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How to Hike with Kids: 10 Family Hiking Tips From Outdoor-Loving Parents

Knowing how to hike with kids can keep families safe on the trails. These tips from adventure families will help you fall in love with hiking.

How to Hike with Kids

For many, family hikes are a way to get outside and explore nature, local parks, or even National or State Parks together.

Enjoying a hike with kids is something that can be done by nearly everyone, from toddlers to teens. Even infants can enjoy a day on the trails from the comfort of a baby carrier.

My wife and I have been hiking with kids since our children could barely hold their heads up. What started as short strolls through the local parks quickly escalated to long days on the trails. And each time we were out in nature, our family was in our happy place, listening to the sounds of rustling leaves, chirping birds, and babbling brooks. It’s a four-season activity for us, in fact. We’ve even shared our winter hiking tips here.

I’ve lost track of the number of miles we’ve hiked with our children across the United States, Canada, and on trails in over 25 different countries. My kids are 8 and 11-years old now, and it’s them, as much as my wife and I, that check out the next family hiking trail that we’ll target.

Truth be told, hiking with kids hasn’t always been easy. Even now, there are days when it takes almost more effort than I can muster to organize a hike with kids. But thankfully, through years of practice, we’ve found a few ways to get past protests and instill a passion for the outdoors in our little ones.

Now it’s our chance to share our tips for hiking with kids with other parents, adults, and guardians who want to enjoy this timeless pastime with their littles.

Tips For Hiking With Kids

Kids hiking in Killarney, Ontario
Hiking “The Crack” in Killarney, Ontario

When you hike with kids, you put yourself in a situation where anything can happen. When children get out on the trail, it’s a time to get dirty, explore, and take in the world around them as you can only do in the outdoors.

These tips for hiking with kids have been put together from over 30-years of hiking experience and eleven years as a parent.

Set Your Expectations

One of the biggest parts of any family hiking experience is setting reasonable expectations. This goes double (maybe triple or even quadruple) for hiking with kids. In fact, unreasonable expectations aren’t just something we have to worry about for kids; adults need to check their expectation levels for hikes as well.

Before you head out, have a conversation as a family about where you’re going and what kind of things you might experience while you’re there.

I always hike with kids, at least with young kids, with the understanding that I won’t hike farther than I can carry them back. Ultimately, the goal of any family hike shouldn’t be conquering a trail unless you have one of those rare tykes that love achieving a mission at any cost. Family hikes are more about the experiences along the way. Those little things that will help children fall in love with hiking.

Keeping your expectations simple also helps to make your goals more attainable. And when you achieve your goals, it always helps to make the day a success. When you set reasonable expectations that your children can definitely achieve, the whole family feels amazing when the day is done. And you can raise those goals with each new family hike.

Change The Script

Boy Climbing Haleakala Crater 5-Days in Maui Hawaii
Hiking Haleakala Crater on Maui, Hawaii

When you’re a child, sometimes the language that people use when talking about hiking makes all the difference. “Hiking” sounds like a lot of work. I’m not sure at what age the impression of hiking turns from work to “awesome,” but I think, for most people, it’s somewhere in your early 20s.

I like to tell my kids that we’re going on an “adventure” or “we’re going to try and see (insert animal name here).” This takes the idea of “work” out of the equation and makes each outing a special occasion. It also takes some of the pressure off to reach a destination or hike a specific number of miles.

Another thing you can do is to say, “Hey kids, we’re going out! Grab your shoes”. Have a snack and water bag packed and ready to go in the car, and “Surprise!” hit the trail.

This type of approach takes the negotiation out of your hiking experience. This strategy might work with younger kids better than older kids, though. And I’ll be honest, it usually only works a couple of times before the kids catch on to your shenanigans.

Don’t Forget Snacks

Boys jumping with their guide while hiking the High Atlas Mountains in Morocco
Hooray for Hiking in Morocco’s High Atlas Mountains

Nothing in the world is worse than a hungry hiker unless that hungry hiker is a child. My wife and I always err on the side of too many snacks when it comes to hiking with kids. Not only because we like to be prepared in case of an unforeseen incident but also because the sheer terror brought on by a lack of snacks is almost too much for me to handle.

