You might be surprised to learn that I didn’t get much exposure to Mother Nature as a child. I’ve always been drawn to the outdoors, but I didn’t have many opportunities to experience it until later in life. We definitely weren’t the family hiking and exploring national parks. I was born in New York, moved a lot — I lived in four states by the time I was 10, and had what most would consider a non-traditional childhood.
Even before I became a mom, I knew I wanted to immerse my future children in nature. I hiked regularly throughout both of my pregnancies (much to the horror and fascination of other people on the trails) and the moment my kiddos were able to support their own heads, I hiked with them strapped into a Kelty child carrier. Around age two, they each became too antsy and too heavy for the carrier. Like their mama, they preferred to be on the ground exploring.
Fast forward a few years and my kids still love hiking. In fact, tackling kid friendly hikes is one of our favorite ways to spend time together. After several years of (mostly*) successful family hiking trips, we’ve learned some things that make it easier and more enjoyable for everyone. Note that I said easier, not easy — we are talking about young children here, after all.
Family hiking tips
From finding the best hikes for kids to preventing literal meltdowns on the trail, here are my best tried-and-true tips for hiking with kids.
1. Seek out family hiking trails
Be realistic about what your child is capable of, keeping in mind his or her age, hiking experience, and skill level. Save the difficult, Grand Teton-level trails for when you have a sitter and instead look for kid friendly hikes.
That means they’re reasonably close by, have level terrain, and aren’t any longer than a couple of miles. At 4.5 and 6.5, my children can do about two miles fairly easily. Bonus points if you find family hiking trails with interesting features like waterfalls or petroglyphs.
2. Hiking with kids = lots (and lots) of snacks
This is unquestionably one of the most important tips for hiking with kids. If you run out of snacks or — heaven forbid — you bring the wrong snacks, your family hiking trip will quickly become a disaster.
I like to let (read: make) my littles put together their own snack mixes before we leave. They choose from a variety of healthy foods including mixed nuts, dried fruits with no added sugar, pretzels, popcorn, and Goldfish. I always pack several extra granola bars, apples, and nuts, and the kids almost always end up eating them.
Also, like any sane mom, I stash a couple of lollipops in my pack for when they inevitably start bickering or get tired. A little bribery in the form of high-fructose corn syrup never hurt anyone.
It should go without saying that you also need plenty of water. According to Trail and Summit, a good rule of thumb is that each person should have one liter of water for every two hours of hiking. We always overestimate, then add another couple of small bottles to our packs just to be safe.
3. Turn family hiking into a game
One way to make hiking with kids considerably more enjoyable is to plan activities. I know you’re probably thinking that your family hiking trip is the activity, but trust me — your children won’t see it that way after about 10 minutes.
Children love scavenger hunts, so turn your hike into one. Pinterest has tons of free printable lists geared specifically toward kids, and many of them incorporate educational elements.
Consider setting your child up with a bag, magnifying glass, binoculars, and an inexpensive claw or “grabber” toy so they can hunt for items (or just act like explorers!). This keeps my kiddos entertained almost without fail, although I do often end up carrying some of their gear. We all choose our battles.
4. Kid friendly hikes require more preparation
Hiking with kids means planning around nap times, keeping a close eye on the weather forecast, bringing extra clothes, and anticipating whether or not you’ll end up carrying your little one. Hint: It’s not if, but when. To be fair, this is kind of a general rule for life as a parent, right?
Additionally, you should bring a small first-aid kit when hiking with kids. You may not typically keep one in your day pack if you’re an experienced hiker or backpacker, but you definitely want to have one on hand to fix up minor scrapes and cuts. It’s also a good idea to include a Benadryl stick or epi-pen, just in case.
5. Manage your expectations
This last one is among my favorite tips for hiking with kids, mostly because I need the reminder myself.
Make peace with the fact that family hiking is not the same as solo hiking or hiking with your partner. One mile with kids takes three times longer than it should, there will almost certainly be at least one tantrum, and you’ll probably end up carrying your child.
It’s frustrating and challenging, yes, but hiking with kids is also incredibly rewarding. Remember, you’re cultivating their future love of The Great Outdoors. So grit your teeth, carry your kiddo when he or she says “my legs hurt” for the 100th time, and smile.