For this brief moment, my house is relatively clean and my girls are playing well together. So I wanted to take the opportunity to share some tips for hiking with kids, I would have loved to have had when my kids first started hiking with me.
Like any outing with children, you must expect the unexpected. The same is true for hiking, so this really doubles the work on the front end. I am a grown woman and even hiking without kids, I still always pack a dry pair of socks and a change of pants. I’m not really concerned I will have a potty accident, but I have what may be an irrational fear, that I will rip my pants on a rock or branch and be forced to finish the hike with my cheeks exposed.
I carry several odds and ends that may seem a little much, but I like to be prepared for any and every possible scenario we may encounter. Better to have it and not need it, than need it and not have it. My hiking buddies tease me because my pack is always so heavy. But one day they will be thanking me when I have to repel down the side of a cliff using my extra rope, set a broken leg, build a lean-to, and make a meal from the the plants I scavenge guided by my handy edible forest book.
However, when I hike with kids I do my best to pack as light a possible while still being ready for anything. Below are my best tips for hiking with kids to make your trek a repeat adventure.
10 Tips For Hiking With Kids
1. Bring Extra Kid’s Clothes
Seven years in on this mom thing, and one thing I have learned….and relearned is ALWAYS pack each kid an extra pair of clothes anytime we leave the house. And if you are really smart, go ahead and throw an extra shirt in there for yourself. I have worn my kid’s vomit/spit up and other fluids for longer than I would like on more than one occasion.
2. Be Prepared For The Sun And The Bugs
Bring Bug Spray and Suncreen, and reapply frequently. If you are hiking in Glacier, bear spray is a must.
3. Bring A Carrier
If your child is 5 and under, BRING A CARRIER. For infants and small toddlers you can also use a an Ergo Carrier. It’s made for kids up to 30 pounds. Really, when your kid is over 20 pounds, you are better with a carrier pack especially for longer hikes. I don’t care if it is only a 3-mile hike. There will come a time when your child is moving so slowly, that you will question if they are moving at all. You may think (pre-hike), I’ll give em’ a piggyback ride if they get tired and it’ll be fine. It won’t! Encourage them as much as you can. Bribe them with promises of treats at the end. Do what you must to get every last step out of them as is humanly possible before a melt-down, then STRAP that kid on and pack em’ out.
4. Start With Short Hikes
5. Play Games On The Trail
Playing Games is a great way to keep them distracted. Everyone is excited and energetic at the start of the hike, so I usually wait until it’s obvious they are wearing down, before playing “I Spy” or beginning a scavenger hunt.
My girls also get excited and re-energized when I let them take turns being our trail guide, setting the pace, and telling us about what they see up ahead. This usually leads to them being the “encourager” trying to motivate us peasants in the back to press on.
6. Bring Good Food
FOOD, wonderfully, satisfying, delicious, food. Second only to summiting a peak, my favorite part of the hike is eating upon reaching the destination. Like a starving orphan from Oliver Twist, most hikers are ravaged by the time they stop to eat, and regardless of the menu, it is always the best food you have ever had.
That said, this is a great time to PACK THE HEALTHY STUFF. Even my children, who for a while I swear survived solely on condiments and Goldfish, ate hummus and carrots. Vegetables are not my scene, and so it has been an uphill climb trying to make my children love them.
I want to be, but I am not THAT mom. No kale smoothies or broccoli birthday cakes with cauliflower ice-cream made by fairies from an organic garden here…. If I’m perfectly honest, I don’t want to be that mom. And personally, I love a good kid-free, checkout lane Kit-Kat eaten in private on the drive home from the grocery store.
So I am not here to dole out health advice. But all the doctors and workout-y people really seem to be onto something, when it comes to energy levels. Healthy Food = More Energy. For kids, we have found these Yumbox’s to be great for holding food. They seal really well and it saves us from having to chase Ziploc bags in the wind.
Trust me, if you give your kids junk on the trail, you will regret it. You will see a sugar crash resulting in a pretty impressive melt-down, triggering an argument with your spouse, ending with a sweeping declaration that you will never go anywhere with anyone again.
I cannot express how liberating it is to disconnect from the outside world and recharge in nature, without the draining thief of contentment, technology has become. This is a luxury that most of us are not afforded due to the times and culture we live in.
We have an unhealthy insatiable need to check our phones. Even if it’s just “real quick to look something up.” So this may seem simple, but I promise it is freeing and it is a gift to both you and your children. If you do not have the luxury of hiking off-grid, TURN YOUR PHONE OFF! If you use your phone for your camera, then switch it to Airplane Mode.
8. Bring The Right Clothes
Dress your children appropriately. If your children are picky about their clothes and you are a “choose your battles parent,” this is a battle you need to choose to win. When my children were itty bitty, I use to dress them in the cutest, often matching, outfits.
As they got a little older (like 2y), all three began to reveal fierce independent streaks. I started to care less about how cute they looked and more about keeping the peace and choosing my battles. So they have worn Princess gowns to the grocery store on more than one occasion, and my five-year-old is currently obsessed with, what looks to me to be wildly uncomfortable, plastic light-up Cinderella shoes which have made way too many public appearances.
