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Hiking with Children:
How To Make Time For It

By Diane Spicer

Hiking with children is a trip down memory lane for me.

As a lifelong hiker, I had high hopes that my babies would literally follow in my footsteps. Hiking with offspring was going to be a no-brainer for me, a first time mom!

And for several blissful years postpartum, it was a dream come true: my first toddler, then my second, enjoyed hiking to fairly ambitious destinations around Mt. Rainier. Hiking with children seemed easy!

So I consider myself a somewhat reliable source for tips for how to gear up and enjoy hiking kids.

Full disclosure: Neither of my offspring hike any more. And I have some theories about why, which you can learn from if you're just starting out hiking with children.

Here are some essentials for parents interested in introducing their children to trail time.

Hiking with children takes planning

There are guidebooks and websites available for advice on kid-friendly hikes in your area, or at least for similar terrain.

Use them!

For example, Hike Like A Woman has a book entitled How To Hike With Kids.

You need to know the elevation gain/loss, distance, and topography of your intended hike before ever leaving for the trail head.

The best scenario is to first hike the trail without the kids, to scout any potential hazards, buzz kills, or tantalizing teasers you can use to motivate the kids:

  • "A waterfall you can walk into!"
  • "A mud hole with coyote tracks around it."
  • "A dead skunk!" (Hey, it's science.)

Hiking with children may force you into creativity you never knew you had. Or should I call it "salesmanship"?

You don't want to be that weary parent carrying a tuckered out toddler down a too-steep trail, or worse yet, the parent nipping at the heels of a cranky kid who doesn't want to take one more step.

Hiking with children demands patience, and you'd better be ready to keep it coming before, during, and after the hike.

Start out your hiking indoctrination (the first hike, in other words) with a benign trail: flat, short, with a great destination.

Allow plenty of "dinking around" time on the trail, and at the lake or meadow you are aiming for. Kids don't give a hoot about killer views, they want to strip off boots and socks and get in a little hydrotherapy before heading back to the car.

Diversity on the way in helps, too.

Find a trail that mixes it up a little:

  • starts out in a boulder field,
  • enters a deep dark primeval forest with lots of pine cones and mushrooms to look at,
  • then bursts out into a sunny meadow.

You can make up stories for each phase of the journey, or play "I'm thinking of something red", or point out pretend dragons, elves, or mysterious objects off-trail.

Kids are always eager to make things into a big adventure. That's one of the fascinating things about hiking with children.

Hiking with children takes you into the forest in an entirely new way, with a view of the mountains that can be appreciated through their eyes.Hiking with children exposes both of you to a whole new world.

Encouragement goes a long way

ENCOURAGEMENT: Here's where my parenting skills fell short.

I took it for granted that my DNA would be expressed perfectly in my children. I love to hike, so they will as well, right?


I missed so many of the natural opportunities to encourage a budding interest in nature and exploration, because I just assumed they were thinking what I was thinking: "Wow, isn't that plant cool? Wasn't that bird call intriguing?"

Sure, we went to museums and wildlife programs, we read Ranger Rick, we went camping, we watched nature shows on TV (remember "Wild America"?), we collected rocks and bugs.

But I'm left with the haunting feeling that somehow I failed to encourage my children to love trail time as much as I do.

I didn't plant enough hiking seeds to harvest in the teen years.

  • My daughter flat out refused to hike when she hit elementary school.
  • My son never hiked again after a week-long backpacking trip when he was 13.

Where did I go wrong?

My dreams of hiking with children withered on the vine for reasons I still can't put my finger on.

My heartfelt advice to parents of toddlers: Encourage every single innate flicker of interest in the outdoors your kids exhibit, even if it's only with a passing word of agreement.

  • Let them see you pouring over field guides, trying out new gear, looking at hiking destinations on maps.
  • Talk with them about destinations you just can't wait to take them to when they get a little stronger and bigger.
  • Pick up on budding interests in geology, botany, birds, whatever they ask questions about.

But of course, don't go overboard. Sometimes a passing curiosity is just that: passing.

Reinforce your hiking kids' behavior

Avoid the cheerleader syndrome like the plague: "Mommy is SO proud of her little hiker."

Kids see through insincerity in a heartbeat.

A better approach might be to give positive feedback at every rest stop: "I'm glad to see that your hiking boots are comfortable. You're stepping over all of those big rocks in the trail just like mommy does."

Some kids need very specific feedback, while others can get by on general comments about how much fun it is to be outside together.

  • My daughter needed frequent reinforcement, including snacks and hugs, to keep going on the trail after just 10 minutes.
  • My son, on the other hand, was internally motivated to see what was ahead, and rarely needed to be reinforced.

Read your child for signs of loss of interest: whining for a drink of water might be about more than thirst.

Distraction can work sometimes when hiking with children (adults, too, but that's a different story!).

Carry small distractors in an easy-to-reach pocket:

  • a lightweight plastic hand lens for getting a close-up of a beetle,
  • several green paint chips from the local hardware store for a quick leaf scavenger hunt (who can find the most leaves that match these colors?), or
  • a unique snack that no one had ever tried before (Snackimals or other cool shapes).

Stay flexible when
hiking with children

Closeup of bright green moss

Mom wants to get to the viewpoint, junior wants to take a really close look at a mossy log.

Who wins?

