Did you know that around the world, 80% of adolescents ages 11-17 don’t get enough exercise? One of the best ways to ensure that your kid grows up with a healthy attitude towards activity and a better awareness of the world around them is to start hiking with them early. Instead of hiking being an adults-only activity, turn hiking into a family affair that will kickstart a kid’s love of the great outdoors.
You don’t have to take your kids on every hike– just because you’re a parent or have kids in your life doesn’t mean you have to give up your trail running or long-distance hiking habits. But if you want to hike as a family, here’s what you need to know.
Getting Kids Ready for Hiking
If your kids have never been hiking before, there’s no time like the present to start! If you’re a hiker, your kids probably already know it. They’re very observant and are probably very curious about your hobby. If you’re also new to hiking, now’s the time to get everybody excited about your family outings. Don’t just say “Kids, get in the car, we’re going hiking!”
Instead, start early. Pick out gear together. Be positive and energetic when you talk about your plans for hiking. Kids can be wary of new activities and changes to their routines, so highlight the fun activities that you’ll do and the wonderful things you’ll see in nature.
Also, if you get them hiking boots or new shoes for hiking, give them a little bit of time to stomp around in them at home and play in the yard while wearing them. Let them break in their new shoes before you hit the trail– otherwise, you might end up in Blister City, and nobody wants to go there.
How Young Is Too Young?
You might look at your kindergartener’s short legs (and just perhaps, their short attention span) and wonder if hiking is really an activity they’ll enjoy. But even the youngest kids can enjoy a good hike– you can even hike with babies! And by the time they’re in kindergarten, kids are likely to have outgrown the stroller and are ready to walk.
Once kids are around 4 to 5, their schedules aren’t dictated by their need to nap. They need to eat less frequently, and can do so independently– no more worrying about the bottle. They can communicate their needs, including bathroom needs. They can walk on their own and are developing endurance. (However, for younger kids, you may still want to bring a utility wagon, just in case they get tired too fast.) Whereas hiking with babies is all about managing their needs, hiking with older kids is all about managing everybody’s expectations.
How Far is Too Far?
How far can you hike with kids? The answer varies. If your kids have been hiking from a young age, and you’re on fairly easy, level terrain, they’ll be able to go further than children who are new to hiking. The rule of thumb is that kids can go about ½ mile to a mile for every year of age. Once they hit their tweens, around the age of 10, they can start going on longer hikes. A fit, active teenager can hike just as far as an adult.
Where to Hike With Kids
One of the most amazing things about hiking with kids is that every experience is new to them. Think back to your first hikes. It’s likely that you weren’t thinking about peak bagging or setting distance goals– you probably just wanted to get outside and explore.
That’s where kids’ heads are when it comes to hiking. When they go out into the backcountry, their imaginations run wild. Everything is an adventure, and everything is new. When you hike with them, let yourself experience the trail through their eyes. Hiking with kids can bring new life to an old favorite– perhaps a trail you think you’ve outgrown is just right for your kids.
Kids are also drawn to novelty, and exploring a brand new trail together is also a great idea. Look up the hike’s difficulty before you go, and be honest with yourself about both your and your child’s abilities. If they twisted an ankle and needed to be supported for the rest of the hike, would you be able to help them on difficult terrain? If not, stick to hikes that are a little easier.
There are some places where it’s probably never a good idea to hike with kids. Anything that involves scrambling or even a little bit of climbing is likely to be too technical. This is especially true for kindergarteners and early elementary school hikers. You want to avoid terrain that’s too steep or too slippery. (Some areas rate hikes on a class system, and sticking to class 1 and 2 is advised.)
Be mindful of the weather. Kids have smaller bodies than adults, meaning they dehydrate faster and may be more sensitive to temperature. You might be able to hike in Death Valley, but your five-year-old should not. You also don’t want to expose kids to extremely cold weather– late spring, early summer, and early to mid-fall are usually the best times of year to hike with kids.
Not sure which trail to hike with kids? Check out parenting websites and local hiking groups. The US National Park Service’s main page about hiking with kids doesn’t have too much information, but individual parks’ websites (for example, the Bryce Canyon page on hiking with kids) can be much better and help you find the best hikes to take with kids. You can also use search engines by typing in “best kid friendly hikes in x” – and you’ll find articles like this: https://hikingandfishing.com/easy-hikes-nh/.
Hiking Gear for Kids
Kids who can walk on their own need a lot of the same hiking gear that adults do– just smaller. By the time they’re in elementary school, kids can be responsible enough for their own backpacks. Depending on your child’s height, they can carry a bag between 10 and 20 liters in capacity. They need much of the same gear that an adult hiker does– extra clothes, socks, snacks, an emergency flashlight or headlamp, and water.
Kids should not be responsible for the first aid kit, the GPS, the map, or any of the other 10 Essentials for the group. While it’s great to teach them about survival and emergency preparedness, the responsibility should stay with the adults.
