In this digital era of screens, apps, and clever gadgets for every age, it’s more challenging than ever to lure children away from technology and teach them how to embrace the boundless (albeit somewhat less flashy) entertainment of the great outdoors.
And while most kids are no strangers to the delights of the neighborhood park or school playground, many have never been exposed to much beyond their own backyard.
Providing a gateway between a child and the outdoors through the family-friendly activity of hiking can be an enormous gift, but—much like everything when it comes to kids—going in cold without giving some thought to preparation can be a recipe for disaster.
Here are a few valuable pointers on how to do your best to make hiking with kids an enjoyable and rewarding experience for all the trailblazers in your crew.
Know Your Audience
These words of wisdom aren’t just for show business; when it comes taking the littlest for a hike, you’ve got to vet the situation through their eyes.
A challenging hike might be your idea of a good time, but for kids with legs and endurance levels a fraction of your size, a demanding afternoon on the trail might very well end in tears—not to mention make similar outings an extremely hard sell in the future.
A short and easy trail will be a snooze for experienced adults, but your patience will pay off: a successful first hike will keep the kiddos hungry for more, and as their skills grow, so will their hunger for heartier routes.
Choosing a trail for your first family hike is a great opportunity to get the kids involved from the start. Select a handful of beginner-level hikes to choose from, and present them before a jury of your progeny; giving them the ownership of this decision automatically breeds curiosity and interest, helping to ensure that they stay invested from the planning stages forward. Check out our guide on the top hiking trail in Arizona to keep your little ones engaged and safe on the move.
So what makes a kid-friendly trail? Besides the obvious (no steep drops, no severe inclines, no apparent wealth of hornet nests and/or trailside poison ivy), be sure that the route you choose has plenty of shade and places to rest.
Kids who aren’t accustomed to hiking will need breaks to recharge and rehydrate, and you’ll want to indulge this as much as possible to diffuse any potential meltdowns.
You’ll also want to research restroom facilities at each location; no one wants to be caught off-guard when the call of nature happens in, well, nature, and kids who aren’t used to the experience of ducking behind a bush to do their business might need some advance notice.
If you’re planning to bring the family pup along, make sure you choose a pet-friendly trail. Access to streams or rivers are a huge plus for a family-friendly hike, especially for kids who don’t normally get to explore bodies of water (in which case a thorough water safety briefing is in order), and the whole gang can get in on stone-skipping, frog-hunting, and minnow-watching.
Once you’ve chosen your trail, see if you can come up with a little background information to stir their imaginations. Does the route go through a wildlife preserve? The site of any settlements or conflicts?
Delegate, Designate, Deploy
If you’ve spent any time around children, then you know they are all about opposites. They flat-out reject all the best things in life (eating, sleeping, peace and quiet) while openly embracing the most unsavory elements (sleepless nights, chicken nuggets, going as long as possible between baths). Further proof of this is the fact that kids love jobs.
It’s true! A trip to any toy store proves that the tech-friendly generation is still asking Santa for ironing boards, power tools, vacuum cleaners, and first aid kits. This may seem puzzling (who actually enjoys measuring blood pressure?), but the draw isn’t necessarily in the chore itself.
Having a job—or imitating an adult who has one—is rewarding because of the authority it represents. Kids aren’t often the ones in charge or tasked with making the rules, so any opportunity to do so is highly coveted.
Take advantage of this natural affinity for employment to assign duties to the youngest members of your hiking crew. Even kids who seem least likely to embrace responsibility will jump at the chance to boss you (and everyone else) around.
Your entourage will likely need a Leader or co-Leaders to steer your way down the trail, a Snack Master to distribute goodies at the appointed time, a Wildlife Spotter to point out any critters who cross your path, a Green Governor in charge of identifying all plant life you pass (with a Leaf Collector to assist), and perhaps a Bug Boss to be on the lookout for the creepy-crawlies.
Get creative with your job assignments, and you’ll find that this division of labor dovetails nicely with a…
Kids love scavenger hunts. Heck — adults love scavenger hunts. Who doesn’t love scavenger hunts?
And scavenger hunts are even better when nature does half of the work for you! Of course, this means half of the work is still up to you, but remember: kids love jobs, and this is another perfect way to get them involved in the hike before a single boot hits the trail.
The first order of business is commissioning the kids to come up with a proper scavenger hunt list, so break out the construction paper, markers, and stickers and get creative.
Your list will obviously vary depending on the habitat of your hike, but be sure to include plenty of wildlife, plant life, and even those things that have no life: cobwebs, birds’ nests, fallen trees, fluffy clouds, and specially shaped stones will all keep young eyes sharp on the lookout.
A younger crew will enjoy working together on a scavenger hunt (with someone assigned the special duty of List Keeper), but older kids might enjoy some friendly competition. If you have enough participants, divide your group into two scavenger hunt teams, with a prize hanging in the balance as bait.
