Hiking with kids is a fun way to spend family time outside, get some exercise, and experience the newness of each hike through your children’s eyes. Here’s how to get kids hiking without overdoing it.
If you have kids who are new to hiking, you might be nervous about having a successful family hike. As long as you plan ahead and approach it with realistic expectations, it can be a great time.
Table of contents
- When Can Kids Start Hiking?
- 10 Tips to Make Family Hiking Fun
- More Outdoor Fun with Kids
When Can Kids Start Hiking?
Kids can start hiking at any age. Some avid hiking adults will take their babies in packs and happily navigate the trails with a napping baby on their front or back.
Getting family nature time is wonderful, but hiking might seem a bit more dicey once you’re in toddler land. Hiking with kids might sound challenging in ways other than steep hills or rough terrain.
Don’t let your child’s age stop you from the experiences that hiking can bring to your family. Instead, make hiking with kids accessible and available to their age and stage.
This might mean that the way hiking looks for your family will change over the years. However, the experiences your children gain are well worth it.
10 Tips to Make Family Hiking Fun
Hiking with kids is possible at almost any age and developmental stage. Once they’re out of the pack, there are many ways to be successful when hiking with kids.
You might be wondering, “Can I take my four-year-old hiking?” “Should kids go hiking at all?” or “How far can a 7-year-old even hike?”
The answers are yes and yes, and implement these tips for the most successful family hiking experience!
1. Adjust Your Expectations
When it comes to hiking with kids, the most important tip is to adjust your expectations. There is a good chance that you should expect to be:
- hiking at a slower or varied pace
- taking more breaks
- covering less ground (unless you count zig-zags)
- have some unexpected off-trail moments
This is going to look different for every family, depending on the kids’ age and experience on the trail. Going into each hike with open expectations as adults is helpful in your child feeling accomplished and successful on their hike.
Some hikes with my kids clipped along at quick speeds, and some were so slow we didn’t even finish. Most hikes have been a mix of both since my kids have two speeds: running and snail.
Every time I thought we’d hit a stride, I looked behind me, and someone had climbed a huge rock, run off the trail, or come to a complete halt looking at a salamander.
As a long-distance and trail runner, hiking with my kids wasn’t fun until I adjusted my expectations and goals for the trip. I didn’t want my idea of what a hike is to deprive my kids of the experience of climbing the rock, feeling off-trail ferns on their legs, or getting a close-up look at a salamander.
Kids experience hiking in a different and valuable way than what we might as adults. So take a big breath and bring a go-with-the-flow attitude to every adventure. You’ll learn something new every time, no matter how many miles (or feet) you travel.
2. Pack Accordingly
When hiking with kids, keep what you pack as small and light as possible. Snacks are essential for little kids (and adults!) on any outing, especially when they’re burning energy and using brain power.
High-protein snacks are perfect to bring on a family hiking adventure. Classics like trail mix are perfect, but there are other healthy protein-rich snacks that can be made without nuts if there is an allergy in the family.
Water is a must! Refillable water bottles are great, especially if you already own them. Small kids can carry their own for a while. However, it tends to be intermittent. Carry a mostly empty backpack for water bottles while you’re on the trail for little hands that want to pick up leaves and caterpillars.
Frequent hikers might consider investing in a kid’s hydration pack. They are a perfect way for kids to carry their own water and snacks instead of bogging one person down with everyone’s water and snacks.
If you’re hiking in unfamiliar terrain, bringing a trail map is a good idea. Phones are optional on hikes and can be great for photos. But, whether you prefer a digital detox family hike or not, phones are not always reliable to use for maps when you’re out on the trail.
3. Keep it Short and Sweet
We don’t call them “littles” for nothing. Some kids might have big energy, but their legs can only take them so far. A great way to have a super successful hike with young kids is to start small and always have a backup plan for the trail.
If you’re unsure where to find the best family hikes in your area, try researching trails on your local parks and recreation website. Looped trails are great for introducing kids to day hikes. You’ll likely be close to the end when someone needs the bathroom or has a meltdown.
As your kids age and become more experienced, you can challenge them with longer and steeper hikes. This can help build their physical strength and their mental strength.
Mental toughness and resiliency are important qualities to cultivate in kids. It should never replace their sensitivity or empathy but can help them grow as a hiker.
The greater their mental strength, the more they’ll know how capable they are, and will push themselves in a positive way toward bigger hikes and more activities.
