The Path to Happy Hikers: How to Make Hiking Fun for Kids

by - Monday, October 05, 2015

The key to hiking with kids is to plan for lots of breaks and let them set the pace. Here are some great tips that make hiking fun for kids!

Little kids' moods are mercurial. One moment, they're singing and skipping down the trail and five minutes later, they're throwing a fit because they've lost their hiking sticks (and only *those sticks* will do).  While partly par for the course with little ones, with patience and preparation, most other disasters can be averted. Here are some tricks to help outdoor parents keep little hikers happy.



1. Pick the Right Trail

This step is critical to trip success! The most important considerations for our family include the following:

  • Distance: If your child can easily hike 6 km, looks for hikes in the 5-7 km range. Consider going further if the trail is pretty flat or you got an early start. If your kid was dying the last 2 km, try something shorter so you can complete the hike before your child hates it and she can go home with a sense of achievement! 
  • Elevation Gain: Huge elevation gain or rapid elevation gain over a short distance will greatly affect how far and how fast anyone can hike. Ease into larger elevation gains and allow a lot of extra time. Although Ha Ling Peak and Sulphur Mountain have roughly the same elevation gain, Ha Ling peak took longer as the gain was over 3 kilometres vs. 5.5. It's a LOT steeper! 
  • Trail Features: Most kids will enjoy include hiking over bridges and boardwalks as well as hiking to viewpoints and observation decks. Interpretive trails are also fun as there tend to be signs to read and benches to sit at.
  • Shade: We always seek trails with lots of shade in the summer and vice versa in the shoulder season. 
  • Water: Trails that end at lakes or waterfalls are not only pretty, but fun to play in! Bonus, you can refill your water bottles too (but be sure to treat or filter before drinking)!

2. Bring ALL.THE.THINGS. 

A good day out requires extra clothes, plenty of food and water, sunscreen, bug spray, and safety gearI can't stress enough the importance of adequate food and water. Many a meltdown can be avoided by bringing enough to eat and giving kids time to eat it. As a rule, you should drink before you're thirsty and eat before you bonk. 

For staying hydrated, I highly recommend hydration packs as people drink more from them when they can drink on the go (kids included!). If you're worried about running out of water, carry a filter or water purifier/purification tablets.

Layers are important for temperature regulation. No matter what the weather man says, always pack a waterproof and windproof layer. In cooler weather, base layers and midlayers may be required.

For more details on what to bring, check out the following posts:

  • My go-to Day Trip Pack List is here.
  • Family hiking essentials for hiking are here.
  • 10 pieces of wilderness survival gear every child should carry may be found here.
  • Quick and healthy snacks for on the go families are here.
  • How to Keep Warm in Fall/Spring is here.
Down vests and down sweaters are warm and highly compressible!
3. Take Breaks

The younger the child, the shorter her attention span and smaller her tummy, so take a break every 1-2 kilometres (or less if the terrain is really challenging). Have a few sips of water, snap a photo, have a granola bar, or just rest! Breaks don't have to be long, but to a child, four 1-kilometre hikes feel shorter than a 4-kilometre hike.

Since most children are grazers, break time is a great time to load them up with nutrient-dense foods: foods that contain a lot of nutrients. My kids are big fans of trail mix, chocolate zucchini muffins, and apple slices.

Too cold to stop? Have an on-the-go-snack. Offer something easy to eat while moving such as cheese sticks, muffins, or wraps. Avoid hard foods that could pose a choking hazard.

The makings of an amazing trail mix!
4. Keep It Fun

When it's time to get moving again, think of a game or activity that will keep everyone moving. We like the following:

  • Geocaching:  Geocaching is one of our favorite “carrots” as we can entice the girls to hike another few hundred metres to the next cache and then have a snack. To learn how to geocache with your smart phone, see this post.
  • Hiking songs: Singing is not only amazing for morale, but also for your safety (the sound announces your presence to wildlife). Songs that allow some improvisation are always fun. We are big Raffi fans and sing Down by the Bay and Aikendrum a lot.
  • Scavenger hunts: If you don't have time to print one out, make it up on the fly... How many different colors of flowers can you see? Try to find a heart-shaped rock, nest, pine cone midden, animal tracks.. Older kids could do a digital photo hunt!
  • Games: Red light, green light; I Spy; Follow the Leader; Never ending story (each person says one sentence - see how long you can keep the story going!)
Geocaching is fun for all ages! 

5. Let Your Children Take the Lead

Anything goes! Kids are good at finding their own fun if you let them. My daughters like to:

  • Ride log horsies.
  • Climb rocks.
  • Have a water fight! 
  • Skip stones.
  • Make temporary rock art (Dismantle it when you're done unless it is low-profile. A hiker looking for camp at night might not appreciate a rock cairn that leads nowhere).
Climbing the "Big Rock"
Low profile rock art we found
Giddyup horsie!
6. Find Teachable Moments. 

The great outdoors offers so many teachable moments! For some ways to Raise Nature Lovers & Little Scientists, see this post.

If you hike and backpack regularly, it's important to know some wilderness first aid and wilderness survival skills and share this info with your kids. For the past year, in preparation for backpacking, I've been teaching my girls basic wilderness survival skills in case they are accidentally separated from us. Some basics that everyone should know include:

  • Emergency signalling: Make three blasts on your whistle if you are lost or in trouble. If you need to signal with your mirror or flashlight, remember that the universal distress code (SOS) is signalled by 3 short flashes, followed by 3 long flashes, then 3 short. Wait a minute, then repeat.
  • Common edible plants: Get a field guide for correct plant identification and be sure to teach only easy to recognize plants that don't have poisonous lookalikes. Good ones to start with include wild strawberries and raspberries since they look like what you buy in the supermarket! 
  • How to start a fire: We let the kids help every time we make a fire as this is such an important skill!
  • Shelter building: Have fun looking for natural shelters - rock overhangs, caves - and practice building shelters with branches and a tarp/poncho (you do carry those, right?).
  • How to find and treat water: Bushcraft or wilderness survival books have whole chapters on this that are well worth a read. Basically, remember that water flows down. Animal trails will often lead to water, but not always. In low spots, if there isn't a pond or river and you are desperate, you can dig a deep hole and wait for it to fill and for the dirt to settle out. There are lots of methods, so research then practice finding water as a family! We like to carry a water purifier or filter and drops/tablets to treat water and prevent illness
Rich Johnson's "Guide to Wilderness Survival" is a great reference if you are interested in learning more. It contains a lot of valuable information but isn't overly wordy or technical.

One way to avoid a survival situation is to avoid getting lost! Learn how to avoid getting lost here.

Collecting drinking water the fun way!
7. Stay Positive

It's easy to ask “What's the matter?” and incite a deluge of complaints when the going gets tough. Instead - to turn frowns upside down - suggest a break, get out some treats, and make sure everyone is hydrated. An empty tummy or dehydration can make anyone feel crummy and is dangerous too! Tell jokes or funny stories to keep the mood light rather than shame your child for lagging behind (I've seen the latter and it is not effective). Kids are surprisingly resilient and recharge much quicker than adults. Usually within 20-30 minutes, they are ready to hike some more, but if not, don't be afraid to call it a day. It's best to quit while you're ahead, so your child remembers the good time she had (instead of the struggle). That's how you get them out again and again! 

Happy Hikers!

What do your children like most about hiking? 

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