If you’re looking for a cheap and easy way to get outside with your kids this fall, there’s no better way than hitting the trail for a hike together. I love hiking because you don’t need any special equipment, and within a matter of minutes, you can get away the crowds and get some solitude. Especially right now, we have that crisp fall air that’s just starting to make an appearance, which makes it much easier and more comfortable for kids to hike even farther.
Even though getting out on a hike can be one of the easiest outdoor activities for families, it’s a whole lot easier to get everyone to the trail than it is to keep them happy while they’re on the trail. With my own kids, we’ve seen our fair share of rough days out on the trails, but we’ve also learned a lot about how to avoid the meltdowns and keep the whole family happy while hiking. So next time you head out, try my top 10 tips (and lessons learned) for hiking with kids.
1. Make sure your kids are prepared
Before you ever set out on the trail, it’s important to make sure your kids are well prepared for your hike. Part of that is making sure they’re in good enough shape to handle the hike, but the rest of it is mental.
I’ve found that my kids hike significantly better if they know what to expect and we’ve talked through the trail in advance. Let them know how far you’re hiking, how long you think it’ll take and what sort of amazing things you might see, so they can start anticipating what’s going to happen.
2. Let your kids choose the trails
Do you have a kid who doesn’t want to hike? Let them choose where you go next. One of the absolute best ways I’ve found to get kids involved in hiking is to let them have a say in where you go. Maybe they really love waterfalls or they secretly want to hike to the mountain they see on their way to school.
We love using All Trails to help us find new hikes, and our kids love that we can download our trail maps, so they know exactly where we’re headed. If you’re like our family and have multiple kids, take turns choosing and put those hikes on the calendar well in advance so that everyone gets a turn to pick the next hiking spot.
3. Dress in layers
Whether you’re in the mountains or out in the desert, it’s no surprise that the weather can change fast when you’re out hiking. This is especially true during the late summer and fall months, when it could be sunny one minute, and 30 minutes later the weather takes a turn and you’re stuck in the middle of a rainstorm.
Our typical hiking attire is a quick-drying short sleeve shirt, with a long sleeve shirt or packable rain jacket in the backpack. Our goal is to keep everyone comfortable without getting too hot or too cold, and having a couple different layers gives you more options to face the weather. I find that layering our clothing is especially important in the fall when a lot of our hikes happen in the late afternoon after school gets out.
4. Pack lots of food
I’m not quite sure what it is, but whether we’ve been on the trail for 15 minutes or two hours, my kids are all STARVING! There’s got to be something about combining lots of fresh air and walking, but on the hiking trail, most kids seem to eat limitless amounts of granola bars, trail mix and orange slices.
When packing for a hike, I recommend taking twice what your kids will eat on a regular day. While prepackaged foods can make getting out the door easier, I find that my kids hike the best when we stick to healthier snacks. Our favorites are baby carrots, oranges, trail mix and just about anything with peanut butter to help fuel them throughout the day.
5. Carry plenty of water
Although snacks are great motivators, water is key to a good hiking experience. If kids get dehydrated, their energy plummets, their mood sours and you run the risk of more serious health problems.
As a good rule of thumb, kids 8 and under need about one liter of water for a 3-4-hour hike and kids from 9-14 need 1.5 liters of water. If you’re hiking in the direct sun or in a hot climate, plan on taking more.
Since carrying all that water can get heavy, I highly recommend taking kid-sized hydration packs. Not only are they easy for the kids to carry plenty of water, but most of them also have other little pockets, so they make a great small backpack. Hydration packs for the kids, especially on longer hikes have been a game changer for us. Check out my review of the best kids hydration packs.
6. Bring bribes
While healthy snacks are the best foods for hiking with kids, make sure that you always have a few bribes with you as well. You see, at some point during the hike, your kids may want to give up, and you’re going to need a bit of a bribe to keep them going.
I always keep a bag of gummy bears in my backpack for “hiking emergencies.” When the kids start getting extra tired and whiny, I’ll say something like, “Everyone who can make it to the top of the next hill without complaining can have three gummy bears” and suddenly their energy levels skyrocket. I know it sounds simple, but having a few small candy bribes works wonders for kids of all ages (and tired parents, too).
7. Be persistent
Realistic expectations are important when hiking with kids, and chances are high that your kids won’t be amazing hikers when you start out. Just keep going.
The first few hikes of the year always seem to be a bit harder than the later ones as the kids once again get used to the dirt under their feet and relearn how to navigate over stumps and rocks. Start with small hikes and gradually build up your mileage and time on the trail throughout the year.
8. Pair up older and younger kids
If you’re hiking with kids in a wide age range, try to pair up an older kid with a younger one. It will help motivate the younger one to keep up with their older buddy and will also help older kids hike at a slower pace with the rest of the group.
In our family, there is a 10-year age gap between our oldest and youngest kids. Our oldest son would have no problem sprinting down the trail, while our toddler still wants to stop and pick up every cool stick he sees. Pairing them together gives our teenager a reason to slow down and helps our three-year-old stay motivated to keep up with the big kids.
As a bonus, our younger kids tend to hike longer when paired with another child, as opposed to with mom or dad who they know will offer a piggyback ride when their legs get tired.
9. Be creative
Hiking with kids can be incredibly slow, especially with the under-five crowd. While it may work to have some days that they just play with rocks and look for bugs, if you get creative, you’ll find lots of ways to move little legs down the trail.
Our family plays lots of games, like 20 Questions, I Spy and Would You Rather, while we hike. When the kids get tired of playing games, we’ll start telling them stories. And when all else fails, we have races down the trail. The more you can take your kids’ minds off the fact that they’re hiking and get them thinking about something else, the better they’ll hike.
We’ve also found that packing a small pair of kid binoculars or a jar to catch bugs is also a great addition to your hiking backpack if you have room. Hikes with young kids can be tricky, but if you’re willing to think outside the box, you’ll come up with lots of ways to motivate your kids to hike more.
10. Hike with friends
I saved my best piece of advice for last. Hiking with friends always makes time on the trail so much more fun. It’s the best way I’ve found to motivate my kids to hike when they’d rather stay home, and it always helps improve everyone’s attitudes.
Kids always seem to be able to hike farther and faster with friends involved, so inviting them along is an especially great idea if you’re wanting to do a hike that’s a bit more challenging (just make sure the friends are in shape for it, too).
While we sometimes let our kids invite a single friend on a hike, we’ve found that the perfect fit for us is to find another family with similarly aged kids and invite them all along. That way, everyone has a friend (including mom and dad).
Hiking has always been one of our favorite outdoor adventures to do together, and learning the secrets of hiking with kids has made it so much fun for our family. As a parent, it’s always been a hope of mine that my kids would love the same things that I love, and after 13 years of hiking with our kids, we are starting to see the benefits in so many ways.
Possibly the best reward of all? Our kids decided to start up a biweekly hiking club with their friends this fall and so far, it’s been the best thing ever.
As a mom, it’s been an absolute joy to watch my kids evolve from toddling down the trail at a snail’s pace to leading adventures of their own, and problem-solving ways they can help their friends have a great time. I hope you enjoy some fall family hiking treks, too!
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Jessica Averett is an adventure-loving mom to five kids. She and her family have a serious case of wanderlust and are constantly exploring to find the best travel experiences for families. You can follow her writing and adventures at Bring The Kids, where she shares how to get outside and live an adventurous, travel-filled life with kids in tow.