Have you ever been out in the woods, enjoying a lovely family hike when all of a sudden someone stops and refuses to walk one more step? If you’ve done much hiking with kids, chances are you’ve experienced the stone footed child. But really, can you blame those little people for their complaints? Hiking can be hard sometimes. Heck, I’ve been on hikes when I’m the one who starts crying and refuses to walk one more step!
So, what to do next? Should you have done something different to prepare? Could you have done something to prevent their whining and kept them better motivated? And if so, what are those tricks and tips for hiking with kids?
How to keep kids motivated and excited about hiking isn’t a question. Outdoor family bloggers are frequently trying to answer this question for their readers. I have a few tricks that our family uses, but for this post, I really wanted to give you as many suggestions as I could find. Below you’ll see that I’ve included many ideas that we incorporate into our hikes and adventures, but I’ll also share with you some ideas and comments I’ve found from other adventure families.
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Tips and Tricks to keep kids moving on the trail
I love going for walks with my family. I love the trees and the smells. I love being curious and seeing their excitement in new discoveries. But what I don’t love is when they start to whine or when I have to resort to bribes to keep them hiking along with us. Fielding complaints, crying kids, and negative attitudes can quickly ruin a lovely family walk.
When our children were little, family hikes were much easier. Infants could be nestled into our Ergobaby carrier. The bigger babies were strapped into backpack carriers. Then when they started to walk we’d bring along our chariot or wagon for them ride in and rest in when needed. But our kids just kept growing and we can no longer offer them rides when they start getting tired.
The up side to their getting bigger is that they can help carry gear, we can tackle rougher trails, and we can usually go farther distances. The down side is that they are now more aware of the physicality of hiking, they are less excited by a scampering squirrel or signing nursery rhymes, and they are developing their own interests and hobbies which they would sometimes rather partake in.
So, with our older children, our approaches to family outings are changing. We now need to consider ways to get them excited about the idea of hiking in the first place as well as having strategies to help keep them motivated and positive when we get onto the trail.
The Absolute Best top 10 tips for Hiking with Kids
1. Choose a hike with varying terrain and features
Consider your trail options before heading out. Try choosing a trail with lots of rocks, logs, bridges, creeks, or boardwalks. Finding trails with things for kids to climb and play on will be more exciting for them. It can also spark their imagination and easily turn a walk in the woods into captaining a pirate ship through monster-infested waters.
Our kids love trails on which they’ll have to cross bridges or step over creeks. Think about ways they can be entertained along the hike with benches, playing in a shelter, or throwing rocks into a pond. Also, hikes with lots of animals, flowers, or mushrooms can also be very entertaining for kids.
For older kids, the varying elements and changing surroundings will help hold their interest. You can remind them of the upcoming river crossing, or to watch for a specific species of tree found in that area, or even hand them the topographical map and have them find their location based on geological features.
2. Prepare, plan, and do it properly
This tip is more about making sure you’re well prepared for the hike. Kids will be much happier to walk if their shoes fit properly or if they’re warm enough or not too hot.
You may want to plan your hike for the time of day when your kids are most energetic. Also, if you are going on a longer hike and have younger kids is it possible to bring along an all-terrain stroller (we love our chariot!), a wagon, or sled just in case? I’ve even seen this piggy-back strap thing but I haven’t used them so I have no idea how well they work.
A few musts to bring along are sun hats, basic first aid supplies, lots of water, snacks, a means of calling for help. The further you venture into the wild, the more supplies you should bring along. This is what we tend to put in our pack for a little day hike.
You’ll also want to consider the condition and location of the trail. Will you need bug repellent, bear spray, sunscreen, or warmer clothing. Really, it’s much easier to prevent problems than deal with them on the trail.
When you’re planning your hike involve the kids in choosing the trail and agreeing on a goal. This way you might get more buy-in and kids may be more interested in completing the entire walk with you. Have them take a look at guide books or read them the trail-head map. Make them feel important. Make the hike an inclusive activity not something you’re dragging them along on.
3. Pack for Adventure
Have you ever noticed that little kids don’t care much about beautiful vistas? Instead, they’re much more interested in the little creatures, watching leaves float down the stream, or finding mushrooms tucked away in the moss?
