Please be sure to check with each state/destination for its current COVID-19 guidelines before planning a visit. This post may contain links from which we earn a small commission at no extra cost to you.
In a world that constantly plugged in, raising outdoor kids takes a bit of extra effort, but I promise you — it’s more than worth it. Outdoor kids will learn to appreciate and respect the natural world. They’ll discover their own boundaries and limitations, soak up fresh air and sunshine, and exercise their minds, bodies, and spirits.
Spending time outdoors together frees you, the parent, from distractions, and allows your family to connect in ways that aren’t always possible in the confines of the modern world. The outdoors is awesome for kids, and I’m not the only one who thinks so.
Why Kids Need the Outdoors
- Being Outdoors Improves Eyesight. Although the mechanisms underlying this effect are still unclear, a 2008 study suggests that being outside improves distance vision and reduces your kids’ chances of being nearsighted as an adult.
- Being Outdoors is a Natural Treatment for ADHD. Survey results published in the American Journal of Public Health suggest that exposure to nature and the outdoors may reduce ADHD symptoms in children.
- Being Outdoors Reduces Stress in our Children. According to a 200 article in Environment and Behavior, children who are exposed to green spaces and natural areas have lower stress levels within minutes.
- Outdoor Play Increases Fitness Levels. Kids who spend time outside are less likely to be overweight or obese, leading to better overall health.
Why Hiking with Kids is a Great Way to Get Outside
So, you’re convinced that kids and the outdoors is a good match, but why hiking? I mean, can’t you just send them into the backyard to play in the sandbox? Backyard play is awesome, but here’s why it’s worth taking the time to hike with your kids.
- Hiking introduces kids to wildlife and nature appreciation – How many kids have you met that don’t like insects, hate the cold, or are afraid of the dark? Stepping beyond your backyard will give your kids a wider understanding, and appreciation, of the natural world. They’ll experience animals in their natural habitats, learn to appreciate and predict weather systems, and overcome fears.
- Hiking is great exercise – There are lots of health benefits to hiking. Your kids will build stamina, strength, and a healthy cardiovascular system. As an added bonus, so will you!
- Hiking will give your kids a sense of achievement – There’s nothing quite like bagging your first mountain peak. The feeling of accomplishment knows no bounds, especially for kids! This carries over to other real-world situations and helps kids learn perseverance and confidence in everything they do.
- Hiking allows for quality family time – Consider unplugging one day a week and heading into the woods for an afternoon or a full day. With no screens or housework to distract you, you’ll find that it’s easier to connect with your kids, play games, and share the natural world together.
- Hiking with kids is free – So many kids’ activities are a major blow to the wallet, am I right?
Tips for Hiking with Kids
Hiking with kids is a great way to get outside, explore the natural world, and increase fitness levels. When our kids were small, we carried them in backpacks, but it didn’t take long for them to strap on their own little backpacks and start hiking themselves. Here are our favorite tips for keeping your smallest hikers happy and healthy on the trail.
Make Each Hike Age Appropriate
We are often asked what age to take kids hiking, and our answer is always – the sooner the better! As long as you’re prepared, you can start hiking with kids when they are infants. At first, your little ones will enjoy the natural world from the confines of a baby carrier, but they grow up way too fast, and before you know if, they’ll be lacing up their own hiking boots and hitting the trail.
Since the goal here is to encourage your kids to love the outdoors, the last thing you want is kids that balk at spending the day hiking because they can’t keep up. When it comes to hiking with children, too short is definitely better than too long! Short, easy hikes will keep your kids looking forward to the next adventure. As your kids mature, both physically and mentally, they’ll want to challenge themselves on longer, more strenuous hikes.
Let your kids lead the way. Do you remember when you were a kid and the woods were magical? Your kids are just discovering the beauty of climbing a tree, exploring a hidden valley, or discovering a field of wildflowers. You may be itching to get that vista or swimming hole, but don’t forget to meander along with your child. If your kids set the pace, you’re sure to discover some of that childhood magic you once knew.
Start early in the day. Okay, maybe this is just a personal preference, but I think morning is a great time to get out exploring. It’s nice to get out when the world (and the kids) are fresh. The hours between breakfast and lunch are a golden time for hiking, and a picnic on the trail is always appreciated.
Make Hiking with Kids Fun
I think strapping on a backpack and heading out for a day in the woods is fun. My kids, however, needed a bit of convincing. I am happy to say, that at 20 and 17, they both love to go hiking and credit our family hikes for that love. Here are the exact strategies that we used to encourage our kids to get moving on the trail. It took a bit of trial and error, but these are the things that worked for us.
- Bring along some friends. You may be surprised to find that kids who drag their feet on the trail will be hopping, skipping, and running with a friend by their side. Parents can benefit from friends on the trail as well.
- Choose hikes with kid appeal. Hiking through the woods and up mountains is fun, but my kids were always suckers for meandering boardwalks, swimming holes, big boulders, and waterfalls. Ask yourself what your kids are drawn to in the woods, and find hikes that fit the bill. It’s also a good idea to do loop hikes instead of out-and-back trails, as the kids will never know what’s around the corner, and before they know it – there’s the car!
