Despite the complaints you may have heard in the past, adventures on the trail don’t have to be a struggle for young kids. Read these tips to make hiking fun for your kids, and by extension, the rest of the family.
Although we often have a picture in our heads of an idyllic family hike, how many times has hiking with kids turned into dragging / pleading / cheerleading / carrying?
- Are we there yet?
- I’m tired.
- Can you carry me?
- My feet hurt.
- I can go on anymore.
- I want to go back now. (Five minutes into your adventure.)
When kids are uninterested or unwilling, it can sap your energy and take some of the joy out of your excursion. Next time — along with water and proper footwear — arm yourself with a few tips and tricks and see what a difference it can make!
Top Tips for Hiking with kids
1. What’s in a word: Say “hike” or “saunter”?
Before you even take your first step, start by checking your language. Sometimes saying “hike” sounds like too big of a word, implying steep slopes, long distances and heavy packs. You might get some resistance to that idea! Unless this really is what you had in mind, consider using a different term:
With a slight tweak in word choice, your kids might find the idea much more appealing!
I don’t like either the word [hike] or the thing. People ought to saunter in the mountains – not ‘hike!’
Do you know the origin of that word saunter? It’s a beautiful word.
Away back in the middle ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going they would reply, ‘A la sainte terre’, ‘To the Holy Land.’
And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not ‘hike’ through them.
2. Choose well.
When choosing your trail, consider the length, difficulty (terrain, elevation change), but also the end destination or highlights along the way. Choose a trail with a big payoff — view, waterfall, etc. Give them something to look forward to! And when looking at the length/time, make sure you include extra time for dawdling and exploration.
Check websites and apps such as AllTrails for reviews and recommendations, as well as helpful details about the trail.
3. Bring snacks!
For many kids, snacks can provide the motivation (not to mention energy) for them to keep going. Provide high-energy, nutritious snack… But also consider changing it up — bring unexpected snacks, special treats that aren’t in your normal snack repertoire.
Do you have adventure-specific treat? For a friend’s family, it’s a bar of Toblerone (in cooler weather). For our family, fruit mentos or Hi-Chew. Not necessarily the healthiest, but they’re fun, enticing and memory-making (think madeleine de Proust).
And consider doing a trail mix buffet before you go! Lay out different ingredients such as nuts, dried fruits, pretzels, (maybe even a few chocolate candies), and let your kids make their own special trail mix.
4. Remember: the more the merrier.
Go with friends! Your kids will be more energized and excited with their friends at their side. Friends can be motivators and distractors as they explore their environment together. It’s amazing the difference they can make!
5. Guess your steps.
Using a fitness tracker, calculate the number of steps you take on your adventure. Make it a game! At the beginning of your walk, have each person estimate the number of steps you will take over the length of your excursion. Halfway through the hike, check your step count and see if anyone wants to amend their estimate. At the end of your hike, see who got the closest and talk about the differences. No fitness tracker? Do the mini version. “How many steps will it take you to get to that tree?” And wait for silliness to ensue as they try to make their guesses correct.
6. With my little eye.
Don’t forget all your tried-and-true childhood games, such as I Spy! For older kids, encourage them to use more than one descriptor. Some options include:
- distance away
7. Say cheese!
Give your kids a camera. Bring along an old point-and-shoot, hand them your phone or give your older kids a spin with a DSLR. It’s amazing how giving them a focus and responsibility can re-energize them and propel them forwards.
It also helps them notice the details around them — a fallen tree, a beautiful flower, a mossy trunk, etc.
And it keeps the memories alive for them as they later flip through all the photos they had taken.
To put a spin on your picture-taking, bring along a favorite stuffed animal or figurine and take photos of it along the way!
8. Try some silly walks.
Take turns walking, skipping, jumping, holding hands. Let each kid come up with a style and have them lead the way!
9. Play an alphabet game.
Play the alphabet game as you go along on your hike. Start with things you are seeing along your hike (A-animal, B-branch, C-creek, etc.) and see how far you get. If you get stuck, expand a little further to include other nature-oriented words.
10. Let them lead!
Let your kids be in charge of the map and give you directions. Being responsible will have them invested in the walk and encourage them to keep going.
If you have more time and less investment in reaching your original destination (and a way of situating yourself), allow your kids to choose the direction each time you reach an intersection in the trail. Ask “which way?” when you reach your next turn.
N.B. – This strategy works better in smaller trail networks, where the likelihood of being too far afield is less. (Keep in mind the time it will take to get back to your starting point.)
11. Be nature detectives.
Look for signs of animals or insects. Do you see any animal tracks? Holes in the logs? Broken branches? Spiderwebs?
Ask, “who lives here?” if you find cavities (big or small) in trunks or logs.
