Hiking with Children
Tips for Family Hiking
Children enjoy exploring the natural world, and many parents value quality time spent outdoors with their kids. Hiking with children can be a delightful, life-affirming experience that deepens both the appreciation of nature and the relationship between parent and child.
My sons first hikes were when they were in a Snugli-type carrier. Over the years I've taken them out in the "baby backpack," in the stroller, as toddling walkers, and - now - as medium-sized hikers going over rougher terrain. They and I continue to enjoy going on various kinds of hikes together.
Hiking with children is definitely not the same as hiking alone or with another adult. There are special considerations regarding where to go, what to bring, and having the right mindset to make it a child-oriented hike.
There are different categories of trail hikes to meet the needs of your family. The age of the children and their hiking abilities are the major factors in choosing what kind of trail is best for you. There are stroller-friendly hikes, groomed trails, and "true" trail hikes.
You might also like to read my article about family camping
- Camping with Children: Tips for Making Your Family Camping Trip Fun and Safe
Family camping trips are a great way to instill a love of nature within children. This article features information and tips to help you plan your next tenting adventure with your kids!
If you have a child in a stroller, look for paved or fairly smooth surfaces. Explore walking paths in your area. Many municipalities and townships have information on walking and hiking paths, as well as playgrounds and other facilities, on their websites.
According to the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, an agency that converts unused railroad corridors into trails, there are more than 20,000 miles of rail-trails across the United States. Many of these trails are good for strollers and wheelchairs, as well as for bicycles. When researching rail-trails near you, note what kind of surface the trail has and if there are bathroom facilities along the route - preferably near the parking area. Some rail-trails also go past playgrounds, which could be a fun bonus!
For a successful family hike, attitude is every bit as important as having the right gear!
Keep reading for more information about this.
If the kids are ready for a hike in the woods but aren't able to navigate particularly difficult footing or steep hills, look for groomed trails.
Many nature centers offer wooded trails that are gently sloped and "paved" with wood chips, so they are manageable for younger kids to hike. There may be other fairly easy hiking trails near your home, perhaps maintained by the local municipality.
Groomed trails are also good options for quicker, easier outings, especially since these may be found closer to home than trails through forests or other rugged terrain.
Make Sure Young Children Are in a SAFE Carrier
If you have a small child who needs to be carried for at least part of the hike, it is critical to have a safe and stable child carrier. You may be able to give a child a piggy-back ride on smoother surfaces, but if you are on a wooded trail, a secure means of carrying your child is of utmost importance.
Even with a secure child carrier, it is not recommended that you hike over difficult terrain; a serious fall could injure both yourself and your child.
An Excellent Child Carrier - Kelty Baby Backpacks
I used my Kelty Child Carrier almost every day to carry my firstborn son. This was how we traveled whether we were out for a walk or doing the grocery shopping. He rode around on my back this way for two years! My younger son preferred the sling, though he still rode in the Kelty carrier for longer walks or hikes.
This is an updated version of the carrier I used for my sons. One of the outstanding features is the "kickstand," which makes it very easy to get a child in and out, even when you don't have assistance from another adult.
More Challenging Hikes
For more challenging hikes, you can explore longer and more complicated trails. One good place to learn about hiking trails in your area is to research national and state parks, most of which have hiking trails. (Some also have stroller-friendly paths.) You can download maps from their websites. These parks often have other features that make them excellent destinations for family outings, such as picnic areas, bathroom facilities, playgrounds, and public swimming pools.
When selecting a trail for your hike, it is usually more interesting and psychologically easier if you are able to find a "loop trail" that brings you back to your starting point, as opposed to a "straight trail" where you hike a distance before turning around and going back the same way you came. If the kids get tired on a loop trail, you can either turn around or continue forward, whichever is the shorter distance back to the car.
