9 Tips for hiking with kids

By Helen Olsson | May 19, 2014

Ed. Note—We’re fortunate to have Helen Olsson, author of the Down and Dirty Guide to Camping with Kids as an Epic Mom. Spend a minute reading her work or chatting with her, and the first thing you notice is Helen’s pragmatic humor. This mom of three gets her brood outside year round. In the winter, the kids ski race. In the summer, they hike. And bike. And camp. And more. It’s fitting, then, that Helen wrote our post on tips for hiking with kids. She’s got a knack for convincing the kids that slogging uphill and down is more fun than watching movies or playing games on the iPad. Read on for how she does it.

Last summer, my three kids and I took a hike on top of Vail mountain. The wildflowers were starting to bloom—Indian paintbrush, heartleaf arnica, and lupine. After about an hour, my daughter, who was seven at the time, started to whine. “My feet are killing me,” she said. It’s no wonder. She was literally dragging them down the trail.

Then she found a giant stick, which transformed into a staff that gave her superior powers over her brothers in some fantasy story line concocted between the three of them. A marmot sighting, a long drink of water, and the promise of a trip to Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory in Vail Village propelled her back to the top of the gondola.

When hiking with kids, it’s wise to be tactical. If magical sticks fail you, try the following strategies of persuasion.

Be sure to take lots of breaks and enjoy the view.

Be sure to take lots of breaks and enjoy the view.

1. Manage expectations (yours)

Start by ratcheting back your own expectations about mileage goals and calories burned. The point of the hike isn’t that you get your cardio up, but that you’re instilling a love of adventure, the outdoors, and nature in your child.

If a child has fun on an easy half mile hike when they’re four years old, they’ll want to do longer more rigorous hikes as they get older.

2. Timing is everything

Go on hikes in the morning when kids are rested and well fed. Clearly you want to avoid nap time for the toddler set. For older kids, just after lunch works, too. Set out on an adventure when kids are tired and hungry, and you’re heading down a trail of tears.

3. “Hike” is a four letter word

Instead of saying you’re going on a “hike,” tell kids you’re going on an “adventure.” You’re going to explore a cave, or throw rocks in a pond, or dip your toes in a waterfall. The hiking concept is not a viable incentive for most small children. Sometimes it’s the destination, not the journey.

4. Trailside arts and crafts

Bring along crayons and paper and make rubbings of tree bark. Pack kid markers and paint the back side of leaves with the markers and then press the leaves onto paper. Better yet, do the rubbings and leaf prints in a nature journal to preserve kids’ art. These art projects are quick, easy, and the results are beautiful. Or just create something in nature out of found natural objects, a la Andy Goldsworthy. The artistic break will give kids a needed rest and the project will help connect them to nature.

On a recent hike, we stopped for 15 minutes to arrange a line of snail shells on a log.

On a recent hike, we stopped for a spell to arrange a line of snail shells on a log.

5. Take lots of breaks

When energy starts to flag, stop and rest. You may not make it that far, but that’s okay. (See #1.) Ply kids with water and high-energy snacks like GORP, granola bars, jerky, and nuts.

6. Play games

Play games as you tromp down the trail. The same games that fight boredom on a long car ride can distract kids from tired feet on the trail: twenty questions and eye spy (with my little eye). Alphabet games like “I went to Africa (and in my suitcase I brought back an antelope…)” will get you miles. Name that tune (one person hums, the others guess the tune) will have the entire family in stitches.

7. Entertain them

Sing songs, even if your voice is terrible. Tell silly jokes or riddles (bring along a book if you have to). Tell stories. Either true tales of your life (say, your engagement story or your child’s birth story)  or a good ghost story. You could just make up a story about aliens.

8. Buddy system

My kids tend to be motivated by their peers. If they have a buddy along, they’ll whine less and hike more. In this regard, children are like adults: they like to chat along the trail. The social component makes hikes more appealing for kids.

9. Last ditch: the sugar boost

Pack a small bag of treats like M&Ms, Skittles, jelly beans, or Energy Beans and give your child one for each pre-determined stretch of trail. “If you make it to that tree up there, you get a treat.” Simply put, this is bribe. I prefer, however, to call it an incentive. The promise of a little sugary reward is pretty darn effective at keeping kids moving on a hike.

Helen Olsson is the author of The Down & Dirty Guide to Camping with Kids. She blogs about outdoor adventures with kids at www.maddogmom.com.

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