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Follow these Golden Rules to Make Hiking with Kids More Fun

 In a world that is constantly plugged in, raising outdoor kids takes a bit of extra effort, but I promise you — it’s more than worth it.

A collage of photos featuring kids hiking.
The next generation of hikers!

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 together in the great outdoors frees you, the parent, from distractions and allows your family to connect in ways that aren’t always possible inside.

You don’t have to go hiking with kids to enjoy the outdoors, but it’s one of our favorite ways to adventure together.

Ready to spend more time outdoors with your kiddos this year? Here are some tips to make hiking with kids more fun for everyone!

Gabe hiking through a green forest.
Gabe is enjoying our local nature preserve.

The Good News: Kids Need the Outdoors

  • Being outdoors improves eyesight. According to My Myopia and The American Optometric Association, children should spend anywhere from one to three more hours of outdoor activity a day to help protect their eyesight.
  • 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 children. According to this Environment and Behavior article, children 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. 
Rowan and Gabe playing on a long across a trail.
Hiking builds confidence in young explorers

Why Hiking with Kids is a Great Way to Get Outside

So, you’re convinced that kids and the outdoors are 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 with kids 5
Young kids looking for animals tracks and finding a poisonous mushroom.
  • Hiking introduces young children to wildlife and nature appreciation: How many kids have you met who don’t like insects, hate the cold, or are afraid of the dark?

    Stepping beyond your backyard will give your kids a broader 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: 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 Making Hiking with Kids Fun

Our teens backpacking with friends.
Our teens backpacking with friends.

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

Rowan and Gabe as toddlers sitting on a rock during a hike.
Little legs need lots of breaks!

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 it, they’ll be lacing up their own hiking boots and hitting the trail.

Since the goal is to encourage your kids to love the outdoors, the last thing you want is kids who 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, kid-friendly hikes will keep your kids looking forward to the next adventure.

As your kids mature, both physically and mentally, older kids will 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 forest was 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.

hiking with kids 1

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. 

My kids on their first backpacking trip in Vermont.
My kids on their first backpacking trip in Vermont.

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 24 and 22, my ‘kids’ both love to go hiking, and they 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, starting with their very first hike.

Rowan and Gabe climbing a boulder in the woods as kids.
Break time!
  • 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. What are your kids drawn to in the woods?

    I also recommend finding 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 parking lot and 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 story we can read aloud, but we all agree that break time is one of the best parts of our family hike.
  • Try letterboxing or geocaching.  These scavenger 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.

Read Next: Everything You Need to Know About Bird Watching with Kids

What to Bring Hiking with Kids

Preparation is important for a successful hiking trip with kids, no matter how old they are. Pack a daypack 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:

  • Safety whistle. 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 are a universal emergency call. Teach your kids never to use this unless they’re in trouble.
  • Plenty of water. Kids can carry their own water bottles in their packs unless they’re 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 bars, trail mix, 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 a given where we live. Dry clothes could make the difference between a miserable hike and an awesome one. And definitely pack extra diapers if you’ve got babes in the woods.

    If you want to be extra prepared when hiking with kids, keep a change of clothes and some towels in the car.
  • Small first-aid kit. Because you just never know what emergencies you’ll encounter 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. Mosquitoes and ticks are the worst around here, but Trek Insect Repellent from Lemongrass Farms also protects against biting flies.
  • A fully charged cell phone and a 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.

Read Next: Don’t Forget These 10 Essentials While Hiking

Two kids hiking with their dad through the woods.
It’s a little dreary, but hiking in the winter months can still be fun.

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 clothing 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. 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. For total protection from rain (and mud puddles), 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 or shoes for kids: Sneakers are fine for easy trails, but eventually, you might want to splurge on hiking boots or shoes for your kids. We swear by these Merrell hiking shoes for kids.
  • A kids’ daypack: 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’ backpack that is compatible with a hydration reservoir, which will encourage kids to drink more while hiking.
  • Breathable clothing: Cotton is no friend to hikers, so if you plan to spend a significant amount of time on the trail with your kids, look for layers that are breathable and made of Merino wool or a synthetic material. Convertible pants are nice because they are dual-purpose, and REI makes them in a few different colors.
Two young men seen from the back. They are hiking along the Skyline Trail in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.
My big kids still love hiking after all these years!

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!

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A collage of photos featuring small kids hiking in the woods.
Tara Schatz sits with her two dogs, Gatsby and Flynn.

Tara is a freelance writer and travel blogger with a passion for outdoor adventures. She is the co-author of AMC’s Best Day Hikes in Vermont and currently blogs at Back Road Ramblers and Vermont Explored, where she shares travel tips, adventure destinations, and vacation ideas for the wanderer in everyone.

Jennie Hogan

Friday 19th of April 2024

Tara, Jennie Hogan here. If you yave time I would be happy to get together to discuss a trip to Arizona and Utah. I am thinking of going Phoenix to Salt Lake City June 4 -? What to go?