The first time we took our daughter hiking without a backpack carrier, she made it a quarter of a mile before planting herself in the middle of the trail. There was a pile of sand in which she wanted to play and no amount of persuasion was going to push or pull her up that hill. Eventually, we pretended to hike on (terrible parents, I know) and even ducked behind a tree to watch her reaction. She was unfazed. She didn’t even look up. When we popped back out after a few minutes, she gleefully yelled, “Mommy! Daddy! You came back!” and continued to play. It was clear that our hike would be brief.
Hiking with young children is an adventure unto itself. Short legs and even shorter attention spans tend to foil even the best-planned trail outing. But as outdoor parents know, the benefits of exposing children to nature early are well worth the frustrations and with a few tricks (not to mention, a good pair of kid’s boots), you can keep any child following almost any path, at least for a little while.
But what are some easy ways to engage young kids on the trail and make hiking more fun? To find out, we surveyed a handful of outdoor dads who frequently take their kids into the woods — including one backpacker who had his toddler doing 6-miles-a-day by the time he was 3-years-old — and asked for their best tips. Here’s what they recommended.
Snacks, Snacks, and More Snacks
Snacks, special treats, and candy that kids rarely enjoy at home was by far the number one motivator for getting kids moving on the trail. “I witnessed a 3-year-old walk 24 miles over three days for Cheetos and M&Ms,” says Brad Mercer who frequently hikes with his two sons, both under the age of five. Picking foods you know they’ll get excited about is key, but Dennis Goeckel — whose kids have done some big backpacking trips, including British Columbia’s Rockwall Trail and the Laugavegur Trail in Iceland — takes it one step further. He emphasizes the importance of letting the kids have control over said snacks. “When the kids were very young, they carried just a ‘snack sack,’ a tiny little daypack with a few bags of chips in it and their candy,” Goeckel says. “We would give them a portion of candy for the day (say, a bag of Skittles) and let them control at what rate they eat them; they love not just the candy but also the control.”
Don’t Weigh Them Down
While some kids are motivated by toting their own gear ⏤ and packing a small backpack can be a good way to build excitement for a trip ⏤ don’t weigh them down on the trail, no matter what they say. Have them carry very little gear, if any, and be prepared to haul whatever they do bring ⏤ because they’re not going to want to carry anything after about 15 minutes. If you are hiking with a younger toddler, also be prepared to “bring a front carrier for emergencies” says Goeckel ⏤ just “hide it in your pack” so they don’t know a free ride exists. Also, bug spray: don’t forget the bug spray. Bug-bitten children make grumpy hikers.
Watch Your Mileage and Take Pre-Planned Breaks
Remember that kids have tiny legs, take short strides, and aren’t used to walking for hours on end ⏤ even when being bribed with Twix bars. Don’t be too aggressive with your mileage goals, especially when just getting a kid started. More importantly, take breaks before they are ready. “Set a time or distance, and then just stop,” says Mercer. “This makes them feel better about not being the one to ask to stop.” Adds avid outdoorsman and father of two, Tyghe Trimble: “Pack eight varieties of snacks and break every 15 minutes. That gives you a solid two hours of hiking!”
Bring Older Friends…
“For kids ages 5- to 12-year-olds,” says Sean Sheehan, a father of two from Vermont who frequently takes his sons into the Green Mountains, “I’ve found the key is to go with friends or cousins, ideally some that are a year or two older. They forget they’re hiking and just want to keep up with the other kids.” Others agreed: one of the easiest ways to get a kid moving on the trail is to get them to chase after one another.
… Or a Big Ball
Not a joke, but if you’re hiking on flat or wide trails, don’t hesitate to bring a soccer or big rubber ball and kick it ahead. They won’t hike, they’ll run after it. It works surprisingly well.
Hop Off the Trail
“Sometimes kids can sense the oppression of the worn path,” says Trimble. “The trail is endless but following a stream for some reason doesn’t do that.” He recommends hopping off the trail as much as possible and hiking in areas where kids can interact more with nature, whether it’s climbing giant rocks, skipping stones, or playing in the water. “Kids don’t care about vistas,” Trimble says, “But a waterfall they can walk under? That’s gold.”
Turn the Hike Into a Scavenger Hunt
Sure, hiking to the top of a peak is in and of itself a goal, but not one a kid is inherently excited about accomplishing. Make the mission of the hike unearthing salamanders, collecting rocks, or identifying animal tracks and kids have a fun reason to keep moving. Bring a magnifying glass so they can examine bugs, flowers, leaves, and while it may slow down the walk, you’ll certainly create happy hikers. Even more clever from a parent’s perspective is a sensory scavenger hunt. Everyone has to be quiet in order to listen for, and identify, different sounds in nature ⏤ genius.
It may not be 2001, but Geocaching ⏤ where people hide and search for hidden treasures (‘caches’) using GPS coordinates ⏤ still exists. And there are “millions of geocaches hidden around the world,” many of them stashed along major hiking trails. Essentially, geocaching is a ready-made, real-life treasure hunt just waiting to be embarked upon. Admittedly, it can be tough sometimes to find the goods ⏤ some players are really clever at hiding them ⏤ but kids have a blast looking. Even better, there are usually small tokens in the treasure box that a child can take (and replace with something else), so you never know what fun thing you might find. To play, bring a handheld GPS (or your phone) and check the official geocaching website for where ‘X’ marks the spot before you leave.
Play Games, Tell Stories, and Sing Songs
And finally, don’t get so frustrated with the pace or lack of progress that you completely forget the tried-and-true ways of entertaining kids in almost any situation: singing songs, telling stories, and playing games. Make getting to the top of the next hill a game. Play “I Spy” or “Tag.” Stop to let the kids chase grasshoppers, skip stones, throw a frisbee, have a snowball fight. If the day starts to get long, sing funny songs with them. Whatever it takes to keep their little feet moving and minds not focused on the fact that all they’re doing is, well, walking.