As an avid hiker my hope is that my kids will develop a similar love for the outdoors, but let’s be honest––hiking is, well… walking. A whole lot of walking. While in its simplest form, hiking is really just about grabbing plenty of water and hitting the trail, I’m often surprised by the number of parents who ask me how to get started trekking with their kids. The added element of being in nature is often overwhelming for parents who aren’t already outdoorsy themselves. The idea seems daunting, despite the desire to try. The challenge of hiking with kiddos is less about being outside, and more so making sure the hike is enjoyable for everyone in the family. With a variety of ages to entertain, it can be hard to keep the focus on nature instead of on tired feet and hungry tummies.
This seems like a great place to add a small disclaimer. No matter what you do, or how much effort you put in, there will likely still be some complaining. Like many of the activities we use to enrich our kids’ lives (especially those that involve unplugging), it’s worth it in the long run. I always chuckle at the fact that no matter how much our kids complain about hiking in the moment, they always seem to look back on the experience fondly in the retelling of the experience.
Hikers tend to fall into one of a few categories. There are those that want to get in all the miles and relish the magnitude of their accomplishment, as well as those that love to stop and observe nature along the way. There are hikers that need to do more than just putting one foot in front of the other over and over lest they become bored, and (as in all things) those that just show up for the food!
The key to transforming hiking into an activity that everyone can look forward to is to offer ways for all of these joys to take place along the way. Figuring out which category your people fall into (or discovering a new category altogether) can be half the fun! A little thought and preparation ahead of time can make your adventure far more enjoyable for everyone involved. Later, you can hone what makes hiking exciting for each individual person.
1. Comfortable Clothing and Gear
In the same way you wouldn’t send your kid out onto the football field without a helmet, taking them out onto the trail without preparing them for the experience can make it an uncomfortable one. As much as it can feel intimidating to invest in a hobby before you’re sure your kids will enjoy it, being mindful of some essentials can help make the experience feel a lot more pleasant. (And can be done without spending a ton of money, too!)
The main items I suggest are lightweight, fast-drying or wicking clothing, (very!) comfortable and well-fitting running or hiking shoes, a backpack of an age-appropriate size for each hiker to hold their own water and snacks (we love using hydro bags), and a walking stick. (This doesn’t have to be a formal hiking pole. Any stick will do and can often be picked up and returned along the trail!) Of course, items like sunscreen, bug spray, hats, and sunglasses go well with just about any outdoor activity, too!
2. Snacks and Water
Hiking burns a ton of calories, so you can count on having hungry mouths to feed along the way. Making snacks that you don’t usually eat at home can make them more exciting to enjoy on the trail. Preparing something like this trail mix bar can make for a great activity ahead of time, too!
I highly recommend that each person who is walking carry their own backpack with water and snacks, just for them. It makes everyone responsible for something important on the journey, and it is way more fun to have access to yummy treats on demand. As an added bonus, this will dramatically lighten your own load. Being responsible only for your items (plus a little extra ‘just in case’) will make your experience far more enjoyable, too!
Depending on the ages of your kids, having something to keep their minds off of the idea that ‘all you’re doing is walking’ is vital. First things, first: make sure everyone in your group has a map of the park! This is a great way to learn how to read maps, recognize and look for landmarks, and follow directions. (Having a compass to use is a lot of fun, too!) Your children can take turns leading the group along the trail, and you can be available to course-correct as needed. Visiting a park with fun landmarks to locate, like the dinosaur tracks at Government Canyon State Natural Area, or Monkey Rock in Lost Maples, is always an added bonus.
When our kids were younger Trail Bingo was a fun, interactive game to play as a family! It helped us to keep our minds focused on nature and lent an air of friendly competition to the day. Observing nature quickly became exciting and effortless, and the game put our focus back on the little things. “Look! A bird!” “I see a Y-shaped stick!” “Those ants are carrying food!” These kinds of guided observations will quickly lead to lots of curiosity from your kids about the world around them. They will likely create the opportunity for some fun conversations you might not otherwise get to have! A quick search online will produce a lot of printable game boards to take along.
Another (more introspective) activity is to ask each member of the family to find something in nature that represents either who they are or how they’re feeling that day. It is a great way to get your kids talking! “I’m a rock because I feel quiet.” “I’m a lizard because I go really fast!” “I’m like a bird because I sing when I’m happy!”
Cameras are another interesting way to see the trail from your children’s eyes and create a memorable keepsake along the way. This can also result in a fun collage or art activity later, by printing and pasting the photos on a poster board or in a scrapbook! Whether you use cellphone cameras to capture the magic, or go old-school and opt for disposable cameras, it’s a fun way to engage your child’s creative side while getting some fresh air and exercise.
4. Track Your Miles/Steps
Knowing how far they’ve gone can either be inspiring, or demotivating for your family, so this is one to be careful with! Our youngest son loves knowing how many steps he’s taken and is often motivated by beating our totals. The oldest in our family would quickly shift knowing how far we’ve gone into a reason to stop. “We’ve already been walking for a mile, isn’t that enough yet?” (Okay. It’s me! I am the oldest in our family.) Even if you don’t use this number to motivate your kids while hiking, knowing how far you’ve gone at the end is always a source of pride and accomplishment for everyone. Either way, it’s fun to keep track!
5. Include a Companion
There’s nothing more fun about an adventure than having someone to share it with. Whether that someone is a sibling, cousin, or friend, having companionship of their own age makes an average walk feel more like an epic journey! With so much to do and see, it would be a shame not to share the fun with someone your kiddo will enjoy discovering with.
There are a million ways to turn a hike into a fun expedition, but hopefully, these suggestions will help to get you started. The benefits of spending time in nature (and unplugged) are plentiful for everyone, and hiking is a great way to begin venturing out into the wild unknown!