The trick to great hiking snacks for families is finding the perfect balance between nutritious energy and delicious motivation. Adults might be ok with some protein bars or old-fashioned G.O.R.P. (good old raisins and peanuts), but kids might not be as thrilled with those options.

We always pack some crackers and jerky along with dried fruits, nuts, and vegetables for some light but delicious energy sources. Of course, there are always a few high-sugar treats hiding in the bag for those times when the kids might need a little extra motivation to get over that next hill.

Last but not least, don’t forget the water. Kids have a bad habit of forgetting to drink, so adults need to do double duty to make sure that children stay hydrated on the hiking trails.

Pick Your Trails Carefully

As adults, it’s easy to get lost in a special trail’s nature, history, or magic. However, children can be a bit more choosy in what they find to be exciting.

Look for hikes that offer a lot of variety and those that include things that kids can climb on, splash in, or explore. For my kids, one of their favorite types of hikes involves anything with ruins that they can explore and play in, like an old farmstead with its foundations still intact. Or even better, something with a cave!

Water is another great novelty to look for on fun hikes for kids. Streams and shallow waters where kids can splash and play or throw rocks, or even better if they can bring a fishing rod and actually go fishing rather than pretend to. Even spending time searching for animal tracks, cool birds, or unique plants gives your kids something to do beyond trying to decide if their legs are tired or if they’re just hungry again.

Choosing a hike that has something fun and interesting to do along the way will help you spend more time out in nature and give the kids a chance to fall in love with the natural world around them.

Invest in the Right Hiking Gear

a man carrying a child in a kid-carrier hikes along a canyon rim - An Epic 14 Day Iceland Itinerary
Hiking a Crater Rim in Iceland

Whether you’re an intrepid explorer or a weekend warrior, no one likes blisters and wet clothes. Part of ensuring that your kids have a blast while out in nature is making sure that they’re equipped for the environment and the weather.

Personally, I don’t believe that most families need to spend a boatload of money on hiking gear. But, a few essentials can go a long way towards ensuring a fun day on the trails versus limping back to your car in defeat.

Check the forecast and make sure that you have waterproof but breathable jackets (this is the one that we recommend for kids), wool-blend base layers, wool or synthetic-blend socks, and a pair of hiking boots that fit well and have been worn in. You can check below to see the current hiking shoes that we recommend.

Remember, you don’t need to fork out a fortune to enjoy hiking with kids. But having a few tools in your drawer can go a long way toward building a lifelong love of hiking.

Let Them Set The Pace

While adults may love reaching that awesome viewpoint at the trail summit, kids tend to miss the forest for the trees.

Sure, they may see their jaw drop when they get to see that stunning vista bathed under cotton candy clouds, but often, that salamander hiding under a rock can elicit the same response.

Hikes with kids are a time for imaginations to run wild. It’s a time for dragons to be vanquished and mountains to be conquered. It may be nerve-wracking for adults who want to get to that scenic overlook at all costs; for kids, hiking is more about the journey than it is about the destination.

That viewpoint will always be there. And maybe you’ll get to it a little later, or perhaps it will have to wait until next time.

Get Them Involved

As an adult, it’s easy to want to do everything. After all, then you don’t have to hear about the complaining or worry about re-arranging everything as the hike goes on. But do you know what else will happen? The children don’t feel like they’re a part of the process.

Giving kids responsibility on nature walks can make them feel like an important part of the team. Whether it’s picking the trail, carrying the snacks, or helping to find the trail markers along the path, getting your kids involved in your hiking experience can be a huge growth opportunity.

Wandering Wagars Family Hiking in Garden of the Gods
Hiking Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs

Start Them Young

One of the easiest mistakes to make when raising kids is to underestimate their ability to handle a challenge. This is why many families are always waiting for when a child is “old enough” before tackling family hikes.

But this leaves a world of wasted opportunity. Because as any parent of tweens or teens knows, it can become a struggle to get your child to even to want to hang out with you at those ages.

Use those magical years when your child still hangs on to every word and action and cherish them. Use those years to build that shared loved of hiking that you can enjoy with them later in life.

Because if you keep waiting until the time is right, you might end up missing your chance altogether.

Do You Love Hiking With Kids?

Swing over to our Family Travel Support Group Facebook community. We have discussions on all aspects of family travel, from destination tips to tips on hiking with teens and even how to fly with a baby.

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