For some reason, children tend to feel more tired and more inclined to whine when returning to the car by doubling back on their tracks on a straight trail. Perhaps knowing they've already been there or recognizing that they are heading back to the car triggers a desire for the hike to be over "now." Whatever it is that causes straight trails to be more mentally and emotionally challenging, it's a good idea to try to hike in a loop when the opportunity presents itself. Having said that, it is important to note that a hike-in/hike-out route can also be fun, since the kids can look for landmarks they remember seeing on their way in.
In addition to the Internet, there are other good resources for finding hiking trails that suit your family. There are books that describe hiking areas in specific geographical regions. (Some hiking books are geared specifically for family hikes.) Nearby nature centers offer their own hiking paths and may also have information on other areas to go hiking. Local hiking clubs have lots of information about trails in the region. Some hiking clubs even offer family hikes as a group activity!
All of My Hiking and Backpacking Articles
- My Hiking and Backpacking Pages
These are my articles related to hiking, backpacking, and other outdoor activities. I am an experienced backpacker and thru-hiker, and now enjoy hiking and camping with my children.
Water and Snacks are a MUST
Bring a sufficient amount of snacks that can be easily carried and eaten on the trail. Keep in mind that you may or may not find a good resting place when the cries of, "I'm hungry!" begin. You may consider bringing along a small picnic blanket to use while you take a break.
Fruit that is carefully packed to avoid bruising is a good choice to take on a hike. Other excellent options include sandwiches, trail mix, carrots, celery, and homemade or store-bought nutrition bars. Don't forget to bring a bag for food trash. Any trash, including food scraps, absolutely must be packed out.
It is critical to have enough water while hiking. A lot of body fluid is lost through sweat, particularly on strenuous hikes or in hot weather. Make sure everyone is hydrated prior to the hike and that each person has a water bottle to bring along. Do not drink untreated water from sources encountered on the trail, due to risk of contamination and illness.
Be sure to have cool water in an insulated container in the car for after your hike. Bear in mind that heat can be damaging to plastic containers, which can leach chemicals. Do not allow plastic water or food containers to become overheated in the car; make sure they are stored in coolers with ice packs if the weather is warm. (You can also choose non-plastic water containers!)
When choosing water bottles for yourself or your children, please select stainless steel or BPA-free models!
The straw makes it easier for younger kids to stay hydrated. Be sure to clean the straw well to prevent "gunk" from building up!
Stainless steel is now considered "the way to go" by many who are concerned about plastic food containers leaching chemicals, particularly when the containers get hot.
Keep in mind that everyone - adults and kids alike - can get grumpy when they're dehydrated, hungry, or tired.
Don't be surprised if you encounter some moodiness during or after the hike, and do your best to make sure that physical needs are being met!
Dress for Success
Everyone should wear comfortable, rugged shoes that can get dirty. Sneakers are generally fine, though some people prefer hiking boots. Lightweight long pants should be worn if there is a concern about deer ticks or poison ivy. (Thoroughly check for ticks once you are back at your car or at home if you are hiking in an area that may have ticks.)
If the weather is a bit cool or outright cold, dress in layers. Layering clothes helps to insulate warmth and also allows sweaty hikers to cool off by removing layers as necessary. It is best to wear synthetic materials rather than cotton, since cotton does not maintain heat if it gets wet as a result of sweat, rain, or slipping into a creek. Wear hats and gloves if necessary. Remember that a child in a stroller or carrier will not feel as warm as you, since they won't be generating extra body heat by hiking themselves.
I always keep a change of clean, dry clothes and shoes or sandals waiting for everyone in the car, along with bags for dirty clothes and shoes. After a good hike, feet can be sweaty, especially if they've been in shoes that don't breathe well. It's important to allow feet to air out in order to prevent damage from moisture. Dusting the feet with cornstarch baby powder helps to dry the feet and remove foot odor!
Other Important Supplies
There are other items you may need on your hike. If it's summer weather, everyone should be given an application of sunscreen 30 minutes prior to sun exposure. Insect repellent may be necessary, but do not apply anything with DEET to children. (It is dangerous to adults as well.) Look for more natural insect repellents, which are safer for people and the environment.
