Hiking shouldn’t be complicated. So why did our early family outings prove so maddening? My husband and I realized after several unsuccessful attempts at providing fun, outdoor activities for our tween and teen children that we were doing everything wrong. By the time we finished our hikes, the whole family was tired, annoyed, and never wanted to go again.
So why did we continue to take our kids hiking? Because we knew it wasn’t supposed to be that difficult. And it’s not. Hiking as a family is a lot of fun when you’re prepared. Which is why I put together a handy guide I wish I would have had when I started hiking with my kids.
Here’s 6 Tips for How to Hike with Kids to help you make the most of your family’s next outdoor adventure:
Tip #1: Know Their Limitations
One of the biggest mistakes my husband and I made was starting with hikes that took too long. It’s not that our kids couldn’t do it, but more like, they weren’t prepared for it.
Though kids as young as 4-years-old have hiked the Appalachian Trail (which runs from Georgia to Maine and is about 2,190 miles long), that doesn’t mean that your 4-year-old is necessarily ready for a ten-miler.
Start with short, reasonable hiking trails for your family and build up over time. It’ll be worth the wait.
Tip #2: Bring Treats
We don’t eat jelly beans in our house. Why? Because someone (ahem, definitely not me) will eat the entire bag in one sitting. If you want to make your hike more enjoyable, feel free to indulge a little.
Periodically throughout our hikes, our family will take a break to enjoy some candy before we continue on. These little sugar stops work for us because it gives us something to look forward to, especially during hikes that don’t have many points of interest. And because our treat contains sugar, it gives us a happy little energy boost.
Tip #3: Choose an Interesting Location
If you live in a place known for its epic hiking spots, you can scroll on to Tip #4. If not, then please, read on.
Depending on where you live, finding an interesting place to hike can feel challenging. My family was located in inland central Florida for years, which meant no mountains, no waterfalls, no rock scrambling or giant caves, and we were nowhere near the beach. So mainly we had pine forests. They’re beautiful, but it got old pretty quick.
If your family lives near a city and only has a limited number of nature parks, or you’re in a rural area mostly surrounded by flat cornfields and you don’t think there’s any interesting places to hike, trust me, I get it. But even if pictures of your hikes won’t garner any interest on Instagram, it doesn’t mean it’s not worth it. As a bonus, your hike probably won’t be as crowded as those Instagram-worthy spots either.
To find trails in my area, I use AllTrails. Now, if you’re thinking, “Listen lady, I’m not downloading any more apps to my phone,” I hear you. And you don’t have to. Though I recently created a FREE account with AllTrails (you can upgrade to a paid version for a load of additional features), I used this website to find trails for years without creating an account or downloading an app.
Simply go Alltrails.com and type in the location where you want to hike. Then click on the map and zoom out to find hikes in your area. This is also a great tool to use when you’re visiting a new place and want to see which options are available there.
Bonus Tip: If you don’t have epic mountain views or similar points of interest, try hiking near lakes and rivers.
Tip #4: Pack Extra
Pack extra of what? Well, everything. No one wants to feel like a pack mule. But you know what feels worse? Getting lost on a trail and not having enough supplies to hold you over until you can backtrack to the car. Then you’re stuck with whiny kids (and adults) with dropping blood sugar levels.
To prevent a total meltdown during unforeseen circumstances, pack more than you need. Bring extra food/snacks. Take more water than you’ll need. Or, if hiking near a water source, carry a water filter so you can gather more water along the way.
One mistake we’ve made in the past is putting on sunscreen and bug repellant, and then leaving those things in the car when we went for a hike. The problem with the “one and done” approach to sunscreen and bug repellant application is these things can easily sweat off your skin. They have a shelf life. So, suck it up and bring these with you in case you’re on the trail longer than expected.
Bonus Tip: Kids of any age can shoulder some of the burden on a walk. Having a child carry a pack on trail, even if it only holds their own water and a small first aid kit, provides them with a sense of purpose by giving them responsibilities that impact the whole group.
Tip #5: Give Your Kids Something to Do
Speaking of responsibilities, why not give your kiddo something to do on the trail? This doesn’t mean you have to go through the hassle of assigning them a scavenger hunt or giving them a local nature guide (unless you want to). It can be as simple as having a younger child find the blazes marked on the trees to ensure your family is still on the right path.
Give your tween or teen a compass and a trail map so they can practice navigation without a phone. Don’t know how to use a compass? No problem. That’s what YouTube is for. You can learn together. This type of task has the added bonus of teaching your kids a skill that’s not utilized enough anymore.
Tip #6: Let Them Take Pictures
Most of us want our kids to spend a little more time outside and a little less time on screens, right? What if we provided some leeway by allowing both at the same time? Today’s kids have grown up in front of a screen. It’s how they experience the world.
Allowing your child to take pictures on their hike can work for any age. It will keep younger children busy looking for things they want to capture, even if it’s a bunch of blurry leaves and random sticks. For older kids, taking pictures allows them to work on their photography and editing skills. And even if they’re not interested in becoming photographers, they can use their photos to share their experience with friends on social media. Who knows? Maybe one of their friends will join you next time.
Hiking with kids does not have to be a complicated affair. If you’re prepared for anything, know your limitations, and follow these tips, your family can easily enjoy more quality time together building meaningful memories on the trail.
Check out these great places for hiking for with kids in the southeast: Amazing Hike in Blairsville, Georgia, Two Family-Friendly Hikes in Murphy, North Carolina, and Hiking Amicalola Falls in Georgia.
Do you hike with kids? Do you plan to in the future? If so, drop a comment below with your tips for going on enjoyable hikes and making lasting memories!