- Have a trail-side picnic. A picnic is more than just food. It’s a time for kids to relax, recharge, and explore. Sometimes we bring sandwiches – sometimes it’s hot chocolate and a read-aloud, but we all agree that break time is one of the best parts of our family hike!
- Try letterboxing or geocaching. These treasure hunts are what really got our kids into hiking. Thank you to whoever invented these super-fun activities for outdoor adventurers. If you haven’t tried them yet, your family is in for a treat.
What to Bring Hiking with Kids
Preparation is important for a successful hiking trip with kids, no matter how old they are. Pack a day pack for yourself with all your necessities and let the kids carry their own. Here are some important things to carry with you on every hike.
- Whistles. Safety whistles can be very useful in the case of an emergency. They’re much louder than a yell if you’re lost, and they’ll scare away animals too. Three short whistles is a universal emergency call. Teach your kids never to use this unless they’re in trouble.
- Water. Kids can carry their own water in their packs unless their really young, and parents should carry extra just in case. Want to make your kids feel really grown up? Get them their own hydration pack! We shoot for a liter of water per person for every two miles of hiking, but so much depends on the difficulty of the hike and the temperature that it’s hard to know exactly how much you’ll need. Be sure to have a few bottles waiting in the car for the ride home as well!
- Snacks. Choose snacks that taste good and provide fuel for tired legs. Granola and energy bars, mixed nuts or gorp, string cheese, and dried meat are all good choices.
- Extra clothes. You never know what you’ll encounter on a hike, but water and mud are fairly common. Dry clothes could make the difference between a miserable hike and an awesome one, and definitely pack extra diapers if you’ve got wee ones! If you want to really be prepared when hiking with kids, keep a spare set of clothes, and some towels in the car.
- Small First aid kit. Because you just never know what you will need in the woods. Bandaids are what we use most often, but we also pack children’s Tylenol, an ace bandage, gauze pads, and eye drops.
- Insect repellent and sunscreen – This is so important. I’m a huge fan of Sawyer Picaridin insect repellent because it keeps away mosquitoes and ticks, but also those tiny little biting flies!
- A fully-charged cell phone. portable power bank, It’s good to know that help is just a phone call away if you have an emergency on the trail, but you should also remember that many backcountry trails have very spotty service. We always set our phones to battery-saver mode while hiking, and we bring a just in case.
Hiking Gear and Clothes for Kids
For short hikes, you can pack your daypack with the items mentioned above, and your kids can carry a small pack with snacks and water. You won’t need special clothing just yet, just regular outdoor-worth clothes and well-fitting sneakers. If you get into hiking and want to start tackling longer and harder hikes, then you will want to invest in some specialized gear and clothing for your kids.
Because kids grow so fast, I recommend looking for used gear and clothes when you can. Check your local thrift stores and consignment shops, as well as online sites like GearTrade, where you can buy and sell used outdoor gear and clothing. For discount gear, we like Campsaver, Moosejaw, and REI Outlet. We look for seconds and close-outs because we know that we’ll only get a season of use out of what we buy. Here are some important purchases for next-level hiking with kids.
- Rain gear – Find something lightweight and packable that you can stow away in your kids’ backpacks. A rain jacket is fine for most situations, but if you want total protection, add breathable rain pants.
- Wool socks – Cotton socks are terrible for hiking in, and synthetics make your feet stinky. Wool socks made especially for hiking will wick away moisture, reduce the occurrence of blisters, and make walking much more comfortable. We swear by Darn Tough Vermont socks, and even when kids’ feet are growing fast, they can usually wear them for a few seasons.
- Hiking boots – Sneakers are fine for lots of hikes, but eventually, you will need to splurge on hiking boots for your kids. My son, who is 17, loves hiking in his sneakers, but he often regrets it when the trail turns muddy or steep (I bet if he read this, he would disagree!). I don’t have a favorite kids’ hiking boot to recommend. I would suggest visiting a good shoe store and getting your kids fitted for a high-quality boot.
- A kids’ daypack – A regular backpack will do fine in most circumstances, but packs that are made for hiking will include a hip belt and sternum strap, which will help distribute the weight on longer hikes. You can buy a kids’ hydration pack, which will encourage kids to drink more while hiking, or you can get a regular lightweight daypack.
- Breathable clothing – Cotton is no friend to hikers, so if you plan to spend a significant amount time on the trail with your kids, look for clothing that is breathable and made of merino wool or a synthetic material. Convertible pants are nice because they are dual-purpose, and REI makes them for boys and girls. They are lightweight, SPF 45, and come in a few different colors.
Whether your children are three or thirteen, now is the time to step out of your door (and your comfort zone) to embark on hiking journeys big and small. Leave the dirty dishes, the homework, and the internet behind, and go for a hike with your kids!
Want to read more about adventuring outdoors with kids? Read these posts next!
- Winter Daypack Essentials: What to Pack for Hiking with Kids
- Little Gifts for Teens who Love the Outdoors
- Everything You Need to Know About Hiking During Hunting Season
- How to Plan the Perfect Picnic
Do you have any tips for hiking with kids? Please share with our readers in the comments below. And if you’re on Pinterest, I’d love for you to share this post!