The losing team will likely be more than willing to go on another hike to even the score.
Being around kids is a lesson in expecting the unexpected, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t prepare as well as you can. You’ll undoubtedly forget something deemed absolutely essential by your pint-sized travel mates (how dare you leave the house without that raggedy stuffed owl your little princess takes everywhere?!), but there’s a way to strike a balance between bringing the necessities and bringing everything but (or maybe including?) the kitchen sink.
Snacks are far and away the top item on your list. Kids are robust little folks, but allow their blood sugar to drop and they crumble into complete disasters.
Stick to energy-packed, trail-friendly foods with little or composable waste: bananas, applies, easily peeled clementines, cheese sticks, granola bars, dried fruit, and maybe a few yogurt- or chocolate-covered raisins or nuts for good measure.
Resist the urge to pack sugary treats; the great outdoors might seem like the perfect place to run off a massive sugar high, but when the inevitable crash occurs (and it will), the last thing you want is to be stuck on the far end of the trail with a kid in the midst of an ugly sugar hangover.
Same goes for beverages. Juice boxes are convenient and individually-packaged, but water is really best for little bodies on the move — not to mention it’s much easier to tote one large bottle of water to share than to deal with a bag full of bulky boxes that will turn to trash after a few sips.
And if the water leaks, no big deal…as opposed to the bee-baiting mess a sugary puddle of juice will make in the bottom of your backpack.
Apart from consumables, you’ll want to stash a small first-aid kit in your pack. Sunscreen is a must, along with a few bandages, alcohol wipes, and insect repellent and/or bite treatment. Check out our article review of the top insect repellents to give you more choices.
A deep scrape from a thorn bush or an unlucky encounter with a bee has the potential to crush your day on the trail, so prepare accordingly to deal with these small misfortunes as they occur.
Also, don’t forget the oxygen mask rule: be sure to pack for yourself as well as for the youngsters. Kids running on empty stomachs are no fun, but adults in the same situation are likewise no picnic. And if you’re bringing a pup or two along, don’t forget that they’ll need a gulp or two of fresh water every now and then, and maybe a small towel to wipe muddy paws.
One last note of preparation: take a good look at your kids’ footwear. They don’t necessarily need to be equipped with top-of-the-line hiking boots, but keep in mind that most children’s shoes are designed to be cute, not durable or comfortable over long periods of wear. Do read our tips on how to find the top hiking shoes for kids for more information.
Those light-up sneakers with the neon laces may give your daughter unparalleled joy, but they might also give her raging blisters 30 minutes into your hike. Your bandages will come in handy there, of course, but the best-case scenario will be to head off any discomfort before it happens.
But wait! You’re not fully packed yet! The last thing you need to bring along is a healthy dose of relaxation.
This may seem counter-intuitive after all the drilled-down details systematically outlined above, but it’s essential to remember that you’re just prepping for a day on the trail, not a lifetime in an underground bunker.
You’ll forget stuff. It’s fine. Keep in mind that countless families in covered wagons once traversed miles of trails with kids in tow and there wasn’t a single cheese stick or bottle of paraben-free sunblock to be found. Preparation is important, but don’t let it drive you crazy.
Tailor Your Expectations
So, you’ve carefully chosen your trail, compiled an amazing scavenger hunt, prepped a whole barrel full of healthy snacks, and have the kids worked into an absolute frenzy over hitting the trail with you. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, everything. And anything. Or maybe nothing. But probably at least one or two things. Sorry about that.
Let’s be honest: no level of forethought or preparation can rule out a complete disaster from occurring. It’s true in life and it’s true in nature it’s especially true with kids. You might plan everything perfectly only to have the entire day wrecked by an unexpected thunderstorm.
Or a flat tire on the way to the trailhead. Or a stomach bug that decides to surface just before the first mile marker. The kids might be having an off day and do nothing but whine and complain through 90 per cent of the hike.
It happens. What matters isn’t a perfect experience, what matters is the effort you make, and the joy you take out of the moments that do come off without a hitch.
After all, the kids likely won’t remember that you got covered in mosquito bites or that the trail smelled kind of funny or that Max threw an unholy fit when he dropped his granola bar in a mud puddle.
What they will remember is spotting deer tracks in the mud and watching a butterfly drink from a blossom and scrambling atop a huge, moss-covered boulder to get a better view of the trail ahead.
And, of course, they’ll remember that you took the time to share these experiences with them, passing along your love and respect for the outdoors in the hopes that they’ll grow to enjoy them as much as you do. And that’s what will really make your hike a true success.
(Max will probably remember the granola bar thing, though. That kid never forgets.)
To Wrap Things Up
Hiking with your kids doesn’t have to be a headache-inducing affair. The idea here is to make it a fun, memorable experience for them.
By following these guidelines, you should be well on your way to having a fun-filled and safe hiking experience with your little tots. So have you tried camping with your kids before? If so, feel free to share your experiences in the comments.