On most vacations and open weekend afternoons, you’ll find our family scouting out a new trail. We began our hiking adventures when our oldest was a high-energy preschooler. It was a great way to enjoy nature while he burned off some extra energy. Along the way, we have learned some tips and tricks for family hiking.
Our kids aren’t always natural hikers – sometimes walking is ‘boring’ for them. And we’ve found out (the hard way) that when you hike with kids you MUST be prepared.
1. Get off to a good start
Be sure that everyone gets a good night’s sleep – tired kids are not good hiking companions (neither are tired parents!) Hit the bathrooms before you leave the house and make sure tummies are full so you don’t have to stop for a snack as soon as you start out.
2. Pack enough water and food (and then pack extra)
It seems that hiking brings out the thirst in everyone so be sure to have enough water. If you don’t hike often, bring more than you think you’ll need. Make sure each person has their own water bottle (trust me – we thought our youngest could share with us when she was little and we all came home thirsty). Since water can be heavy to carry, having individual bottles for each person will help to distribute the weight.
The same logic should be applied for snacks. You’ll be burning quite a few calories so have some high protein, easy to eat snacks with you. I would recommend whole pieces of fruit (apples and bananas travel well), protein bars and trail mixes.
3. Make sure everyone has good walking shoes
The last thing you’ll want is blisters or stubbed toes, so be sure everyone has comfortable footwear with non-slip soles. This can be tricky with younger kids but sneakers usually work well on most trails.
Cushioned socks also help. We always bring extra socks for everyone and also back a few blister bandages just in case. It could be a year of drought and my kids still will find some way to get their feet wet. And you’ll never know when you might have to cross a creek or huge puddle as you follow the trail.
4. Always be prepared
Murphy’s Law applies here – if you have the needed supplies, chances are you won’t need them. Without them, you’re sure to have a child with a scraped knee or get caught in a rain storm.
A few recommended must-haves include: any needed medications, sunscreen, bug spray, a flashlight, hats for everyone, a lighter or matches and rain ponchos just in case. We also pack a tablecloth so we have a place to sit and eat along the way.
5. Carry a backpack (or two)
After the list I just gave you, this suggestion is a no brainer. We’ve found it helpful to have two backpacks filled with hiking gear. It helps to distribute the weight and is great if you decide to split up to explore different areas. Younger kids might enjoy wearing a ‘fanny pack’ where they can keep a snack and any treasures they find along the way.
6. Don’t be over-zealous
Chances are your 3-year old won’t be able to do a five-mile hike their first trip out. Keep the age and experience of your group in mind when you choose your trail. Kids younger than 5 will most likely enjoy a 45 minute hike before they begin to get tired and hungry. Older kids will last longer but may get antsy if they have other plans so set expectations before you hit the trail.
7. Bring a map!
Do you see the exclamation point above? Don’t go and think “I can just pull it up on my cell phone” because you can never guarantee that you’ll have cell coverage. Visit the website ahead of time to see if it offers a pdf of the trail map. Or stop by the Visitor’s Center or Ranger’s Station to pick up a map before you start out.
In addition, most parks will list more details on their printed maps than you can find if you pull them up online (I have no idea why they don’t just scan the print maps but we’ve learned that many just offer a Google Map of the area).
8. Turn a walk into a quest
As adults, we enjoy the quiet of the forest along with its natural beauty. Kids enjoy that for about five minutes and then want to know what’s next. Give them a few ‘quests’ along the way — for example, see who can make it to the next pine tree first or challenge them to walk and count 50 more steps.
Try a photo scavenger hunt on the hike by taking pictures of one item for every color in the rainbow. Or play a game of “I Spy” as you walk.