Going on a family hike is a great way to encourage kids to be active and connect with nature. But sometimes the reality isn’t Instagram-ready. Parents and caregivers, we’ve been there. There’s occasional whining, and getting through a hike may take a little bribery and a whole lot of cajoling. It doesn’t always have to be that way. Here are 15 tips to make hiking fun for kids:
Plan Your Hike Together and Talk Up the Adventure
Let kids have a say in choosing what type of hike you’ll do. Even if they’re too young to pick the location, you can give them choices: Should we walk by a river today? Climb some rocks? Search for the biggest tree? Build up anticipation for the adventure while giving them a sense of ownership over the trip. No one wants to feel like they’re being dragged along. Browse a guidebook or an app like the Hiking Project to help you plan together.
Assign Your Kids a “Job”
Kids love having meaningful jobs. On the trail, assign your kids responsibilities. Let them take turns leading the group. Give your child a printed map and put them in charge of navigating. Or dub them the medic and let them carry the first-aid kit.
Bring a Friend Along
Other kids can be the best motivators on the trail. Invite your child’s friends or another family to go hiking with you. Kids will become so busy exploring with their buddies they’ll likely forget to ask you how much farther it is. If you run into other kids on the trail, be open to letting your kids connect with them.
Incorporate a Navigation App
While the goal is to get kids unplugged and outside, using a navigation app on your hike can teach as well as motivate your kids. Hiking apps allow them to see where they’re going, where they’re at and mark their progress.
Go at Their Pace
Let your kids set the pace of the hike, even it’s much slower than you would go. For kids, the journey is often more important than the destination. Factor in plenty of time for the hike so you don’t rush and have the luxury to check things out. A slower pace will allow you to see things at your kids’ level. They’ll want to touch and feel things and they’re inevitably going to find marvelous things that you have missed.
Expose Them to Different Hikes
Kids, like adults, may need several different experiences before hiking becomes second nature. Take your kids on a variety of hikes and gauge their reactions. If meandering through a dense forest doesn’t do the trick, find a boardwalk trail or a hike that starts high and gives you sweeping views. Or grab flashlights, headlamps or cheap glow sticks and hit a local trail at night.
Pack Lots of Snacks
Kids burn off calories faster than you think. Pack a variety of snacks. Ask your kids what they want to eat and have them help you pack snacks or carry some snacks in their packs. This may be a good time to break out favorite treats they have only on special occasions.
Make a Game of It
Whether you’re geocaching, playing “I Spy,” doing a scavenger hunt or playing 20 questions, use your environment as a prop for trail games. Tell a story or create an imaginary scenario on your hike; maybe you’re all superheroes who have to reach the “enemy base” before sunset and the only way to charge up your power is if you identify certain objects along the way. Use your imagination. Print out free scavenger hunt worksheets from the internet before you go. Read more in our article on Geocaching with Kids.
Consider giving your kids a reward like a small treat, hand stamp or sticker when you reach certain landmarks along the trail or if they identify a certain number of plants, trees or other objects.
Plan an End-of-Hike Reward
Let your child pick where to go for an end-of-hike reward whether it’s frozen yogurt or a favorite lunch spot. If their spirits are low, you can dangle this reward and talk it up as you’re walking. Tell them, “I can’t wait to go get ice cream. What flavor are you going to get?” You may get them talking on this topic for a while.
Leave No Trace
It’s never too early to teach your children about the principles of Leave No Trace to minimize their impact on the outdoors. Encourage them to look and touch but leave things where they are. Challenge them to see how they could apply the seven principles—for example, respecting wildlife, disposing of trash properly or being considerate of others—while you’re hiking. Find games and activities that you can do with your kids outside.
Chronicle the Trip
Take along a journal, sketchbook or a camera (instant cameras are great) and encourage your kids to explore and record their hike.
Let Them Carry Their Own Gear
Even the smallest kids enjoy carrying a (small) backpack. Give them just a few items like snacks or a whistle. Older kids may want binoculars or their own trekking poles.
Read Your Kids’ Cues
You know your kids best. If they’re hungry or tired, read their cues and take a snack or water break. Be aware of how far you are from the trailhead and decide when is a good time to turn around—even if you haven’t reached your destination.
Challenge Your Kids
Kids are often more resilient than adults may give them credit for. Start small at first but don’t be afraid to try longer or harder hikes as your family logs more miles. As you spend more time hiking with your kids, you’ll get a better sense of their abilities and will find that sweet spot between pushing them too hard and keeping hikes challenging enough to pique their interest.