So you love hiking and can’t wait hit the trails with your kids. Or maybe you’ve never hiked, but think it would be a great outdoor adventure for your family. Whether you’re an experienced hiker or a newbie, hiking with kids can be a awesome adventure. If you know what you’re getting into and are prepared for kids on the trail. Don’t worry, this ultimate guide to hiking with kids has got you covered!
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Table of Contents
How to Hike with Kids
If you are an experienced hiker you may be wondering what the big deal is. You know how to hike – so you’re taking a kid now. Sure, experience on the trail is great, but hiking with kids can add a whole new dimension to your hikes.
As the adult you are responsible for this little person. You may be used to hiking with others and looking out for each other, but hiking with kids takes that up a notch – several notches.
Be prepared for an adventure. Realize before starting your hike that it may not go as you planned, but an adventure awaits. Look at the hike though the eyes of a child.
Always leave a hike itinerary. It is so important to leave a hiking trip plan with a trusted friend or family member. My FREE Hiking Trip Itinerary Guide makes this super easy to do.
Pack your patience. Kids can get bored, tired, whine, cry, and even sit down on the trail. They can also be crazy excited, talk incessantly, and run ahead.
Motivate tired or bored kids with games like I Spy, sing songs, or challenge them to a walking race. Pick a landmark like a rock, tree, or the top of a hill for the finish line. My grandsons will moan and insist they can’t take another step, until I challenge them to a race. Use common sense with a “race” challenge – walk, don’t run on the trail and please be mindful of other hikers.
It may not be a peaceful walk in the woods. Kids are not always quiet, especially if they are excited about a new discovery on the trail. And you want them to be excited! Point out unique plants, pretty flowers, mushrooms, animals etc. This will probably not be a hike for internal dialogue and musings.
It is not the destination but the journey. The popular quote can not be more true than for kids on a hike. They are less interested in pretty views or the destination. They will usually have more fun on the hike itself. Encourage them to be proud of reaching a summit or completing a hike, point out the pretty view, nurture a love for nature, but don’t be disappointed if they just don’t care -yet.
Teach and practice trail etiquette. You want your kids to have fun, but not at the peace and safety of other hikers on the trail. No one wants to hike around kids running wild, rip roaring along the trail, and being too loud.
That motivating trail race I mentioned earlier – be sure the trail isn’t crowded!
Allow plenty of time. Be prepared for breaks and take time to “stop and smell the roses”. It’s one thing to encourage kids along the trail, another to be constantly rushing them. Of course, some kids are fast hikers, and you may be the one trying to keep up with them!
Related Post: Hiking Risks and the Mistakes Hikers Make
The essentials are important for any hike, whether kids are along are not. There are a few things that are especially helpful when hiking with kids.
Snacks: Kids love to eat, and hiking will make them hungry. Pack plenty of snacks. I would skip messy snacks like chocolate (duh, it melts!). Opt for granola bars, raisins/dried fruit, crackers, pretzels, dry cereal, jerky etc. If you are okay with using food as a reward, the promise of a special snack may motivate them to keep hiking.
Whistle: Give your kids a whistle to hike with and teach them to use it only if they get separated from you or lost – three short bursts. Clip it to their clothes or put it in a zippered pocket so they will have it with them.
First Aid Kit: It goes without saying you should always hike with a first aid kit. Kids can be accident prone so be sure you have supplies. Help your child create a small, first aid kit of their own that they can carry themselves too. My grandsons love to include their favorite character bandages in their kit.
Nature Kit: This is something extra to help occupy kids on the trail (and slow them down if they are prone to running off!) A bug, bird, tree, or plant identification book (this one is awesome!), a magnifying glass, and small binoculars make discovering nature easy when hiking with kids.
Camera: Most kids love to take pictures. This is a good way to encourage them to be observant and also capture memories of the hike.
Flashlight: Always have a flashlight or headlamp just in case you don’t make it back before dark.
Jacket/Change of Clothes: Always pack a jacket, and I recommend of change of clothes, including socks. You never know when someone may take a fall in a creek or get soaked during a pop up shower. A rain jacket/gear is a good idea too.
Hiking Gear for Kids
Buying tons of expensive, kids’ hiking gear is not necessary, especially starting out. After you are sure your family and children want to keep hiking, it is worth investing in hiking gear for kids.
Most children can carry some essentials. This will also make them feel like a “real” hiker.
Any small backpack will work for most day hikes with kids. Some kids are excited about wearing a backpack and others want nothing to do with it. Encourage them to carry their own and fill it with their first aid kit, a jacket, small flashlight, water bottle, and a snack.
If you are ready to purchase a real hiking backpack for your child, you can’t go wrong with this pack. It has a hip belt, external pockets, and even a place for a water reservoir. Plus you can’t beat the All Mighty Guarantee!
Kids Hiking Boots and Shoes
Good fitting, comfortable sneakers are fine hiking shoes for kids, especially for occasional hikes. If you are doing longer hikes and want something specifically made for the child hiker, consider buying hiking shoes by Keen, Merrill, or Columbia. These are not as cheap as department store shoes, but no more than any other name brands.
Hiking Sticks and Poles
A hiking stick is not a necessity for most hikes, but many kids love dragging a “stick” along! You can find a sturdy, straight stick for them to hike with or invest in a set of child size hiking poles like these. They are so cute! Some kids and families find hiking sticks or poles just something else to keep up with on a hike; others find that they do provide stability and help on the hike.
Water Bottles and Hydration Packs for Kids
Everyone needs to carry a water bottle on a hike. Any lightweight, good water bottle will work, but this bottle is great! It is sturdy, designed for outdoor use, has a place to clip it to a pack, and comes in tons of kiddie designs.