Sanitizing hand wipes are important for quick clean-ups before snacks or after going to the bathroom or changing a diaper. Bandannas or baby washcloths are great to have along for cleaning up dirt, wiping noses, and drying sweaty foreheads.
Pack a basic first-aid kit. This should include bandages, gauze, adhesive tape, hydrocortisone, antibiotic ointment or spray, an ace bandage, tweezers, and a tick remover tool. You may also want to bring along information about how to treat medical conditions you are more likely to encounter, such as choking, sprains, and cuts. Include other items in your first-aid kit that are specific to your needs, such as allergy medicine, asthma inhaler, eyeglass cleaning wipes, or EpiPen.
A small "bathroom bag" should contain toilet paper, plastic bags for trash (zip-style sandwich bags work well for this), and hand sanitizer. Of course you'll also take diapering supplies (including a small pad for the child to lie on) if any of your children are in diapers. Please note that all toilet paper and baby wipes used on your hike must be packed out or placed in a trash can. These items should never be buried in the ground, burned, or otherwise left outside.
It is important to try and bring whatever is truly necessary and important while not over-packing. Carrying too much gear can lead to a miserable hike and leave you more prone to injury.
This is the insect repellent I usually get, though there are other excellent DEET-free products available.
Small, soft baby washcloths come in handy on the trail. We use them for wiping noses, cleaning scrapes, and dipping them in streams to cool us off.
Know Where You Are
If there is one available, take a map of your hiking route. If you are concerned about finding your way back to the car, bring a handheld GPS device if you have one.
These days a mobile phone is considered to be a good piece of equipment to have on a hike in order to contact hiking partners that become separated or to call for emergency help if necessary. (And these may have their own GPS apps.) Of course, there are still areas where mobile phones do not have service, so your phone may or may not work on the trail.
While not really necessary for typical family hikes, you may want to bring a compass along. Kids often like looking at a compass and figuring out which way is north. If you have an orienteering compass and a map, older kids may be intrigued by learning the basics of orienteering. Some parks have orienteering trails, which add another layer of fun and excitement to a basic family hike.
With any kind of hike, it is a standard safety precaution to let others know where you will be going. That way, if you encounter unforeseen difficulties, someone will be able to notify local authorities.
Making It a Child-Centered Hike - The REAL Secret to Successful Hiking with Children
Knowing where to go and what to bring are clearly important. But understanding that hiking with children is much different than hiking with adults is the key to making this a truly fun experience for everyone!
Adults tend to think about hiking in terms of time, distance, geography, and nice views. We consider our rate of speed, our next landmark, and reading the map. Kids, on the other hand, like dirt and sticks and bugs! They may spend a half-hour totally enthralled by tossing rocks and sticks into a body of water. They may suddenly become bored, tired, or hungry at any point on the hike.
Honoring the children's pace and their wonder of the world around them will allow them to deeply enjoy the experience of hiking. If they feel they are being dragged around without being allowed to explore, they may not look forward to hiking again.
While it may be necessary move the children along at various times during the hike, it shouldn't feel like too much nagging. If this means traveling a shorter distance than our adult ambitions would like, then so be it.
Take frequent snack and water breaks to prevent or alleviate exhaustion and boredom. Think of fun and engaging activities to help the kids enjoy nature and distract from tiredness. You may want to bring along some paper and crayons to do leaf rubbings. Play "I Spy" to help notice details in the landscape. Ask them about weather conditions as another way of observing nature. Talk about different animals or plants. Sing songs. Try skipping, taking tiny steps, giant steps, and walking backward. Take pictures. Create a scrapbook of family hiking adventures.
Enjoy Hiking as a Family
These will soon become cherished memories
Hiking with children is a fantastic opportunity to bond as a family while appreciating nature and getting good exercise.
Sensible planning and focusing on the children's needs and delights make hiking as a family an amazing experience that will create fond memories for everyone to treasure for years to come.