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Hiking with Children

Updated on November 24, 2014
Hiking with my then-one-year-old in a backpack baby carrier.
Hiking with my then-one-year-old in a backpack baby carrier.

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.

Stroller-friendly hike when my sons were 4 and 1. Make sure to bundle kids up if they're in a stroller, since they're not creating body heat by walking or running!
Stroller-friendly hike when my sons were 4 and 1. Make sure to bundle kids up if they're in a stroller, since they're not creating body heat by walking or running!

Stroller-Friendly Hikes

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.

Enjoying a hike on a groomed trail close to home. Here my sons are 9 and 6 years old.
Enjoying a hike on a groomed trail close to home. Here my sons are 9 and 6 years old.

Groomed Trails

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.

Walking in the woods with my little guy in a secure carrier.
Walking in the woods with my little guy in a secure carrier.

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.

Kelty Tour 1.0 Child Carrier (Rio Red)
Kelty Tour 1.0 Child Carrier (Rio Red)

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.

 
Hiking at a local state park.
Hiking at a local state park.

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!

Water and Snacks are a MUST

A happy, well-fed boy on a family hike.
A happy, well-fed boy on a family hike.

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!)

Water Bottles

When choosing water bottles for yourself or your children, please select stainless steel or BPA-free models!

Contigo Autospout Straw Kids Striker Water Bottle, Blue
Contigo Autospout Straw Kids Striker Water Bottle, Blue

The straw makes it easier for younger kids to stay hydrated. Be sure to clean the straw well to prevent "gunk" from building up!

 
Cheeki 500ml 17oz Stainless Steel Water Bottle - Sports Balls - BPA Free
Cheeki 500ml 17oz Stainless Steel Water Bottle - Sports Balls - BPA Free

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!

My boys were 7 and 4 when we went on this day hike.
My boys were 7 and 4 when we went on this day hike.

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!

Here is my older son, then 4 years old, on a hike at a nearby nature center.
Here is my older son, then 4 years old, on a hike at a nearby nature center.

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.

All Terrain Kids Herbal Armor DEET-Free Natural Insect Repellent Spray, 4-Ounce
All Terrain Kids Herbal Armor DEET-Free Natural Insect Repellent Spray, 4-Ounce

This is the insect repellent I usually get, though there are other excellent DEET-free products available.

 
Spasilk 10 pack Soft Terry Washcloth, Yellow
Spasilk 10 pack Soft Terry Washcloth, Yellow

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.

 
Map and Compass
Map and Compass

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

Taking a LONG break to play and explore by the creek.
Taking a LONG break to play and explore by the creek.

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.

A hike with extended family at a state park. My sons were 5 and 2 at the time.
A hike with extended family at a state park. My sons were 5 and 2 at the time.

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.

Your Comments Are Welcome!

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    • Pat Goltz profile image

      Pat Goltz 4 years ago

      Very nice lens! It has good information. Most sunscreen contains toxic chemicals, so it would be a good idea to find one that doesn't, and recommend it. People should expose bare skin to the sun for awhile each day to generate Vitamin D. Sunscreen prevents this. It may be good to put on sunscreen after 15 minutes on the trail.

    • weakbond profile image

      Nnadi bonaventure Chima 4 years ago from Johanesburg

      Great lens for family bonding . I really love it . Thanks for sharing

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      I know my kids sure love the rock throwing! They do it whenever we go swimming, walking in the woods, in the driveway...

      Baby powder is a life saver when it comes to your feet. I use it in my golf shoes before a round of golf. And often after as well. It can help keep your feet dry in damp conditions.

    • Valerie Bloom profile image
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      Valerie Bloom 4 years ago from Pennsylvania, USA

      @ohcaroline: Thanks for stopping by! I'm glad you liked the article.

    • profile image

      ohcaroline 4 years ago

      I truly enjoyed your lens. I really like to hike. Hope to get to do more in the future.

    • krior76 profile image

      krior76 4 years ago

      Very nice lens :-) hiking and camping is such a nice bonding with family.

    • Julia Morais profile image

      Julia Morais 4 years ago

      I went hiking once with my niece and nephew. I plan to do it again. Great tips here to help me prepare better for our next hike.

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      Great info. As a dad that has found an almost eight years old boy and a six year old boy, this is very useful. Thanks!

    • Mercy Girl No9 profile image

      Mercy Girl No9 4 years ago

      I always love hiking as a child and am passing this on to my kids. Also like other outdoor activities as well. In a month or so, we are going to try tubing down a river; it will be my autistic son's first time and I think he will enjoy it.

