Hiking with kids

Hiking With Kids: 10 Helpful Tips For Having A Positive Adventure

If you enjoy hiking, you may be wondering how to transition your toddlers or preschoolers from being carried on your back to walking on their own. Just like with adults, building little kids’ endurance takes time and consistency. Hiking with kids can be lots of fun, but you will also have hikes that are a complete bust with nonstop whining and meltdowns. The key is to continue heading out onto the trail.

Below are 10 tips and tricks we use to motivate our twins to continue hiking and make the experience as positive as possible. These techniques enabled our girls to complete multiple 4+ hour hikes (completely on their own feet!) a few months after turning 3 years old.

#1 – Gradually Build Their Endurance

This may be obvious, but don’t expect your toddlers or young preschoolers to happily manage a 1-2 hour hike if the longest they have previously done is 15 minutes. When hiking with kids, it is important to gradually build up their endurance over weeks and months. One way to do this is to ensure most hikes are within a comfortable range for your kids, and then every few weeks attempt a hike that slightly pushes their physical limits.

Around the time that our twins turned 2 years old, they showed interest in walking on their own instead of riding in carriers. Initially, they would only last about 5-10 minutes before wanting to be carried again. Throughout a 1-hour hike, they would get out to walk around 3 times or so. Gradually, their stamina increased, and they could hike for longer periods before getting tired.

#2 – Know When To Ditch The Carriers

Being able to comfortably carry your little ones when they get tired allows you (as the parents) to go on longer hikes. However, as your kids get stronger and their endurance grows, eventually you will need to decide when to start leaving the carriers at home. This might be especially true if you realize your kid(s) are becoming dependent on the carriers, even though you know they are physically capable of hiking on their own.

We made the switch to only bringing one carrier (instead of two) once our twins showed they could repeatedly handle a 1-hour hike and rarely need to be carried. We still wanted that safety net just in case somebody was having a terrible day. However, shortly before turning 3 years old, we stopped bringing the carriers completely. We realized that it was becoming a handicap for one of our twins (if she knew it was there then she would whine about wanting to be carried).


#3 – Use Incentives When Hiking With Kids

hiking with kids

Find what motivates your children to keep walking and use that as an incentive. For us, it is fruit strips. And I make sure to pack them if we are attempting a challenging or long hike. If energy starts to fade, I tell my kids they can have a fruit strip once we get to the top of the mountain, for example. Or, if we are on a long hike and they start to drag on the return trip, I tell them they can have a fruit strip once we get back to the car. They are AMAZING motivators!

I have also found it is important to have some sort of reward at the end of a difficult hike. That way, even if your child did not enjoy the adventure, the treat or reward at the end helps creates a positive connection to the experience.

#4 – Take Lots of Snack Breaks

While special incentives should be used sparingly, snack breaks should be more frequent. Consider packing a few new items that are not typically in your snack rotation at home to make it more exciting. During snack breaks, find a good log or rock for your kids to sit on and rest their legs and feet while they eat.

Take lots of snack breaks when hiking with kidsInevitably you will probably have hikes during which your kids will beg for a snack every 5 minutes. Instead of stopping immediately, try to encourage them to walk just a little further (e.g., to the top of that little hill, to that tree up ahead, to that meadow we see over there, etc.). Or, you can even say something like, “Sure, we can stop for a snack as soon as we find a good rock or log to sit on. Keep watch and let me know when you see a good spot.” This can help distract and keep them moving a bit further as they search.

#5 – Pick Destination Hikes

If possible, choose hikes that have a fun destination that you are hiking towards (e.g., waterfall, pond, lake, lookout, fun trees/logs for climbing on, etc.). My kids are much more motivated to hike if they are excited about what is at the destination.

Pick fun destinations hikes

We have randomly stumbled upon some awesome treasures while hiking and those routes have become destination hikes. For example, my kids refer to a particular hike as “the one with the maze and rocket ship.” While walking along a random trail we discovered somebody had assembled a life-size rock maze, which is fun to walk through. And the “rocket ship” is an old water tower in the forest with graffiti pictures painted around the outside. Another hike is “the gnome and fairy house.” Again, along a random trail, we discovered someone had attached a 2-foot door at the base of a hollowed-out tree. Inside is a gathering of gnomes and fairies, complete with furniture and other household items. Another hike has a bunch of wooden teepee forts erected with fallen tree branches.