4. Encourage Their Curiosity
For little kids who are infinitely curious, plan your day hikes around unique and educational experiences. Many looped trails are centered around a natural feature like a pond or a nest of birds.
For kids who need to know why you’re doing something, and let’s face it, that’s nearly all of them, having a goal in mind is a great way to get them to participate. Make it fun with learning games like an outdoor scavenger hunt!
Nature and learning go hand-in-hand. Not only does retention increase when given the chance to learn outdoors, but there are things that only nature can teach us.
Being in nature really does teach us to slow down and examine the world around us. Stop and smell those wildflowers with your kids, and take a moment to experience what they see at their eye level.
Before hiking with kids, read to them about hiking, foraging, and identifying mushrooms. They’ll learn to recognize plants and fungi on the trail, and some books are perfect to bring along to help with identification.
5. Choose the Right Kids Hiking Gear
By no means do you need expensive or top-of-the-line gear for family hiking, but there are some items that might make it more comfortable for your kids and convenient for you.
Be sure to check your local children’s swap meets, thrift stores, garage sales, and the REI used gear sale before buying anything new.
Kids tend to grow faster than they will wear out hiking gear, so it should be pretty easy to find some of these items on a budget! Keep your eye out for these items:
- Kids’ hydration backpack
- A sun hat and nontoxic sunscreen if your hike isn’t shady
- Hiking boots
- A lightweight rain jacket
- All weather socks
6. Be Prepared for Anything
We never want to think about what might go wrong on a family hike, but it’s always best to be prepared for bug bites, stings, scrapes, or unexpected weather.
Don’t forget a travel version of your natural first aid kit, wipes, and other sanitary supplies. This natural insect repellent is a skin saver during mosquito season. Bring some plantain salve or other remedy to calm itchy bites and heal stings if someone does happen to get one.
Prepare yourself if you’re going to be carrying a toddler or infant in a babywearing hiking carrier. Get conditioned by doing some hikes without your little ones while wearing the carrier with your own supplies weighing it down. This will help you prepare to push yourself just as you’ll challenge your kids on each hike.
7. Try a Morning Hiking With Kids
It’s best for most families to head out on the trails in the morning when the kids have fresh energy, have recently eaten, and the weather is mild.
While it’s not a guarantee, most kids are more likely to be less cranky and ready to play in the mornings than in the afternoons when it’s hot, and they’re worn out from the day. Plus morning daylight is essential to reset your child’s circadian rhythm, which helps them sleep better at night.
Prepare the night before by letting your kids help choose your route and snacks to bring. This makes for less work to get out the door the next day and gives the kids something to look forward to.
If your kids are early risers, you’ll find most hiking trails much less traveled in the early morning. This makes spotting wildlife easier and the trails easier to navigate so kids can set the pace.
8. Bring Friends Along
Friends make everything more fun! Meet up with other families who like to hike, and let the kids explore together. Switching up the social pace with friends is a wonderful way to keep your kiddo engaged in a hike.
Kids learn from each other, and so do adults! This is a great time to swap stories and ideas for hiking with the family.
Better yet, make it a destination hike. Give the kids time to play at a creek, a big rock, a clearing of woods, or wherever the nature in your area leads you to. It’s a great way to relax mid-hike, eat, and regain energy for the trail back.
9. Make it Regular and Attainable
Make it a regular outing so kids can slowly build up to longer hikes. Build up to the tougher hikes by starting slow, steady, and short as their strength and tolerance grow.
Each successive hike doesn’t have to outdo the last in miles under your feet. It’s ok to vary the length, difficulty, and terrain. In fact, make sure to get a lot of short and sweet, successful hikes in between harder ones so your kids have confidence in their abilities.
Even the most enthusiastic kid is going to get tired before you will, so keep that in mind as you plan your hikes. Their muscles will need recovery time, and it’s best not to take it too seriously so it continues to be fun.
10. Leave No Trace
Like camping, your goal for hiking in nature with the family should include leaving no trace. Teach your tiny hikers to plan ahead, dispose of waste properly, leave what they find, and respect wildlife.
Cultivating a lifelong love of nature in young people is our best opportunity for growing the next generation to want to protect our resources.
Day hiking with the little ones can be a great experience for all involved. It’s a great way to get the whole family outside as well as get some exercise. Chances are, your kids are just as ready as you are. Get outside and hike away!
More Outdoor Fun with Kids
Looking for more ways to get your kids active outside? Here are family-friendly projects to enjoy together.