Hiking with young kids can be a challenge. Sure, it’s incredibly rewarding when the hike goes according to plan, but more often than not your kid’s enthusiasm will wane well short of the trail’s end. Slow-walking and meltdowns can turn idyllic nature time into an outdoor fiasco.
Shanti Hodges is the founder of Hike It Baby, an organization dedicated to getting families out in nature, and knows all about what can go wrong (and right) while hiking with small children. She’s also the author of Hike It Baby: 100 Awesome Outdoor Adventures with Babies and Toddlers, which is why Fatherly asked Hodges for a few tips and some fun games to play with kids while on the trail. Here are seven of her favorites.
BEFORE YOU GO
- Pack your car the night before your hike. Hodges says it’s easy to get derailed before you ever get out the door, but if your gear is already in the car, you’re more likely to get out there.
- Pack extra snacks. Hodges always brings more snacks than she expects to need. “Every other kid is going to want my snacks!” She likes to slide a couple fun treats like gummy bears or lollipops into her bag, too, in the event of a midtrail melt-down.
- Pick your trails carefully. It’s good to find trails that have multiple options. “If the day is going really well, you can hike something full-on,” she says. Other times, a shorter loop or even just a trip to a nature center might suit your kid’s mood better. Flexibility is key for enjoying the outdoors with younger children.
GAMES TO PLAY
Follow The Map
This one requires planning ahead but is well-worth the effort in trail-side fun. You’ll need paper and pencils or crayons. Draw a map of the trail for the day’s hike. It doesn’t have to be real. In fact, the more imaginative and creative the better, says Hodges. Then point out trail features along the way and match them to the predrawn map. If you don’t have time to draw a map, Hodges says a store-bought treasure map works well, too.
Hodges likes to pack a plastic magnifying glass in her bag for hikes with kids. Find objects such as leaves, bark, or rocks along the trail, and help your son or daughter use the glass to inspect them up close. If you’re lucky, you’ll also come across a lot of bugs.
This game is best for a group of kids hiking trails that are wide and relatively smooth ⏤ so avoid playing on those with rocks or roots that might lead to tripping. Play is simple: Tell the group to run ahead and then yell freeze. “So you say, ‘run, run, run, freeze!’ And they all freeze in a statue,” says Hodges. You can also give the kids a specific shape, such as a tree, to depict when they freeze. They just have to stay frozen until you reach them. If the kids are a little older, they can take turns being in charge of telling the group to run/freeze.
‘Kim’s Game’ is a good option for snack time or if you want to take a sit-down break during your hike ⏤ just remember to bring a cloth or bandana. Find a set of small objects, such as a colorful rock, some leaves, or small sticks. You can also include objects from your pockets such as a key (just not the one to the car you drove there in, that’s dangerous). Arrange the objects on a rock or in the dirt. Allow the kids to see the objects for a minute or two. Then, cover them. Ask the group to share which objects they remember until they’ve named them all.
Story (or Drawing) Time
This is another good option for a mid-hike break. Slide a small book in your pack and read along the trail, says Hodges. Maybe it’s a short poem. Or maybe you want to find a shady spot and sit down for a full story. Hodges finds that a quiet sit-down adds something special to the hiking experience. She also sometimes packs kid-friendly notebooks and pencils for a trailside drawing session.
“We do a lot of talking about what you see on the trail,” says Hodges of hikes with her kids. Find five different shades of green or five different birds. With younger kids, she emphasizes recognizing the differences among the natural objects they’re seeing. “They don’t need to name the birds, just count them,” says Hodges. “You’re just using nature as a landscape and having kids pick it out.”
Follow the Leader
This classic is a simple as putting one kid in charge of leading a group down the trail. They can make everybody do a funny walk or dance as they’re hiking, as well as decide when the group should stop to look around. You can also encourage the leader to play other games, such as ‘Find Five, at the same time. Hodges has found that kids absorb trail directions quickly and “giving them that control and opportunity makes a huge difference in how they approach the trail,” she says. This game also requires taking turns, which is never a bad lesson to reinforce.