Hiking has always been one of my favorite ways to get out in nature. When my daughter, who was born prematurely, finally got discharged home from the NICU, I wanted a way to start building movement and outdoor time back into my routine.
So I started hiking nearly every day withe her in a front carrier, her oxygen tank on my back, and our two dogs eagerly trotting alongside. We started small (we’re talking a mile or two at first) and gradually built up to 8-10 mile hikes.
Now, at 4 years old, she’ll tackle over 5-mile challenging hikes on her own two feet and her little brother either toddles along or enjoys a ride in a carrier.
I’ve never subscribed to the idea that you must give up your passions if you have kids, including epic outdoor adventures. Hiking is no exception! Actually, I would argue the joys of appreciating nature with your littles and watching them develop confidence and new skills outweigh the challenges!
Sure, you may need to make modifications and adjust expectations, especially in the beginning, but it is well worth it. Hiking with kids is an excellent way to spend quality time together and get some fresh air and exercise, all of which have proven benefits for health and well-being.
Read on for our 10 best tips for hiking with kids, including gear recommendations.
1. Start with shorter, easier hikes
Whether heading out with a baby in a pack carrier or a child able to hike along, it is a good idea to start with shorter treks to keep it positive and build confidence!
I recommend setting an easily attainable distance for a first venture or making sure there are bail-out points if you choose a longer hiking trail.
You want your kids to develop a positive association with hiking and build a genuine love for it.
How far can kids hike?
This depends on many factors, but a good rule of thumb is a mile per year of age. That said, some kids can do more, especially if you work up to it! As you try longer distances, break up bigger hikes and incorporate lots of snack breaks!
We tend to choose trails based on factors like convenience, recommendations, and landmarks or views. It’s also fun to choose treks with features that play into your kid’s interests like waterfalls or certain animals.
Here are some of my favorite resources for finding family-friendly hiking trails:
- Your local state or national parks page
2. Set realistic expectations
Having the right mindset can make or break an adventure with kids. Here are some important things to remember about hiking with kids:
Embrace the chaos and try not to sweat the small stuff
You’re bound to forget things, messes will happen, tricky weather will happen, and cranky kids and cranky parents will happen. But you get points for trying!
Let go of perfection
Getting hung up on exactly how it “should” go can be a setup for frustration and disappointment. Some outings will inevitably be cut short or involve more whining and tears than you would like, but it gets better and you’ll learn something every time.
Know when to call it
Cultivating grit and pushing little ones to do their best is great, but it’s useful to recognize when today is just not the day and when it’s time to head back. Don’t consider it a failure if you decide to turn around. Every outing is a chance to practice skills and spend time together.
Try not to blame or shame
Instead say something like, “Well, we had a bit of a hard time today and didn’t make it to the top, but that’s ok. We can try again, and maybe we’ll get there next time!”
3. Fuel your kids with lots of snacks and water
You can’t overestimate the importance of having enough snacks and plenty of water.
On our hikes, we try to pack more food and water than we think we’ll need in case the kiddos are extra hungry or the trek is longer than expected!
Some of my favorite kid-friendly snacks include:
Read next: Need some snack ideas? Here are our favorite hiking snacks for your next outdoor adventure.
4. Offer choices and let the kids lead
Don’t forget, hiking is not just about attaining a certain distance or getting to a destination, but the joy of the journey.
Kids are naturally curious and want to explore their surroundings. Instead of rushing them all the time, follow their lead.
Slowing down and enjoying the details may mean you don’t get as far, but the rewards of connecting with your child and building their love for nature will be well worth it.
Letting even young kids play an active role and offering choices can help them feel empowered and boost their confidence!
Try these tips:
Let them help pack
They can help pick out their hiking outfit and what snacks they want to bring (within reason.)
Let them lead and play follow the leader as they navigate the trail!
You may need to offer guidelines like staying on the trail, not stomping plants, and you can always redirect them if they wander off too far.
5. Keep it positive and offer motivation
Kids have bad days like the rest of us, but we can help set the tone by keeping things positive and upbeat.
Here are a few ways to keep kids motivated while hiking:
Help them feel ready by telling them what to expect. Maybe even build excitement about a specific pit stop or vista point to look forward to.
Model a good attitude
Kids will often look to you, their grownup, for how to respond to circumstances. So if things aren’t going as planned, remember, they’re watching!