In a post on VeraVise, Brittany shares how her family has a backpack specifically packed for adventure. She suggests some things, such as binoculars, a magnifying glass, a small notebook and pencil crayons, maybe even a few nature guides as well.
I’ll admit that we don’t keep a pack with all this stuff ready for every hike, but we do sometimes bring along a few of these items. When our son was 4 years old on his first overnight hike we brought along a little flower identifying brochure and a small piece of paper. All along the trail we would stop, identify the flowers we found and then keep tally of how many of each flower we spotted. This was entirely his idea and worked to keep him moving for the entire 4 hours!
4. Take it easy
Why are you hiking with your family? Do you need to get somewhere in a certain amount of time? Is it really a big deal if you turn back early? Almost every hiking family will give some variation of this peice of advice: walk at your child’s pace, stop for breaks, and give them time to explore.
An ant hill, an old abandoned cabin, a huge boulder, some funny looking moss… there will be tonnes of things to distract them. You’ll need to choose if you’re ready to give them the time to explore and play. You’ll also need to decide how much time you can use for stops.
But, remember to ask yourself first why you’re out there in the first place. Linda, from Rain or Shine Mamma says it so well when she writes: “It may take you two hours to walk a mile but at least you’re outside having fun”.
Also, don’t overestimate your children’s abilities. Sure, it’s one thing to challenge them. It’s another to expect them to hike for 4 hours if they’ve only ever been on short little strolls. Choose a reasonable time and distance. Having your kids help you choose the hike can be a good motivator too. If they feel like the hike was their choice, they may be more invested in completing it fully.
5. Stay positive
Having an optimistic attitude can get your kids a lot further on a long walk. I won’t suggest you ignore your child’s complaints. Instead, I suggest you acknowledge their feelings, empathize if you want, and then re-direct them or talk about problem solving.
Instead of talking about how far you’ve walked, focus on how much fun you’ve had. Instead of talking about how much further, talk about how yummy your lunch will be or how nice it will feel to play in the creek at the end of the hike.
Treat your child respectfully and respond honestly to questions of what the trail will be like, how far along you’ve hiked, what to expect next, and so forth. If you tell a kid that the walk will be easy and only take an hour, then that should be the truth. I’d be very annoyed if my husband lied to me about a hike just to get me on it!
Just this summer my husband and I decided to bring our daughter on a big hike (like 8 km, 700 meter elevation gain big hike!). I thought his expectations were way too high and I anticipated our 5 year old to make it only half way up the trail before she’d had enough. We told her exactly what to expect on this hike and we stayed positive. We focused on her strengths and acknowledged when it got hard. We helped her when she needed it and gave her the time when she needed that. And, she made it!
In VeraVise’s post, Amy puts it so well when she shares about the physical and emotional challenges a hike can pose.
“It is often the mindset that ‘we could never do that’ which keeps families from attempting to get out and hike, to think bigger, to climb higher. In pushing our family to reach beyond the norm, even when there are tears or fears, even when we are completely exhausted, we are teaching ourselves, and our little people, that they can overcome any obstacle and any distance as long as they keep going, one step at a time.” ~ Amy, from Passports and Pigtails
6. Snacks, treats and rewards
Reading various articles on hiking with kids reveals two main philosophies. One is to use treats and snacks all throughout a hike. The other is to use them as rewards for making it so far or completing the trek. Either way, whichever strategy you prefer, bring food. Bring lots of food. Bring lots of water too. Kids will eat and drink more than you expect especially if they’re working hard on a hike.
We don’t like to randomly dole out candies as we hike. We find it interrupts the flow of walking and frequently leads our kids to focus solely on when the next candy will be given. Instead we will oftentimes bring along a treat that the kids really enjoy to be had at an arranged time or place along the trail.
I’ve walked with a family who gave out snacks at every mile marker. We’ve done hikes where we stop for snacks on the hour or plan to have our yummy picnic at the top of the trail. We’ve discovered that the reward of stopping for an ice cream cone on the way home can really make those feet move!
Sometimes getting the kids to choose the snacks that they bring along can help motivate them too. Our family loves these coconut muffins. On a hike last summer just reminding them that they’re in the pack helped keep the kids walking until we arrived at our lunch spot.
