There’s nothing better than a heart-pounding, long-distance hike to a remote peak, while the world grinds away down below. And if you’re like me and you have some awesome children in your life, you eagerly want to share this experience with them.
But let’s be honest, coaxing our children along on the trail can be an exercise in frustration. You want to show them this exhilarating, Zen-like natural world, and they want none of it. Moreover, it becomes a battle of wills and the Zen is gone, along with family harmony.
Been there? Yeah, me too. But it doesn’t have to be that way. I’ve had some amazing hikes with our twin daughters over the last fourteen years and learned something new each time.
11 ways to make hiking more fun for kids:
1. Include them when planning the hike
Your kids are now your hiking partners, so include them when planning the hike. Make a list and let them choose which adventure to tackle, it will empower them and give them ownership of the trip. Choose fun destinations – like a waterfall, a lake, or a great view. One of our local hikes ends at a huge balancing rock, and I can still remember my dad and me eagerly following a trail to a creepy pioneer cemetery.
A gentle word of caution: As with any hike, know when to turn back. Fun destinations are great, and we adults know it can make a long walk worth the effort, but remember your audience. If they are simply not into it, better not to have a bad experience on the trail and turn them off hiking. There’s always another day, just reward them for however long they walked and try again another time.
2. Bring fun snacks
As dutiful parents, you’re likely packing healthy, whole foods for your kids: grapes, baby carrots, a peach, an apple, or some trail mix. All great options, but loosening up a little on the snack choices can make things fun for both of you.
So, try adding some extra M&Ms to your trail mix, and reward them when they reach a trail junction. Or maybe there’s a coveted snack they only have once in a while. We only eat Pop-tarts when we’re hiking, so that becomes a fun treat for the trail. (It’s also a favorite food for Everest climbers!)
Try making your own trail mix, too. Kids can pick their favorite foods and will be more likely to enjoy it if they helped choose the ingredients. My daughter and I make our trail mix- and our secret ingredient? Candied ginger!
3. Bring a friend
Everything is more fun with friends and having our daughters invite their friends on our hikes was a game-changer. After many miles of cajoling them along the trail, we invited their friends and suddenly they were running and playing and dashing up the trail.
I had to run to keep up! And let’s face it, as our kids get older, we parents get less and less cool. Bringing their besties on the trail is fun, provides some healthy motivation, and will make your outing more enjoyable for everyone.
4. Play a classic game
Classics games – Twenty questions, would you rather questions for kids, scavenger hunt, hide and seek. Tailor each game to your specific location and it’s sure to spark their interest along the trail.
5. Bring pets
If you can, definitely bring the family pet. Likely it’s a dog, but remember a man recently hiked the entire AT with his cat. It can be done! And if bringing Harry the hamster gets them out on the trail, then go for it!
6. Track your steps
Make every step count – Track your steps with a smartphone or watch. Try setting a family goal and try to beat it. Older kids might enjoy tracking their total miles walked, or total feet ascended.
Make a spreadsheet and they can watch their numbers grow. (Great math, planning, and analysis skills!) Reward them when they’ve hiked “x” miles or climbed “x” feet of elevation. Either way, they will be proud of themselves and have some legit bragging rights at school on Monday.
7. Create trail names
Trail names are a tradition that began on the Appalachian Trail, which many hikers proudly adopt for themselves. Trail names say something unique about each of us and are a super fun way to engage kids in the hiking community.
Maybe the whole family has a related set of names? Or perhaps something funny happened on the hike and they get dubbed “waterfall” or “chipmunk”. (Just remember, it is their trail name, so make sure they are ok with it!)
8. Don’t ban technology
Technology on the trail is a mixed blessing. Many of us remove to the backcountry to escape our screens, while others savor their digital trail gadgets. However, if your young hiker is very tech-savvy, use that to your advantage.
On one hike, my daughter and her friend created a movie trailer on my phone, and by the end of the hike, they had a cool product. Kids also love to take pictures, and this can be a great way to nurture that young photographer. Give them the camera or phone and see what they can do.
And now that we have teenagers, I do allow brief texting on our hikes. I figure they are already out in the wild and if they want to tell their friends about it, or send that epic pic, then go for it. My only rule: Keep the phone on silent and no using technology around other hikers, so as not to disturb their wilderness experience.