Hiking Shoes for Kids
Children’s hiking boots and shoes are essential to the success of your hike. A well-fitting pair of hiking shoes protect your kids’ feet from injury and blisters,
Here are some key features to look for when choosing kids’ hiking boots or shoes:
- Easy On/Off: How easy will it be for you to get these shoes on your kid? How easy will it be for them to remove the shoe?
- Closure: Velcro, elastic laces, and traditional laces are all common. If you choose traditional laces, make sure to tie them securely so you aren’t stopping every fifty feet because somebody’s boot is untied.
- Comfort: Look for boots that fit snugly, but not too tightly. Keep in mind that kids’ feet grow fast. Check before you go out to make sure that the hiking shoes still fit. Hiking sandals, or trail runners are awesome, but generally we recommend boots first.
- Durability: You don’t want shoes that will fall apart after one use.
- Protection: Look for a reinforced, rubberized toe. We recommend mid to high ankle boots for kids to protect the ankles from rocks and vegetation.
If you’re going to be crossing through water, consider a spare pair of sandals.
Hiking Clothes for Kids
Children’s hiking clothes should follow the same guidelines as adults’ clothing: use the layering system! Kids do get colder faster than adults, so bring an extra flannel, hoodie, or other mid-layer (or an extra jacket). If it’s chilly, bring extra gloves and socks… just in case.
You can get quality outdoor clothing for kids at the same major retailers adult hikers love, like REI, Patagonia, or Columbia. Old Navy often has good seasonal deals on fleece for kids if you need some easy mid-layers, and second-hand or thrift shops are an eco-friendly way to get a great deal on kids’ clothes. Plus, they’ll be so budget-friendly that it won’t matter that your child will probably outgrow them in a season!
Trail Games and Toys
Kids can get bored easily, so liven up their hiking experience with some games and toys that will get them more interested and engaged in the hike.
You don’t have to spend money– or even bring any equipment– for many of these trail activities. I Spy and Twenty Questions are classics that will reward kids for paying attention to their environment. A quick round of Mother May I or Red Light, Green Light can help kids reel in their activity levels if they’re getting too rowdy. Hiking songs can be fun, too– just keep an eye on the volume levels. Kids can be loud!
Education on the trail can be a great tool as well. Wildlife education, survival tips, geography, entomology, the native history, or other topics can be highly engaging.
Trail toys can also help kids engage with the hike. These can include things like:
- Nature journals
- Scavenger hunt cards (or make your own with blank notecards)
- Compact binoculars
- Toy walkie-talkies
- Bug-catching tool (you can also get bug-catching kits but those take up much more room)
- Kid-friendly digital cameras
- Nature bingo
- Crayons and paper to make leaf and bark rubbings
What To Leave at Home
Think twice about bringing favorite toys, especially if those toys are necessary at bedtime. Toys can get dirty, damaged, or even lost on hikes. Stuffed animals in particular are easily dropped by a tired child, and getting mud out of faux fur is a challenge. If your child really wants to bring a beloved stuffed animal, try convincing them to take pictures or make drawings of what they see to show the toy when they get back– and leave Mr. Bear in the car, where nothing will happen to him.
If you’re bringing a speaker, make sure that you’re thoughtful about where you play music. Your group might love to listen to tunes while you hike, but you aren’t the only people on the trail. Lots of people hike to get away from loud noises, and your music might really impact their hiking experience.
Hiking Snacks for Kids
Kids love snacks, and they need plenty of calories to sustain their growing bodies as they hike. There are lots of good hiking snacks for kids, and you should pack a variety!
Snack choice is another way kids can help plan the hike. Ask for their input and let them pack some of their favorites. And don’t be afraid to bring some extra treats, too! A little treat or surprise can be a fun reward and make your kid’s trail lunch even more special.
Trail Tips with Kids
Ready to hit the trail with the whole family in tow? Here are some of the key tips for hiking with kids that you should know before you go.
Respect Other Hikers
Teach kids early that they have to share the trail with other hikers. This means following Leave No Trace principles, but also making sure not to kick over cairns, to pay attention to all trail signs, and to be mindful of noise. Educate them about how important it is to stay on the trail to protect other areas from erosion.
When you meet other hikers on the trail, practice good trail etiquette. Step to the side to let faster hikers pass, and don’t be afraid to say hi together. When the trail narrows or in areas with limited visibility, encourage kids to hike in a single-file line to allow others to pass safely.
Kids aren’t intuitively aware of the dangers that wild animals can pose… or that they can pose to wildlife! Explain to kids that it’s best for wild animals to remain wild, and that we can help them by not feeding them or bothering them.
Discourage your kids from chasing wildlife, especially birds on the ground who are likely feeding or nesting. Teach them that even small animals shouldn’t be approached, and let them know that it can be dangerous to approach larger animals.
If you live in areas with dangerous animals, make sure kids know what to do if they see a bear or a mountain lion. Make sure they know what these animals look and sound like, and have them practice backing up and not running.
