How to Encourage Kids to Hike Longer

three children sitting on driftwood on hiking trail

Want to get your kids into hiking?  Family hiking trips are an excellent way to promote family bonding, healthy lifestyles, and a love for nature.  If your children are ready to learn to hike on harder trails – follow these tips for successful long hikes with kids.

Hiking is one of the best activities families can do together.  It instills an active lifestyle, makes time for family bonding, and, if done right, instills a lifetime love of the outdoors.

If you are looking for practical tips to learn to hike read our article An Introduction to Hiking with Kids.

This post will be for those families ready to level-up to longer, more difficult, and more fun hikes.

Shannon, age 5, carries her own water in a sling for her hikes.

little girl and father hiking up trail

Know your family’s limitations.  As always, it is essential that you take realistic stock of any limitations (physical or mental) of your group.  However, its also important to continue to press forward and encourage growth in hiking abilities.

Hiking Gear.  Now that you’ve moved beyond light hiking, everyone needs to have standard trail gear.  Supplies beyond this will vary depending on weather, climate, length of hike, and complexity At a minimum, basic essentials includes:

  1. Small trail backpack
  2. Sturdy hiking boots
  3. Trail map
  4. Raingear (a packable poncho takes up little space and is light).
  5. Sun Protectant (sunscreen & sunglasses)
  6. Hat
  7. High energy snacks
  8. More water than you think you’ll need
  9. Whistle
  10. Extra socks

By the time your children have been on a few hikes, they should be encouraged to carry their share of the gear.  Older kids taking more, younger kids less.  By elementary school kids should be involved in packing their hiking packs with their water and snacks as well as other essentials.

young boy standing on edge of Jebel Shams, Oman

Choosing the Hike.  Now that your family has a few hikes under their belts, a great family activity to involve young hikers with is choosing and planning for the next hike.  Giving kids input into what kind of trails they like help give a sense of ownership to the hiking experience.

Teach Trail Safety. Ideally you’ve been teaching trail safety all along, but now you can include valuable information about hazards that are common on hikes.  While hiking, if you spot a hazards – such as Poison Ivy – take a break and discuss things such as: Where does it grow? How do you spot it? What do you do to treat it.  If you don’t know these answers – that’s fine!  Bring along a hiking book for your region – they have all this valuable information – your family can learn together.

Have a Plan.  Depending on the age, maturity, and hiking experience of your children, you may allow them to be ahead of you on the trail.  Whether you decide that its safe as long as they are within eyesight or whether you allow them more latitude (stop at any trail sign or fork in trail), its important that you teach your children to be aware of the risks in their environment, but not to be fearful of them.  As you begin your hike you’ll notice conditions of the trail that need to be accounted for.  Are the trails slick from a recent rain?  Are parts of the trail in poor condition?

Choose Hike Leaders.  Give kids a chance to take the lead for these family hikes.  Leaders are responsible for reading and following trail markings, identifying trail hazards and communicating to the rest of the group, and making sure the group is keeping on schedule (not taking too long at rest breaks).  You can rotate kids through the leader role throughout the hike.

young girl hiking on path near lake in Maine

Discuss Responsible Hiking.  While on the trail is a good time to have family discussions on what it means to be a responsible hiker.  Topics can include:

  • Why is it important to stay on marked trails?
  • Why don’t we throw rocks off sides of cliffs?
  • Why don’t we litter?
  • What does it mean to “leave only footprints, take only memories”?

Games to Play on the Trail.  We like to play a fun game of: “What would you do…?”  Rotating through the family, people answer the question posed:

  • What would you do if someone fell and twisted their ankle?
  • What would you do if you heard thunder in the distance?
  • What would you do if an alien landed and asked for directions to the parking lot?
  • What would you do if you saw a wild animal like a fox?
  • What would you do if you saw a rhino on the trail??

We usually start off with realistic, learn-something type scenarios, but typically it quickly declines into crazy, unlikely (hopefully) scenarios.  Laughter is guaranteed.

boy and girl looking at waterfall

Sometimes, You Need to Push Through.  As your family gains experience hiking, you’ll see what each member is capable of in terms of physical ability.  Sometimes on a particular hike something will be off, and your normal happy hikers will be moody and unhappy.  Maybe you had to rise early for the hike, or they didn’t eat a full breakfast, or they are just grumpy.  It happens.  But it doesn’t always have to  mean “Abort!”

Know your kids – and if you are asking them to do a hike you KNOW they are capable of – then sometimes the answer is: “We are doing this hike and by Golly We are GOING to Have Fun.”  It’s a little bit like Clark Griswold, but sometimes, as the adult in the group – you need to make the tough choices – and if you’ve planned on this hike and its just cranky kids going on – well, sometimes the going gets tough – so get going.  Even the worst attitudes seem to melt away after getting started hiking – its just too difficult to NOT enjoy fresh air, nature, and a little blood-pumping exercise.

Relive Your Experiences and Plan for the Next.  Meal times are perfect for discussing past hikes (good and bad parts) and talking about ideas for future hikes.  Now that your hikers are older, they can help provide valuable insight on hikes and things they did/did not like.

family of 2 adults and 3 kids sitting on path in Santorini
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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