A Beginner's Guide to Hiking With Children

by Run Wild My Child |

Lately, I’ve received a lot of questions about how to get started hiking with kids. Parents want to know how old kids should be when they start, what to pack, where to go and how to motivate their kids. I’m here to provide some answers! My husband and I have been hiking with our kids since the time they could walk. Actually, we started well before that with babies in carriers! We’ve definitely learned a thing or two about hiking with small kids over the years. Hopefully, this post will inspire you to get out on the trail with your kids, no matter what age they are.  If you have a question that I don’t answer, please leave it in the comments below and I’ll respond.

Benefits of hiking with kids

Hiking is such a wonderful way to get children outdoors, immersed in nature and burn some of that boundless energy. It can teach them so much about their surroundings and instill an appreciation for nature deep in their soul. Hiking can build confidence, foster independence and encourage curiosity in children. It gives them opportunities to explore your local area, learn about local plants and animals and other natural teaching opportunities. Hiking can help push kids out of their comfort zone and accomplish something they can be proud of. Plus, hiking provides a distraction-free environment for quality time with your children…and what could be better than that?

Easy or hard?

Depending on the parent’s definition of hiking, it can be one of the first or last outdoor activities that parents want try with their kids. If a parent thinks hiking is merely a walk through the woods, they’re probably more inclined to try it than a parent that views hiking as scaling steep mountains. Luckily, hiking is both of those things and everything in between.

Hiking can be done nearly anywhere and (a lot of times), you don’t need any fancy gear or very much experience to do it. However, there are a few things you should know/do before you go to ensure you have the best possible experience. The more fun the kids have hiking, the more likely they (and you) will want to do it again. We’re here to set you up for hiking success, which we hope will lead to even more outdoor adventures for you and your kids.

When to get started

There’s no perfect age to start hiking with kids. The perfect age is RIGHT NOW. You can get kids started hiking any time, from baby to teen. I think a lot of parents will tell you that it’s always beneficial to start them young, but that’s certainly not always the easiest. Every age has its own difficulties to consider and challenges.

On the one hand, babies are relatively easy to hike with. For short hikes, all you really need to do is put them in a wrap or backpack carrier, strap on your shoes and go! Most babies love being outdoors and close to a parent. However, hiking with babies can be intimidating for beginners and new parents and logistically difficult depending on how much you need to pack to feed, clothe and diaper them. The good news is that every hike with your baby will get a bit easier. You’ll soon figure out what you need and what you can leave in the car. The hard part is just getting out of the house in the first place.

Hiking with toddlers is a bit easier and more difficult, simultaneously. Personally, I think this is the hardest age to hike with. Toddlers can walk on their own (less for you to carry), but they usually can’t go very far and tire quickly. Some toddlers also have very strong feelings about what they wear, where they go and how things are done. They wear out quickly and aren’t easy to coax when you’re ready to move. Meltdowns on the trail will happen, but trust us, it does get easier. If you check your expectations at the door, hiking with toddlers can be done successfully. After the age of 4, hiking with kids gets much easier!

Choose the right hike

One of the most important things you can do when starting to hike with children is to choose the right hike. In order to set them up for success, you want to choose a hike that won’t be too long, difficult or dangerous. If your kids are small or you’re just getting started, don’t overestimate how much they can do. While they seem to have endless energy, hiking will take it out of them in a whole new way. Choose a short trail with easy terrain. Paved trails are great for little ones and unstable walkers who have a tendency to trip over things. There’s a lot to look at other than where their feet are going. Expect a few spills and plan accordingly.

As your kids get older and more experienced, you can do longer and more difficult hikes. With school-aged kids, we love going on hikes with rocks/boulders to climb, creeks to play in and more rugged terrain. The kids like the challenge and are extra proud of themselves when we get to the end of a hike. Don’t be afraid to challenge them! They might surprise you with how well they do and quickly they catch on. But also don’t be surprised if you end up carrying one of them for a while if they’re having trouble keeping up. You just never know!