Linda from Rain or Shine Mamma shares in her post how her daughter really wasn’t excited about family hikes, but she “seem[ed] a lot more interested in going for walks if hot chocolate, fruit and cookies on a blanket were in the cards”.
Years ago our family and another went out for a little walk on Easter morning. One of the adults ran up ahead on the trail and hid some chocolate treats along the path. You should have seen the surprise when the kids found that first egg! This certainly motivated them to keep hiking that morning. I’ll just mention that the likeliness of meeting others on this path was low so we didn’t have any worries of other people picking up our treats. Can you imagine how upset those kids would have been if their eggs had already been found?
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7. Hike with friends
If you’re at all concerned about your kid’s motivation on the trail, bring along a friend or a whole family of friends. If there’s a dog thrown into the mix too, then all the better!
My words of caution here are to make sure that the friends joining your hike are at a similar or higher hiking skill level than your family. Otherwise, that plan might backfire and you’ll have two kids whining and complaining instead of one.
However, more times than not, kids will do a great job of distracting and amusing themselves. You’ll find they’ll often walk or run ahead with their friends and not need any encouragement from you at all.
Traci from Outdoor Families Magazine shares that “teens especially love hang time with friends, and hiking together is a great place to bond and have fun.”
8. Bring along some gear
You’re probably thinking “but I already have to carry so much… food, water, snacks, first aid, phone, jackets, and on and on”. But, this isn’t a suggestion of something for you to carry. It’s a suggestion that the kids bring along something for them to use.
Hike it Baby recommends a bike if the trail permits it. When our kids were using balance bikes (Strider bike) we always brought them on smooth paths. The kids could zip along a little faster than our walking pace and they always loved being on those bikes. I’ll admit that sometimes the plan didn’t work as well as we’d like and we’d end up carrying both a toddler and a bike, but usually bikes are a hit.
As our kids got older, they enjoyed pulling and riding in our little red wagon. Sometimes we’d bring along a scooter and we even have this one with skis on the bottom which are lots of fun on packed snowy paths.
Sticks! Kids love sticks! Big or little, it doesn’t seem to matter. On her blog, Jess Connell gives many reasons why you should bring hiking sticks when out with kids. But if you don’t have trekking poles, most kids will be just as happy finding a long stick that they can use for their walk. Our walks usually end with my husband or I saying “Okay, sticks don’t belong in the van”. Although, that being said, we still have quite an impressive stick collection here at home.
Other things my kids have brought along on hikes include stuffed animals, dolls to be pulled in wagons or on sleds, umbrellas, field guides, jars for collecting treasures, and cameras. In this Outdoor Families Magazine article about hiking with teens, Traci talks about how cameras can be a helpful tool for encouraging teens to capture and share their hiking experiences.
Below is a photograph of our children using their cameras. They were eager to continue along the trail to find more things to photograph. And if for some reason you want hundreds of photographs of trees, rocks, dirt, and your family’s legs, then just give a camera to your 4 year old!
9. Have fun with imagination and games
It helps to have dead trees looming up above or an abundance of mushrooms to pretend you’re exploring a forest once ravaged by dragons or inhabited by little gnomes. But, playing games and pretending can happen no matter where you’re walking. Just have fun. Be silly. Smile, laugh, and play while you walk.
My daughter is a big fan of imaginative games to keep her going on the trail. Below is a picture of her wearing her Mexican Wrestling Cape on a family walk! She loves to pretend she’s a horse pulling our carriages for us. On many hikes she’s been a mountain goat hoping from rock to rock, and now that her younger sister is old enough to hike as well, we frequently have two mountain goats on our walks.
Hike It Baby’s post suggests bringing along a stick horse, which I thought was a fun idea I hadn’t thought of before. My daughters frequently bring along umbrellas (no matter the weather) or little stuffed friends for imaginative play.
The Appalachian Mountain Club’s post on trail games listed these two (among others) which I think could be a lot of fun for older kids: hide and seek and take a close up. For hide and seek on the trail one person would go up ahead on the trail and hide just off the path. Then, as the walking party approaches, they’d need to seek out the hiders. Take a close up involves one person running up ahead and taking a photograph then returning to show the photo. The others would need to try to spot the element that was photographed as they continue along the walk.