If you discover hikes with some cool features, add those into your regular rotation. Get your kids more excited about the outing by letting them decide which hike to do that day.

#6 – Sing Songs

If energy starts flagging, try singing songs to your kids to help distract them. Let them pick which song you should sing next. You can even try intentionally singing the wrong lyrics and see if your kids correct you. Or pretend you have forgotten what lyrics come next and ask your kids for help. We have found these tricks sometimes lighten the mood and get a smile or laugh out of our girls.

#7 – Play the “I Spy” Game

This can easily be played with colors. E.g., I spy something green (leaves, grass), something blue (the sky), something brown (dirt, tree trunks), yellow (flowers), etc. But you can also bring in other elements. E.g., I spy something steep (that hill), something wet (that stream), something squishy (the mud), etc. You can even explore sounds. E.g., I hear chattering (squirrel), tweeting (bird), chirping (crickets), ribbiting (frogs), water (that stream), wind (in the trees), etc.

#8 – Pretend You Are A Train

If you are walking on a single-track trail, pretend you are a train. Whoever is in front is the engine, whoever is at the back is the caboose, and those in the middle are the freight cars. If your kids have any interest in trains, I urge you to try this! Our girls also like to switch up everyone’s position occasionally and then review who is what part of the train. You can also ask your kids questions about your imaginary train (e.g., what color is the engine and caboose? What are the freight cars carrying? Are people or animals on-board? What is the engine number? Etc.). The game can make the hike fun and help distract kids from thinking about being tired.

#9 – Let Your Kids Wear Backpacks

Let kids wear backpacks while hiking

If your children are anything like ours, they probably like to emulate mommy and daddy. This includes wearing their backpacks. If you don’t already own them, consider purchasing toddler or little kid-sized backpacks. Before you leave the house, let your kids select and pack their snacks and water bottle. Our girls are so proud when they wear their backpacks, and the snacks they carry seem to taste so much better than when we pack them. Who knew?!

One caveat, you may want to leave the backpacks at home if the hike you are planning is already pushing your kids’ physical limits. Or, if they insist on carrying their backpacks, then at least make sure the packs are VERY lightweight.

#10 – Wear Comfortable Hiking Shoes

Your kids should be fine in their everyday sneakers if the trails you are hiking are relatively flat and smooth. However, once you start hitting steeper and more technical terrain you should invest in comfortable hiking shoes that have better tread, more support, and toe protection. Your kids will likely get frustrated if they repeatedly slip due to having zero traction or frequently stub their toes. Having a good tread can also be a safety issue. Here in New England, trails can be very rugged with lots of roots, rock scrambling, and steep sections. I don’t want the shoes to be the reason my kids have a negative hiking experience.

If your kids are new to hiking and you want an everyday sneaker for warmer seasons that can be used from the playground to the hiking trail, I highly recommend the Keen Chandler CNX sneakers. They are lightweight, breathable, have good toe protection, multi-directional treads, are comfortable, and have great user reviews. Our girls essentially lived in their Keen Chandler CNX the summer they turned 3 years old. They never once complained about rubbing or experienced hot spots, even on those 4+ hour hikes I mentioned earlier. Unless I discover a more intriguing option, I will be sizing up in the Keen Chandler CNX this Spring.

For a winter hiking boot, we’ve been pretty happy with the Keen Kootenay Waterproof Boots this past season. They are waterproof but not insulated, and have been working well for neighborhood walks, playground visits, and hikes. Although if it is freezing or snowy then they wear their insulated snow boots. If you do not find anything from Keen that you like, Merrell and L.L. Bean are two other good brands to check out.

Other Tips For Hiking With Kids?

I hope you can implement some of these strategies on your next hike! Do you have other tips or tricks that help motivate your kids to continue hiking? If so, I’d love to hear them!

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