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Kids and Hiking

Love hiking? Got kids? So how do you persuade kids to enjoy hiking and the outdoors as much as you do?

In search of secrets for turning kids into enthusiastic hikers, we asked around—REI colleagues, Facebook fans, Twitter followers. We picked up lots of good ideas, including this excellent insight: If you can't think like a child, don't invite one on your hike.

Among the most popular tips:

  • Bring plenty of snacks.
  • When starting, hike short distances and commit to traveling at a child's pace.
  • Let your kids invite a friend along. (Adults become boring. Peers are cool.)
  • Let kids participate in hike-planning.
  • Emphasize fun: play games, look for treasure, try geocaching.
  • Seriously, bring lots of snacks and stop often to let kids scarf them down.

The following is a selective collection of the top tips we heard. We invite you to join the dialogue and share your advice in the comments section at the end of this article.

Planning a Hike

Keep it close to home. You can most easily manage naps, feedings, and an all-out bad experience if you are within a short distance of home the first few times you head out. Matt Johnson, REI

It doesn't have to be in the woods. You can take a hike in a city and see historical sites as you go, or take a hike from site to site and teach them as you go. Kenneth Morrow, Facebook fan

My son is 6, and his interest varies from one hike to the next. His attention span has been challenged by electronics—the same influence we all face. So for each hike I do some preplanning. I figure out if we might be able to find "treasure" (a geocache) along the way, pick a great spot for a picnic, visit a swimming hole, or follow a river to a scenic area. Deanna Delarosa, REI

Our boys are ages 5 and 8. My wife and I take them hiking frequently. Before a hike one thing that I do is a little bit of research. Not on the hike or geography, but into details about a toy/video game/book series/movie that interests the boys. When they reach that point in a hike where one of them "can't go any further," I can ask them a probing question: "Is it level 5 or 6 of that game you play where you get the power to use the magic sword that you take from the dragon and that guy with the red pants?" I can frequently get 15-minute monologues laced with high levels of technical detail, or I'll hear impassioned debates about accuracy. Either one will completely overwhelm their feelings of fatigue and boredom. Wesley Meyer, REI

Choosing a Destination

Always have a fun and really cool objective at the end of the hike—a waterfall, a lake or something equally special. Ivar Chhina, REI

Having a destination with water involved is always a great motivator. Anita Kortbawi, REI

My 3 kids are teenagers now, but views weren't a big hit with them when they were kids. But interesting elements—a hollow tree to stand in, or a cave—were good motivators. Robin Westler, REI

One summer we planned a 2-week vacation to Yellowstone with my 4- and 7-year-old girls. The theme was "we hike to waterfalls." We got a guidebook and at every stop we included a hike to a waterfall. The bonus: When we got to or near the falls, the girls got to play in the water wherever it was safe. And there was always a big lunch in the backpack to be eaten near the water. There were several 4- to 5-mile round-trip hikes successfully completed that vacation, and yes, both girls did all the hiking. Roberta Miner, REI

Get your kids outside every day and look around for the small things—a mushroom, an ant, a particular plant. You don't need to go for a 5-mile hike to see beautiful things. Find them in a garden, at a farm or in a local park. Rebecca Bear, REI

Preparing for a Hike

Don't call it "hiking." The word implies arduous miles of work to a child. Call it "adventuring," as in "Who wants to go on an adventure today?" Ivar Chhina, REI

Get kids involved with the preparation process. Have them look at maps, choose the correct clothing, help with the food and select a favorite nonelectronic toy to bring along. Give them their own daypack and outfit it with an emergency whistle, rain jacket, compass and mini first-aid kit with colorful kid bandages. Show them how to use their gear in case of emergency. Practice on the trail. Go easy on the whistle, though. Suzanne Faith, REI

Have them help prepare snacks and fill the water bottles. Rachelle Stanko, REI

Be diligent about having everything ready to go long before it is time to walk out the door. The day of the trip needs to be just that—the day you go hiking. Little kids' schedules don't have room for running around and trying to pack up right before you leave. Always bring things that go a long way toward keeping kids happy: dry clothes and shoes, warm jackets, full water bottles and their favorite snack food. Matt Johnson, REI

On hot days, bring along a spray bottle filled with water. A nice mist feels so refreshing. Anita Kortbawi, REI


