Hiking with Kids
Hiking is an activity for all ages. Nature walks and hikes are a wonderful way to introduce babies and young children to nature. It’s never too late to start hiking with your children, nor is it ever to early! Hiking is one of my family’s favorite activities to do together and it’s brought us to some pretty incredible places such as the High Peaks region in Upstate New York and even Iceland!
The great thing about hiking is that it can be done in any season. Most people are fair weather hikers meaning they opt to hike in the Spring and Fall when the weather is most pleasant. However, when the trees are in full bloom during the summer it might not be as hot as you think while hiking in the shade, and on the other hand when dressed properly there is no reason you can’t hike in the winter.
Throughout our years hiking with our children we’ve learned some valuable tips to make the experience easier on us and fun for the children. Here are some tips to help encourage children to hike and make it a fun experience for the whole family:
- Pack Snacks
If you’re a parent, you know snacks are an essential item to have on hand no matter what you are doing. When hiking, snack breaks can be so much more than just that; they are an opportunity to sit down, relax, discuss whatever is on your child’s mind - whether it be the animal tracks you saw earlier, the view - or much needed time to encourage them and tell them you’re almost to the summit. We pack a variety of snacks, mostly healthy, but also some treats when a little extra motivation is needed. Some of our favorite snacks are fresh fruit like apples, berries and bananas, along with carrots, food pouches, and sandwiches of some sort. It’s amazing how healthy kids want to eat while hiking- it’s like they know their bodies need the good food.
- Use the Right Gear
Consider the length of the hike, weather, and terrain, and select the best gear based on those factors. If a child is uncomfortable or develops blisters from a poor shoe choice you can guarantee your hike will be over before long. It’s best to wear layers, which can easily be removed as the day warms up. Accessories – like ballcaps, beanies, neck warmers, and headbands – are key to have on hand for your hikes. Check out some options for your children here, and don’t forget to bring some accessories for mom and dad, too (gear matters for EVERYONE!).
Don’t forget the other essentials like sunscreen, bug spray and a first aid kit.
- Encourage Older Children to Carry Their Own Backpacks
Kids love feeling like they are contributing to the success of a hike, so encouraging them to carry a hiking backpack with their own snacks and supplies can help build their confidence and love of hiking. Look for a pack that is lightweight and functional. For longer hikes you’ll want a pack that can hold a water bladder. We also pack fun items like a magnifying glass, small journal and pencil, and binoculars in our kids backpacks that they can use during the hike.
- Be Patient and Encouraging
Young kids can be unpredictable when it comes to hiking; they might be very excited at the start of it and then lose some of their enthusiasm. They will feed off your behavior and mood, so if you remain patient and calm they will be more apt to want to continue your hike. Gentle praise such as “wow you’re doing great - we will be to the summit in no time” goes a long way with children. Continue to encourage them as your hike goes on. Last summer we hiked a high peak in upstate New York (mountains above 4,000’) and it took us about 5.5 hours with our two children. The secret to making it a successful hike was definitely the continued praise and positivity throughout the hike! It’s amazing to see how the positivity just makes the whole experience that much better. Our 6 year old will even start encouraging us and telling us we just have a little bit longer to go.
- Allow Plenty of Time for Breaks
Depending on the length of your hike, allow plenty of time for breaks, for both snacks and rest. Everyone needs to recharge after a while and kids are no exception! On our 5.5-hour hike up Cascade Mountain last summer we probably took about 15 breaks. They were short, but just enough time to recharge the kids and continue on the path to the summit. It’s always wise to plan for plenty of extra time when preparing for your hike, which means it’s also best to start out in the morning so you never get caught out later than you expected, like in the dark.
- Carry Younger Children in a Backpack
If you’re doing a longer distance or uphill hike, you’ll definitely want to have a backpack carrier for children under 4. I prefer a soft structured carrier like the Ergo when hiking, but when my husband carries our 3 year old he uses a metal structured hiking backpack. On a longer hike our 3 year old will be in and out of the carrier multiple times. He loves to participate in the hike part, but tires easily so it’s nice to have the backpack to carry him in.
- Join Local Hiking Groups
Hiking groups tailored to families are a great way to make new friends and continue to encourage a love of hiking. Everything is more fun with a friend, right? Joining local hiking groups will not only allow you to meet new people who share your passion, but it’s an easy way to find new hikes in your area. Check out Hike it Baby and Facebook to find groups in your area. If you’re having trouble locating existing groups in your area, try creating your own.
- Involve the Kids When Planning Your Hikes
Kids love being involved and feeling a sense of responsibility, so involving them in the planning of your hike is a great idea. We usually plan out our hikes from Internet searches and if there are photos I will show them to the kids. This works particularly well if there are beautiful lookouts and interesting photos of the trail. We also have a few guidebooks for some of our favorite hiking areas like the Adirondack region in upstate New York. We will go through the pages and take notes together about the trails and jot down some of the sights to look for. Probably the most important aspect of planning the trip with kids is setting an end destination. Impromptu hikes and nature walks are awesome, but for longer hikes it’s always nice to know your ending location whether it’s the summit or just 3 miles up/down the trail.
- Bring Your Camera!
I’m never without my camera, but sometimes lugging my big DSLR around on hikes is cumbersome so in that case I’ll be sure to have my cell phone and usually a GoPro with us for photos. Some of my favorite pictures are of my kids on hikes. It’s fun to capture their sense of adventure while hiking and it’s even more fun to be able to look back on those memories and remind them of the hikes they’ve been on. For example, my absolute favorite picture in the world is one of my then 5 year old adding his rock to the top of the mountain after we hiked our first High Peak, Cascade Mountain. The entire way up the mountain there were signs encouraging hikers to bring rocks up with them to leave on the summit and he just couldn’t wait to get there to place his rock!
- Provide a Kid-Friendly Reward
For longer and more challenging hikes we’ve started giving the kids a little token or ‘reward’ to document their adventure. Usually this reward is in the form of a patch or sticker made especially for the mountain we hiked. It wasn’t until recently that we learned about the various hiking programs that exist for hikers to earn patches. For example, once you’ve hiked all 46 High Peaks in the Adirondacks you are officially a 46’er and can document that with a special 46’er patch. While you’re working your way up to all 46 you can collect patches for each individual mountain you’ve hiked. It’s a fun way to document your progress and if your children are anything like mine they love proudly showing them off to anyone who will listen. There are several groups on Facebook that exist to connect hikers with patch programs in all areas of the US, so you can do a search and find the ones closest to your area.
I hope you’ve found these tips helpful and inspiring! Whether you’re on a short nature walk or a longer hike just remember - you’re creating lifelong memories and a love of nature for your children. Happy hiking, friends!