Kids are naturally interested in animals, and engaging with fauna at a safe distance can be deeply rewarding. Let kids handle binoculars and use field guides to identify the birds they see. Encourage them to look carefully for small animals like reptiles, amphibians, and bugs. Help them find tracks and identify scat or evidence of feeding.
There’s more to nature, too! Kids are interested in plants and rocks, too, so it helps to have a basic field guide to what you might find on your hike. If you don’t want to carry one with you, encourage your kids to take pictures. An inexpensive, durable digital camera is a great way to let kids document their hikes without giving them a phone.
If you’re taking kids hiking, help them avoid injury by teaching them how to recognize hazards. Even little kids can learn to identify common toxic plants like poison ivy and stinging nettles. Explain why things are threats– don’t just say “don’t touch.” “Don’t touch–you’ll get an itchy rash” explains why they shouldn’t touch.
To get them excited to go outside, and to help teach them about outdoor safety, check YouTube for some good outdoor kid safety tips. Yes, it’s a little more screen time– but if it gets them to pay attention to safety instructions, it’s worth it.
Keep Your Cool
Of course, be prepared for them to touch anyways. Maybe they’ll forget, or they’ll get too excited, or they’ll want to test boundaries. Or all of the above! If your kids get minor injuries– scrapes, bruises, stings, bites, or yes, poison ivy (that isn’t in their mouth or eyes), don’t panic. Use calm, gentle words and tone of voice. The more panicked you are, the more panicked they’ll be. Make sure you’re up to date on your first aid skills, and remember: Kids are resilient. Learning how to cope with minor setbacks like a scraped knee
Check In and Listen
If you’re hiking, and your child says that their feet hurt, stop and let them rest. Check in with them– make sure they’re not getting a blister. If they are, deal with it as best as you can– use moleskin from the first aid kit, re-tie their shoes, let them change into dry socks, or do whatever else they might need. Yes, sometimes kids complain because they are tired or bored– but take them seriously when they are saying that they hurt.
Encourage them to speak up when they need a break, and try not to get frustrated if this means your group has an even slower pace. You want them to enjoy the experience, and they can’t do that if they’re not at least somewhat comfortable.
Practice Emergency Situations
Talk openly with your kids about what to do if an emergency occurs on the trail. Make sure they know how to dial 911 (or how to operate a satellite messenger). Tell them what to do if they get lost or separated from the group. Teach them how to identify helpful adults like park rangers and what local emergency services look like.
You should also make sure that your kids have emergency equipment in case they get lost. They should always have a flashlight or headlamp that they know how to use, in case it gets dark. They should have an emergency whistle (and should know to blow it frequently if they get separated). You can even leave a note pinned in their backpacks (or to the back of their clothing) with your phone number on it.
Nobody wants to think about emergencies– but if you don’t prepare for them, the outcomes can be worse. Don’t catastrophize– try to stay calm as you talk these things through with your kids. It will be less scary for them and far easier for you.
Hiking with Tweens and Early Teens
As your kids grow up and continue to enjoy hiking, you should make sure that they’re aware of the more advanced survival skills they should know. Kids this age should be able to do almost anything adults can, and may want to try more advanced forms of outdoor recreation, like rock climbing or bouldering. Let your oldest kids help plan hikes– at this age, they’ll have a good understanding of their limits and preferences, so letting them pick trails can be a good idea.
If your older teen is responsible and has a reliable friend or group to go with, consider giving them some freedom while hiking. They can hike ahead or behind the main group to be with their buddies, and you can allow them to plan and go on hikes without constant supervision. Just make sure they have a way to contact you in case of an emergency, and set clear safety boundaries.
Final Thoughts on Hiking With Kids
Hiking with kids is one of the best things you can do with them. It is a great way to encourage independence and resilience. Hiking lets kids learn about trail safety, taking responsibility for themselves, respecting nature, and following trail etiquette. Hiking also helps them develop the physical skills to keep themselves and others safe. And perhaps most importantly, it’s a great way to bond with your kids.
When you go hiking with kids, you’re showing them how to connect with their environment and learn about the world around them. You’re giving them attention and showing them that you value spending quality time together. We hope you’ve been inspired to hit the trail with your family!
Max DesMarais is the founder of hikingandfishing.com. He has a passion for the outdoors and making outdoor education and adventure more accessible. Max is a published author for various outdoor adventure, travel, and marketing websites. He is an experienced hiker, backpacker, fly fisherman, trail runner, and spends his free time in the outdoors. These adventures allow him to test gear, learn new skills, and experience new places so that he can educate others. Max grew up hiking all around New Hampshire and New England. He became obsessed with the New Hampshire mountains, and the NH 48, where he guided hikes and trail runs in the White Mountains. Since moving out west, Max has continued his frequent adventures in the mountains, always testing gear, learning skills, gaining experience, and building his endurance for outdoor sports. You can read more about his experience here: hikingandfishing/about