Children hiking in mountains or forest with sport hiking shoes.

Tips and Tricks for Family Hiking

Few things are better than hiking with your brood. But how do you get your kids to do it?

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.

Group of  little girls hiking together with backpacks and sitting on forest dirt road with looking at the map for exploring the forest.

Make Sure Packs and Shoes Fit

Ill-fitting backpacks and/or shoes make for a negative experience. Heavier backpacks should connect across their sternums, around the center of their chest. Too high and the weight of the pack can start pulling their upper body too far backwards; too low can create discomfort on ribs, and hinder breathing. Shoulder straps should be cinched down so that the pack straps extend from the main compartment of the pack at a 90-degree angle to reach their shoulders. And hip belts should attach across their hips, not their stomachs. 

Footwear is also key. While very short hikes on mild terrain can be done in your child’s favorite shoes—say, jelly sandals or cowboy boots—hikes of any real length call for supportive footwear and traction that both fits them well and is broken in. Consider what you’re wearing in comparison to what they’re wearing, and dress them accordingly.

Bring Snacks/Equipment

Snacks can work magic on the trail. Be prepared with a variety of food items your child will find exciting and, therefore, motivating. Bring plenty of water, but don’t have them carry too much of it as liquids add weight.

Items to make sure that you pack for both you and your family include:

  • Snacks
  • Water
  • Small first-aid kit (Band-Aids with favorite characters on them can do wonders for all sorts of things)
  • Rain jackets 
  • Other layers (beanies/gloves, etc.), weather-dependent. A pair of dry socks always comes in handy with any river or lake off-trail explorations.
  • Map/mapping app and knowledge of where you’re going
  • Diapers (if needed), wipes and baggies to pack them out in

Other items that can make family hiking fun and interactive:

  • Binoculars
  • Identification guides galore: wildflowers, plants, birds, even animal scat as well as animal tracks (especially on-snow/winter hiking)
  • Outdoor activity guides, like those found at National Park visitors centers or online
  • Map for the child to carry
  • Homemade scavenger hunt sheet (with items like: pinecone, yellow flower, animal scat)

Check The Weather

This should be a no-brainer: Always check the weather forecast before planning your hike, and again on the morning of your hike. A hike in foul weather can turn a child off to hiking, though some kids (properly prepped and equipped) might enjoy the novelty of a little hiking in the rain or snow.

Bring Friends

For teenagers, especially, having friends join the hike can make all the motivational difference...It can also be the only way a teen will agree to go. (Have the teen, and their friend, either leave phones behind or stash them deep in backpacks, in order to stay present and aware of their surroundings.) For younger kids, hiking with a friend can also be a great distraction from complaining about distance.

Other Tips

Let them get dirty. Be flexible. Be patient. Drop your own ego or destination goals. And most of all, have fun! A stop for ice cream on the way home won’t hurt, either.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.