My husband and I have quite literally been hiking together since day one – yes, really – we met on a backpacking trip in college! Since then, we have hiked over 5000 trail miles together, most of those while hiking the length of California on the Pacific Crest Trail two and a half times. Backpacking and hiking are second nature to us, so it is only natural that it is something we love to do as a family, as well.
However, making the transition from two long-distance backpackers to parents of small children has been a challenge. We are serious about our hiking and the trails we chose – it is not just a stroll along a well manicured trail for us! When we had just one baby, it was easy still, we could still hike as we wished. We enthusiastically purchased a nice baby backpack (the most expensive item we had bought for him) and took him everywhere we went. It was easy and natural and fun. Babies really are incredibly portable and our little guy fit pretty seamlessly into our active lifestyle – he went camping at two weeks old, as well as hiking for the first time on that trip – it was not a problem at all.
When our second came along not long after our first, we invested in a second backpack when he was too big for the front carrier and carried them both for a year. But, the summer our oldest turned three, hiking as a family became much more challenging…
Hiking with young kids is similar to trying to hike with a cat (something I have actually done, but that is another story). They sit down in the middle of the trail and refuse to take another step. They are fascinated by every little bug, stick, or rock they stumble over. They decide to turn around and hike home before you get to your destination. And, unlike cats, they throw temper tantrums or dissolve into tears.
So how do we take a fun family hike in those years between 3-ish and 7-ish and actually get somewhere? Despite the difficulty of taking the little ones, we regularly go on long(ish) hikes with them (between 3 and 8 miles) and these are the tricks that work for us.
Turn your hike into a game.
In my experience, kids of all ages love games and we have become experts at finding fun ways to keep them moving and distracted by how “tired” they feel. The following are the games we use most frequently:
- Interactive storytelling is by far our kids favorite hiking game. Storytelling gets their imaginations flowing and thoroughly distracts them from any discomfort they might be feeling, plus, it has the added bonus of being excellent for their cognitive development. I will start a story and then pass it on to my son, and he takes over for a minute or two and then passes to his brother or dad. Depending on how old your kids are, you may need to get the story going with another adult, or tell the entire story yourself. It is fun and the miles pass easily with this family activity.
- Trail races – My boys love this one, but it is certainly exhausting! Children love to race and will happily race each other. However, if you don’t have multiple children, or they are not at the same skill level, the adults may need to get involved. In our family, usually I race our 5-year-old and my hubby races the 7-year-old to a predetermined point on the trail (the big rock up there or that large shade tree). We ensure the child wins, but just barely so they don’t think we “let” them win. If you are the adult carrying the baby, it is not so hard to “let” them win. At the end of the race, there is a celebration and a water break before starting over again. We find this works best in the challenging uphill sections and it is a great interval workout!
- Choo-choo trail trains – this is a fun one, especially if your child likes trains. It works best if you have something to link the train “cars” together. We have used hiking poles and sweatshirts with each person hanging on to the shirt or pole in front and behind them. The engine leads the way and the rest of the family chugs along behind. Make up obstacles and stories along the way – passing over bridges, picking up cargo, and of course, the classic “I think I can” for big hills!
- Scavenger hunts – this is a classic kids hiking game, but it can slow the party down significantly, so it is not one we use unless we have no mileage goal for the day. However, it is a great learning activity and really gets children exploring the outdoors. They love looking for a stick shaped like an arrow or the roundest rock you can find. There are some great printables on Pinterest you can bring along, or you can just think of things on the fly and give the next challenge after they find the first.
This one could fall under the hiking games category, but I’m going to give it its own category. My dad is a master geocacher and loves to take the grandkids out treasure hunting. Check out Geocaching.com for more information, or this post by REI on how to get started if you’ve never tried it. Although national parks do not have physical geocaches to find (the educational earth caches at national parks are fun) most public lands have physical treasure boxes of various sizes hidden not far from trails. The kids love finding treasure and will happily run to the next geocache location. Most of the trails we frequent have caches every ¼ mile, so there are many opportunities for kids to explore. Let kids navigate using a handheld GPS unit or smartphone – it’s a great way to teach them about cardinal directions and latitude and longitude.
Pack fun snacks
Who is not motivated by food? This is not one that I am particularly good at because our hikes are often last minute. However, if your kids have a special hiking food that they love, but only get on hikes, it can really help them get through those long miles. My kids love trail mix, yogurt or chocolate covered raisins, and fruit snacks, to name a few.
Bring a hidden carrier, just in case.
Our ergonomic carrier packs in the bottom of our day pack pretty easily and we have pulled it out when our little guys are just too exhausted to make it to the end. However, we have found, that if the kids know there is the option to be carried, like bringing an empty baby backpack along to hold snacks, they often beg and whine to be carried and pester power eventually wins. The ergonomic carriers are easy to pack and they are much easier than carrying a kid on your back or shoulders.
Reward (or treat) at the end
After a good long hike, we love to reward the kids with a fun stop on the way home. There is a great frozen yogurt shop on the way back from some of our favorite hikes and the kids look forward to stopping there all day. But if we are somewhere else, we may stop at the campground store, Rite Aid, or even McDonald’s for a soft serve ice cream or fruit parfait.
*This is likely the most important tip* – Expect that the hike will take at least two times as long as it would without little ones. Don’t have a strict timeline or no one will be happy. Take lots of breaks for water and snacks. Enjoy the nature around you. There is so much to learn outside and your children are sponges eager to soak everything in. Take time to really enjoy it.
If you do not make it to your destination, in most cases, the world will not end. Usually our kids can hike 5 miles, but some days their limit is 3 – honestly, some days their limit is a ½ mile when they are overly tired. Pay attention to their signs and know when it is a good time to turn around. No one knows your kid like you do, so you are the best one to know how much is too much and can likely distinguish between whiny and truly exhausted.
We want hiking to be something that our kids look forward to and really enjoy. These strategies all take a good amount of work or prep from the parents, but they also create lifelong memories and bonding. I believe that is worth the extra effort. They will not always be little, but, hopefully, they will always love hiking!
What are some ways you make hiking fun for young kids?