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There is no better time than the present to start hiking with kids. It’s healthy and a proven mood-booster. A family hike is a great way to slow down, enjoy nature and de-stress. The leaves rustling in the wind. Rivers rushing by. Birds chirping. Read on for tips on how to get the kids off the couch, away from the iPad and into the woods. (Hint: Snacks are important!)
Simply put, hiking makes me happy. Prior to having children, I managed to enjoy a couple of vigorous hikes each week. This even included summiting a couple of Fourteeners, mountain peaks with elevations of 14,000 feet or higher. As my kids get older — they’re 7 and 11 now — I continue to cultivate them into family hiking buddies.
But those first hikes with your kids can be challenging. These tips for introducing kids to hiking will help make it more fun. Having the right gear helps, too.
Why Bother Hiking with Kids?
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Hiking offers a long list of health benefits — from lowering blood pressure, to building strength and bone density. Hiking helps us sleep better. Recent studies also show that hiking has mental health benefits. Being in nature lowers stress levels, boosts our mood and makes us happier. Time spent exploring nature also boosts attention spans and creative problem-solving skills.
When I am feeling stressed or having difficulty working through a problem, the first thing I will do is head out the door for a walk, run or hike and it always works. I return either with the problem solved or having put the situation into perspective. Some of my most creative ideas have developed while out in nature when I’ve taken a break from the computer and screen.
Why wouldn’t it be any different for our kids? While they are young is the best time to introduce them to an activity that has so many benefits, but it can be frustrating if you aren’t prepared or don’t have reasonable expectations.
How to Get Kids Off the Couch
1. Start Hiking as a Family Early
There is no such thing as hiking too early. A child of any age can enjoy being out in nature. The earlier you start getting your kids hiking, the easier it will be as they grow up. Even a short walk along a bike path or down to wade in a stream can count as a hike when they are young. Just get them outside and moving!
2. Locate Kid-Friendly Hiking Trails
When your kids are young, find flat trails that have interesting areas along the way. When my kids were very young, I located a trail near my home that was flat and about a half mile in had a nice shaded area by a stream perfect for picnics. I would carry our baby in a hiking carrier and our preschooler could trek along at her own pace smelling the flowers along the way. We’d end with a picnic by the river.
As they got older it became a bit harder to keep their interest. Finding a trail with waterfalls and caves, like Rifle Falls State Park near Vail, Colorado, then became key.
3. Have Reasonable Expectations for Hiking with Kids
This continues to be the most challenging for me. While your goal (and mine) may be to summit the top of a mountain to take in the spectacular vista, what motivates kids may be and should be completely different. They may want to pick raspberries along the way, splash in the water or explore caves. Don’t plan on a fast pace on your first hikes and let your kids just enjoy themselves. If you succeed at instilling a love of hiking then the challenges of summiting mountains can come later.
4. Make It Fun!
This may seem like an easy one, and it will be if you can follow the previous three steps. Pack a picnic with a special treat.
Play games like I Spy. Spot different animals, animal tracks or even animal scat. Count butterflies. Pick berries. Skip stones. Explore caves. Just have fun and enjoy your time as a family taking in our natural environment.
Bring along a compass, binoculars or magnifying glass and interweave some worldschooling. There’s plenty to learn naturally on a day hike.
End with a reward. On the way home stop for ice cream or a cold soda.
How to Prepare for Hiking with Kids
In addition to the tips above, there are a few items that can make or break the success of a family hike. So be prepared.
Bring Lots of Water and Snacks
We like to have everyone bring their own Camelbak hydration system backpack with a full bladder of water. They come in both adult and kid sizes. Having the water so accessible encourages our kids to stay hydrated. They can drink it along the way without having to stop and pull a bottle out of a pack.
But if you don’t have Camelbaks, just be sure to bring a small pack with water bottles. Drinking water is also one of the best ways to prevent altitude sickness if you are gaining in altitude.
We also pack lots of snacks and a picnic lunch. Trail mix and bars are easy to pack. (Try this recipe for making your own healthy trail mix.) There is no such thing as bringing too much water or food on a hike.
Keep a First Aid Kit in Your Pack
Ever since our kids did the Kids Adventure Race in Vail, we’ve kept a basic first aid kit in their CamelBacks. Bandaids, antiseptic and antibiotic ointment can make any injury feel better.
Wear or Bring Sunglasses, Hat, and Sunscreen
Protecting your skin and eyes from the sun is so important, especially at altitude. You want to stay comfortable and avoid a surprise sunburn. These are our favorite sunscreens for babies and kids.
Wear Quality Hiking Boots and Socks
Breathable, no-chafe hiking socks like Smartwool are great for longer hikes. Shoes could be tennis shoes or a more durable pair of hiking boots depending on where and how long you are hiking. But you want to be comfortable and able to manage any rocky terrain without getting blisters.
Wear and Bring Layers
My favorite hiking pants are ones that have legs that zip off to convert to shorts. Bring a fleece and light rain jacket that you can pack in your backpack. Chances are that you will encounter different temperatures along the way, and different weather can roll in quickly. One of the first Colorado hikes I went on began as a sunny fall day then turned into a snowstorm on our way back to the trailhead.
For more tip on packing for your hike, read these 7 Tips for Hiking in the Desert.
The Payoff of Hiking with Kids
Don’t miss the opportunity this summer to get your entire family outside and hiking through green fields, across sparkling streams, through canyons and up to waterfalls — or even around the neighborhood or in your nearest state park. At the end of the day, you will all sleep better and be healthier and happier. There’s not a better gift you could give your children than a love of hiking.