We have been hiking with our children since the eldest (now nine) was residing cozily in my belly. As outdoor lovers, hiking has been one of our favorite activities and one that we have always shared with our kids. Through the years, our kids have gone from front carriers to hiking backpacks to walking on their own on some pretty dubious trails. We continue to grow through our experiences and expand our possibilities as time passes, and all the while we’re exploring new territories and strengthening our bonds with each other.
Hiking as a family holds so much value. I talked a little bit about that on my personal blog last summer. But today I’d like to give you some practical advice for hiking with kids. If you’re new to hiking with little ones, or new to hiking in general, having children along can change the game a bit and it’s good to be on top of things so you can set everyone up for a really good experience…one you’ll all want to repeat often!
*Wear good, sturdy walking shoes. Flip flops and rain boots may look cute, but safety should always come first and good shoes are a must.
*Pack bug spray and sunscreen if conditions require and apply before heading out on the trail.
*Pack water enough for everyone. We’ve headed out on plenty of trails without water thinking that it would be short and we’d be fine only to spend the last half of the journey wanting nothing more than a cold drink. Plus, it’s important to stay hydrated.
*Utilize carriers for the very little ones…but allow them to walk and explore as they’d like in safe areas.
*Pack a snack. We didn’t always do this, but it has become a favorite feature of our hikes. It helps to break up a longer hike and gives the kids an opportunity to refresh and rejuvenate. Sometimes it’s just some Hershey Kisses, sometimes it’s lunch, but there’s always a little something tucked away in our bags. When they were littler, my husband and I carried everything in our own backpacks. But these days, the girls all carry their own backpack, filled with their own provisions.
*Pack a first aid kit. Little tumbles can result in some nasty little cuts and scrapes. It puts everyone at ease to know that some supplies are nearby to get you through until you get home. Sometimes, we bring it with us but usually we just leave it in the car. I also tuck all our insurance cards into a safe pocket in my backpack…just in case 🙂
*Have a plan. Most parks’ trail maps can be accessed online and, generally, we like to pick out a trail before we go. We look at things like distance, elevation, trail ratings, and whether or not the trail is a loop or an out and back. When looking at distance, keep in mind that one mile is many more steps for little legs than it is for yours. And walking on rocky terrain is much different than walking on pavement. Give yourself plenty of time and daylight for your chosen route. For reference, we’ve previously averaged about a mile an hour when the kids were smaller, if there’s a lot to look at, or if the terrain is difficult. These days, our good steady pace is about 45 minutes per mile.
*Assess the difficulty of a trail. Our little ones have done great on trails designated as “most difficult” and been challenged on trails labeled “easiest.” There are so many variables that go into those ratings and it’s impossible to account for all of them. Use good judgment and be prepared to turn around mid-trail if the terrain becomes too dangerous. As time goes on, my husband and I are better at knowing what we’re capable of handling. We will often check in at the park office if we’re contemplating a more advanced trail. But also know that many times, the people working in the park office have never themselves been on certain trails and don’t always have the best information. Playing it safe is always more important that hitting the best trails when you have kids along.
*While you’re at the park office, grab a few trail maps…one for you and one for the kids. The kids usually like to follow along with the map and, even if they’re just pretending to read it, it’s really good exposure to map concepts and map reading skills.
*Encourage kids to explore while being respectful of the environment. We’re often unaware of the fragility of an ecosystem or the scarcity of a species. As a rule, we encourage our children to look heartily and touch gently. We bring along binoculars and magnifying glasses to make it a very interactive experience. Don’t be afraid to not have answers about what things are. Explore them together; notice characteristics, ask questions, wonder aloud.
*Give kids a mission! Hiking is a great way to teach kids to value the journey over the destination. But because this is a difficult concept for all of us to master, it’s not uncommon to hear a lot of “are we there yet”s. We have found that if the kids have something that they are seeking along the way, it keeps them in the moment and moving forward. Mushrooms, ferns, mosses, and/or a specific types of trees are always good items to seek here in Pennsylvania. In the winter, we look for animal tracks and pine cones. Choose something that is relatively abundant in your climate; take pictures, and then Google all the different varieties when you get home.
*Enjoy the journey. Openly discuss how beautiful the scenery is, how nice it is to be together, and how glorious the day. Children emulate our behavior. If we want them to enjoy themselves hiking in nature, it helps for them to see us enjoying ourselves as well. If we appear stressed, they will be too. Relax, have fun, be curious…and they will too!
Hiking can be a wonderful way to connect and enjoy time together as a family. I hope you feel encouraged to get out there an explore with yours! If you have any questions about hiking and exploring as a family, I’d be happy to try and answer them for you. Just leave them here in the comments. Happy trails!
This article was written by Maegan.