Try to avoid getting negative or complaining too much and demonstrate rolling with it and problem-solving. Bonus points if you can make it silly.
So the trail is super muddy and slick from a recent rain? What is more fun than tromping through the mud! It’s fun to get dirty, and I always say, “we can wash shoes, clothes, and ourselves!”
What Happens When Your Kid Has A Meltdown on Trail?
SOS, the whining has begun and things are starting to go downhill. How can you help turn things around and keep your kiddo motivated? Try these tips:
- Prevention is powerful! Ensure kids get plenty of snacks, water, breaks, and encouragement, so they aren’t hitting empty on the trail.
- Keep forward momentum. Point out things to look forward to; neat trail features, views, the next snack break, etc. “Let’s see if we can get to that cool big boulder up there and have a snack and some water on top!”
- Offer encouragement. It helps to validate their feelings first, then offer specific feedback. “I get it. Your legs are feeling tired! This is a big hike, and my legs get tired too! That tired, sore feeling in your legs are your muscles getting stronger! You are already a stronger hiker than the last time we went. You got this!”
- Offer a treat with a bit of whimsy and magic thrown in, “I saved this extra special snack for when we feel tired. It will give us an extra energy boost to get to the top!” After you eat some, “Oooo, I feel that energy boost in my body, do you?”
- Trail games! (See some of my favorites below).
- Avoid shaming or blaming. If full-grown adults are allowed to have a bad day, so should little ones who are still learning. Remind them that even if things didn’t go the best they could, there is always next time!
- Don’t forget to recap! Debrief about the hike and highlight some challenges, but focus on the good parts and takeaways you can bring to the next adventure.
6. Dress for the weather and bring layers
Remember, there is no bad weather – only bad gear. So if getting outside with the kids is important to you, invest in quality outdoor clothing and accessories for kiddos. If they’re comfortable, they’ll enjoy it more!
In warmer months, lightweight, full-coverage UV clothing is a great way to protect little ones’ from sunburns and bug bites.
- SPF clothing provides fantastic sun protection and is often much easier than applying sunscreen to large areas on squirmy kiddos!
- Don’t forget sunscreen for exposed areas, sun hats, and sunglasses for added sun protection! Badger SPF 40 Kid’s Mineral Sunscreen is gentle enough for kids and babies and lasts up to 80 minutes.
- Coolibar has excellent options for big kids and babies.
- We love Hanna Andersson UV hoodies for our 4 yo.
- REI has great SPF protective options for kids, including REI Co-op brand and Columbia.
- Stretchy, lightweight jumpers or footy PJs work great for babies. Some of my favs are Kickee pants and Little Sleepies.
In colder months, layer, layer, layer. Here’s what we pack on colder hikes with kids:
- A wicking base layer, cozy mid layer, and optional outer layer for very cold days or high wind/wet days.
- Don’t forget warm socks, hats, and mittens!
- For babies, the lightweight wicking onesies and jumpers I recommend above for sun protection also work great as baselayers!
- It is hard to go wrong with Patagonia for base layers, jackets, and snowsuits. The quality is unmatched, and they last forever. I also have had good luck with Columbia.
- The price tag for snow clothes can be steep, but you can often find sales or purchase used items on sites like Thredup or Poshmark. Ask around for friends’ hand-me-downs, and check out the Patagonia Worn Wear site for deals.
7. Have the right kids’ hiking gear
Fortunately, you truly don’t need much for hiking with kids. Still, it is good to have some essentials. You can consider additional supplies if you start to get into longer hikes and more difficult terrain.
Kids Hiking Footwear
Comfortable shoes or boots with grippy bottoms and toe bed protection will do the trick!
Hiking sandals are a great option if you plan to hike somewhere warm with lots of water. The kids can tromp around in streams and puddles, and you don’t have to worry about shoes getting wet.
Our favorite brands of active kiddo shoes are KEEN, with lots of options for toddlers and kids.
Baby Hiking Carriers
When babies are tiny and not moving around as much, a soft infant carrier is plenty and supports them well enough.
Unfortunately, I have never found baby wraps supportive enough for hikes as they seem to get more easily jostled around.
Kids Hiking Backpacks
A comfortable hiking carrier or pack is worth spending some time looking into. As they grow, you’ll want something with more support.
