Hiking with Kids: How to Hit the Trails When They’re Young

by Paul Ronto

hiking with kids

For parents, watching their children learn and grow is one of the most rewarding parts of parenthood. It’s even better when it happens outdoors.

There’s no way to completely quantify the benefits of being outside, but we do know it leads to better moods, more exercise and increased concentration. Fortunately, we can reap these benefits early in life by making hiking, camping and the outdoors an integral part of childhood physical fitness

Hiking with kids might seem like a herculean task, but like any activity with kids, it simply takes the right amount of preparation, patience and the understanding that you’re helping create lasting experiences and routines in your child that can affect them for years to come.

To make your first forays easier, here’s a breakdown of the best ways to make hiking with your kids a pleasant experience for everyone on the trail.

Don’t Fear the Unknown; Just be Prepared

It’s okay if you’re not an avid hiker; none of us were that first time we hit the dirt and left the trailhead behind. With a few simple tips, hiking with your kids can be easy and fun.

First, determine what you need to bring along on your next adventure into the wild. Beyond the typical gear needed on any hike like water, snacks, and appropriate clothing, most of your additional needs for this age group are either related to safety, or to the specific needs of your child.

If your youngsters are old enough to carry their own gear, encourage them to do so. Giving them some responsibility can go a long way in keeping them interested. Find a pack they can carry on their own, and start filling it with items they can cherish like their own water bottle, a compass, and their favorite snacks.

kid hiking gear
Photo: July Brenda Gonzales Callapaza

Things like rain gear, a headlamp, and maybe a multi-tool go a long way to solving simple problems like bad weather or the sun going down earlier than you anticipated.

There are a few sayings in the outdoors world like, “there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad gear” and “the more you know the less you need” but when it comes to hiking with kids, it’s always best to be over prepared since nothing ends an enjoyable hike like a stage-5 meltdown.

Hold Kids’ Attention by Creating an Interest in Nature

One thing that a lot of parents struggle with is keeping their kids interested on a hike. Time away from a screen, or being out of contact with friends can be a major bummer for kids these days. Finding ways to create passion for the outdoors is key to future successful hikes.

Take time before your hike to prepare games, print off a scavenger hunt, or come up with fun stories to tell on your next walk through the woods. Leave the business of life and work at the trailhead and make your next hike fun for both you and your little ones.

Another fun activity is to combine your upcoming trail adventure with outdoor crafts. As summer temps start to heat up you can cut multi-colored sponges into small squares and thread them onto a long string to make funky cooling necklaces. Bring extra water or plan your next hike along a stream or to a lake so the kiddos can continually soak their summer craft project.

kids cooling necklace crafts

As the kids get older you can start to incorporate talks about John Muir, Leave No Trace ethics, or their goals and dreams. Begin out in the woods, away from the internet is a great time to hold their undivided attention.

Cha-ching, hiking may just be the perfect time to connect on a deeper level without any distractions.

Snack Time is No Joke

Having snacks ready is crucial for hiking with kiddos. You can probably go miles without needing extra energy, and that final push back to the car with your tank on empty is something you may be used to, but when tiny tots run out of energy the real adventure will start. Snacks also help facilitate concentration and focus when you need them to pay attention.

Kids need extra nourishment because they burn energy quickly, and can become cranky without it. Plus snacks mean breaks and breaks are a great motivational tool that you can use to keep spirits high.

kids hiking snacks
Photo: Steven Depolo

Pushing your tykes 100 more steps before snack time, or giving them “magic” energy pills (tic tacs) every few minutes can really make a hike go from nightmare to a breeze. Just be sure to pack enough to ensure you won’t end up carrying a zonked out toddler.

Hiking Before Walking

Just because your little one can’t walk yet, doesn’t mean they can’t hike. Getting out into the woods with a newborn is a great way to get exercise as a new parent without needing to find a sitter.

Under 6 months it’s probably smart to keep your cherub swaddled in front of you so you can ensure they are safe and comfortable while they don’t yet have much neck strength, but between 6 months and 2 years, a baby carrier is a great investment. There are a ton of these on the market (check out this Osprey for one of the best-rated options) so be sure to do your research and pick the one that fits your needs best.

As you search for the right carrier, pay attention to the harness system. Find one that fits you correctly and has comfortable shoulder and waist straps. Not sure how to fit one properly, head to your local outdoor store as they tend to be better at fitting these than baby stores since they are so similar to fitting a backpack.

osprey baby carrier
The Osprey Packs Poco AG Child Carrier

Remember your beloved baby really needs protection from the environment. Be sure your carrier has a sun/rain shade, that you’ve packed enough warm clothing, and their head and face is covered adequately which may mean a wide brimmed baby hat on top of your carriers sun protection. You can also snag yourself some sun-protective clothing if needed.

Also, be aware that on warm days, kiddos in a carrier can get dehydrated easily as they can absorb your body heat as you work hard carrying them, so take breaks often, take the baby carrier off, and let everyone cool down. 

Plan the Right Hike

The last thing to really consider is how to plan the right hike. Hiking with high-school aged kids is vastly different than hiking with a 2-year old.

When your kiddos are small, plan shorter hikes with lots of distractions like cool rocks, streams, bugs, and again that trusty scavenger hunt. As they grow older change the plan to include goals like a summit, a lake, or an overlook to keep them motivated and trudging onward.

No matter what ages your kiddos are, loop hikes are king. Out and back adventures on the same trail can be boring to your little explorer who probably saw everything “worth” seeing on the way out, so plan a hike that returns to the vehicle along a new path.

hiking scavenger hunt

It’s Time to go Hiking!

You are now ready to hit the trails with the little ones! Even that local hike you’ve done 1000 times will become new and exciting with kids in tow. They’ll point on things you’ve overlooked for years and keep you on your toes. Get out there and start creating your own little Edward Abby or Killan Jornet

Looking for more advice on how to make your next kid-friend hike a success? Check out 101 Tips to Hike (Like a Pro) With Your Kids, where age-specific tips for newborns to young adults are clearly laid out, ensuring every time you hit the trail you’re set up for a big family win!

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