For longer hikes with no water source, consider a child size hydration pack. Some kids love having the easy to access straw and will drink more. You can also get a hydration pack that doubles as a backpack with a compartment for other essentials.
How Much Weight Can My Child Carry?
Speaking of gear and essentials for hiking with kids, many parents often wonder how much weight their child can actually carry when hiking.
It depends on the age and size of your child. As a general rule, most advice is that 15% to 20% of their body weight is an acceptable amount. If your child weighs 45 pounds that is about 6 to 9 pounds. Don’t forget to factor in the weight of the backpack itself.
Of course, the lighter the better, to make the hike more enjoyable for everyone. Just be sure essentials are packed before toys.
A good hiking backpack can make a huge difference in your child being able to comfortably carry any weight. This is where the suspension system with proper shoulder straps, sternum (chest) straps, and hip belts come into play.
Kid Friendly Hikes
Choosing the right, kid friendly hiking trails can be the difference in a fun adventure and an awful experience. There are a couple of things to keep in mind when picking kid friendly hikes.
How Far Can My Child Hike?
I’ve seen people go both ways with this. Some overestimate how far their child can hike and others underestimate what their child is capable of.
Many children live sedate lives now, and some people think it is unreasonable to actually expect a child to be able to walk for any length of time or distance. It is crazy how worried some people are about kids being active outdoors!. In fact, many kids can out hike some adults!
Other parents assume because their child is young and healthy, they should be able to hike long and hard.
According to this article from Backpacker, kids ages 4 to 7 can hike approximately 2 – 6 miles, and kids 8 and up can hike 6 -10 miles. So an average of 5 miles for school age children.
This can vary, depending on each child, and you know your child best. Are they energetic and active? Do they tire quickly playing outside or get bored easily? Being able to hike any distance is a mental as well as physical activity.
Start with shorter hikes and go from there. And honestly, you want to have fun so don’t over do it.
Related Post: How to Find Hiking Trails
Consider Trail Difficulty
Choosing a kid friendly hike is not just about how long a trail is, but also how difficult it is. Many things factor into the difficulty of a trail, and distance is just one of them.
A steep trail that gains elevation can be more difficult than a longer hike. Trails that have tons of stairs, wood, rock, or dirt, can be difficult for small children.
Caution should be taken if you are hiking trails with steep drop offs along the trail. Trails that contain creek or river crossings may not be appropriate for small children either. Crossing small creeks can be fun – just know before you go and realize that rain and/or snow runoff can turn a small creek into a dangerous crossing.
Trails with Interesting Landmarks
Choosing trails with interesting landmarks can make the hike more fun for kids. Look for trails with large rocks they can scramble over, interesting trees, or even remnants of the past like old chimneys and cars.
Kids usually love crossing bridges, and many trails have log or wooden bridges over creeks.
Most kids love a trail that has a creek, river, or lake. Keep an eye on them as they are usually drawn to the water like a magnet! Oh and you know I said most kids don’t care about the destination? Well, if it includes a dip in a creek or the pool at a waterfall, the destination can be the prize!
Please be cautious at waterfalls. Many people are injured or killed by falling or drown at waterfalls every year. Rocks surrounding waterfalls are very slippery, and many people underestimate the power of the water at the base of the falls.
Finding Kid Friendly Trails
Many local parks have trails that are perfect for families just starting to hike. They are usually fairly short and some are paved, making it easy to take a stroller if you have a baby or toddler.
State parks are another awesome destination for kid friendly hiking trails. Many state parks offer ranger guided hikes, which is a great way to hike with your family.
Hiking trail apps like The Hiking Project and AllTrails list trail difficulty, length, and have reviews. Trails are tagged as kid friendly too. Check out my post How to Find Hiking Trails for more tips.
Hike It Baby is an awesome resource for hiking with kids. They have local branches/communities, hike information, and great articles to help inspire you to get outside with your kids.
Benefits of Hiking for Kids
Hiking with kids is not just fun, it also has several benefits. Hiking is holistic – it provides physical, mental, and even spiritual benefits.
Hiking provides physical activity. It is a great form of exercise and gets kids off the couch.
Hiking promotes a healthy weight. The physical activity of regular hiking can help maintain a healthy weight. Childhood obesity is a problem, and hiking is one way to combat it.
Hiking fosters a love of nature. We have a big, beautiful world out our doors, and many people don’t appreciate it. Hiking introduces kids to nature and encourages a respect for creation and wonder for our Creator.
Hiking relieves stress. It is sad, but many kids have a pretty stressed life. Hiking has been proven to lower stress levels. The combination of time spent in nature and the physical activity work together to relieve stress.
Now if your child is whining or complaining on the trail, it will be stressful for everyone! ?
Hiking get kids to unplug from electronics. Kids today spend a crazy amount of time glued to a screen. Hiking offers an actual experience, rather than an online game.
Hiking is educational. The scientific world awaits on a hiking trail. Many trails can spin a history tale too. Map reading skills can also add a new dimension to geography lessons.
Hiking improves communication. It provides a time to talk to your child without all the noise and distractions of the modern world.
Hiking builds perseverance. It teaches kids to keep moving forward. You can’t quit if you want to make it off the trail!
Want to know the cool thing about these benefits of hiking for kids? They don’t even realize it is good for them. Plus, these same benefits apply to you!
Now Take a Hike
Don’t over think it or spend too much time planning your hike. Just go! Even if things don’t go as planned when you first start hiking, you will have a story to share. Find a trail, grab some essentials, and go hiking with your kids!
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