After being cooped up at home for so many months, my family is definitely getting cabin fever.
But at the same time, with the coronavirus pandemic still ravaging its way through the country, we have zero interest in going places with crowds and high touch surfaces.
So what’s a family to do? Go hiking!
My family isn’t new to hiking. My husband grew up camping and hiking so we’ve always been an outdoorsy family. But even if you’re an indoorsy family, you can and should try hiking.
In this post, I’ll lay out the benefits of hiking, the gear you need, and tips and tricks for hiking with kids.
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Benefits of Hiking With Kids
There are a ton of benefits of hiking with kids. Here are my favorites, in no particular order:
It’s free, or nearly free
Until you start doing more strenuous or longer hikes, you really don’t need any expensive gear to hike. The most you may have to pay is an entrance fee for a state or national park, but most of the destinations you may want to start hiking are free.
Even if you aren’t doing a long or arduous hike, hiking is wonderful exercise. At least for me, it’s a lot more interesting than walking on a treadmill!
Hiking is a great way to build family memories. On our most recent vacation, some of my favorite memories are of a trail we wandered down. It was quiet, and shady, and such a pretty walk. After being cooped up inside for so many months, it was a lovely change of scenery, and it was fun to watch my kids look for frogs, follow the trail blaze marks, and scramble up the hills. Not every hike is going to be a fun, amazing experience, but sometimes those are some of the funniest memories you’ll remember from hiking.
It builds an appreciation of nature in kids
My husband and I have tried to foster a love of nature into our kids since they were babies. With so much of our kids lives revolving around screens (particularly now if your kids are remote learning!), it’s important to get outside and away from the screens. In my mind, kids need to get outside and get dirty. They should be examining bugs, throwing rocks in streams, and jumping in piles of leaves. Let them get outside and have fun. Let them learn about the world around them. How do trees grow? What’s a food web? What animals live in this forest?
Gearing Up for Your First Hike
If you haven’t hiked before, I have good news for you: you don’t need expensive gear! Sure, you could get crazy-expensive hiking boots or a suped up backpack, but if you’re just getting started, you really don’t need any of that.
I know when I’m starting a new activity, particularly one with my kids, I don’t want to spend a lot of money on it. If it ends up being a bust, at least I won’t feel like I wasted a bunch of money. My frugal heart appreciates that.
However, even if you don’t need expensive gear, there are a few essentials you should plan on getting before striking out on your first hike.
Good, closed-toe shoes
Like I said before, you don’t need expensive hiking boots to go hiking. But you do need a comfortable pair of closed toe shoes. Please, if you’re hiking with kids, do not let them wear flip flops. They need something to protect their toes and provide some support. And hiking isn’t fun if you constantly have dirt and rocks between your toes!
Again, nothing special to get, but make sure your kids are dressed comfortably for walking down the trail, scrambling up hills and over rocks, and plopping down on the side of the trail when it’s time for a break.
I like Banana Boat Simply Protect because it has fewer ingredients than many other sunscreens, but whatever you usually use for your family is fine.
I can guarantee you that your adventure hiking with kids will be miserable if everyone is being eaten alive by bugs! I really wanted to like some of the more natural options with essential oil, but I never had any luck with them. My kids still talk about the time we went to a swamp last summer and they spent the entire time swatting mosquitoes and getting bit. Not a fun time for anyone!
Deet, one of the prime ingredients in most bug sprays, gives me a headache so I need a deet free option. I’ve been happy with Coleman’s SkinSmart insect repellent. Fair warning: it doesn’t smell the best going on, but it works, which is what’s important.
You don’t want anyone getting dehydrated when you’re hiking with kids so be sure to bring plenty of water. A good rule of thumb is for everyone to bring their own water bottle. For longer hikes or on particularly hot days, you might need two bottles of water. For kids, I like Camelbak water bottles. They’re perfectly kid-sized and what I like best is that the mouthpiece is removable for easier cleaning.
For our family, the thing that will ruin a hike the fastest is when the kids get hungry. Because when my older son gets hungry, he gets HANGRY. So bring snacks. Then bring some more. And just for good measure, bring more still. Choose snacks that are easy to pack (e.g. leave the bags of chips at home) and do a good job filling tummies. Some good suggestions include nuts or trail mix, granola or energy bars, beef jerky or meat sticks, dried fruit or fruit that travels easy like apples or clementines.
And that’s about it! At least when you’re first getting started. As you do longer and more challenging hikes, you may want to look into getting hiking poles, or you can always find a sturdy stick on the side of the trail to help support you.
Hiking With Kids…or Carrying Them
There’s no right age to begin hiking. Like I said before, we’re an outdoorsy family so we started our kids early. Both were in carriers for their first hikes, graduated to strollers, and now hike on their own two legs. However, you need to adapt your hike to your kids’ physical ability.
For hiking with babies, you can use whatever baby wearing carrier you already have. Just be sure it provides good support for you so it’s not strenuous on your back and shoulders. I had a BabyBjorn, which served me fine, but I also heard great things about Ergos and Moby Wraps.