    • BunnyFabulous profile image

      BunnyFabulous 4 years ago from Central Florida

      fantastic lens! Thanks for sharing all your helpful tips. Easy to tell that you and your boys are expert hikers. :)

    • Bercton1 profile image

      Bercton1 4 years ago

      Congratulations on LOTD! Very creative lens.

    • JamesXavier LM profile image

      JamesXavier LM 4 years ago

      Congrats on LOTD, had fun skimming your lens!

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      Great informative lens!

    • Valerie Bloom profile image
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      Valerie Bloom 4 years ago from Pennsylvania, USA

      @MrAusAdventure: Yes, I've definitely tried to go on overly difficult outings, too! Oh well -- live and learn, right?

    • MrAusAdventure profile image

      Bill 4 years ago from Gold Coast, Australia

      Congrats on LOTD! :-) Hiking with my kids certainly evolved over time as they have grown. I now do some pretty extreme walks with my daughter but we used to do the stroller friendly ones, easy short ones with something fun for them to play in along the way when they were younger. I also got too ambitious many times and did walks that were way beyond them so ended up having to carry them on my shoulders or back endless times on hikes too. Great Lens! Well Done :-)

    • DrBillSmithWriter profile image

      William Leverne Smith 4 years ago from Hollister, MO

      What fun! Very sweet! Thanks for sharing! ;-)

    • Valerie Bloom profile image
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      Valerie Bloom 4 years ago from Pennsylvania, USA

      @anonymous: They sure are! (David is their daddy!)

    • Valerie Bloom profile image
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      Valerie Bloom 4 years ago from Pennsylvania, USA

      @SusanDeppner: Oh, Susan, thanks for your kind words and your ongoing support of the entire Squidoo community!

    • Valerie Bloom profile image
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      Valerie Bloom 4 years ago from Pennsylvania, USA

      @hazeltos: Thank you so much!

    • Valerie Bloom profile image
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      Valerie Bloom 4 years ago from Pennsylvania, USA

      @writerkath: Thank you!

    • Valerie Bloom profile image
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      Valerie Bloom 4 years ago from Pennsylvania, USA

      @KentuckyGal LM: Oh, I hope you do! Even just getting out for short jaunts feels good and creates lots of wonderful memories over time!

    • Valerie Bloom profile image
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      Valerie Bloom 4 years ago from Pennsylvania, USA

      @Rhonda Lytle: Thank you so much! That is really flattering, and I'm so glad you enjoyed it!

    • Valerie Bloom profile image
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      Valerie Bloom 4 years ago from Pennsylvania, USA

      @anonymous: Thanks! I'm glad you enjoyed it!

    • MoneySaver89 profile image

      MoneySaver89 4 years ago

      It looks like you guys had a great camping trip! Thanks for this informative lens.

    • profile image

      Namsak 4 years ago

      Excellent lens on hiking with children. My two grand-daughters are now at the age (9 and 11) when they enjoy longer and more challenging walks in the Scottish hills. It is so rewarding for me to introduce youngsters to the great outdoors and they get a lot of fun out of it too.

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      I enjoyed your lens, loved your family photos, and I appreciate the helpful information on hiking with children. Congratulations on LOTD

    • Rhonda Lytle profile image

      Rhonda Lytle 4 years ago from Deep in the heart of Dixie

      This is one of the best, most comprehensive guides I have seen not only for hiking with kids, but just taking kids out and about in general. Awesome tips! Congratulations on LOTD.

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      Very cool lens. Congratulations on getting LotD! and the Purple Star.

    • LoveLens profile image

      LoveLens 4 years ago

      Nice Picture the first one is really cool!

    • KentuckyGal LM profile image

      KentuckyGal LM 4 years ago

      I'll say here what I posted to FB...that with this info my kids and I may spend more time outside this summer and less time in front of a computer! Congrats on LOTD!

    • writerkath profile image

      writerkath 4 years ago

      Hi Val! Great LotD! Love the photos of your sons, too! I really love how you presented this topic, while offering the "peppering" of nice products to complement the lens. Congratulations on your LotD! :)

    • profile image

      hmommers 4 years ago

      How great, those walks with your kids. Mine is 35 now, so it's a long time ago, but we used similar gear. Congratulations on the LotD!

    • SavioC profile image

      SavioC 4 years ago

      Hi. Congratulations. Very good lens. Your boys are very lucky and am sure they will remember and cherish these treks later on in their lives.

    • PaigSr profile image

      PaigSr 4 years ago from State of Confussion

      Three kids. Understand doing a bit of a walk about. Congrats on the LOTD. Now go have fun with the kids.

    • inagreement1 lm profile image

      inagreement1 lm 4 years ago

      I love hiking ii reminds me of the days when we go on long family hikes together.