The No. 1 tip is to have lots of snacks for kids. Hiking uses a lot of energy and children need to replenish more frequently than adults. Nuts, string cheese, dried fruits, gummy candies, M&M's are all hits with my children. Roberta Miner, REI

I'm ashamed to admit it, but a little family pre-hike snack shopping helps build enthusiasm. Something about knowing you get to munch Cheetos on the lunch break keeps my kids going. Greg Polkinghorn, REI

Bring your MSR Super Fly (stove) with you and whip up some hot chocolate on your favorite overlook! Gabe Talaga, Facebook fan


Embrace the pace set by kids. Make frequent stops. You have to be OK with 1) Not making it to the waterfall or other destination, 2) Not getting a workout in (if that's your motivation), and 3) Changing plans at the drop of a hat. Mark Harding, REI

Be prepared to bail. Don't push it, or you'll turn your kids off forever. You need to be highly attuned to your kids during this time and remember they have little legs. A forced death march to an end objective that Dad just has to get to is a guarantee for a bad time. Ivar Chhina, REI

Don't have "summit fever" and don't flinch from bailing. Pick a tree/rock and go to it. Then pick another. Tweeted by chriskruell

It's all about keeping them engaged and interested in the activity. Once they are "bored," you're dead. Be prepared to go with the flow and allow them to be distracted and pursue whatever catches their attention. Let them drive the activity; don't force your agenda of what you expected the day to involve. If the hike lasts 30 minutes, great. If it lasts 10 minutes—make sure it was a fun 10 minutes and don't force the issue. Tad Summerset, REI

Emphasize Fun

Have no agenda the first few times you take a kid hiking or snowshoeing. The whole goal is to make sure that their experience is FUN so they will want to go again. Allow them to go as far as they desire and when they are done, leave. Have some surprises in your backpack for while you are out on the trail. Over time you can get them interested in the route itself. Nicole Knowles, REI

Don't forget to take pictures at the trailhead to keep track of the hiking locations they visited. Hien T., REI

Get your kids into a night hike. Give them a headlamp to wear and they'll walk for miles! A Tweeted tip

Put duct tape on inside out and have them collect small items to attach to the tape. Instant jewelry! Vicki Moore Patten, Facebook fan

Hiking for our family is really just an excuse to snack in the woods, and maybe pee on a tree. My girls, 8 and 6, have been hiking as long as they've been alive. My youngest isn't that fond of hiking, but she loves to sing, so we sing when we hike. Marisa Laughlin Tucker, Facebook fan

Keeping Kids Interested

When hiking with my 4- and 7-year-olds, I've found keeping them entertained is key. So we play games every time we hike. One of their favorites is making a list of items and trying to find them as we hike. It's kind of like a scavenger hunt. Another game we play is to pick a letter then try to find as many things on the hike that start with that letter. You can also do this with animals and try to see how many different animals we can find on the hike. Geocaching is another activity we do on hikes. The kids get really excited about the idea of finding a treasure. Peter Newton, REI

Introduce them to geocaching and they'll be running up the trail looking for treasure. Really. Tweeted by navratil

I echo the geocaching idea. Kids love treasure hunting. Just don't get too obsessed if you can't find it. Kids get bored more easily than I do. Let them pick out some of their old toys to swap. Rodney A. Buck, Facebook fan

Setting a day hike up as a scavenger hunt for my nieces and nephews (ranging in age from 3 to 10) not only makes it fun but can also be very educational. Have them identify local flora and fauna and get points (or stickers) for it. Rachel Asimakopoulos, REI

Have kids find a twig in the shape of a certain letter. Or find a leaf with 5 fingers. Or find 3 different kinds or colors of berries. Sometimes they can hunt as a team, other times it can be a competition between the kids on who could find something first. Robin Westler, REI

On our first hike with our 4 year old, he just wanted to lie down in the middle of the trail and take a nap. So my husband put a leaf on the trail with a berry on it every so often and my son went from berry to berry like a treasure hunt. Popped those berries into his mouth and kept on truckin’ all the way to the car. It gave me a great opportunity to teach him about what to eat or not to eat—or to always ask—at the same time. He had fun and still remembers it to this day (as do we). Brenda Miller, REI