Also, consider choosing a hike that has a destination or goal to get to (a creek, waterfall, lake, swimming hole, or picnic area). Kids are motivated by the end reward. Give them something to look forward to and strive for.

Dress appropriately

The right clothing and shoes will go a long way ensuring your hike is a success. Nothing will make your kid hate hiking more than being uncomfortable in their clothing, too hot/cold or getting blisters on their feet from wearing the wrong shoes. Layers work great for kids so they can adjust the amount of clothing to the outdoor temperature. Tennis shoes with socks are great for hiking, but not so great if they get wet or dirty. Consider bringing a back-up pair or some water shoes if you know they’re going to jump in the creek the first chance they get!

And be sure to keep a set of dry clothes in the car for each kid to change into before getting in their car seat to go home. I can’t even tell you how many times my kids have ridden home naked because I forgot to restock after our last adventure!

Go early

The best time of day to go hiking with kids is usually in the morning. Everybody’s energy level is full and you can beat the heat of the day by getting an early start. Kids are usually at their most hyper in the morning, so taking a morning hike gives you a breather and lets them channel their energy productively. While I can’t guarantee it won’t happen, there’s usually less whining and fewer demands to be carried in the morning than if you go later in the day as the kids get more tired and cranky.

Plus, the earlier you start, the fewer people you’ll have to deal with out on the trail. And getting an early start means you won’t have to rush the kids through their hike to make it back before dark.

Let them set the pace

When you first start hiking with your children, let them take the lead. Hiking with kids is very different than hiking with adults and you have to go at their pace or they’ll hate it. Children walk much slower and need lots of stops and time to explore. If your kid is more interested in climbing rocks and chasing butterflies than making it to the next mile marker, that’s ok! It may take you two hours to walk a half-mile, but at least you’re outside having fun! Be patient with them and always give yourself WAY more time than you expect to take. And just remember, the goal when hiking with children is not to get to a destination, it’s about the journey.

Let them explore

Giving your kids plenty of space, time and independence to explore out on the trail will help them fall in love with hiking and nature. Try to find trails with interesting features or have a lot of varying terrain. Natural elements like creeks or rivers, waterfalls, boulders or caves will keep kids entertained and occupied. In addition, bridges, stairs, rock formations, board walks, ladders, and fallen logs can encourage adventure and imaginative play while you’re hiking. As long as these things are all safe for your kids to play on (and permitted in the area), allow them ample time to play and explore off the trail.

Trails as teaching opportunities

Use hikes as a way to teach them about their surroundings and how to respect the environment. Teach kids which plants to avoid and which are safe to touch. Point out the stingy, itchy, scratchy plants, so they know to stay safely away from those. If you’re not sure, get a book at your local library or download a plant ID app and learn together! Take in all the nature you see around you on your hike. Identify flowers by their colors and trees by their leaves and bark. Look for animals, bugs and birds. Pay attention for animal tracks on the ground.

And just as importantly, teach children to leave no trace. Always take nothing but photos and leave nothing but footprints. Take all your trash to a trash can or home with you and leave none on the trail. If you have older kids that can safely pick up trash they find on the trail, encourage them to clean up after others when you’re out hiking.

Play to their strengths 

As the parent, you know your kid better than anyone. Consider their personality and strengths when planning your hike and play to those to make it enjoyable for them. If your child loves being the leader, let them walk up front and lead the way. Give one kid the job of reading the map and choosing which direction you’ll hike. Have a kid that needs extra motivation? Give him the role of the encourager/cheerleader to get everyone else motivated. Let your voracious snacker choose when and where you’ll stop for snacks. Have a singer? Let her pick the songs you’ll sing along the way. Give your artistic/creative kid control of the camera and have him document the adventure. It’ll be fun looking back at those images and seeing the hike from his perspective.