9. Reward, reward, reward
Kids love praise and having a reward can be just the thing to keep them on the trail. Here are a few ideas:
- Ice cream, or any treat at the end of a long day
- Stickers! Fun for young ones and they can start a collection
- Gifts- consider a fun t-shirt or hat after a special hike
- Photo album- take a summit pic each time and make a small album
- Extra screen time after spending a day outdoors
10. Use a geocaching app
Geocaching involves downloading a geocache app, following a GPS, trails, or landmarks, to a specific spot where a geocache has been stored. This is a fun activity for all ages and a superb way to get the whole family outside and working together. Caches are usually weatherproof containers that have some trinkets inside, a journal for fun messages, and maybe coordinates for the next cache.
Sometimes visitors leave their mementos behind, too. This combines, hiking, adventure, navigation, mystery, and discovery all in one.
Start with a simple GPS (or use a smartphone or map) and search online for a list of local cache coordinates. Then load in the coordinates and go find your hidden treasure. Best of all, you do not need to be in the backcountry – countless geocaches are found in urban areas, too. Your kids will be engaged, energized, and learn a bit about finding their way in the world. Win-win-win!
You can also check out this study (Exergames for health and fitness: the roles of GPS and geosocial apps) for further insight into the pros and cons of these types of apps.
11. Read hiking stories before your outing
Have an avid reader in your house? Great! Here are a few titles to get your reader excited about exploring the outdoors.
Maxwell’s Mountain by Shari Becker. Sweet, young reader story about a boy who explores a local mountain for the first time.
Peak by Roland Smith. Riveting middle-grade story about a teen’s attempt to climb Mount Everest.
Parents: Look for regional “Best Hikes with Kids” books. Great places to find fun, family hikes for all abilities.
Tip! A long ride to the trailhead? Bring a book on CD or a fun podcast and it will keep their attention the whole way there, and back!
What to bring when hiking with kids?
Even at a very young age, our kids always carried a small pack with a whistle, a water bottle, and a snack. The whistle can be a mixed blessing, and we taught them that it’s for emergencies only. Have your kids test it at home and get their “tweets” out before hitting a quiet trail.
Consider bringing a favorite blanket or stuffed animal. These bring comfort and can be just the thing your young hiker needs to feel safe. Also, we’ve taken some great pictures with stuffed animals on the trail.
Tip! Start a little photo album of Buddy Bear’s adventures. (Just don’t leave Buddy on the summit as I did once, or you may be hiking back up the next day!)
How long can kids hike?
This depends. Interest and physical ability vary greatly, and some kids are climbing 4,000-footers at age 5, while others not so much. However, kids are so much more capable than we realize.
That said, it is wise to start on a slower, shorter hike and work your way up. Remember to choose a fun destination and you’ll be surprised at what they can do. And when they finish, remember to PRAISE, PRAISE, PRAISE!
How should kids dress for hiking?
Backcountry rules apply on every hike: No cotton, wear synthetic or wool layers, closed-toed shoes (regular sneakers are great), extra socks, a hat, and a rain/wind shell. Check out your local thrift shop for great deals on fleece, base layers, and jackets. Kids grow out of their clothing fast, so you can find plenty of good quality, used gear.
Can I really do this?
Yes! Hiking with kids can be truly memorable for all of you. But if you have had a bad experience, take a deep breath and try again when the time is right. As they say, the mountains aren’t going anywhere. Or if you had a fun hike but your kids don’t want to go again, that’s ok, too. Sometimes our kids need a nudge, sometimes they need a break, and as the hiking parent only you will know which one.
At the end of the day, whether you take one hike together or eighty, empower your kids on the trail and they will have hiking in their hearts for years to come. Happy trails.
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Bryce is a freelance writer and preservation consultant who lives in Southern Maine with his wife and their two awesome kids. Previously from Upstate NY, he climbed the 46 High Peaks in the Adirondacks before discovering the mountains of New England. When he’s not exploring the outdoors, Bryce can be found writing, teaching, photographing old buildings, or getting crushed by his daughters in Monopoly.