Hiking with kids can be tough. They get worn out, throw tantrums, feel bored, and discover poison ivy with unparalleled dexterity. They require constant supervision. But they also develop new skills, satisfy their endless curiosity, and experience independence when they spend time outdoors. For many, that’s more than reason enough to hit the trails with young ones.
But heading into the wild with children requires a bit more planning and preparation than setting off on your own. Don’t let that deter you. This season, follow these guidelines to start a hiking ritual that the whole family can enjoy.
This may not come as a surprise, but the best way to prepare for hiking with kids is to make sure everyone has the right clothing and gear. “Set them up for success,” says Amelia Mayer, mother of five and founder of outdoor parenting blog Tales of a Mountain Mama. And success starts with a solid foundation: sturdy, closed-toed shoes. Children especially should have shoes that fit well, are comfortable, and will protect their toes from rocks and stings. Bonus points if they’re also waterproof so your kiddos can stomp in puddles or shallow creeks without fear of soggy socks. Skimp on this vital piece of footwear and you’ll pay for it when you start hearing complaints about blisters or sore feet before you even get to the trailhead.
Beyond boots, dress your kids in layers—just as you would yourself—so you can adjust for changing temperatures and conditions. Synthetic fabrics are usually the best as they dry quickly, which means they won’t stay wet for long if you happen upon a lake or stream and the kids want to play in the water. And don’t forget the accessories: hats, sunglasses, and scarves all protect sensitive skin from the elements.
Your comfort matters, too. If you’ll be using slings or child carriers on your hikes, test them out and break them in around the house before you head outdoors. That way you’ll be able to adjust your gear beforehand to ensure it’s comfortable and so your little ones will have an opportunity to get used to it.
When it’s time to pack up, you’ll need to make sure backpacks are stocked and you and the children are prepared for a day (or at least a few hours) outdoors. “Snacks. Snacks are key,” Mayer says. In fact, she recommends special treats that your kids only get when they’re hiking, which makes the activity something they’ll look forward to.
It’s just as important to make sure everyone has plenty of water and is sipping regularly. Check in once in a while to ask when was the last time they took a big gulp. Bring along survival tools like emergency whistles, plus sunscreen and bug repellent, too. And if there’s a real little one in your crew, let them bring their favorite stuffed animal if it makes them feel better about getting outside to hike. Even better, if your children are older than three, Mayer recommends getting them their own small backpack so they can carry their own snacks and supplies, which creates a sense of ownership and pride.
Have a destination in mind
Like many adults, children are often goal-oriented, meaning they like to have a mission or a destination before they start out on a trek. Simply pointing out a lake or a viewpoint on a map can give them an incentive to keep going when they start to feel tired and a sense of accomplishment when they arrive. Plan to have lunch or a snack there, too, so the kids can rest and recharge before starting the hike out.
Lakes aren’t your kid’s thing? Tailor your hikes to what they’re interested in. “One of the biggest things is knowing what kids like,” says Linda Veress, a spokesperson for Yellowstone National Park. If they like waterfalls, geothermal activity, or rocks, look for trails that involve those elements. They’ll be more likely to get excited about an excursion if they know there’s something they’re interested in up ahead. Just make sure to leave everything as it was when you arrived, a good Leave No Trace principle.
Keep them safe
Once you get outside, safety should be your main priority. That starts with packing a well-stocked first aid kit, even for short day hikes. Scraped knees and bumped heads can happen anywhere and can cut a trip short if you don’t have the tools to manage them. Bandages, children’s ibuprofen, and bite and sting relief are just a few things you should always keep on hand.
It’s also important to keep an extra-close eye on children when near potentially dangerous natural features such as cliffs, lakes, waterfalls, and active geothermal areas like those in Yellowstone. Make sure kids know to stay close to you and on the trail at all times.
Ensure they know how to react to wildlife, too. Last year at Yellowstone, a 9-year-old girl was one of many who crept too close to a bison near Old Faithful. When the animal got irritated, it charged, made contact with the girl, and threw her in the air. Terrifying situations like these are why Veress insists that everyone, especially children, should stay at least 25 yards away from animals like bison, elk, and deer and 100 yards away from bears and wolves. You should also teach kids not to yell or throw things at wildlife, but to treat them with respect, maintain a safe distance, and never feed wild animals, including birds and squirrels. And when in territories where bears, moose, mountain lions or other predatory creatures live, keep children within arms reach.
Be ready to improvise
If the little ones start getting antsy before you reach your goal, don’t panic. “It’s OK to stop and reevaluate or distract,” Mayer says. Take a few minutes to explore a cave, build a dam, follow some tracks—whatever interests your child and re-energizes them for the hike. Carry on when they’re ready, but know that sometimes plans will have to change. Occasionally, hikes are too hard, too long, or kids are just too tired. It’s alright to call it a day and head back to the car.
That said, keep your child’s abilities in mind when considering a trail. Know what they are capable of and plan accordingly. It’s difficult for kids to enjoy time outdoors if the trail is too hard. “Tailor the right hike to the right kid,” Veress says.
Make it a learning experience
Some kids may need more than snacks and the promise of playtime in a cool stream to keep them entertained on the trail. In that case, Veress recommends fostering a sense of learning and adventure. Bring pocketed vests to stuff with little treasures like fallen leaves (but make sure to leave behind larger items for other kids to discover), magnifying glasses, their own snacks, or discovery kits that will help them identify insects or plants. Buy or print out nature bingo sheets and play as you hike, looking for animal tracks, types of trees, or colorful flowers.
And don’t be afraid to slow down to let children explore. “Let them stop and examine that bug, climb that stump, and let their imaginations run wild. They live in a different world than adults and it’s wondrous to be able to share it with them,” Veress says. “Sometimes adults get too focused on getting from point A to point B and lose focus on the journey.”
National parks make learning outdoors easy with age-appropriate activity books available in visitor centers, many of which offer an opportunity to learn about the park while earning a junior ranger badge, an extra incentive for hitting the trail. “It gives them a purpose,” Veress says. National parks, as well as many state parks, also offer ranger programs with hands-on education so kids and adults can learn about everything from rock formations to native wildlife. So if you’re visiting, check the program schedule in advance or at a visitor center and schedule your outings around guided hikes or programs.
We mentioned how setting goals can encourage kids to forge ahead, but sometimes you’ve got to get a little more basic. Sometimes that means bribing young children with Skittles during a long hike like Veress did when her kids were young. And sometimes that means promising a treat after the hike is over. Mayer recommends rewarding intrepid explorers with ice cream or a fun post-hike activity like swimming so they have one more reason to keep a positive attitude and shoot for the finish line. “I’m not above bribing,” Mayer says. “Sometimes kids need a little incentive.”
Hiking with other families or letting your kids invite a friend along is also a great idea, Mayer says, especially if your family is new to outdoor activities. The presence of other kids can create positive peer pressure that encourages children to keep pushing forward and challenging one another.
“Kids need the challenge of the outdoors,” Mayer says. Time outside provides an active environment for learning where kids can experience self-confidence and self-awareness while they’re introduced to new challenges. But it’s often easier said than done. “We believe parenting outside is easier, but it can seem hard at first to get out the door,” Mayer says.
It may take time to make it the new normal, so start small. Even 15 minutes outside makes a difference. Going hiking early in your child’s life will cue them in that hiking is simply what you do as a family, but if it’s too late for that, focus on making each outing a family experience—something the whole clan does together. Stay positive and encouraging, and even if they fight you the first few times, stick with it and you’ll be a family that hikes together on the regular.