Know their weaknesses

Along the same lines, watch for their signs to head off any issues before they happen. Watch for signs that they’re getting tired and know when it is time to head back home. Exhausted kids are more prone to accidents, so be aware of their energy level. If you have a child that gets tired easily or gives up quickly on adventures, bring a carrier and expect that going into the hike so you’re not disappointed.

Pay attention to their cues to avoid meltdowns before they start. Children can have meltdowns over all kinds of thing: exhaustion, boredom, injury, frustration, jealousy, etc.  If you have little ones, it’s like to happen. But it doesn’t have to end your hike. Address the situation and move on quickly. Children can feel your stress and anxiety, so don’t sweat the small stuff and try not to dwell. If you have to turn around and go home, that’s ok!

Play games, all sorts

Hikes are a great opportunity to really get to know your kids and have some really wonderful conversations with your child. If you keep their minds engaged while they’re hiking, you’ll get more miles out of them and it’ll go by in no time at all. Here are a few simple games you could play while you hike that lets you get to know your kids and their amazing imaginations:

  • Play “I Spy” with a variety of clues (something red, something that eats worms, a place where an animal lives, etc.)

  • Play “Would you Rather” with everyone taking a turn asking and answering (Would you rather live in a place with a lot of trees or live in a place near the ocean? Would you rather be funny or smart?)

  • Use hikes as an opportunity to have more intimate conversations about their friends and school or their accomplishments and struggles help your kids work through some math word problems without them realizing it’s studying! ( If we hike 0.75 miles west, then 0.5 miles north and then hike back, how far did we go in total and in which directions?)

  • Let your kids get creative by asking them open-ended questions (Describe your ultimate birthday party. If you could create your own holiday, what would it be like?)

  • Teach your kids your favorite silly camp songs and sing along the way.

  • Do a nature scavenger hunt on your hike (there are tons of free printable ones on Pinterest) or pick 5 items to look for before you begin the hike. Winner gets a prize!

Bring snacks

Food and water are imperative to have on hand when hiking with (or without) kids. Little ones burn fuel and get dehydrated quickly, so stop frequently for breaks. Hiking burns lots of energy for kids and adults, so it is important to replenish it regularly with nutritious food and lots of water. We like fruits, nuts, bars, jerky, granola bars, graham crackers and maybe a little chocolate (for mom). If your kids are old enough to carry their own packs, let them make/carry their own snacks and water bottles, too. They’ll feel extra responsible having their own gear and refreshments. (Although you should definitely supervise to keep them from eating it all in the car before you even get to the hike! Speaking from experience.) Small treats also make handy bribes if you need to coax a kid to do just 10 more minutes!

Be prepared

We hope nothing bad will happen out on the trail, but it’s best to be prepared for anything. This could mean a scraped knee, an insect bite, or a sudden change in the weather. Make sure you pack your first aid kit with the standard supplies and any medications you may need. Hopefully, you won’t ever need anything more than a band-aid, but better to be prepared. Also consider packing bug spray, sunscreen, poncho, spare, cell phone and a map. And before you go, always let someone know where you’ll be hiking.

Take a friend

Allow your child to bring a friend along on a hike and double the fun. Having a buddy there to play with and talk to will make any hike more enjoyable for your kids. The kids will challenge and encourage each other to keep up and the miles will fly by. Bonus points if another adult comes along as well! If you don’t have friends that enjoy hiking, check out a local "Hike it Baby" branch and go on a group hike.

Go often

While hiking with kids may sound intimidating at first, the more you get out on the trails with your kids, the easier it’ll get. Every time you make it a priority to your kids out into nature gives them an opportunity to fall in love with it. Your first hike (or even your first 10 hikes) may not go according to plan, but they’ll be an adventure and fun. Give it a shot! Get outside!

About The Author

This article was originally published on Run Wild My Child. Read the original article.


10910 E. State Road 28-67

Albany, Indiana 47320


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