There are few things that are as invigorating and exciting as a hike with your kids. The fresh air, the beautiful scenery, and the chance to bond with them while enjoying nature — it’s a win-win situation.
But one thing that can put a damper on family hikes is unhappy kids who are either tired or hungry or scurrying off the trail or all the other things they do because they’re kids! What’s more, when hiking with small children, it can be hard to tell how much energy they have left.
But don’t worry! We’ve compiled a list of tips for hiking with young kids — from what gear they’ll need to how you can make sure everyone stays safe and healthy on the trail. Let’s get started!
Table of contents
Pick the Right Trail and Location
When planning a hike with children, it’s important that the trail is appropriate for their ages and abilities — you don’t want the little ones to get scared by the steep drop-offs or giant boulders, but you also don’t want to bore your teens with an easy walk in the park.
From the trailhead to the summit, there are many factors that determine how easy or difficult a hike will be for your family. Here are some things to consider before hitting the trail:
Trail difficulty and length: How long is the hiking trail? Is it mostly flat with only a few steep sections, or does it involve climbing uphill most of the way? And how difficult is this terrain — do you need climbing gear like ropes and harnesses, or can everyone just walk along normally?
Terrain type: What kind of ground will you be hiking on (rocky paths vs. muddy trails vs. paved surfaces)? Will you cross bridges or streams? And is there any bushwhacking involved — can you just walk along normally, or does the trail require some route finding through a dense forest?
Trail conditions: Is the trail well marked? Are there other people around, or might you get lost if someone gets separated from the group?
Terrain hazards: Are there wild animals that might try to attack you on this hike (like bears) or poisonous snakes you might encounter along the way? Are there any dangerous weather conditions in this park area (like storms with lightning and high winds) at certain times of the year?
Trailhead facilities: Does your trailhead offer parking and restrooms, or do you need to park at another location first? How far away from the trailhead are these facilities located?
Since you will be hiking with little kids, you should choose a short hike that’s easy enough for even the most inexperienced hikers in your group to handle; and one where there are plenty of places where they can stop along the way if they feel tired or hot. Also, avoid trails with steep inclines or rocky terrain, as they’ll likely be too challenging for them.
Pack the Right Gear
The right gear will make a huge difference between a fun day out in the woods and a miserable experience. Here are some of the essential items to bring along:
Hiking boots: While sneakers may be fine for short walks around town, they won’t give you the support or protection needed for longer hikes. Instead, opt for hiking shoes or boots that will provide better traction on uneven terrain and protect your child’s feet from thorns and sharp rocks.
Sunscreen: Since children have sensitive skin, they’re more susceptible to sunburns and other issues. To protect their delicate skin, make sure to bring sunscreen with SPF 50+ and reapply it every couple of hours. A sun hat or wide-brimmed hat will protect your child’s face from harmful rays while they’re enjoying their day outdoors.
Backpack: A proper hiking backpack is one of the most important pieces of gear you can bring with you on a hike. It will allow your child to carry some of their own supplies, freeing up your hands for other things. But make sure to pick one with lots of pockets, so you can stuff all their gear in it.
First aid kit: Accidents happen — even when you’re hiking with kids. It’s a good idea to bring along a first aid kit, so you can treat any minor injuries that might happen. Make sure the kit has bandages and antiseptic wipes (to clean wounds), as well as pain relievers for headaches or sore muscles. You should also pack an insect repellent or a bug spray.
Don’t Forget Snacks
When you’re out on a hike with kids, it’s easy to get distracted by the beauty of nature and forget what’s really important: snacking! If you don’t bring along plenty of snacks, your kids could get cranky and ruin everyone’s good time.
The best snacks for hiking with kids are ones that are easy to eat and don’t require much clean-up. Cheerios and Goldfish crackers work well, but you can also pack fresh fruit, trail mix, granola bars, fruit leathers, or applesauce pouches to keep their energy level up. If you’re feeling extra ambitious, you could even pack along some sandwiches or wraps for healthy snacking.
And don’t forget beverages. Pack a water bottle for each child, and make sure you have plenty of water for everyone at your hiking party. You can also bring along some Gatorade or juice boxes to stay hydrated.
Practice Emergency Protocol
Hiking is a great way to enjoy nature. But, when hiking in the wilderness, it’s important to be prepared for animal encounters. Research the local wildlife and identify any dangerous animals that may be in the area. Teach your children what to do if they encounter an animal, such as blowing a safety whistle, backing away slowly, and never approaching an animal.
Also, develop an emergency plan, and carry a GPS or map and compass. Teach your children how to use the map and compass, and make sure that each member of the family knows how to signal for help and where they should meet if they get separated from each other.
Dressing appropriately is a key component of any good hiking trip. When hiking in warm weather (or even in cool weather), you’ll want to ensure that your kids wear comfortable clothing that won’t restrict their movement. Lightweight fabrics like cotton and polyester are always a good choice. They’re breathable and will dry quickly if they get wet.
It may also be worth investing in a pair of lightweight hiking pants or shorts made out of the same type of material. These will protect their legs from briars and brush while still giving them a full range of motion.
Always dress them up in layers. It’s always a good idea to dress your kids in layers, so you can add or remove them as needed. If you have a baby carrier, make sure that there is extra padding around the straps, so you don’t cut off circulation.
And don’t forget to pack extra clothes. Kids will always find something fun to do along the way, like splashing in puddles and rolling down hills. This means they’ll need something dry to change into at some point during the hike (and probably sooner rather than later).
Hike in Segments
Although it’s fun to go out and hike for miles at a time, it’s important to remember that young children love to look at bugs, examine rocks, and listen to the sounds of the wilderness. If you want to ensure that your kids are having fun and staying happy, break up your hike into segments. Instead of trying to go on a 12-mile trek, start slow and plan several shorter hikes throughout the day. This will help them stay focused and avoid getting overwhelmed by the new environment.
Make It Fun and Educational
Kids love to learn, so use this opportunity to have them pay attention to their surroundings while they walk. When you’re on a day hike, point out different types of plants and insects and give them magnifying glasses to look them up close; bring along binoculars and let them see animals in the distance, or pack up some colorful chalk so they can draw on rocks — the possibilities are endless as this video demonstrates:
And if you’re going on a longer hike with older kids, load up on some audiobooks or educational music for everyone to listen to along the way.
Kids are unpredictable, which can be potentially dangerous on a trail. That said, if you try to control them too much, it will just make things harder for everyone. If your child wants to take a detour because he saw a pretty rock or decides he’d rather chase butterflies than climb a hill, just follow their lead and go with the flow — you might end up having fun along with your kids!
Take Lots of Pictures!
Kids love taking pictures, especially if they can get silly with it. So set up a timer on your phone and get ready for lots of laughs. When you get home, have the kids review their pictures and pick their favorites. You can also make it a point to create a scrapbook with all their best moments from the trip.
Reward With a Picnic at the Top
Also, when you’re hiking at a national park or reserve that has a popular attraction at the top of the trail (such as a waterfall), consider setting up a picnic at the top before heading down. If you’re hiking with younger kids, give them ice cream and chips as a reward. But, if they’re old enough, allow them to help prepare their food (no peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, though!). That’s something they’ll never forget!
In conclusion, hiking with kids can be an enriching experience for families of all shapes and sizes. Whether it’s a first time hike, or your fiftieth time on the hiking trail, a little bit of preparation goes a long way. Pack food and essentials, be patient, take breaks as needed, and take lots of pictures. and you’ll have moments that you’ll treasure for years to come. Have a great time!