But when it comes to hiking, Mama has final say. If you are hiking in the mountains, your kids need layers. It may be 85 degrees at your house, but once you gain elevation the temperature drops. Wind and elevation along with unpredictable weather are all factors you need to keep in mind when hiking in the mountains. I have been in Arizona with the sun high in the sky, and freezing because I was unprepared for the temperature drop with elevation gain.
We never do anything outdoors without putting hats on our girls. In the winter they wear beanies, but in the summer I buy them the same hats every time! The Sunday Afternoons hats are my absolute favorite hat for kids. For everything outdoors, this is the hat my kids wear. Floating the river, hiking, park dates, picnics, and even in the swimming pool. If we are outside for any length of time, they are wearing these hats.
Fortunately, I have 3 girls, and we just keep passing them down. They fit for a couple of years, bc they are adjustable, so I have only had to buy 2 additional since our initial purchase. Well….3, because we lost one and I replaced it 2 days later (Thank you Amazon Prime.) They stay on well, have great all-around coverage, are lightweight, and dry quickly.
Leave the tennis shoes at home and pick up some quality hiking shoes. Of course, it depends on how often you are hiking, but I strongly advise buying your children good hiking shoes. Kids don’t necessarily need boots, but hiking shoes are different than tennis shoes. Not just the fact that hiking shoes have tread suited for outdoor terrain, but they are designed to lessen the impact of an uneven trail on your body. Not to mention the added protection on the outside for the inevitable root or rock you are bound to stumble over.
9. Get The Kids A Pack
Get your kid a light daypack. My girls love carrying bags of “stuff” everywhere we go. Especially my oldest, who I am working hard on conditioning not to become a full-blown bag lady. They carry the strangest most random items, and their bags always weigh a ton.
I guess that is to be expected when toting around a sack of knick-knacks and memories, including a brass school bell and 5-pound fancy doorknob. Those items now have “treasure” status because Grandpa purchased them. It’s not important that they were picked from a junk box at an auction barn.
Now, this is where I step out and try to balance the practical with character building. In reality, assuming you have a good pack, you could carry all your child needs. I did that for a long time and thought that at most, a kid could carry their hydration pack. But seven years of hiking with my kids has given me a new frame of thought.
While I greatly limit what they are allowed to pack, I let them bring a few special items (often including a small notebook to sketch in). I allow them to put their own snacks in their packs and maybe one or two other small items that really have no business being on a hike. But the items they bring are special to them, and I want them to think of our hikes together as special as well.
However, with this, I make it clear that they are responsible for carrying their packs and for everything in them. I think it is good for them to have the responsibility and something that is all theirs. Though I will admit that on trails, where I have been a little overconfident in their stamina and maybe asked a too much of them and their little legs, I have happily taken their packs and simply clipped them to mine. Just another reminder that you can never have too many carabiners.
10. Carpe Diem
I try to imagine a time when there were no trails, and people didn’t hike for fun but traversed the wilds out of necessity. Our country has a rich history of explorers and survivors. Speak their names to your children.
Where I live, we have so many incredible stories of Native Americans and pioneers who pursued the West. Before every hike, I research the history of the area. Not only do I love to know about the trees, plants, and animals I can expect to see, but I love learning about the culture, how each place got its names, and why they are significant.
Hiking with my kids not only allows me time to share stories of people who walked this land before us, but it also allows them to experience and absorb the living history all around us.
And there is no better time to share how amazing nature is than in the woods. Teach them how wildfires are part of the life cycle of a forest. Let them listen to the animals as they communicate and talk about what they eat and how incredible it is that we share this place with so many beautiful creatures. Take a moment to be still and quiet and soak in the sounds of the forest when it can no longer detect human presence.
Teach them some survival skills. Tell them Birch bark repels water, making it a great choice for burning in rainy conditions. Show them what plants, berries, and flowers are safe to eat. Make sure they know what to do during a bear encounter, because this can happen at any time, and practicing how they should respond is the best chance you have of them utilizing that knowledge.
Make sure you teach them to be respectful. Teach them to respect the ruggedness and danger of a place, that even often frequented by people, is still very wild. Teach them to respect the wildlife and give all animals a wide berth.
Teach them trail etiquette. Teach them to respect other hikers, by not being too loud or altering the surroundings making it visible other humans have been there, (Cairns serve a purpose, and it is not to make your presence known. This is one of my hiking pet peeves.) Hikers descending, yield the trail to hikers climbing (though sometimes climbers need a break and will step off allowing descenders to pass). “Pack it in – Pack it out,” Leave no trace you were ever there.
Most importantly, I love the opportunity to remind my girls that the same God who created the mountains and the waterfalls we climb and admire with such awe, is the same God who created them. And made them for a PURPOSE! If that doesn’t incite a sense of power, worth, and wonder I don’t know what could. And the privilege of sharing the trail with my greatest blessings, basking in the magnificence of God’s creation brings me so much light and JOY, that the long Montana winters don’t seem so daunting.