Give in gracefully! It's not about the viewpoint, it's about teaching your child how much fun being outdoors, and hiking, can be.

If it IS about the viewpoint, come back later and check it out at a faster adult pace.

This was a hard lesson for me (a trail overachiever) to learn. Outdoor time is precious, and has to be carved out of busy schedules.

But think long term: You are planting seeds for later harvest, and sometimes you have to give up your internal "achiever" dialog to plant those seeds.

Keep an open mind. Your child looks at the trail with beginners eyes. You will be delighted by what your child fixates on:

  • tiny mushrooms,
  • bright red mites,
  • fern spores.

Let your child be your teacher.

And when you're asked a question you don't know the answer to, take your child to the library or bookstore and find the answers together.

Who knows what else you might find during your info quest? It could be the start of a lifelong passion (possibly a career) for your child.

Your hiking pace needs to be flexible, too.

My kids went through antsy phases, where walking up a trail was almost physically painful.

  • Here's where a grassy, flat trail through a nature preserve might be just the ticket: let them run without fear of falling off a cliff.
  • And some days you just feel like going S-L-O-W!

Hiking gear you'll need

Another important consideration!

I always had my kids wear fanny packs with 2 pockets: one for snacks, one for treasures found along the trail.

  • One pocket emptied out while the other filled up. What fun it was to examine the hiking treasures when we got home!

Safe and trail friendly snacks should not be wet or gooey. You don't want to spend time washing them off, or flinging them into the brush (please don't leave half-eaten apple slices or candy wrappers on the trail - that's just plain wrong).

My kid's favorites: raisins, goldfish crackers, soft chewy fruit flavored candy.... yes, all hard on dental enamel, but that's what toothbrushes are for.

Maybe a picnic lunch is just the enticement your child needs to get out on the trail!

Just be careful to avoid choking hazards when hiking with children: small grapes, round candies like Skittles, anything that could lodge in the throat if the child trips and falls, or tries to talk with a mouthful.

And be sure you're current on the Heimlich maneuver. No joke! I had to use it on my son once.

Individual water bottles are a nice touch when hiking with children. Color code them, or paint names on them like I did.

Carry hand wipes. You know why!

Changes of clothing absolutely must be in your backpack.  I gave up trying to keep feet dry and knees clean. Why fight it?

Hiking with children prevents Nature Deficit Disorder

Have you heard of Nature Deficit Disorder?

Richard Louv first used this term in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods.

The term refers to a recent change in the amount of interaction our children have with nature. So when you spend time hiking with children, you're doing future generations a big favor.

Today's kids spend way more time indoors than outdoors.


Several reasons.

  • Most adults perceive Nature as dangerous and unpredictable at worst, or dirty and unfriendly at the least. Why would any responsible parent put their children in harm's way?
  • Our children lead highly structured lives, moving from one indoor activity to the next without much interaction with dirt, grass, the weather, or wildlife.

Take a look around where you live, work, or go to school: How much natural space is left, and how frequently do your kids interact with it?

How many birds do you see in a day?

When was the last time you let your kids get wet, muddy, or grass stained?

Have you seen the stars or the moon recently?

And please don't ignore the massive influence of multi-media exposure on your children's development.

  • Cell phones, computers, video games, TV, social media...all are distracting your child and encouraging a mentally constructed, highly manipulated world to be seen as normal.

It's easy to ignore changing seasons and weather when you're sucked into cyberspace.

But don't let it happen to your kids!

Louv's book highlights these mental dangers, as well as physical ones: childhood obesity, depression, attention disorders.

His website is a great source of ideas and resources to get your kids more involved with the outdoors. I highly recommend it.

Beaver tooth marks on a logWhen you are hiking with children, your slower pace allows you to spot the coolest stuff, like this beaver-gnawed tree.

Hiking with children -
five ideas to get started

Here are five ideas to get your children outside and interacting with Nature before you plan a major event around hiking.

1. Go on a bug hunt for pill bugs, caterpillars, ants, whatever is on the nearest sidewalk or bush. Kids love insects! They have to be taught words like "yucky" or "gross" in connection with insects, and you can set the scene for positive interactions with Nature by modeling curiosity and exploration.

2. Did you have a tree house or fort when you were a kid? I did, and my kids didn't (another regret). Let them drag a card table out onto the lawn and throw a blanket over it, at the very least. Hiking with children might mean a hike around the backyard!

3. Look at the moon through binoculars. Work up to looking at smaller, moving targets like birds.

4. Invite a buddy over for a "nature stroll" before you go on your first hike. See how your child reacts to the idea of walking and getting to a destination. Making it a social experience might distract from walking discomforts: tired feet, sweaty neck, sore legs.

5. Eugene Buchanan's book is a treasure trove of ideas, entitled Outdoor Parents, Outdoor Kids.

  • One chapter specifically covers hiking with children, but the entire book is geared toward sneaking in outdoor time whenever possible.

Keep their enthusiasm for the outdoors strong and active

Take every opportunity to get outdoors with your children.

Give them hiking oriented gifts, using these ideas to get a gift list started.

Enroll them in outdoor programs and classes, some of which are offered free at parks and hiking gear companies.

The years flow by swiftly, so make a conscious decision to enjoy hiking with children.

And there's always the grandkids, right?

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Hiking With Children