Heading out to enjoy the natural world while getting some exercise with your family can be a magical experience. Walking in the woods together can encourage conversations—and a subsequent bond—that’s hard to come by in other situations. The flip side is that some family members, most especially kids, who don’t want to hike can become whiny, combative, or just plain pains in the you-know-what...which, as any parent knows, can end in regret for all the effort.
So, how do you entice your child to go on a hike in the first place? (Beyond, of course, just dictating, “WE ARE GOING ON A HIKE!”). And of equal importance, once you’ve gotten kids off the screen and in the field: How do you ensure that they enjoy themselves?
Choose The Right Trails
In summer months, especially, choose trails that are shady rather than exposed to full sun. Likewise on blustery days, find trails either in dense trees or on the sides of hills/mountains that block wind from its direction of origin. And when planning the route: Think about the terrain. Kids enjoy trails with interesting features, like large rocks or boulders on which they can climb or scramble up, as well as water features like rivers, streams or lakes they can walk along or around.
Some kids will be enticed by the idea of a rewarding destination, like summiting a hill or mountain peak, circumnavigating a lake, or reaching an overview. Fair warning, however: Kids tend to be less interested in completing a goal than parents, so be careful not to push too hard to reach that summit. Your efforts may backfire.
Other trail features to consider: Does the trailhead have a bathroom near the parking lot? (If so, have children use it before they start hiking.) Are there options to extend the hike, should the first portion go well? Are there options to shorten it, if the opposite occurs? If you’re hiking with a child in diapers or one that’s breastfeeding, are there benches, flat and grassy areas, or good logs or rocks along the hike for sitting/changing/feeding?
Know How Far They Can Go
How do you gauge the max distance that a child of any particular age can hike? Toddlers, to start, shouldn’t be expected to “hike” very far at all. Shoot for the goal of simply getting them to wilderness areas to play, walk short distances gently, or be carried for parts of outings. Elementary school-aged children are more capable than they—and you—may think. Depending on the child, they may be able to hike as much as five miles for up-to-8-year-olds, and up to 12 miles for ages 8 to 10. Again, this is child-specific, and requires knowing your own child’s limits.
Have Them Carry Something
Wilderness experts advise having children carry some of their own equipment, as it gives them a sense of pride and purpose. Have them wear a small backpack with one small snack inside (for younger kids), or a backpack containing a rain jacket, snacks, and water bottle.
Generally speaking, younger children should only carry 5 to 10% of their total body weight, while older children can carry around 15% of their body weight.
Parent tip: Kids tend to love maps (let them carry one and check it often), as well as straws (meaning that many will enjoy drinking out of hydration bladders with hoses). Some kids will also enjoy carrying a similar backpack to that of one mom or dad.