Let Kids Be Kids

Bring props. Pirate hats, patches and spy scopes are great. Wander around, stop and look at bugs or animals, take detours, climb boulders in a King of the Mountain contest. Two-way radios work really well too—anything that makes it more fun, more like play than like taking a walk. Ivar Chhina, REI

Point out interesting objects: Rocks, trees, animals, bugs, leaves. Let them jump from a stump or climb up on a rock. Keep it fresh and fun! UJ Cha, REI

My kids are highly energetic. Even in kindergarten and grade-school they were easily bored on manicured trails. Their favorite hikes have always included room to run, scramble over rocks, climb trees, swim, dig, build forts out of driftwood and interact with other kids. They like to be loud, so initially I took them places that allowed them space for this. As they grew older and their outdoor experience increased, they learned to appreciate the quiet of the outdoors. Lynne Christiansen, REI

Gear That Makes Kids Happy

Even if they are only 3 years old (or younger), give them something to carry. You can find the tiniest of packs and let them carry a sandwich. Or a piece of fruit. Or a jacket—whatever. It makes them feel like they are an important part of the whole trip and important in general—they love it. Brenda Miller, REI

Kids definitely like cool gear and being like mom and dad. Get them their own headlamp, pack, CamelBak or water bottle. Rodney A. Buck, Facebook fan

I agree with everyone else who mentioned CamelBaks (hydration packs), absolutely. My girls will do ANYTHING I want them to if they get to wear their CamelBaks. Emily Poole, Facebook fan

Shop REI's selection of hydration packs and kids' water bottles.

A pair of binoculars, a magnifying glass, and a field book are fun ways to make a hike interactive. Our son started hiking with me in the kid carrier, and by 3 he was doing short hikes on his own. Now at 5 he asks when will our next hike be. David Troutner, REI

Bring an identification book or fold-up identification card for flowers, birds, trees or plants. Give kids a camera and make a game of trying to identify and photograph as many flowers/birds/trees/plants as possible along the trail. The kids are having so much fun identifying things and taking pictures they don't even realize they're also hiking. You could even give out an award for the kid who finds the most by the end of the hike. Heather Gyselman, REI

Tips for Toddlers

During your first few times out on the trail with a toddler, you may only "hike" for 20 minutes—but you might wander around and examine every rock within a 50 foot radius of the trail for 2 hours. Be OK with really doing nothing more than that and everyone will have a great time. Matt Johnson, REI

Early walkers (12 to 24 months) usually like to wander rather than hike, so prepare yourself for it. It will probably be a mental adjustment for you to start your hike by wandering around the trailhead instead of getting on the trail. You may cover little to no distance at all and spend a lot of time examining rocks, dirt, bushes and sticks. Joshua Motland, REI

Your little one will inevitably tire on a hike, so wear a child-carrier backpack to carry him when he does. My son will fall asleep in the pack, allowing me to extend the length and duration of a hike. We got our son used to the pack by wearing it (and him) around the house and doing chores like vacuuming. That way, when it's time to hike he's already accustomed to the experience. Mark Harding, REI

Don’t be afraid to stop and let your child out of the carrier and enjoy the touch and feel of the outdoors for themselves now and then. They need to stretch their legs, too. Bryan Karol, REI

When using a child carrier, take time to be doubly sure that your pre-hiker is comfortable. The discomfort of a soiled diaper is probably going to be aggravated in a child backpack where all the baby's weight is resting on it. Baby's pants will inevitably creep up from ankle to knee leaving bare legs exposed, so make sure and have a first layer on underneath in cool weather—about 55 degrees or cooler, depending on wind and your baby's preference. Joshua Motland, REI

Shop REI's selection of child carriers.