The toddler years are tricky. They want to be independent and walk themselves, but they don’t have much stamina. Other times, they have no interest in hiking and want you to carry them. Again, this is where it’s important to plan your hike based on your child’s ability. For toddlers and young kids, that’s likely to mean shorter hikes. For babies (whom you’re carrying in a wrap or pushing in a stroller) and older kids, you can probably go for longer hikes.
When my sons reached the toddler years, we transitioned to a backpack carrier. It’s built on a hiking backpack frame so it distributes the child’s weight across your hips and off your shoulders, making it a much more comfortable hike for you. If you’re going to do a lot of hiking with kids, it’s definitely worth looking into. Just be resigned to the fact that you may spend parts of your hike putting the kid in the carrier and taking him back out again as he changes his mind between wanting to be carried and wanting to walk.
A stroller can be an option too as long as the terrain isn’t too rough. You may have to spend some of your earlier hikes experimenting with which option, or options, work best for your family.
Best Practices for Hiking With Kids
Alright, so now you know what to bring, but how do you get started? Well, it’s really not too hard, but after hiking with kids for several years I’ve learned a few tips to help make it go smoother.
Now, I’m not gonna lie. Sometimes, no matter how you prepare, no matter what you try, some hikes are just going to be busts. That’s okay, because that’s just kids. You’ve experienced this before I’m sure, whether it’s with another family outing, a soccer game, or a regular day going to school. Sometimes, kids just aren’t having it, and it is what it is. It’s okay to through in the towel and try again another day.
Check the weather
Sounds obvious, but it’s important. You don’t want a downpour to surprise you and ruin your hike. If your hike is a bit away from your home, make sure to check the weather there, especially if it’s prone to sudden weather changes. Locations in higher elevations or by shorelines can be particularly mercurial, or wildly different from the weather just a few miles away. It takes just a few seconds to check the weather at your hiking location, but it can make a world of difference in how successful your hike will be.
Choose the right hike
I’ve already mentioned a few times about how important it is to adjust your hike to your kids’ abilities. A good practice is to pick a hike based on the most inexperienced hiker. In the case of your family, you’re probably going to have to choose a hike based on the stamina of your youngest hiker. Remember that for every step you take, those little legs may have to take two or three steps. Hills that aren’t much of a challenge for you look much different when you’re three feet tall.
When you’re hiking with kids, don’t try to reach whatever fitness goals you have. Your goal for a family hike, at least with young kids, is for everyone to have a fun, injury-free hike. It’s hard to have fun when the hike is just too hard. Remember, you’re working toward building a love of hiking and the outdoors in your kids. Choose something that will be enjoyable for everyone.
Choose a fun hike
A loop around a park is boring. A straight line is boring. And when kids get bored, they get whiny, and when kids get whiny, nobody has any fun. Find a hike with interesting features to keep them engaged. Features that kids usually love include:
- Logs or rocks to climb over
- Hills (as long as they aren’t too steep)
- Wildlife (hopefully just small creatures and birds instead of bears!)
These features can also be motivating for kids. If they know they will see a waterfall at the end of their hike, it’s helpful to keep them moving.
Again, you’re not running a race or going for a personal best. Take breaks when your kids start lagging behind. Find a rock or log to plop down on and have a drink of water and a snack. It’s hard to have fun when you feel like you’re on a forced march. Taking a few short breaks will keep everyone’s energy up and make it a more pleasant experience for everyone.
Focus on the journey, not the end points
I admit, sometimes this is a struggle for me. It’s easy to get caught up in the distance of your hike and how long you think it should take. Well, kids don’t usually get caught up in such things. They get caught up in how light reflects in a stream, a cool looking tree, or adding to their leaf or rock collection. Resist the urge to hurry your kids along. Let them explore what interests them. After all, that’s how they develop a love for nature and hiking! If your hike takes longer than you think it should, that’s okay. Just let your kids (and yourself!) enjoy the hike.
Know when to bag it
If your kids are tired and cranky, there’s no reason to push forward just to finish the hike. I guarantee you no one will enjoy it. And worse, the next time you suggest a hike, your kids will probably groan and not want to go. Sometimes a hike just doesn’t go according to plan. Maybe it’s too hot and humid. Maybe the bugs are really biting. Or maybe someone is just tired and doesn’t have a hike in them. If someone is really miserable, it’s okay to end the hike. No one is going to be at the end of the trail to hand you an award if you finish, so if it’s not working, just turn around and head back to your car. It’s really okay.
Building a Family Tradition
Hiking with kids is one of the best things my husband and I decided to do. It gets all of us out and moving, and we’ve made some wonderful family memories hiking. Rather than sit around at home trying to figure out what to do on the weekend, go hit a trail. Start small and see how you like it. Remember that some will be winners and some will be duds. Take the good with the bad and go out and enjoy this cheap, fun, healthy family activity.