Even if you think your toddler can trek on their own, it’s an excellent backup to have a carrier if they get tired. It’s so much more comfortable to hike with their weight nicely distributed and safer to have your hands free.
Here are some tips to consider when shopping around for a kids’ hiking carrier:
- Look for carrier packs that are comfortable and will grow with your child.
- Check the manufacturer’s recommendations for what size of an infant can ride in it safely.
- Look for comfortable cushioned straps, a waist strap, and a chest clip to provide extra support.
- Bonus if they have a removable shade cover and a generous storage pocket or two for snacks and supplies!
I recommend heading to your local REI or outdoor gear shop and trying some out before buying one.
Day pack & hiking essentials
If you’re not using a backpack carrier, a sturdy pack with lots of pockets for snacks and supplies is essential.
Here are the essentials to carry in your day pack:
Building a simple hiking first aid kit is also a smart move:
- Antiseptic wipes and ointment
- Sunscreen & bug spray
- Baby wipes
- Anti-histamine in case of an allergic reaction
- Epi-pen if prescribed by your healthcare provider for an anaphylactic reaction
- Pain medicines (acetaminophen or ibuprofen)
You can always add to your kit if you do more extensive hikes or overnights like backpacking.
8. Make the outdoors your classroom
Never underestimate a child’s thirst for knowledge and ability to learn facts and skills. Exploring nature together is an excellent chance to nurture their interests and curiosity about the world. My daughter asks the best questions and really opens up when we’re spending time outdoors, free from distractions.
As you hike, you can cover topics that come up organically like the nature you encounter, natural phenomena, environmental conservation, etc. You can also just wait and see what questions they bring up, and take it from there!
Don’t worry if you don’t have all the answers. Just make a point to write them down or put them in your phone and assure the kids you can look up the answers together later. Older kids might like a nature journal to jot down different animals and plant life they see.
Be sure to take the opportunity to teach them about safety topics and trail etiquette too.
Here are a few Leave No Trace and safety topics you can educate on:
- Stay on the trail.
- Be considerate of wildlife, including plants.
- Have a healthy respect for wild animals, keep a distance, and do not disturb them.
- Leave no trace by packing everything out.
- Point out potentially hazardous features to avoid like cliffs, cacti, poison ivy, etc.
Discuss a safety plan for preschool-aged kids and up if you were to get hurt, ie.
9. Let loose and get silly
Kids are silly by nature, and keeping things light and fun can help keep spirits up! As long as you’re not disturbing other hikers, you can sing songs, tell stories and jokes and play games.
Below are some of our favorite trail games:
Great for: All ages
How to play: Take turns saying “I spy with my little eye something __”
Fill in the blank with a descriptor like color or size, etc.
Great for: All ages
How to play: Make a list of things you will likely encounter on the trail for the kiddos to find.
You can find examples online or come up with your own.
Nature Color Sort
Great for: Preschool to early school age
How to play: Cut out pieces of paper in different colors or make small swatches of different colors on one piece of paper.
Kids get to look for items that match each color!
You can also paint each section of an egg carton, have kids find items that match each color, and then place them inside.
Build a story
Great for: Preschool and up
Each person takes turns telling a story, and then the next person adds to it, picking up where the last person left off.
Fairy, elf, gnome spotting, & other imaginary play
Great for: Preschool
How to play: Look for things along the trail that look like they could be where fairies, elves or gnomes might live, ie. tree holes, small caves, and mushrooms.
You can create a storyline about where they might play, what they eat, etc.
Our 4-year-old loves this game and you can really let their imaginations run with it.
10. Just go for it!
There is a saying that applies well to adventuring with kids: don’t let “perfect be the enemy of good!”
In other words, don’t get so hung up on waiting until the conditions are ideal, everyone is caught up on sleep, moods are the best, etc., or you might never go!
Along those lines, having nice gear is great but not mandatory. Some of our favorite hikes have been days we forgot the right shoes and didn’t have our hiking carrier. You make it work, and sometimes it ends up wonderfully!
I am not suggesting you throw all planning out the window, but I do recommend starting and getting over the hurdle of that first outing! You will continue to learn every trek, and it will seem less overwhelming once you get out there!
What questions do you have about hiking with kids? Are there any tips you’d add to this post? What are your favorite games to play while out on the trail? Leave a comment below!
To see more of Louisa’s work, check out her blog mountainmamamd.com