I’ll admit, I have some reservations about these two games. When we hike in Jasper National Park we like to stick firmly to our rules of staying together with an adult in front of the group and one at the end. Bears and wildlife are a real concern here and I admit it makes me anxious having a kid run off ahead by themselves. However, I also know that kids need to learn safety and need the chance to evaluate risks on their own. I think I’d change up the game so they were in pairs (having a whistle would be good) and there were strict guidelines of how far off the trail they could venture.
10. Talking, Singing, and Word Games
Different games are appropriate for different ages and personalities. No matter what games you play, the strategy of having a handful of word games in your pocket is a good one. Here are a few of our favourite ideas, and soon I’ll write up a list with many more ways to encourage talking and playing on the trail.
Alphabet games: Find things along the trail in order of the alphabet (A-acorn, B-blue jay, C-coniferous tree, etc). Or name movies, toys, geographical locations, etc in order of the alphabet.
Memory games: This one kept my daughter and I talking for a good 45 minutes straight the other day. It starts with “I am going camping and I am going to bring along” then every person who plays will have to recite what has been said before as well as what they’ll bring. What will be brought can be random or it could go alphabetically. So for example, I am going camping and I am going to bring along an apple, a bird feeder, a candle, doughnuts, etc.
What’s their story: If you’re on a trail with a lot of other hikers, you could try to guess where other people are from and their story. Remember that kids love to get silly. So, you might have somehow taken a walk on a distant planet and all these people you’re passing are aliens who love to eat books. You’ll have to guess the book they love to eat. Or maybe guess their names, the town they were born in, the name of their pets. Just remember to be polite!
How’d that go again? I love this idea from Jess Connell. All you do is try to recount in as much detail as possible how their favourite story or movie plays out. I see the potential to occupy a lot of time.
Maybe you have a Lego fan in your family? I’m always surprised how many hours can pass listening to my son discuss Lego sets in surprising detail.
Make up stories: My kids have had lots of fun making up silly stories for their books they’re reading, animals you might encounter, or fantastic parties they could plan.
Name 3 things: This one is a lot of fun for all ages if the person asking the questions has a good imagination. Basically, one person is asked to answer as quickly as possible a series of questions. So, for example, some questions could be: name 3 things found in the kitchen, 3 things you need to skate with, 3 things you’d hate to eat, 3 things you ride on, 3 things that make sound, 3 things to put in the bath with you… and so on. The questions can go on for quite some time and it’s just as much fun thinking up the questions as answering them.
These talking games are meant to help them focus on something other than their complaints. Remember that sometimes silence is good. Sometimes hiking can give kids time to think and be in their heads so if they’re content to be quiet, I suggest following their lead.
In fact, following their lead is probably one of the best tips I can suggest. Until you get out on the trail with your kids you have no idea how it will really go. Keep a close eye on their energy and attitude and you’ll soon learn how to respond and interact in order to help keep them positive and moving.
I can’t tell you how many times we’ve arrived at the trail-head with a van full of grumpy people, sometimes me included. We get out, get organized and start walking. Sometimes it’ll be a short stroll, my husband and I with our hot coffees in hand. Sometimes, it’ll be a longer trek with backpacks, gear, and snacks. But usually, no matter the destination, the duration, or the difficulty level, by the time we get back to the van our dispositions are all pleasantly readjusted. Sure, we might be tired and someone might be sad that they lost their stick. But there’s something about a walk in the wild that is just so good for the family’s soul.
So, take some of these tricks and tips for hiking with kids, and get out there. Go easy, have fun, be safe, and enjoy each other.
I’d love to hear what tips and tricks you use to keep kids motivated while hiking. Please feel free to add them in the comments below. Thanks.
P.S. If you’re a family that’s interested in tips for hiking with kids, you might be interested in this post all about how to best prepare for backpacking trips with kids. Or, if you’re more into car camping, here’s a free downloadable camping packing list to make family camping trips simpler and less stressful.
Other posts you might enjoy:
- 10 ways to get kids outside (because it’s not always easy!)
- Practical Camping with toddler tips
- Why kids need outdoor play, not indoor play-gyms
- Packing mom’s purse for adventure
- Easy and healthy hiking snacks kids will love!
- Outdoor Adventure Summer Activity Planners and Calendars