It’s natural to assume having children will limit our explorations as adults. But with planning, persistence, and no small amount of patience, we can teach even very small children how to adventure alongside us. Since our son Caspian was born in late 2016, my husband and I have loved introducing him to hiking and seeing him thrive on the trail. Here are a few tips for successful hiking with young kids, while you’re out traveling the country.
This article was originally published on the Winnebago Life blog in February 2020.
1/ Start Early
The earlier you start hiking with your children, the sooner they’ll understand it’s part of family life–and something fun to do together. Before Caspian was born, we set the goal of having him hike a mile unaided for each year of life. So, when he was one, he hiked one mile. And when he was two, he hiked two miles. We started working on this goal as soon as he started walking, so hiking has been part of his life for longer than he remembers.
But even before Caspian was walking, he was on my back in a carrier during hikes. Our longest hike this way was seven miles and included a diaper change on the top of a mountain!
2/ Start Small
No matter how old your child is, you should strategically choose the length and difficulty of your hikes–just like you would with a gym workout. By starting small and building gradually, the growth will be natural rather than an unpleasant shock.
3/ Put Your Child’s Needs Before Your Goals
The day we set out on what would be Caspian’s first two-mile hike, we weren’t sure he was ready. Before we set foot on the trail, Eric and I told each other we were willing to turn back at any time if Caspian really started flagging.
This concept of putting our child’s needs first can be difficult and even frustrating when we have goals we’d love to meet for ourselves. But when we’re in it for the long haul (wanting to nurture a life-long love for outdoor adventure), sacrifice may be necessary to keep hiking fun for the little ones.
4/ Be Ready to Talk, Teach, and Sing A LOT
There’s no secret sauce. The number one way to make any hike go faster is to distract your child. As a parent, this often takes a tremendous amount of effort, but it’s worth it. Especially when Caspian was one and two, we were constantly singing songs, making up stories, and asking questions about our surroundings.
For example, we would pick an object we could see coming up, like a windmill or unusual tree stump, and ask Caspian to watch for it. Or we would have him create make-believe creatures by asking him questions.
The idea is to teach your young child how to pass the time, in hopes he will use the same strategies as he gets older (without prompting). Once Caspian was three, he often initiated the stories and songs. (Side note: this is also a great strategy for vehicle travel.)
5/ Snacks Are Everything
We use snacks to celebrate Caspian’s milestones, like the half-way mark or even half-mile increments as we approach the end of the trail. A half-mile goes surprisingly quickly when you have a box of raisins or a baby orange to look forward to!
6/ Take Your Junior Ranger Book
When you’re hiking at a national park or other National Park Service unit, don’t forget your Junior Ranger booklet. Many of them include tasks related to hiking trails or just getting out in nature.
Review the booklet in advance to decide which pages you’ll be working on during the hike. This is another way to pass the time, while working towards the goal of a Junior Ranger badge. By the time kids are three, they will often be ready for this program (though some units have more difficult booklets than others).
7/ Keep Hiking Fun
Caspian still believes school is fun, not work or a chore. This is 100 percent because of the way we approach his preschool book and talk about it as a family. The same is true of hiking. I don’t ever want my son to lose the sense of enjoyment that surrounds our time on the trail.
This philosophy means we choose a route that will be most interesting for him, even if we would pick something else for ourselves. Or we choose a shorter hike for the day, even if Caspian has hiked much farther before. Remember, this is a marathon, not a sprint!
8/ After the Hike: Hiking Log
As Caspian approached his third birthday, we started our first “hiking log” in a notebook. It’s a way for us to celebrate our family hikes and remember what we experienced together.
Right now, our log is very simple, but you can expand your own for older children, or customize to your child’s unique interests. So far, our log entries include:
- Time of hike
- Distance of hike
- What animals did we see?
- What animal signs did we see?
- Did you (Caspian) like the hike?
- What did you like?
- Are you tired?
You can see I have fun with it and keep it toddler-oriented. I try to record Caspian’s responses verbatim, since that’s what we’ll love to read when he’s much older…and hiking even farther than me.
You Can Love Hiking With Kids!
It won’t be easy or fun every time. But by starting early and gradually and doing everything you can to create a positive learning environment, you can learn to love hiking with your young kids.
What are your tips for hiking with kids?