Hiking with Pre-teens

I hiked the West Coast Trail (on British Columbia's Vancouver Island) with my 11-year-old on a 5-day backpacking trip. The secret to success: My son carried only 14% of his body weight, or 10 pounds max, including his small pack. Have a good waterproof jacket, have dry clothes for bed and eat well. It rained 3 days solid, and he never complained once. We shared the cooking and read up on the history before we went. It was great. Peter Sutherland, REI

For ages 8 to 14, let the kids bring toys, headphones or electronic playthings to help get them adjusted from popular society to woods culture. They'll drop that stuff as they move along, or maybe they won't. They'll decide their own schedule and manner for embracing the outdoors. Either way, you got them outside, didn't you? Joshua Motland, REI

I take 11- to 14-year-olds out on hiking and snowshoeing trips, and I think it's important to incorporate some sort of fun, educational aspect. Get a map of the area and go over it with your child before you go and while you're on the trail. Grab a book to see what wildlife you may discover or read about the history of the area. Your kids feel more connected to your outing, and you may even learn something, too. Elizabeth Busse, REI

Tips from the REI Outdoor School

Equip each child over 4 with a whistle.

  • Three blows means "I'm lost."
  • Rehearse with a child what to do when lost. (Stay put, blow whistle.)
  • Place the whistle on a small carabiner and clip it to the back of the child's pack or a belt loop. Teach kids not to use it as a plaything.

No open-toed footwear; avoid cotton socks (they're slow to dry and are prone to causing blisters).

Equip kids with sunglasses, a sun hat and generous layer of sunscreen.

Carry ample water.

Carry a basic first-aid kit, plus extra bandages, cleansing wipes and athletic tape. Shop REI's selection of first-aid kits.

REI Outdoor School classes are available regionally across the U.S.

Random Tips

Generate Enthusiasm

Express your own sense of wonder. Take note of the changes that are going on outside and get excited about it. My 2-year-old, for example, got sooo excited about skiing just because I was. When we went out and had fun, it made her even more interested in going again. Every day I point out something in nature: "Look, the tulips are coming out and it's only February!" "Look at the snow on the mountains today!" Rebecca Bear, REI

The Earlier, the Better

Start them young. As they get a little older allow them to bring their friends. Exploring outdoors is a lifestyle that takes getting used to. If a kid is just thrown into it after living their life inside and always close to the comforts of the urban lifestyle, they will initially resist the extremes of outdoor living. Craig Brewer, REI

Share Responsibilities with Kids

Before we start a hike I look at the route options and see if my son, age 6, wants to pick the route we take. One of our favorite hikes is in an area that has 3 different colored trails with blazes of the same color. He is responsible for finding the blazes on the trees to make sure we stick to the right colored path. Deanna Delarosa, REI

In camp, kids love putting up tents. Put them in charge of clearing the ground, laying out the tent and putting the stakes in the ground. Suzanne Faith, REI

Teach them LNT (Leave No Trace principles) from day one. Derek Mogensen, Facebook fan


If you feel comfortable identifying plants, choose trails that pass by lots of berry bushes. In the Northwest we have a lot of huckleberries along trails. Our kids would literally bound down the trails to get to the next group of bushes or to be the one to find the largest huckleberry. This led them to go farther than they would usually be willing to go. We have great memories of them with purple fingers and purple smiling faces! Of course, this is a good time to teach them about not trampling plants and only picking the huckleberries they can reach from the trail. Robin Westler, REI

On Sustaining a Young Hiker's Interest, from Toddler to Teenager

We took our daughter on her first backpacking trip when she was 3 years old. We went with another family who had an older child, so she was motivated to keep up. She wore a day pack that had only a jacket in it, and we planned a 1-mile hike in with little elevation gain. Halfway into the hike, she was tired, so we carried her day pack. That was enough to keep her going. She loved the experience. We have gone every year since.

The keys: Have a friend along if possible, let kids establish the pace, and always have trail treats for a reward. Make sure kids are well "fueled" or they will hit the wall. Many times we ended up at the trailhead around lunch time, and 30 minutes into the hike the kids would bonk. Feeding them before we started the hike became the new norm.

Lastly, as our daughter got older she would whine and try to get out of going. We always made her go on at least one backpacking trip a year, and once she hit the trail the whining would stop. She is 15 now. She doesn't admit it yet, but she clearly benefits from the outdoor experience. No cell phone or TV—it's one of the few times she can really relax. Carolyn Burnham, REI

See the Big Picture

Enjoy the moment. Though it may be years before you spend a night in the tent or go on a long hike to a grand destination, you are planting the seed for a potential future outdoor enthusiast. The hours you spend throwing rocks in the lake at the foot of a mountain you would like to hike, ski or climb may be just the thing to help get you up there with your kids a few years down the line. Matt Johnson, REI

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