    • hazeltos profile image

      Susan Hazelton 4 years ago from Summerfield, Florida

      Excellent lens. I bookmarked it to StumbleUpon. Congrats on being lens of the day.

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      Those are some good looking boys!

    • SusanDeppner profile image

      Susan Deppner 4 years ago from Arkansas USA

      I always enjoy your lenses, vegival, and this is another great one. Congratulations on your awesome Lens of the Day!

    • Valerie Bloom profile image
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      Valerie Bloom 4 years ago from Pennsylvania, USA

      @katiecolette: Thank you so much!

    • Valerie Bloom profile image
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      Valerie Bloom 4 years ago from Pennsylvania, USA

      @Diana Wenzel: I remember being on a hike in the woods some time before I had children of my own and seeing a woman walking with a newborn in a snugli. It made a very powerful impression on me!

    • lbrummer profile image

      Loraine Brummer 4 years ago from Hartington, Nebraska

      Congratulations on LOTD. Great information!!

    • jamesgreenseo lm profile image

      jamesgreenseo lm 4 years ago

      Great lens !

    • Diana Wenzel profile image

      Renaissance Woman 4 years ago from Colorado

      I love that your children have been so immersed in nature right from birth. Your thoughtful article is very much appreciated. Congrats on your feature and awards!

    • katiecolette profile image

      katiecolette 4 years ago

      Family hikes are the best - great way to spend time outdoors and explore nature while taking in its beauty. Your boys are too cute :)

    • Valerie Bloom profile image
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      Valerie Bloom 4 years ago from Pennsylvania, USA

      @LeslieMirror: One thing I like about hiking with my sons is that it's such a pure and simple activity! It's also very inexpensive and calls attention to some of the things that truly matter: spending time together as a family and getting to know nature.

    • LeslieMirror profile image

      LeslieMirror 4 years ago

      Spending your time with kids is such a great fun. I think that nowadays many people are too concerned with their finance and not pay enough attention to their kids.

    • Valerie Bloom profile image
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      Valerie Bloom 4 years ago from Pennsylvania, USA

      @sybil watson: Thank you!

    • Valerie Bloom profile image
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      Valerie Bloom 4 years ago from Pennsylvania, USA

      @SteveKaye: Thank you! I am definitely one who is inclined to keep track of time and distances, so it was a real challenge for me to switch my attitude to make family hikes more pleasant for everyone.

    • Valerie Bloom profile image
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      Valerie Bloom 4 years ago from Pennsylvania, USA

      @kindoak: That's a great way of looking at it! I have sometimes struggled with the child-centered aspect. But once I realize that my attitude needs to be shifted, things always go much better.

    • Valerie Bloom profile image
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      Valerie Bloom 4 years ago from Pennsylvania, USA

      @surfsusan: Thanks!

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      anonymous 4 years ago

      Great information and very well written, I'm a hiker, but not with children, and I still found it very interesting.

    • Rosetta Slone profile image

      Rosetta Slone 4 years ago from Under a coconut tree

      We love hiking with my toddler, although I insist that my husband carries him. They get heavy after a while! Great pics and I love all those tips.

    • GregoryMoore profile image

      Gregory Moore 4 years ago from Louisville, KY

      Our family loves hiking. Lots of fun. Congrats on LOTD!

    • Dressage Husband profile image

      Stephen J Parkin 4 years ago from Pine Grove, Nova Scotia, Canada

      Hiking is fun and a great time to teach kids how to read maps and use a compass!

    • surfsusan profile image

      surfsusan 4 years ago

      Great lens... I agree water, snacks and long breaks are keys to successful hiking w/children. And congrats on LOTD :)

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      bianxiu89 4 years ago

      It very nice.

    • kindoak profile image

      kindoak 4 years ago

      Hiking with kids is a top-10 thing parents should be obligated to do with their children! I like your point about child-centered hike.

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      SteveKaye 4 years ago

      You have found the secret for how adults can enjoy hiking - hike like a child. Rather than try to travel distances, enjoy being outside. Then you'll spend time looking at bugs, listening to birds, and smelling flowers. Congratulations on receiving the LOTD.

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      sybil watson 4 years ago

      You're so right - attitude is everything! You have some fantastic tips here.

    • Mary Crowther profile image

      Mary Crowther 4 years ago from Havre de Grace

      Fun family activities, that's what it's all about!

    • WriterJanis2 profile image

      WriterJanis2 4 years ago

      I've hiked with kids and you have some great tips.

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      anonymous 4 years ago

      Anytime outside with the family is special time. Thanks for sharing!

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      KTPT13 4 years ago

      Looks like lots of fun!