottle slings.  For longer hikes, we’ve gotten the kids small water-backpacks that hold about 1.5 L of water.  Kids take control of their own hydration – they sip when they are thirsty and they learn to help carry gear.  Little kids may need reminders to take water breaks.

Don’t worry about the dirt – just bring a change of clothes.  Part of the fun of hiking is exploring and sometimes that means getting dirty and/or wet.  If your hike goes near a river, pack along extra socks just in case, but otherwise – who cares if there’s a little (or a lot) of the trail on the trekkers?  Kids love getting filthy – so let this be another way to enjoy the hiking experience!

two little girls holding hands and hiking on path

Think Safety, Plan for scrapes and bruises. It’s a fact of life – someone is going to trip and scrape their knee.  There will be blood.  Pack a variety of Band-Aids.  Then, before you hit the trail head, manage a few expectations.  I prefer to be brutally realistic – it seems to work great with my kids – maybe it will with yours.  I always say some version of this little speech:

“We’re hiking today.  I guarantee that SOMEONE is going to have an accident and maybe scrape their knee or elbow.  That’s OK!  Mom has Band-Aids – I brought the Star Wars Band-Aids.  Don’t worry – someone always falls on hikes – but we are so tough – we don’t worry about it.  We’ll put a Band-Aid on it – and then you will be just fine.”

And I promise you – after the initial tears, we clean off the wound, slap that Band-Aid on, praise the little trekker for being SO TOUGH!!  And then we go on our merry way.  I swear, its because I already set up ahead of time that falling is normal, blood is normal, and nothing to be concerned with.  Its always worked for me, I hope it does for you!

SUPER HIKING TIP:

Pack a wet washcloth in a Ziploc plastic bag that can be used to clean off dirty wounds.

mother and toddler walking on path

The Pre-Trek Brief.  Before we hit the trail, we like to do a couple of things.  First: BATHROOM BREAKS.  Many times there is a public restroom at the trailhead.  I highly suggest making use of that (especially if you are hiking with girls).  Then, we have our pre-trek brief.  Its not a long brief – but it sets up expectations for everyone in our hiking group.

Topics to include:

  • Rules of the trail (is running ahead allowed? When must children hold adult’s hands? Staying on trail, where does garbage go, etc).
  • What kind of trail you expect – will it be steep? Will there be puddles?  What might you see?  How long is it?
  • Where you are going – will there be a lake, a view, a waterfall?
  • What will you do when you get there? A picnic?  A snack time?  Wading?  Throwing rocks at the water?
  • How long are we going to stay at the rest point before we come back to the car?

Quickly running through these topics every time you hike is great practice for when hikes are longer and harder.  Also, some of the despair of tired legs is mitigated by just knowing  HOW LONG and HOW FAR you have to go.  Its amazing how tired little feet perk up by knowing that snack time is just around the corner!

After the hike. So you made it.  Your first hike!  And everyone made it and everyone enjoyed it enough to consider doing it again!  Congratulations!  You are on your way to creating a family culture of wilderness lovers!  Now the fun part, reliving your experiences!  Around the dinner table is a great time to talk up the hike.  Remember how STRONG little trekkers were!  Remember how there was hardly any complaining even though the trail was SO LONG or SO HARD or SO STEEP!  Remember how someone found the cool stick, or the neat rock!  Remember how someone fell down, scraped their knee and HARDLY CRIED AT ALL!  Remember and build up all your trekkers!  And most importantly, Remember how YOU – brought your family out hiking – and YOU survived!   Now that’s something worth toasting!!

Mountain Mat USA

Jennifer Hillberg is the Founder and Creator of Mountain Mat, LLC, the USA’s first 100% recycled plastic, reversible, outdoor recreation mat. As an avid outdoor recreationalist, Jennifer has hiked and camped in some of the world’s most remote places alongside her husband and three children. Learn more about The Mountain Mat Story.

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