12. Play trail bingo.
Turn your walk into a game by playing Trail Bingo. The thrill of the hunt will keep them propelled forwards, looking for the next item to cross off (and get that much closer to yelling “Bingo!”).
Check out these season-specific bingo cards from Mass Audubon: https://www.massaudubon.org/get-outdoors/young-explorers/explore-a-sanctuary/nature-bingo
Don’t miss our own Nature Bingo on your next foray outdoors. (Multiple versions make it perfect to share with friends!)
13. Bring along a few nature riddles.
Q: What can run but never walks, has a mouth and never talks, has a head but never weeps, has a bed but never sleeps?
A: A river!
Q: How can you tell the difference between a dog and a tree?
A: By their bark!
Q: Which animals can jump higher than a tree?
A: All of them! Trees can’t jump!
14. Don’t forget the importance of timing.
Turn around before they get tired, not after! (And don’t forget to account for the return journey.)
Consider scheduling your walk for the morning, avoiding the late-afternoon blues.
15. Be a sensory observer.
Help them notice what’s around them by pointing out the details, asking questions. Stop, LOOK. Stop, LISTEN. Stop, SMELL. Stop, FEEL. What do you see? Hear? Smell? Feel? Taste (when appropriate/safe)? How many birds do you hear? Can you see something smooth? How many different senses are you using?
Check out our Outdoor Sensory Activity Pack for even more guided activities to do on the trail.
16. Set out on a treasure hunt.
Geocaching is treasure hunting of sorts, using GPS coordinates (found online) to locate a hidden container/cache. Sign the logbook and see what “treasures” are inside. If you take a trinket, just make sure you leave something of equal or greater value. More information (and a starting point) can be found here.
Letterboxing is similar, but uses clues (found online) to find the hidden container/cache. Inside you will find a log book along with a rubber stamp and ink pad. Use the stamp to mark your own logbook, and make an imprint of your own stamp on the letterbox’s logbook. More information can be found here and here.
17. Add a little history mystery.
Do your research ahead of time, see if the area has any particularly interesting history. Your kids might be extra curious to climb a particular hill if they learn it was once used as a rally point during the American Revolution!
Look for forts, bunkers, or sites tied to historical figures (e.g., the site of Henry David Thoreau’s cabin near Walden Pond).
18. Do a scavenger hunt.
Similar to the bingo cards, scavenger hunts turn your walk into a game and encourage your little ones to notice all the details around them. Check out Get the Kids Outside‘s variety of scavenger hunts — from season-specific to five senses to build-your-own.
19. Spot the colors.
Look for all the colors of the rainbow as you walk along. Once you’ve seen them all, repeat! (red: ladybird, orange: fall foliage, yellow: sun….)
Can you find all the colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet? Or feel free to simplify your palette.
20. Be artistes en plein air.
Bring paper/pencil for them to draw what they see. Let them self-direct, or give them gentle suggestions (favorite tree in view, details of a leaf or flower, etc.).
21. Become a trail ninja.
Practice parkour / ninja moves. Jump, balance, leap, hop!
Give them challenges as you go along. “Can you jump from that log to the big flat rock? How would you get from this tree to that tree without touching the ground?”
22. Turn north, south, east or west.
Teach your children to use a compass and help orient the map. Then ask them to anticipate the next twists and turns.
Have them sing a silly song every time they’re facing West, or do a little dance when facing due North. Make it fun!
23. Take breaks.
Take frequent breaks if needed, not only to gobble up a few snacks and rest their feet, but also to stop, look around, and appreciate a new vantage point.
24. Be up close and personal.
Bring binoculars and magnifying glasses, challenge them to see things in more detail.
Do any leaves have hair? Are there any insect holes in the tree? What kind of birds to you see?
25. Remember: it’s a journey, not a race.
Let your kids set the pace. Dawdling can mean more exploration, more observations as your kids take time to see everything around them. Even if you don’t reach your intended destination, it doesn’t make hiking with kids any less of a success.
And… Don’t forget the basics.
With all the activities you now have planned, make sure you’ve also considered the basics: bring plenty of water and snacks, dress in layers (weather-appropriate), and wear proper footwear.* To involve your kids in preparations, check out our find and color day hike packing list activity.
* Even for a short jaunt with your kids, your packing may also include the following: maps (app-based and hard copy), wipes, a first aid kid, supplemental battery for your phone (especially if using map app), sunscreen, insect repellant, hats, sunglasses, a resealable plastic bag and a multitool.
Before heading out on your next trail adventure with kids, consider some of the above tips, most of which require no additional preparation.
Most importantly, have fun! Share your wonder, joy, and curiosity with your kids, and hopefully they will follow suit. Small changes that make hiking fun for your kids can set them up for a lifetime of adventure!