My kids & I love to hike. Or maybe, I love to hike & I drag my kids with me?? Ha! Either way, I’ve read a ton of research on the benefits of having kids out in nature & I’m going to make sure mine are out there. We are raising kids in a culture where they are inside more than they are out, they’re sitting still more & I really believe that my kids deserve better. But, how do you get them out there???
Hiking was one of the things I always did as a kid with my parents, but I was still completely overwhelmed the first time I ever loaded my 3 kids & the dog up for a hike all by myself. What did I need to take? How far of a distance could they go? Was it safe? All of that was running through my mind, but I was so determined to get us out there, I went for it. And y’all, it was the best day ever! And now that we are day hiking pros, I’m back into research mode on how to be a backpacker with kids!
What are my best tips for day hiking with kids?
1. Plan the trail before you ever leave the house.
- This serves a twofold purpose. One, it keeps you safe. I use the All Trails App to check out reviews, photos, mileage, & maps of the trail before I ever go out there. I want a pretty clear idea of where I’m going before my feet touch the dirt. This allows me to know beforehand where to stop for snacks on the trail with the kids for when they start telling me they’re tired, I can remind them there is a stop coming up soon so we can all play & eat. This usually gets them going again.
- While I enjoy walking in the woods for the peace & the serenity, my kids can get bored with it after a while. Most of the trails I take the kids on have a waterfall, a stop at a lake for playing or fishing, an overlook, something exciting I can tell them we are going to stop & eat. That usually will get my kids going again if they’re not feeling motivated.
2. Prep for the trip.
- I can’t do anything last minute with kids. So if I have the itch to get out in the woods, it’s something I have to have been thinking about beforehand. I will make sure the food is ready to go the night before or if it’s a smaller afternoon hike, I will make arrangements to have it ready before we leave. This way I can grab & go with all my stuff the day of & not have to worry about it. Not having it semi-planned out has led to me not being able to go more times than I can count. I got tired of learning that the hard way!
3. Have the right clothing.
- You will want to make sure you have right clothes. This may seem obvious to some, but layering is your best bet! In the summer months, we don’t usually have to worry about layers in Arkansas, it’s always hot! But the rest of the year, layers are important. Long sleeves, a hat, gloves, & a light jacket go a long way in spring & fall. Make sure the shoes they’re wearing are trail appropriate too.
- I always pack an extra change of socks, shoes, & clothes to leave in the car in the warmer months since the majority of the trails we go on have water. And my kids always get wet.
4. Bribe them with fun snacks.
- One of the things I picked up on pretty quick while I was out in the woods with my tiny humans is that FOOD is a necessity. For the type of day hiking we do, we obviously don’t need actual meals, but snacks & fluids are super important. For hiking, we take the fun food. Fruit snacks. Capri Suns. Sports drinks. Chocolate chip granola bars. The things they aren’t allowed to eat on a daily basis. And when they start melting down on the trail I remind them about the fun snacks & how we’re going to take a rest in a bit. Here’s a good example, last weekend I had a trail I wanted to hike, but it was an hour away plus a longer hike than my youngest had done. So we stopped at the store & I let them pick out candy that they never get to have regularly & they weren’t allowed to eat it until we got to the trail. It was the perfect way to get them up that mountain!
- If I know that we are going to have a longer hike than usual & they are going to be hungry for an actual meal, I will have stuff to make sandwiches in the car either before we start or when we are done. It just depends on the time I have planned to spend out there. Or, I treat them to drive thru on our way home. We aren’t usually in super remote areas, yet.
5. Start small & build from there.
- I have a tendency to be very all or nothing. I want to do the 10 mile hike, be in the woods all day & have this complete outdoor experience. BUT, kids don’t really appreciate that plan. Especially if they aren’t accustomed to being out there. So we started with a 1.4 mile hike for the very first time. We played out there for almost 2 hours & it was the best. We stopped at the lake, we skipped rocks, climbed on the bluff, & explored. Now, my youngest (3 years old) can walk about 3 miles & my older 2 (9 & 6) can go about 5 miles before they’re absolutely done. We are able to add more mileage every time we go!
6. Bring your best attitude.
- Chances are, one or more of your kids is going to meltdown. Or get frustrated. Or fall down. Or just be plain ready to stop. I have to work really hard to set my mood, cause when I’m carrying a kid on my back plus hauling in water & snacks, & have a dog on the leash, it can be easy to quit. I have one particular kid who typically doesn’t want to be there & when I’m tired on a weekend from a full week, it’s hard to get the momentum to keep going. But, once we’ve been there & we’re back in the car to leave, the kid that didn’t want to be there is usually the first say it was the best day ever.
- I also have to remind myself that sometimes, the hike isn’t going to work. I will have wanted to do a certain distance & might have to stop a few miles in or take more breaks than I had anticipated. I can get really focused on the destination or getting in the entire trail & not be focused on the experience. Kids are wonderful teachers of patience & mine have taught me a lot. Ha!
7. Take breaks.
- Remember how I said I can have an all or nothing attitude??? I have to constantly remind myself that breaks are OK to take, especially when you have little people with you. Taking enough breaks can determine if the hike is going to be successful or not! My problem is I have 3 kids with different mindsets on how many breaks to take. My oldest needs them less, my middle one is always wanting more & the youngest likes to switch back & forth between the carrier & walking.
8. Be encouraging!
- I want my kids to know that it’s just fine to get dirty, to feel tired, frustrated, with the elements while we are out. It’s natural & it’s a wonderful lesson in life, WE.CAN.DO.HARD.THINGS. And there are rewards in life from taking on hard things! There is no prouder moment as a parent than watching your young child be proud of themselves because they can literally climb mountains. I am constantly letting my kids know I think they are doing an awesome job while we are out there, I want them to hear it, know they’re doing a good job & be ready to go again!
9. Distract them.
- A parent can sense when their kids are going to start complaining, am I right??? One of the things I do with my youngest when we are out just to 2 of us is I start pointing out different shapes of tree bark, leaves & I get him to tell me what he sees while he’s riding behind me. He loves to grab on to tree trunks & tell me the differences in size. I do these types of things with my older two as well (less now with my 9 year old, he’s pretty self-sufficient.)
- I also let the kids take turns leading the hike & they have a song they sing (they made it up) about following the leader. It’s super cute to watch, but getting to be in charge & show everyone where to go is a lot of fun.
- My oldest LOVES to make a scavenger hunt list before we leave, have me type it up & print a copy for each kid. While we are hiking we look for all the things on the list & they have a blast! When we don’t make our own we have used these before: Hiking Scavenger Hunt Printable and we have used this one: Love the Outdoors.
10. Keep it simple or you won’t ever go back!
- Don’t get caught up on having the right “gear” or get yourself overwhelmed because you don’t think you have what you need. You probably have everything at your disposal for a day hike. All you need is a backpack (when I don’t have the youngest kid on my back in a carrier, I use a simple backpack from Target that I bought YEARS ago), plenty of fluids, toss in first aid items, some snacks, a can do it attitude, & you’re ready to go. If I can do this, you can too!
If you would like to see exactly what is in my bag, refer to this post:
What are your best tips for hiking with kids? Or if you haven’t been before, what’s your biggest question about getting started??